LIMBO, PLAYDEAD’S DEBUT 2D platformer, was rightly hailed upon release as one of the greatest indie titles in modern history. The silent tale of a boy’s journey through a haunting monochromatic world was a refreshing touch of subtlety in a world of FPS-driven balls-out unsubtlety: poignant and thought provoking; heart-warming and terrifying. The game’s self-conscious simplicity and pointed use of common platforming tropes also offered a touching homage to, conscious critique of, and perhaps a gentle mockery of puzzle-platforming and the wider gaming sphere. Returning after six years, developer Playdead have sought not only to expand upon the scope of their debut, but to improve every one of the elements that made LIMBO such a success. INSIDE is the result, and it is extraordinary.
At its core, INSIDE is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. Set upon a side-scrolling 2D plane, the player retains the use of only two buttons, jump and action; like the previous game, this insistence on simplicity means that puzzles, whilst occasionally challenging, rarely test one’s general gaming ability, calling only for healthy doses of lateral thinking, good timing, and patience. Failure, as previously, is often swift and brutal, but always informative, and dying in the same manner and location twice is reserved only for more difficult later stages of the game. This focus on patient progress enables the player to remain immersed in the gameworld without the operose frustration usually associated with more exacting examples of puzzle-platforming.
It is for this reason that INSIDE stands out from the litany of options available in Steam’s indie library, and why it elevates itself far beyond the capabilities of its predecessor, LIMBO. Simply put, the environment in which you find yourself is amongst the best you will ever find in the genre. Gone are the monochromatic silhouettes of LIMBO; Playdead have created a fully-wrought 3D world that reacts and impacts upon an eerily human protagonist, with an art-style that provides a rustic, spectral reimagining of games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal.
INSIDE’s world is the utopian ideal, malevolently exposed; a true dystopian vision made terrifying not simply for the horrors it contains, nor the complete sense of helpless isolation one feels, but for the uncomfortable fact that it all exists as the foundation for some warped form of a recognisable human civilisation. There are, after all, still vast swathes of dense woodland, great expanses of fertile farmland, penned livestock, electricity, vehicles and industrial machinery, even clean and populous cities – albeit inhabited by the limp husks of an enslaved underclass.
Scratching below the surface of these sweeping cityscapes, however, reveals the antithesis of this perverted attempt at civilisation; a desolate labyrinthine ruin, the crumbling edifices of our own modern day society, partially submerged in stagnant floodwaters that provide the game’s more unnerving passages of play. The scale of this perdition is truly breathtaking, as is the keen sense of unity and fluidity throughout. It is perhaps this ever-present vision of the sublime that so infuses the smallest of details with devastating consequence, too; oddly, one of the more memorable moments comes at a lull in the proceedings when, entering a seemingly innocuous abandoned room, one encounters the fleeting sight of a lone candle still smoking at the wick.
If all of this is not enough to convince you that Playdead have outdone themselves, and then some, we need only take a final look at the protagonist. As in LIMBO, we are in control of a small boy; unlike the featureless silhouette in LIMBO, however, INSIDE’s boy is very much human, not simply in appearance, but also in manner. The Boy’s gaze will be drawn with childlike curiosity to interesting objects, he’ll stumble over unseen obstacles, whimper and quicken his pace when confronted with immediate danger. It can be easy to forget, when engaged in puzzle-solving, the potential consequences of events in context, and Playdead do a fantastic job of reminding you that you are supposed to be a child; in one instance of temporary reprieve, after a particularly treacherous passage of play, the Boy’s shoulders will slump and he’ll place his hands upon his thighs, his laboured breaths quivering with emotion.
As a result, the significance of death is also heightened substantially. In LIMBO, as gruesome as each death may have been, and even as sinister as the manner in which your fate befell you may have been, none of those deaths quite compare to witnessing the deliberate, callous slaughter of an uncomfortably human virtual child. I remember my first death – forced to the ground by an adult and drowned in ditchwater – with upsetting clarity, and it will remain with me as one of the most distressing introductions to a gameworld I will likely ever experience.
INSIDE is a masterpiece. Every frame of its stunning visuals appear to have been meticulously crafted with the greatest attention to detail. The atmosphere is second to few, with carefully balanced moments of uncomfortable brevity, melancholy, and terror. Most of all, this is a game and a narrative that will stick with you long after the final credits roll, inspiring brooding reflections on matters of humanity, the ethics of technology, and the nature of vicarious experience. If you play one game this year, make it this one.