On one sweltering British Summer day I decided to peruse Metacritic out of a delightfully superior sense of curiosity to see what the score-dealing lot of critics have been gushing over lately.
To my surprise, the 3 best critically received Xbox One games of all time, according to the site, had undertaken quite an abrupt change since I’d last checked, now reading in order: British open world action game, followed by Japanese open world action game, followed by Danish puzzle platformer.
What? When did this become a cool thing? What’s most surprising, besides the fact that the third most critically acclaimed game has come out of Denmark from a studio that has only ever released one other title, is that Inside has a higher Metacritic user rating than both of its ranked superiors.
Since when did people start liking cool art games over The Witcher? Have I been in a coma or something? Well, with all the coke I do…
Anyway, after I had seen this on top of a stellar recommendation from I Played The Game (go check him out he’s pretty woke), I had to pick this up for myself.
So, I went into this game with my typical delectably contrarian mindset, ready to find all of its inevitable flaws and mechanical imbalances with which I could in turn use to scorn the leniency of its critics with… and I kind of buggered myself on that front because I don’t think I’ve actually played a game this good in years.
For the record, folks, I’m completely abandoning my old Mega Review format because I’ve had a change of heart about it. I’ll be following the format of my recent Life Is Strange Mega Review.
There’s a lot to suggest that a Danish Playdead are mechanically iterating on their previous title Limbo, Inside‘s most conspicuous appropriation of its predecessor would be of its trademark synaesthesia. Essayists such as Ian Danskin have made entire videos devoted to that iconic moment of synaesthestic unease in which Limbo’s protagonist wrenches the final limb from the spider.
Clearly, Playdead now having improved on Limbo’s brand of ‘game feel’, have perfected the animation of the human motor systems. Limbo’s ‘game feel’ was somewhat limited to the concept of resistance: in pulling levers and items and limbs. While it did it expertly, due to Limbo’s silhouette aesthetic the synaesthesia could not have as easily been applied to the character due to a lack of visual clarity. It’s hard to project synaesthetic animation onto what is essentially a sooty splodge.
Inside has left the silhouette aesthetic that Limbo provided and has gone in a more, I think, interesting and thematically appropriate artistic direction. The concept of the silhouette is to Limbo as the concept of illumination is to Inside. From the getgo it establishes a kind of universal greyscale intermittently giving way to some kind of heavily saturated green or brown, but a reoccurring trend is that throughout the game spurts of light rays will shine down on the protagonist and their environment in some genuinely cathartic moments of visual illumination.
Tangent now over, the character in Playdead’s second title is far more visually nuanced than Limbo’s child protagonist. Their proportions are correct and they aren’t rendered in Limbo‘s pseudo-hand drawn aesthetic. This means that so much of the synaesthesia that Playdead have cultivated manifests itself in the visual animations of the character, the way the protagonist will clamber over objects and grip onto ledges for dear life. There are some literally incredible animations here that uncannily mirror the reality of the human motor system. I can tell that Playdead have studied the nuances of human movement with a fine degree of scrutiny in order to capture its essence. Especially in the underwater sequences, the motion delay highlights the palpable resistance of the water in a way that feels so undeniably real. It is so uncanny that entire books have been written on the thesis of videogame synaesthesia and a Danish company have managed to perfect its immersive quality in only two platformer titles. Beyond dialogue or environment or sound engineering, the concept of synaesthesia is arguably the most vital element in conducting player immersion. I’d say it’s worth buying this game just to see some kind of criterion here.
In contrast to how Playdead expertly capture the animation of human movement, the most powerful moments in the game are when we are stripped of that agency.
We are so used to big budget AAA shooters intermittently depriving us of our complex control systems for obligatory cutscenes, but with Inside there are no cutscenes or loading screens and there is no interface or HUD. Immersion is one of the game’s priorities and so there is no artifice that we momentarily suspend like we do in the cases of these similarly depriving AAA cutscenes. There is no contrast between the obviously interactive and the obviously non-interactive because neither of those things exist to Inside. It is a combination of the complete immersion of Inside and the intuitiveness of the controls that accentuate the feeling of helplessness when we are deprived of them. The whole game is about progress through directional travel in order to survive, and when we cannot move in, say, the drowning sequence, we feel both helpless and endangered as well as our sense of control being completely subverted. The helpless moments in this game are so utterly, brilliantly effective.
Silence Is Golden
This isn’t the first narratively rich platformer to be entirely without dialogue… or any logue… but it is the first to be so narratively robust with absolutely minimal use of on-screen text and maximum use of environmental exposition. We are given no choice but to garner every piece of information about this world through its environment, and it does an inexplicably flawless job of delivering on this.
The derelict warehouses and abandoned roads contrast the remnant populations of the facility, we are given a clear indicator of the state of Inside‘s universe and, progressively, are given a sense of our protagonist’s predicament.
Because of a lack of voice acting, ambient sound is given precedence as a means of both a narrative conduit and as an instrument of further immersion. I will almost never do a double take at a film or a game in order to regard the expertise of the sound design or mixing, its just something I digest intuitively, but I think this game might have just given me that epiphany on several occasions. The heavy electro thump of the facilities’ soundwaves, the aural blurring of the underwater sequences and the desperate panting of our desperately errant protagonist are all nothing short of dumbfounding.
Labelling Inside‘s themes as subtextual might be a bit of a misnomer here, as there is no actual text. Perhaps subludic would be better… but anyway, what I found to be the most shocking moment of Inside was finding the writhing, naked mass of limbs of limbs inside the facility. It is a moment that bordered both on expert body horror and of powerful analogy.
The abandoned sections of the beginning are decidedly rural and the populated sections in the latter part of the game are decidedly corporate. There is some obvious theme of corporate disenfranchisement displayed here, as the remnant rural population are contorted into Orwellian drones that are stripped of any individuality. It is a good homage to Orwell but I feel to restrict analysis solely through an Orwellian lens would be needlessly reductive.
The naked, writhing mass adds so much to interpretation. It is essentially a spectacle for examination for the facility that is so far from the reality of an actual human, and I think this says something of the reductive corporate perception of the population. Another interesting aspect is that once we take control of this mass of visceral integrity, we are able to escape the facility. Perhaps that says something of resistance through co-operation. That might be me reading too much into it but I definitely saw these things. The controversial secret ending, along with the portentous diorama in the facility all points to a theme of an ambiguous notion of control.
I think a good comparison to the ‘meatball’ as some call it would be No-Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Both represent an insatiable urge, both represent a bloated, now unrecognisable being consumed by a particular emotion. I instantly thought of this character when seeing Inside‘s eerie mass of limbs. That’s not to say it’s a direct influence, however.
In Chris Franklin’s excellent review of Bioshock Infinite, which was powerful enough for me to actually question my own perception of the title, he said that we should start demanding that the humanity and narrative aspects of critically acclaimed titles not be mired by standardised gameplay that we are given no choice but to simply endure.
I think I may have found a game like that, a game whose humanity and environmental brilliance is in no way compromised by pandering shooting sequences or by consumer identifiable mechanics. As nebulous as it may sound, Inside simply does not care about its consumer perception. There is nothing here that could be perceived as pandering or conflicting or corporately handled. It knows what it wants to be and delivers these aspirations without compromise. And because of that, it harnesses far more integrity than Infinite ever could.
This might be the first game I have ever played where I genuinely cannot find a single thing wrong with its entity as a creation. I know you’re used to my typical cynicism but I mean… it’s just really that good, and probably the most powerful experience available for Xbox One users.
Is It Worth Buying?
Yes. An unequivocal yes. It is 4-6 hours of your life that you will not regret. Its puzzles are just challenging enough for the average gamer (i.e. me) to appreciate without the puzzle elements conflicting with directional, and ergo narrative, progression.
Goethe’s Three Questions
What Is The Creator Trying To Do?
Attempting to create a narratively robust puzzle platformer through environmental exposition, iterating on a formula that Limbo established while simultaneously subverting Limbo‘s own aesthetic design.
Was The Creator Successful?
Yes. Entirely. If his track record remains consistent, then Arnt Jensen may become a universally renowned name.
Was It Worth Creating?