I always feel a bit odd when reviewing a game with such high critical marks and such a seemingly warm reception from the greater gaming community while also knowing next to nothing about it, as Inside is one of those select few games where discussions are prefaced with spoiler warning in order to discourage any who have not played the game from hearing why specifically it is considered a 9 or 10. Well, after making my way through it, I can firmly say that I understand why Inside has the reception it does. Or at least, sort of understand.
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox One, PS4
For all intensive purposes, Inside is a game about a small boy with a red shirt going through a perilous life threatening adventure with no clear goal, destination, or drive other than there being murderous hazards chasing after him. The game is effectively a mad dash to the right, with the boy needing to overcome whatever threat, puzzle, or obstacles impede his progress while observing various set pieces and learning about the world in a rather organic way, highlighted by how there is not a single word in the game side from the title and credits.
Now, if that summary and the name of the game’s developer were not enough to jog your memory, this is very much a successor to the 2010 title Limbo. Right down to the morbid ways in which the playable boy can die, the distinct visual style, and the narrative that only really makes sense if you are well versed in this kind of storytelling or read a synopsis by somebody who is.
That is to say, whatever story Inside is trying to tell is not made particularly clear, and while I could criticize that decision, and accuse the developers of intentionally making things more cryptic than they need to. Mind you, they did do that, exemplified by how I never found any of the dozen or so alternate ending criteria during my playthrough because I would have never guessed there would be an alternate ending, but I actually prefer to have it’s story be so ambiguous. Not because I think it makes the story more deep or interesting. If anything, I thought the opposite.
You see, while I can appreciate a good, intense, and serious story, I struggle to maintain a mature mindset when a story is not giving me much substance or explanation for what is going on, and I begin trying to reconfigure the story presented to me, filling in the holes with things I find more interesting or enjoyable and fixating on the sillier elements of the story, and Inside has quite a few.
What I ultimately came up with was a how this boy was infected with a brain slug, which amplified his autistic desires for human contact and informed him that he could obtain the next level of contact if he broke into a mysterious research facility. After avoiding murderous steroid fueled puppies whose noses the boy wanted to lick, befriending some child rubbing zombies, and giving a little ghost girl her first kiss, the boy finally makes it to the mysterious research facility that made his dreams come true, becoming both the hype of the party and the physical manifestation of a high level fetish. But then the game had to give me a bitter non-ending as the hype died and the journey came to a flaccid end that was probably meant to have some form of artistic statement, but I was just upset that the monster died. The monster should never die when all it wants is to be hugged and covered in pig blood.
However, the lightly detailed was not the only reason I found my mind drifting, as a lot of it was due to the game’s presentation. Inside adopts a stark and more withdrawn visual style that featured a reserved use of color and applies very few details to just about everything. Most environments are made up of simple lightly textured polygons, and human characters lack any facial features. It is an example of minimalism that certainly makes it stand out amongst basically any other game, but its insistence on a more drab color scheme just bored me after a while. I understand that this primarily grey color scheme has thematic purpose and establishes a backdrop for the setting to be established on. Yet I cannot help but find it to be a detrimental aspect of the game that both undermines a lot of the careful framing and design behind the set pieces, while also obscuring a lot of the environment in darkness, because that is always appreciated.
This is actually kind of a shame because as a puzzle platformer, Inside is pretty stellar. The mechanics it introduces are easy to grasp, generally sensible in the context of the world, and are reused carefully to prevent any one mechanic from feeling ancillary or over-relied upon. Nothing feels hampered by the two button controls, the actual puzzles manage to be simple yet engaging, and the pace of everything is very deliberate, allowing for the player to make meaningful progress about every five minutes.
There are a few hiccups however, most notably in how the game can convey information. Basically, there were points where something was obscured by the murky visuals that prevented interactable objects from standing out as much as they probably should, and the puzzles can be laid out in a questionable manner that starts the player right in the middle of the puzzle and has them move elsewhere before they can truly begin. I understand why this is the case, but due to the rapid pacing of the tightly packed 3-hour experience, I wanted to get started on puzzles before i saw all the pieces.
In summarizing my thoughts, I suppose you could say that while I understand and respect what Inside wants to be certain aesthetical decisions really turned me off of the game. It features A grade puzzle designs and many intensely captivating visual set pieces, but the limited color pallette and more dour tone pursued by the story left me more than a little underwhelmed. It is a game I had more fun by using it as a bouncing pad for creative ideas, preferring whatever nonsense my mind ab libbed over a story drafted over the course of 6 years, and a game I feel would be a truly stellar title if it embraced its more bizarre ideas or were less serious.
To bring up an obvious comparison, Limbo was able to feel artistic and poignant while also being a game where the cute silhouette of a boy could be horrifically murdered by a giant spider. Whereas Inside tries to do the same thing, but its equivalent involves a child getting his throat torn out by a dog that loves the taste of supple juicy boy meats.