In 2010, Danish developer Playdead turned the indie gaming world on its head with Limbo, a darkly ethereal platformer that followed a young boy’s quest to reunite with his sister while navigating through a sinister forest. The lack of overt narrative mixed with shocking moments of violence and mind-bending puzzles (also gigantic spiders) was perfectly paired with a grainy black-and-white art design, which meant Limbo was every bit as gorgeous as it was unsettling. Fast-forward six years, and Playdead has expanded and refined almost every aspect of Limbo for their follow-up title, Inside, another minimalist platformer that says more by saying nothing than most games accomplish with bloated and misguided attempts at storytelling. Inside is, in a word, flawless.
Players are thrust into the role of a young boy, who is desperately trying to escape from a nefarious and mysterious society that seems to have mentally enslaved countless men, women and children. We are given zero dialogue, and the control design is intentionally stripped to the bare minimum run, jump and grab commands. If this sounds lacking, it isn’t, and Playdead has brilliantly tapped into our subconscious need for narrative, whereby a lack thereof leaves us confused and uncomfortable.
And that’s the goal. Because of this, early sequences that find the young boy leaping from the jaws of advancing dogs at the last second or being pursued by shadowy masked figures are heart-racing micro-moments; we aren’t entirely sure what’s going on here, but we sure as hell don’t want to find out what happens if we’re caught.
Inside’s pacing is the stuff of dreams, with puzzle and environmental challenges ramping up at a steady yet manageable rate throughout the short campaign. Even head-scratchers that seem impossible at first become clear with effort, and no obstacle seems insurmountable, so long as you take a beat and really use your mind. Despite the shortness, the three-ish hours of content doesn’t feel like we’ve been ripped off ($19.99 is more than a fair price), and hidden spheres peppered throughout the varied environments (a farm littered with pig corpses, a rundown city, industrial areas, scientific facilities and more) add more than enough reason to enjoy multiple plays. If nothing else, the muted colors and background assets deserve your attention; it’s worth it to play again for that alone.
Meanwhile, the bizarre soundtrack and dystopian world-building collide in epic fashion, with sound design oftentimes there as spook-out fuel but other times serving as a rhythm-based mini-game based in movement. One such segment finds the boy hiding in plain sight by moving in unison with a long line of brainless humans; another requires him to strategically find cover every few seconds. These are but a few tense situations within a sea of tense situations, but if Playdead knows where to shine, it’s in the peaks and valleys of tension. Never are we pushed too far as the player, but we do find ourselves on the edge of our seat an awful lot.
The Bottom Line
If Limbo set the bar for cleverly juxtaposed darkness and simplicity, Inside just jacked it up about a hundred notches. Everything about this game meets or exceeds Playdead’s already stellar accomplishments with their previous effort, and it does so in a highly artistic fashion. We’re not about to spoil anything here, but for every moment you find yourself frustrated or confused by this game, keep in mind that it’s all worth it, by the time you get to the incredible ending. This one is a doozy, folks, and belongs in your collection immediately.
5 out of 5
This is as perfect as games get and one of the best of the year.
Rated M (Dude. Those dogs.)
Available on Xbox One and PC