INSIDE is a 2016 side-scrolling puzzle platformer developed by Playdead. The game’s expert portrayal of dystopian, Huxleyan themes tie beautifully into its level design, visuals, and gameplay. It offers a very impressive experience that will likely leave an impact on players.
Narratively, INSIDE relies solely on environmental storytelling. Those looking for a text-heavy game or one replete with exposition will not find it here. The only thing players know is that the character is a boy who is on the run. We do not immediately know from whom, but as the game progresses, it becomes clear that security or state enforcers are in pursuit and are establishing their interpretation of a controlled society. The reason the character is running – like the story itself – is open to interpretation. As such, the nature of the story is steeped in the esoteric.
I recommend getting all the achievements or trophies so you can experience a “secret ending.” I favored the original ending, however, as it created a nice climax and left me pondering its meaning. It accomplished all of that while maintaining its enigmatic nature. Conversely, the alternate conclusion seemed a bit predictable and anti-climactic. Regardless, both endings should be experienced.
The pacing is good. From the onset, you are on the run and the tension and mystery only grow as the game develops. The environments are varied, featuring a forest, cornfield, farm, city, and building complex. The settings in the second and third acts take place primarily indoors. While there is some diversity, some interior areas look and feel repetitive. Nevertheless, the level design itself is masterfully done and its impressive thought and logic can be seen as players traverse and explore the settings.
Puzzles are intelligently designed and marry the pacing with the gameplay. More often than not, they entail some degree of backtracking. This can become a bit cumbersome, but their excellent construction and payoff help balance the minor tedium. Once players get a feel for the puzzles, they more or less know what to expect down the line. This speaks to the capable use of foreshadowing, both narratively and in terms of puzzles. The level and puzzle designs are two of the many highlights of the game and will keep players intrigued until the end.
INSIDE’s tone is another stand-out feature. The game’s mysterious, dystopian, sci-fi, and Huxleyan leitmotifs are terrifically blended with the story and visuals. I recognized distinct similarities to Brave New World.
As mentioned above, the gameplay is styled in the vein of a side-scrolling puzzler with platforming elements. The smooth, graceful, and impressive ways in which the character controls and is animated are juxtaposed by his terrifying and mystifying journey. All of this is entertaining for the player.
The controls are simple overall, but there were a few parts near the end where I was unaware of all of my abilities. It would have been useful to have known about them, but I could see how notifying players of this could risk breaking the fluidity and immersion. After all, INSIDE is a game and an element of fun should be included to prevent players from growing frustrated or leaving the game altogether. These elements are minor enough and did not make me stop playing, but was slightly irksome.
INSIDE is one of the most visually impactful games I have played in a long time. It is clear that its art direction and style are not photorealistic, but, thankfully, that is not a requisite for creating memorable, stand-out visuals. The muted color palette effectively reflects the story’s tone. Shadow and light are utilized to great effect and are brilliantly equipoised by soft, subtle color accents, the most striking of which is the character’s red shirt.
Playdead’s attention to detail is another noticeable addition. The burst of bubbles that appear as the character gasps for air while swimming are powerfully employed. Water and rain effects are sophisticatedly done and look terrific as well. On a more macabre note, the death animations, mixed with the sound design, are well done and haunting. This game is definitely intended for age-appropriate, mature audiences.
The sound design is also worth mentioning. INSIDE’s audio is outstanding. Whether it is the barks and snarls of dogs, the sound of a body falling and hitting the ground, or the haunting echo of the character’s shoes in an open warehouse, the sound design and engineering absorb players into the game’s world. Similarly, the stirring musical cues reinforce the suspense and tension.
In the end, INSIDE is a very enjoyable game. The interconnection and brilliant execution of the story, pace, tone, gameplay, and visuals are exceptional. The arcane story and presentation will not be for some, but I encourage age-appropriate gamers to experience what this game has to offer. Few games can boast such masterful game design. INSIDE is a game that will not soon be forgotten.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Platform: Xbox One; PC; PlayStation 4; Macintosh
Copyright Holder: Playdead
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Rating: M; Descriptors: Blood and gore, violence.