Going Inside

As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Inside is Danish developer Playdead’s follow-up to Limbo, which was released way back in 2010. I wrote about Limbo in the early days of this blog. Looking at that now, I see that I honored the stylized all-caps naming for that game, but I cannot bring myself to do so here, for Inside or Limbo. Sorry.

Inside has obvious similarities to Limbo. In both games, players control a small boy in a dangerous and creepy environment, presented through highly stylized art. Inside has evolved that artistic style, translating the visuals into a 3D, flat-shaded style that is predominantly — but unlike Limbo, not entirely — monochrome. The boy is also more realistically proportioned this time around, without the exaggerated large head from Limbo. But the art is similar enough to be recognizable, and in both games the boy begins in dark woods, with no explanation. Players can move left or right, jump, and perform context-sensitive interactions with the environment, and must use these simple controls to explore and survive.

The limited agency that players have feels odd in Inside’s new fully 3D environments. There are often alternate paths visible in the background, but no option to take them; the boy can only move left and right. In Limbo’s 2D environments, left and right are the only possible directions, but Inside shows much more that is not accessible, even though it should be. What the 3D art does allow for, however, is excellent scene setting. Inside is a masterfully staged game, with every detail of the foreground and background reinforcing the mood, or providing clues as to what is happening in this strange place. This is particularly effective due to top-notch animation. Deftly avoiding the chronic problem of recognizable, looping animations that plagues many games, the boy protagonist of Inside reacts to his surroundings in believable and specific ways. Sometimes he stares at whatever is happening in the background as he creeps along, sometimes he cowers and hides behind an object to keep from being seen. He walks, runs, trudges, and panics at appropriate times, always reacting to exactly what is happening at that moment. His interactions with objects, initiated with the context-sensitive interaction key, are also a highlight, as he strains to push things, tugs at levers, tears away boards or opens hatches. This animation quality extends to characters and objects in the background, combining with expert lighting and camera placement to create evocative and memorable scenes without snatching control away from the player. I was reminded of the cinematic style of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but Inside is even more skillful in this regard, albeit with a more limited set of player inputs. The side-on perspective lends each scene an almost stage-like quality, where everything is placed exactly so.

This careful attention to every scene is critical because, like Limbo, Inside is completely wordless, telling its story entirely through visuals, sound, and music. The audio has received just as much attention as the visuals, reinforcing the boy’s animations with sharp drawn breaths of surprise, grunts of exertion, and the occasional shout of alarm. The musical score is composed by Martin Stig Andersen, who also did the score for Limbo, but this time he worked in collaboration with SØS Gunver Ryberg. Their music is designed to reinforce the mood of every scene and every moment, timed perfectly to what is happening onscreen. My favorite example of the audio is from a sequence which features loud, repetitive sounds; as I continued onward, the background music slowly swelled until it had swallowed these sounds, incorporating them into the musical rhythm. It’s the kind of music that is not often the focus of the player’s attention, but is nevertheless a big part of establishing the mood of each scene. It was also famously recorded using an actual human skull.

The main criticism of Limbo was that it required players to fail repeatedly in order to learn how to proceed. That has been largely rectified in Inside. While the boy can still meet his death in all manner of unpleasant ways, I rarely felt that they were unavoidable, or sprung upon me by surprise. That did happen, but not as often as in Limbo, and in less aggravating ways. Still, there are sections of Inside that frustrated, due to unnecessary repetition or maneuvers that are difficult to execute. Also, like Limbo, I found the later sections of the game to be less visually interesting and less memorable. That is, until I got to the ending.

The ending sequence of Inside is anything but forgettable. It’s not something every player will like, but it’s certainly unexpected. Its effectiveness is debatable; depending on a player’s interpretation it might be ghastly, humorous, tragic, or some of each. It also recontextualizes everything that came before, which players will have been trying to piece together as they went. Inside leaves much open to interpretation, and while I arrived at a conclusion that mostly fit, there’s a certain curious segment midway through the game that seems contradictory. This left be slightly dissatisfied, wondering if there really is an explanation that covers everything, or if the developers simply threw a bunch of things together without a true narrative to back it all up. It also led me to peruse the internet to see other players’ interpretations.

From these, I learned that Inside contains several references and callbacks to Limbo. The fact that I’d missed these made me realize just how little I remember about what actually happened in Limbo, especially its second half. But the connection feels strange regardless; Limbo is so surreal that I never felt a need to explain its events; it’s like a feverish nightmare where things don’t have to make sense. Inside, however, begs to be explained, with its largely realistic environments and believable human characters. I want to know what is going on, but can’t quite settle on a version I like. And while that still bothers me a little, I prefer a game that makes me think about its meaning to one that shoves it down my throat.

From online discussions I learned about a series of secrets in the game, leading to a hidden ending. I’d actually found a few of these secrets on my own — including the very first one — without realizing what they were; for the first one I genuinely thought it was part of the solution to the next obstacle. Once identified as secrets, I realized that there are subtle hints as to their whereabouts, and there’s no penalty for reverting to specific checkpoints throughout the game to find them; once found they stay found forever. But even once you’ve found all the secrets, don’t expect to have an easy time finding that secret ending. It’s clearly designed to be the kind of extra-obscure puzzle meant to be solved en masse, letting the internet hordes loose to figure it out. Which they did; guides are easy to find. In keeping with the rest of the game, however, the secret ending doesn’t provide many answers, and may in fact create even more questions.

Inside received rave reviews, but unlike those reviewers I’m not sure that every aspect of it works. I am sure that its impeccable presentation, both graphically and aurally, is a wonder to behold, and most of my enjoyment came from my appreciation of the masterful construction of each scene. Inside is unmatched in this regard, and that’s reason enough to play it. Working through puzzles that are mostly improved from those in Limbo, and musing over the mystery of exactly what it all means, are just extra bonuses, with a few frustrations easily forgiven. I’m intrigued to see what Playdead come up with next. I just hope it doesn’t take another six years.

Inside is available from various digital retailers.

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