WARNING: This later parts of review will spoil the endings of both Inside and Limbo. It’s impossible for me to provide my full critique otherwise.
After debuting with the hit Limbo in 2010, many were eagerly awaiting the next title from Danish indie studio Playdead. They spent the next several years porting it to practically everything with a screen and left everyone wondering what they were going to do next. Their second game, Inside, finally came out recently, with very little buzz for something so highly anticipated. It instantly became an indie critical darling, with many critics claiming it to be far better than Limbo and an easy contender for game of the year. I played and finished Inside in one afternoon and while I did enjoy it, I can’t disagree more with these other critics.
The common elements between Inside and Limbo are plentiful and obvious but Playdead have also made some nice iterative improvements. There is no UI and you use only two buttons and the analog stick. The mechanics are so simple, the games don’t even have a tutorial, nor do they need one. They’re able to use this minimal control style to create some deep and intricate environmental puzzles and while most of the ones you’ll encounter in Inside aren’t very difficult, it’s also impressive what they were able to construct with only two buttons. It’s not a bad formula but it’s not at all out of line to say that the majority of Inside just plays like more Limbo and after 6 years of development, I’d hoped we’d see more than that.
Where Playdead has really upped its game is in the art department. Limbo had a very flat, black & white, almost newspaper comic art style that was striking and beautiful but like its mechanics, very minimalist. Inside is in colour but still uses a limited palette to great effect, using generally subtle variances in tone to highlight important things. If something stands out, you know they intended it to be that way. They also used a means of presenting depth that I can’t really explain without visuals but everything really pops out, almost like it’s being presented in stereoscopic 3D, even though it isn’t. Check Giant Bomb’s image gallery on the game for some great examples. It’s a beautiful, yet oppressive aesthetic that weighs you down with intent.
There is music in Inside and it conveys the mood very well but you won’t hear it very often. Most of the game’s atmosphere is contained within its soundscape and it’s used to great effect. It’s not often where I can say a game is frequently at its best with the absence of music but that’s certainly the case here. Inside is largely a game of solitude and the humming ambience and deep echos you hear when manipulating the puzzles convey that very well. There’s no doubt that Playdead are masters at using as few auditory elements as possible to create a mood.
Here’s where the spoilers come in. Like Limbo, Inside is getting most of its praise for its storytelling. There isn’t a word of dialogue in either game and everything is communicated through the environment and the sounds and movements of your characters and those around him. That’s a great way to tell a story when it’s done well but I don’t see how anyone can think Inside did it better.
Like Limbo, you play a young boy who is on the run. You start off having no idea why and are supposed to find out as you wind your way through the world. Whereas in Limbo, you were being pursued by otherworldly creatures, Inside takes place in something more closely resembling the real world. You’re running from actual people and you discover that some evil corporation or possibly government is enslaving people to essentially become remotely controlled automatons for what I imagine are the wealthy class. You first learn this by being put in a position to control some of these drones to solve a puzzle, then later have to impersonate them in what looks like a human quality assurance line. This was the part that stuck with me the most because it’s truly shocking when you first see it and makes you question just what kind of dystopia you’re trying to get through and why everyone’s so keen on tracking you down.
The problem is, nothing is ever explained to you. You don’t know who you are, why you’re running from these people, why you eventually end up running towards them or why you’re really doing anything at all. Early in the game, you come across a farm where there are dozens of dead pigs everywhere. The one pig you find alive attacks you relentlessly, until you trap it in a corner and pull off its tail, at which point it becomes completely docile. None of this is explained at all.
Later on, you come across what seems like a young girl with long, flowing hair who lives and breathes underwater. Whereas water meant instant death in Limbo, Inside has several sections focused around swimming. This girl pursues you relentlessly in these sections and kills you instantly when she gets her hands on you, except for one point later on where you can’t avoid this and she suddenly bestows you with the ability to breathe underwater. Why? Again, this is never explained.
Eventually, you infiltrate the oppressor’s massive and daunting facility. What you end up finding at the end of it is a grotesque ball of humanity in a tank. It looks like a massive concoction of random body parts. You have no idea what it’s purpose is, if it’s fully formed or some kind of experiment in progress or even if it’s sentient, you just know from the crowd of workers around the tank that it’s something important and that it’s where your character aims to go.
You work your way to the tank and dive in with this…thing. Your character then proceeds to merge with it for again, no obvious reason and it’s here where the game takes a massive twist, turning from slow and methodical puzzle platformer to a semi-horror action game. You now have control over the abomination and proceed to quickly break out of your enclosure and raise Hell. Being more or less round and covered in various human limbs on the outside, you’re able to roll yourself around and crush anything in your path but still have the means to use elevators and navigate obstacles. The controls at this point become mushy, slow and unresponsive, very much in keeping with the lumbering, clumsy ball you’re now controlling. You instantly get a dopamine rush at this point that lasts for several chapters, as you barrel your way through this horrible prison, destroying everything in your path and sending the workers scattering in panic. It feels like revenge and like the oppressed going Godzilla on the oppressors. It was a blast.
You will eventually roll your way into an office where a terrified figure in a tie cowers against a window. It’s never stated but it’s obvious that this is the person in charge. There’s no time pressure here, you can sit and stare him down as long as you want, making him live the fear your character did in getting to him. Then you charge, burst through the wall, fall several stories and turn him to red mist as he breaks your fall. As soon as I hit the ground, I instinctively put my first up and exclaimed “Fuck yeah!”
But it’s not over yet. There are several chapters left in which you have to try to make your way out of this place now that you’ve seemingly accomplished your goal. There’s no clear path out or what you’ll do when you get there but you’re going to try anyway. Several more puzzles stand in your way, including a surprising one where one of the remaining staff who is desperate for you to leave, actually provides a measure of assistance. By the end, you find your way to freedom, away from your prison and the awful people who did this to you. Then…you proceed to roll down a hill and die on the beach.
In the end, your journey is ultimately one of futility. You killed one of the people in charge, who you just know will be promptly replaced. You’ve made no substantive improvement to the world. The evil entity still exists, people are still being enslaved and the elite class who run things still do. Nothing about the other characters you met is explained. Things are more or less the same as when you started, except now you’re dead. So what exactly was the point?
In Limbo, the surreal, creepy state of the world and the fact that you largely accomplished nothing in the end made sense because well, you’re in Limbo. It’s right there in the title. It’s not supposed to end, it’s a place where you live in perpetual failure, unable to accomplish the one thing you want more than any other, which in that game, is reuniting with your sister. It was dark, oppressive and ultimately futile but it all made contextual sense and that context is what made you think.
All Inside does is leave you with a ton of unanswered questions and also having accomplished nothing. In so many key aspects, this game is just a reskin of Limbo, except it’s storytelling is far worse, leaving many previously established things hanging in the air and being an ultimately futile journey with no reason as to why that is. The ending is a cop out, leaving you to try to draw your own conclusions as to what just happened and why. I personally think that’s a crap way to tell a story. Your job as a storyteller isn’t to neatly wrap everything up in a bow but you can’t ask me to spend 4 hours of my life playing through your story, only to just arbitrarily end it out of nowhere with far more questions than answers and go “You figure it out.” without giving any of the tools to do so. That’s the kind of pretentiousness I expect from games like Dear Esther and Gone Home.
Limbo’s storytelling was good because it drip fed you the context of your actions and the world you were in and it’s conclusion made contextual sense. Inside gives you tons of disturbing elements in the world but provides no context for most of them so you have no idea why any of it’s important or if it even is. Then you spend several chapters in an adrenaline fuelled feeling of triumph, only to have it all ripped from your hands and to be told that you just spent 4 hours ultimately accomplishing nothing and seemingly, for no reason.
There’s already tons of discussion and debate online as to what Inside’s true meaning is, what it’s trying to explain and the statement Playdead was making with it. I think those kind of discussions are cool and I’m glad people are having them but I don’t play story driven games to have to crowdsource what might be its message. That’s supposed to be the job of the writers and in this case, they completely failed at that for me. I enjoyed Limbo very much but also just one time. With Inside, I feel like I waited 6 years for something that looks incredible, plays well, has a more interesting world but in the end, did nothing with it and makes you feel like you wasted your time. The story feels unfinished and yet is clearly pleased with itself. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy playing Inside but everything about its story feels like a huge regression from Limbo and its mechanics alone aren’t enough to make up from that.
I’d hoped for much better from Playdead with their second outing and I am very surprised that I seem to be so much the minority on that.