At the outset of Inside, the long-awaited follow-up to 2010 indie hit Limbo, you’re dropped in a grim, grey forest and all you can do is walk to the right. And really, that’s mostly what you’ll be doing for the five or so hours the game lasts: pushing onwards through increasingly unsettling and occasionally terrifying situations. Inside takes the basic formula of a platform game, twists it in some unique ways, and combines that with the language of cinematic storytelling; it’s basically one long, beautiful camera shot that pulls you through a constantly changing landscape.
All of this is then draped with a dark veneer, a truly disturbing narrative that poses many questions but leaves most of the interpretation up to you.
In the beginning Inside looks and feels a lot like its predecessor. Like in Limbo, Inside has you controlling a young boy with a limited range of skills at his disposal, and the world you’re exploring is grim and dark, mostly black-and-white. The boy can jump and grab objects, but that’s about it. You know absolutely nothing about him, except that he’s in terrible danger. From the very beginning, you’re being hunted, with trucks of patrolling, armed men searching for you, their aggressive guard dogs in tow.
You start in a forest, and eventually the quiet countryside gives way to a farmhouse, and later some kind of factory where bizarre experiments are happening. I don’t want to explain the story much farther; partly because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but also because, well, I don’t really know what happened. I’m still turning it over in my head, trying to figure out how the pieces all fit together. But I will say that Inside ends in a way you will not expect, and it’s equal parts grotesque and incredible.
The most impressive thing about 'Inside' is how restrained it is
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Inside is how restrained it is. The story that is sticking with me so much is told entirely without words, either spoken or written, so you have to infer everything from the world around you and the reactions of the characters within. It’s not a pretty picture — but it’s fascinating.
Similarly, the gameplay only uses two buttons, yet manages to remain engaging throughout. Inside abruptly adds new features — like a tiny submarine you can pilot, or strange mechanical boxes that can propel you into the air — and then discards them them just as quickly. This isn’t a game that dwells on good ideas. Instead, it constantly introduces new things to keep the experience moving forward in interesting ways, and that goes for the story as well. Even though it only lasts a few hours, Inside features multiple shocking plot twists that will completely change how you think about the game.
Inside has been in the works at Danish studio Playdead for a long time. Development originally started in 2010, the same year that Limbo first released, and all of that time and effort shows. It may be short, but Inside feels masterfully created, almost every tiny detail just right. That includes everything from the small animations, like the way the boy will turn to look at the strange sights as he runs past, to the huge, scene-setting moments. The aforementioned final sequence is one of the most insane bits of animation I’ve ever scene in any medium.
All of the details just feel right: the game is largely quiet, but the music swells in at the perfect moment, while the side-scrolling perspective is enhanced by dramatic, cinematic camera angles. The one exception might be the puzzles, which while mostly great, do occasionally resort to a bit of trial and error. More than once you’ll need to die (sometimes a few times) in order to find the right solution.
But those small moments of frustration do little to take away from the overall experience. Inside is a small game but a towering achievement. It takes the familiar, and subverts it in a way that makes it feel entirely haunting and new, and it does it all without saying a word.
Inside is available on Xbox One tomorrow, with a Steam version launching July 7th.