, Last Updated: 11:15 PM ET
Created by Denmark-based studio Playdead, the developers of the unforgettable 2010 game Limbo, this atmospheric puzzle-platformer is about as pure an example of game design – artistically, mechanically, aurally, emotionally – as we’re likely to see in 2016.
It’s fascinating and scary and weird and empowering and illuminating. If science ever develops a memory-wiping device, I’m going to lock myself in my home for a week and play Inside over and over and over, experiencing it fresh each time.
So, yeah. It’s pretty good.
Available now as a $ 20 digital download for Xbox One and Windows PCs, Inside is a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer set in a grey, dystopian world. You control an unnamed boy in a red sweater, setting off on a journey – left to right, on a 2D path through 3D environments – across this Orwellian landscape of forbidding forests, submerged factories, sterile offices and more. The human beings the boy encounters want him captured, or dead. And there are even worse things to contend with.
Is the boy escaping, or is he infiltrating? Why is he here, and what’s his motive? Many games explain themselves by getting chatty: cinematic cut-scenes, reams of text, extensive wikis full of background detail and such. But Inside doesn’t spell out what’s going on. There’s no dialogue. There’s no text. No map or health bar or heads-up display of any kind. Just a world of peril and isolation, an understated but haunting soundtrack, devilishly clever (but never too difficult) puzzles and an overarching sense of dreadful wonder.
You’ll see snippets of an awful menace – shambling humans being herded into trucks, people-sized vats in the middle of the forest, science experiments, mind control… Inside’s backstory, and the state of its world, are hinted at but never explicitly explained. But the game is so drenched in atmosphere, so packed with tiny details, that you can’t help but fill in the blanks with your own imagination.
The way Inside teaches players the mechanics of its puzzles and the rules of its world is brilliant, something that’s deceptively difficult to do in games. (I don’t even want to give specific examples – every puzzle in this game deserves its own “a-ha!” moment.) As the boy goes deeper and deeper into Inside’s environments, the game periodically introduces new elements. A cool new means of locomotion, a new ability that opens up exploration possibilities, and more. I’ve replayed the final 20 or so minutes of the game over and over and over – it contains some of the most incredible and fluid character animation I’ve ever seen in a video game, and each time I constantly pick up on tiny details I missed before.
The only faint criticism of Inside I can muster is its length, as the game can be played to completion in about four hours. Playdead goes to great effort to introduce new environments and puzzle mechanics, then steadfastly refuses to recycle any of them to artificially extend the game’s length. This might be the one time I wish a game’s creators had been a little lazier, and stuck in a little more filler. But, in the end, Inside is exactly as long as it needs to be.
Inside in an incredible game that deserves to be experienced. I encourage you – nay, I beg you – to learn as little as possible about it before you play it. Don’t bunny-hop through the environments trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible. That’s not the point. Don’t hammer on the controller buttons trying interact with stuff in the background. That’s not what it’s there for. Try to unlearn your video game habits, if only for a little while.
Instead, take it slow. Soak it up. Look around. Listen. Maybe even role-play a little, pretending you are this boy. How do you feel? Are you scared? Determined? Curious? Hesitant? Vengeful? Open up your mind, and let this game get inside you.