Inside is characterized by a striking sense of minimalism, the narrative totally devoid of formal exposition or even voice acting, the narrative instead advanced through clever environmental storytelling. Alongside this minimalism, ambiguity abounds, the game fostering and even encouraging vastly different interpretations; one player will walk away from the experience with decidedly different emotions than those felt by another player. This interpretability, then, is an excellent achievement, only elevating the narrative – the burden of decipherance rests solely on the player’s shoulders. Given this sense of emotional and cerebral engagement, the game occupies a position of uniqueness, acting upon the player in subconscious – though very effective – ways. At the heart of this vague, ambiguous narrative is the protagonist, an unnamed Boy, traversing the various environments in pursuit of something, something unknown, his search making him subject to oppression and hostility alike – his journey, his odyssey, is fraught with opposition, an opposition he ultimately overcomes even as he is characterized by considerable fragility. Mindless husks are encountered, adopting a villainous role, while human scientists and soldiers serve the role of secondary antagonist. None of these foes can be combatted directly, owing to the Boy’s weaknesses, but this only makes their presence more impactful, threatening. With the environments, with the scientists, a sort of dystopian atmosphere is evoked, subtle commentaries on the corrupting nature of science also emerging as the narrative progresses – certainly, Inside has a message to convey, and it conveys it admirably, masterful in its indirectness.
Universally, the environments explored are remarkable, beautiful, a unique aesthetic adopted, this beautiful uniqueness heightening the joys of exploration. Unlike Limbo, the color palette retains some vibrancy, reds being central to the visual design, though as with that earlier title, lighting plays a key role in evoking atmosphere and place. Black and white certainly have a presence here, but that presence only serves to illustrate the contrast with red coloration. Indeed, the Boy’s very garments are red, making him a focal point, literally setting him apart from the world, seemingly detached from its corruptions, maintaining a degree of innocence, even as the color red could also be associated with violence, menace, perhaps suggesting that, in time, the Boy will morph into those villainous scientists, tragically embracing corruption, youthful gaiety tossed aside. Either way, these environments are all abounding in diversity, settings not solely confined to sprawling laboratories, with their manifold scientific apparatus.
In one especially memorable moment, a forest area is explored, helping to stave off potential monotony – those laboratory environments, even if beautiful, would in time grow repetitive, were it not for these forest landscapes; the game maintains perpetual freshness throughout. Rather than blacks, greys, and reds, here are vibrant, inviting greens, the forest beautiful, the towering trees in the background conveying a largeness of scope, even as the path forward is highly linear. But constant is variety, with explorable corn fields, sprawling office complexes, alongside countless other, equally compelling environments, this variety marking an impetus for continued play, evoking almost childlike wonder, with frequent excited ponderances of what precisely will be explored next. Will the environment be welcoming, or will it be hostile? Mostly, the answer to that question is of the darker, latter sort, as fierce opposition abounds – that inviting forest, with its majestic trees, is largely anomalous.
Reflecting the existence of near perpetual opposition, almost every NPC in the gameworld is hostile to the Boy, who is easily overwhelmed; when these villains are wielding firearms – a not infrequent occurrence – their threat level escalates even further, the Boy having no reliable means of defense, instead dependent upon his legs for strength and preservation, speeding past these foes, employing and exploiting his youthful litheness. More menacing even than the armed enemies are ravenous dogs, capable of ripping the Boy to shreds in a highly violent, visceral manner. Indeed, the game is abounding in violence, sometimes making it distressing to play – its depictions of death and pain are unflinching, resulting in a link between player and protagonist, making death consequential, painful for both parties involved. The violence which inspires this link is not only brutal by nature, but is also very frequent – countless are the deaths endured, countless are the agonies felt. A gunshot, its firer often deadly accurate, can dramatically blow the exposed Boy into pieces, limbs and organs flying everywhere, messily. Electrical prods can descend from the ceiling, impaling the boy in gruesome fashion – everywhere, then, is hostility, an unnerving atmosphere evoked.
The environments display considerable spatial depth, even as the entirety of gameplay is spent on a two-dimensional plane. The largeness of these environments directly correlates to smallness within the Boy, furthered still by his mentioned helplessness – he is insignificant. Given this weaker status, completing puzzles, navigating environments peopled by menacing, powerful threats and devious deathtraps, leaping about to and fro in elaborate platforming sections – doing these things, besting the opposition and the odds, is accordingly a triumphant affair, showing that weakness can overcome strength if tactics are employed, if stealth and haste are in turn employed to match the situation at hand. In a manner, the Boy at the beginning of the narrative is detached from the Boy at its conclusion, seemingly gaining strength, even as no progression systems are present to explicitly illustrate that growth. Still, his maturation is palpable, and the player / protagonist link again shows itself – the player grows just as the Boy grows, learning the appropriate responses to any given situation. At the conclusion, the ultimate object is finally realized – the link is reinforced. And while vagueness still abounds, the magnanimity of the Boy’s odyssey, his growth, is readily apparent.
While the environments themselves are imaginative, alternately inviting and hostile, the gameplay overall is very straightforward, divided between puzzle-solving, platforming, and basic exploration – here is a mostly traditional side-scroller. Despite this lack of innovation, many minor triumphs are achieved, particularly within the puzzle-solving realm, many puzzles being quite challenging, engaging the cerebral just as much as the narrative does, though a perfect balance is struck – the puzzles may be difficult, but they are all logical in construction, solvable upon careful observation, scrutiny, and, admittedly, some trial and error. As a result of this balance, this fairness, the game maintains a brisk pacing throughout, never growing excessively sluggish; constant is motion, advancement. As illustration of these puzzle-solving strengths, one particularly elaborate challenge involves a pressure switch, barring progress until sufficient weight is deposited upon the switch. In efforts to this, shambling husks are recruited, following the Boy, and, through clever manipulation, serve the role of weight, bodies piling up, satisfying the pressure demands of the switch. Sprawling in nature, completely imaginative in construction, it is a remarkable puzzle, and is but one illustration of such greatness.
When analyzing the platforming mechanics specifically, the game makes repeated stumbles – what’s here is not terrible, but merely uninspired, derivative, in stark contrast to all other aspects of the game design. Still, here again is fairness – excessively difficult jumps are rarely required, resulting in tranquility; immense player skill, reflexes, are unneeded here. While being merely competent in construction, the animation quality here is spectacular, rivaling the greats in the 2-D platformer genre, with clever aesthetic flourishes, as when the Boy ascends a particularly steep slope, clawing at the ground to maintain footing, while descents are equally stylish, the Boy sliding down those slopes with great rapidity, while drops from considerable elevation are met with a roll, to disperse the weight of the impact – believability is in place here. Seemingly, these animation strengths would elevate the platforming considerably, though for almost inexplicable reasons, that elevation never really occurs. Perhaps this lack of engagement is attributable to a certain overshadowing – excellent puzzle-solving and impeccably designed environments only serve to expose the mundanity of these platforming systems. Still, sufficient mobility options are in place, which preserves the joys of exploration.
Water is of extreme importance in this game, often traversed, serving as an obstacle of sorts, owing to the boy’s limited swimming capabilities, drowning within a brief span of time – even water shows a certain hostility, portraying the very world as conspiring against the Boy. Animation quality for this swimming is equally impressive, owing to its realistic depiction. In somewhat of a bizarre turn, though, roughly halfway into the campaign, the Boy is gifted with the ability to remain submerged indefinitely – water does not lose its significance, its significance perhaps growing greater, but the threat it poses completely evaporates, reflecting the Boy’s swelling empowerment. With water’s continued importance, a protracted section in a submersible of sorts occurs, permitting water traversal at a rapid rate. The machine controls intuitively, and is interesting aesthetically, but as with the platforming this section is inexplicably dull, even as everything points to engagement, excitement. Some of this dullness no doubt arises from the excessive length of the section, seemingly never ending. Certainly, this section was included to break up the core formula of platforming / puzzle solving, but it is mostly a failure, seeming out of place and at odds with the world design.
The narrative is mostly grounded and human, the Boy being central figure; learning of him, his plight, his position in the world – these are compelling occurrences, more compelling because they are indirect inferences, rather than explicitly conveyed facts. Tragically, though, this humanness is departed from, the game losing its way; as the ending is approached, matters devolve almost into the nonsensical, the nature of the environments reflecting this shift. Avoiding spoilers, the Boy returns to the surface, finding himself situated in a sprawling laboratory complex, where the most vile of experiments transpire. Seeing other, non-hostile NPC’s here is welcome, refreshing, as dozens of these characters go about their way, imparting a sense of life to the area, though this location is decidedly lacking in original atmosphere. Some scientists ignore the Boy entirely; others gaze upon him with apparent fear and uncertainty, reflected on their very visages, undetailed though they may be. But matters fast deteriorate, as bland science fiction is finally and totally embraced. Reflecting this shift in focus, at the conclusion the Boy is assimilated into a large, hulking mass of flesh and bodies, forced to roll about the laboratories clumsily – controlling this construction is burdensome, unenjoyable, unintuitive. The mass, newly empowered, embarks on a destructive journey, ripping the laboratory to shreds, killing (unintentionally?) many of the scientists contained therein. Everything human is discarded, a frustrating admission. Still, questions arise, namely this: who are the people who comprise this mass? Did they suffer? Were they victims of experiments, experiments seemingly incapable of cessation? Questions such as these do preserve some narrative strengths, compensating for this rather lackluster gameplay conclusion – tragedy abounds, the ending actually resonant and impactful, at least on an emotional level.
As a title, Inside communicates a wholly unique message. More notable, though, is the precise nature of that communication, characterized by deliberate vagueness, minimalism. Notions of personal responsibility and the nature are here evoked, constituting an overarching theme in the narrative, while themes of darkness, oppression, distress, also receive considerable emphasis. Mainly, these themes are expressed through the environment, the sparse people who inhabit them, who make valuable narrative contributions without uttering so much as a single word. Poignancy reigns, and the Boy is at the heart of that poignancy, alternately helpless and powerful, though even in his most empowered state he is still possessive of considerable weaknesses, vulnerabilities. Still, his growth is remarkable, as added responsibilities are heaped upon his little shoulders. Collectively, then, the narrative is nearly flawless, only possibly hampered by a rather divisive ending, though an ending which ultimately transcends divisiveness, instead inspiring further contemplations – Inside always engages the cerebral.
Even with the presence of this singularly compelling narrative, relative mistakes are made when considering the title’s gameplay, mostly derivative and uninspired, this statement most applicable to the manifold platforming sequences, for the puzzle-solving largely escapes such negative description, being well designed, well executed. Exploration, too, is a mostly joyous experience, even as the environments are characterized by hyperlinearity, seeing navigation from the left to the right, though some tedious backtracking is present. This platforming, then, is the game’s greatest blemish, preventing it from achieving true greatness. Despite this failing, Inside morphs into an experience, transcending the designator of video game, becoming something more, engaging the player on many foundational levels, not unlike its older brother, Limbo. Comparisons between those two titles must inevitably be made. From a technical perspective, this title trumps Limbo to a considerable degree, though the desaturated environments in Limbo impart considerable uniqueness, which is comparatively lesser here. Also, this title is darker tonally, its violence more exaggerated, its overall message bleaker – and, seemingly, far more complex. But Limbo is characterized by a certain, consistent humanness, its groundedness marking one of its many strengths. But in this title, this humanity is eventually as the conclusion fast approaches – the same suffers from this complexity. A complete preservation of this human dimension would only serve to elevate the title to true greatness – but it is not to be. Still, Inside remains a remarkable achievement.