Developer Playdead’s adventure platformer INSIDE is a brief but unforgettable experience which will haunt you long after its fleeting play time is up.
INSIDE doesn’t lend itself to wordy explanations. This spiritual successor to LIMBO is even shorter than its predecessor, but arguably more meaningful in every little moment. It’s also best if played “blind,” with as little prior knowledge as possible. If you’re looking for a recommendation, you have one. If you need more convincing, read on.
From the very moment the game begins, it feels as if something special is taking place. Dogs bay for blood in the distance, beams of light search for you in the shadows. Bad things are happening, but what is not immediately clear. There is a sense of atrocity taking place, but without the typical punctuation of blood-spattered horror. INSIDE is a silent film more than a Michael Bay blockbuster, and it’s this very quality that makes it so compelling.
Like LIMBO, INSIDE stars a quiet young man attempting to survive a dark and perilous environment. But unlike LIMBO, Playdead’s newest title is far more evocative. There is beauty, wonder, and dark comedy scattered liberally throughout the experience, effectively eliminating the threat of monotony that might otherwise creep into a wordless adventure.
A simple visual style marries flat and sparing textures with striking bits of color to create a haunting, but visually efficient, aesthetic. The animation is fluid enough to make other games feel clunky by comparison, and as subtle as it is complex. The young protagonist glances furtively behind him as he flees his captors, takes sprawling leaps of faith, flails in the water, and pants as he crawls to safety.
Sound design is equally minimalist, but just as effective. Little details that fade into the background of most “bigger” titles are front and center here, accomplished with the sort of finesse that makes each one stand out. The camera never interferes with your work, floating through scenes in a manner that feels natural and intuitive while still managing to convey just the right amount of dramatic perspective.
There is no tutorial; there’s no need for one. The controls are quietly intuitive, the checkpoints invisible and frequent, and even death is a cinematic moment that disturbs and entertains in equal measure. Death never feels like more than a brief hitch on the way to the next set piece, all but eliminating the mounting frustration that seems to come standard with so many games of this type.
The physics-based puzzles are simple, never overtly difficult. It’s just enough to make you pay attention, just enough to keep your critical thinking skills engaged along with your other senses. Failure results in deaths that, while never gory, can be quite disturbing. Seeing a child savaged by dogs, impaled, drowned by a grown man, or choked against a steel railing is perpetually unsettling.
The game only falters when its mechanical moments outlast their atmospheric punch. It’s a rare occurrence — an achievement in and of itself — but there are times when the hypnotic qualities of this nameless boy’s adventure brush too close to traditional platform gimmickry. These instances are fleeting, and never more than a hiccup. It’s strange to say that the game’s weaknesses are where it’s most “game-y,” but you should take that as a measure of just how engrossing the experience manages to be.
INSIDE doesn’t directly lend itself to replayability. Once you’ve seen the game, you’ve seen it all. Still, its relative brevity and psychological weight are already drawing me back, in the same way I find myself watching my favorite movies over and over again. That won’t be true for many, and it should be a factor in deciding whether to spend $19.99 for three hours of entertainment — perhaps four, on the outside.
More than anything, INSIDE is a unique and lovingly crafted experience. There simply isn’t anything else like it available, and that alone makes it worth the price of admission. From haunting visuals, to an atmosphere thick with menace, Playdead’s latest is far and away the most engrossing platformer I’ve played in years. Your twenty bucks might stretch further on other titles, but it’s hard to make the case that it would be better spent. This is one eerie, singular experience that you should not miss.
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