I’m sure others might remember it less fondly, but Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade was easily one of my favorite times to look forward to each and every year. While their treatment of independent developers has always received criticism from gamers and critics alike, Microsoft’s annual promotion focused on smaller, often more experimental titles.
Sure, the quality fell off in later years, but the Summer of Arcade brought forth some of the best independent games of the last decade, with titles like Braid, Shadow Complex, and Bastion making their debut on the XBLA platform.
Of course, we can’t forget Limbo, the debut title from Danish developer Playdead, and a personal favorite of mine. As someone who used to stay up until the break of dawn, eagerly awaiting the Xbox Live Store to refresh with new games, my first playthrough of Limbo is forever burned into my memory, along with the copious amounts of caffeine I consumed in order to stay up all night.
To the casual observer, Playdead’s second title, Inside resembles a cleaned up, more refined version of Limbo. Admittedly, there are a few similarities. Once again, you take control of a young child devoid of identity, tasked with running to the right, avoiding obstacles and enemies, all while solving a slew of environmental puzzles. To top it all off, Inside is also largely devoid of an overt narrative, allowing players to draw their own conclusions as to what the overall message of the game is.
Still, to simply write Inside off as a retreading of the ground Limbo covered would be doing the game (and its amazingly talented developers) a huge disservice. Within the first fifteen minutes of picking up the controller and beginning your journey, it becomes quite clear just how much Playdead has grown as a studio over the last few years. Inside manages to expand on the core concepts and mechanics introduced in Limbo, and it does so in a way that is both amazingly creative and intricately designed. Without a doubt, Inside stands as one of the most polished and well-crafted follow-ups I’ve seen in years.
As a cinematic platformer, Inside shies away from the more traditional mechanics that you might see in your favorite mascot platformer. The nameless boy you control has a defined ‘weightiness’ to the way he runs and jumps. Unlike Mario or Mega Man, movement and traversal is much slower and grounded in reality. Jump distances and running speeds are pared back, and animations are carried out in full, meaning you can’t instantly switch directions when running.
Weighty controls and minimalistic storytelling are nothing new for cinematic platformers as a whole, and in many ways, Inside hits many of the checkboxes you’d expect from a game within said genre. Still, its most impressive feat is how seamlessly it merges environmental puzzle solving with the lovingly curated world that Playdead has managed to piece together.
For those who remember Limbo and its emphasis on physics-focused puzzle solving, you’ll probably recall how the game often relied on very apparent and noticeable visual cues to steer you in the right direction. Moveable crates and maneuverable levers and switches serve an important role in puzzle design, and Limbo didn’t do much to merge its world and gameplay together.
On the other hand, Inside shines in this department, creating larger and more intricate puzzles than the ones featured in Limbo. The main difference, however, is how Playdead seamlessly integrates the moment to moment gameplay into the world surrounding you. Key objects that you can interact have a way of naturally blending into the background, blurring the line from where puzzles begin and end. This is all brought together by some spectacular animation, which adapts to your movement and position on the screen. In fact, it’s rather amazing how the game’s animation systems allow for such a degree of flexibility when it comes to manipulating and moving objects on screen.
Needlessly to say, Inside exudes a level of confidence that is rarely seen in games today, and the stellar world design extends to the visuals as well. While Limbo’s stark visual design stood out during its release, Inside expertly employs light sources to draw attention to key objects and environmental obstacles that are worth paying attention to. Playdead also throws a little color into the mix, which is often used to draw your eye in the direction you need to travel in. This trick has been used in plenty of games before, but it stands out even more in a title that largely presents itself in greyscale.
I could spend hours writing about how Inside is a masterpiece in game design, and I’m sure I’ve bored my friends to death with the amount of praise I’ve showered upon it at this point. As great as that would be, the more time you spend reading up on Inside, the greater the chance that you’ll spoil one of its many standout moments.
Without saying much more, you need to take it upon yourself to go play Inside right now, hopefully before you inadvertently spoil some of its more shocking twists and moments for yourself. Rest assured though, there are very few games out there that manage to live up to the expectations set by the fans, while simultaneously closing the gap between ambition and achievement.
This review is based off the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with for review.
Playdead's Inside is one of those rare games that has to be experienced first hand in order to understand its importance. Rest assured, you'd be hard pressed to find another game that's equally brilliant and beautiful.