We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness.
-George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four
“The following is a contributor post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
INSIDE is close to a sensory overload – I had no problems naming it my Game of the Year back in 2016. It’s a masterpiece. At once confounding, beautiful, and terrifying, this Orwellian dystopian puzzle-platformer doesn’t explain itself, leaves the player to fend for his or herself, and draws to a conclusion that’s quite mesmerising in its grotesque insanity.
Danish indie developer Playdead is behind the work and has become one of the leading indie developers thanks to its first two projects (luckily, a third is on the way). Founded in 2006 in Copenhagen, it landed Limbo on the world in 2010. As of 2016, it had a staff of just 25, which explains why it takes several years to perfect its latest project. INSIDE was the natural evolution of the critically acclaimed Limbo – it is a spiritual successor. The same eye-catching 2.5D visual style is in place, although improved upon its predecessor, which is complemented by an outstanding soundtrack.
INSIDE is sombre, macabre, inexplicable, and close to perfect. As a visual accomplishment, it’s exceptional, but the aural qualities of the experience add to the overwhelming nature of it all. Then there’s the deeply disturbing nature of that compelling narrative arc… oooh! Goosebumps of terror. This is a game every gamer must try out!
You take control of an unnamed boy in red who you must guide to the right (get used to that direction). He stumbles forward, his tense breathing close to panic, as you avoid men who unleash crazed dogs on you as you make a break for what appears to be freedom.
As you continuously run, it becomes apparent you’re making a break from a dystopian state of mind-controlling fascists… although, given INSIDE’s complexities, you could argue the opposite. Is the boy in red the evil one? As you guide him, you certainly feel like the former is accurate. Why? The further you run, the more disturbing his surroundings get.
Almost everything in your environment is able to kill you hideously (the many ways you can get obliterated becomes morbidly enthralling in its own right). Just as disturbing are the bizarre discoveries you stumble upon. Arguably the worst of the lost are the brain-dead vegetable-like humans – they’re, seemingly, controlled by members of an elite society to perform mind-numbing tasks. They’re foot-shuffling vessels of flesh with, seemingly, no life left in them.
It also seems likely genetic experiments have been carried out, as you repeatedly discover hideous and terrifying monsters. The ones that really got me are the aquatic, human-like monsters who you can only fend off with bright lights. These things will give you the shivers the moment you hear one swimming after you.
When I first came across one, I wasn’t sure (stupidly) if it was an enemy. Floating lifelessly in the water with an enormous batch of hair wafting about, I stopped for a moment to consider what was about to happen. INSIDE is crammed with such moments as you attempt to make the inexplicable explicable – unsurprisingly, this thing wants you dead and it goes about it in gut-wrenching fashion. From that moment on, you’ll be petrified of those disgusting creeps.
Such a state of affairs means the heart of the game is shock value, baffling moments, and unique puzzle solving. Plenty of other games have such an arrangement but what makes INSIDE so remarkable is the steady sensory development, from relatively ordinary beginnings into an increasingly insane world which utterly captivates. It’s like Half-Life 2 in this respects, a game I believe excels thanks to its steady development into overwhelming intensity.
INSIDE offers more of a psychological onslaught. It’s best to play it in a darkened room by yourself with your best earphones/headphones plugged into your skull – your survival skills need to be heightened to make it through the many obstacles. These include the likes of viscous robot traps which taser you to the floor upon sight of you, cruelly twisting you towards them after you’re recovering from the shock of a sudden demise.
Unlike many other games, you are essentially defenceless. Other than quick thinking and environment manipulation, you’re vulnerable as the boy in red. It’s a humbling situation which, naturally, ramps up the tension to ensure you’re on edge throughout. The fear is palpable, heightened by the fact you’re not sure what’s going on. You keep running to the right, but you’ve no idea why. Escape? Something else?
Due to the perplexing nature of the game, many fans have taken to studying INSIDE like a media text and interpreting what they find into mini-dissertations. You can find plenty of these on YouTube and some have come up with some incredible observations, particularly linking what happens to the young boy at the end of the game.
I’m deliberately not going to mention the ending, as tempting as it is, so as not to spoil the surprise. It is, however, remarkable in its weirdness. It’s the culmination of a journey through the dark, dank underworld of a deranged version of reality. To Playdead’s immense credit, however, it’s arguably not even the highlight of the game.
Please avoid the clip below if you want to skip on spoilers!
For me, this was the most mesmerising part of the experience. This section concerns an enormous shockwave machine, which blasts out energy which can decapitate the boy in an instant.
The build up to this area is extraordinary. Gradually, as you get closer, you hear a thumping noise building up. Eventually you reach a large doorway that reverberates with each thump. You must solve a puzzle, all the while the mysterious pulsating, thumping noise thundering away, before you stagger on through to find one of your most shocking ordeals yet.
Martin Stig Andersen’s remarkable soundtrack plays a pivotal role here, swelling magnificently in a manner reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s work in Interstellar. As you traverse the scenery, timing your moves to perfection so you don’t get pulverised, the thumping shockwave effects will have you on the edge of your seat.
Despite the incredible violence and energy going on around you, the music transcends this and, as the player, you circumvent your fear and find beauty amongst the chaos of the situation. It’s a clear indication of the artistic mastery video games can achieve – a moment of perfection.
You stumble out on the other side amazed to be in one piece. What was it all about? For the world of INSIDE, it was simply another nihilistic moment of wonder. But nothing else quite captures the moment of being so alive, yet so nearly dead, as with that one pulsating machine.
Merged with the stumbling sense of panic are some weirdly wonderful puzzles – you’ll be scratching your head about some of them. You can see an example in the Shockwaves section but other puzzles (such as in the clip directly above) focus on fear factor – you’re against the clock, essentially, with only one of the game’s gruesome deaths greeting failure.
Those terrifying mermaid humans will submerge you in an instant if you get part of the puzzle wrong, presumably to feast on your corpse afterwards. It’s a life or death struggle and these moments are incredibly tense and leave you with a nervous affliction it’ll take some time to shift.
A large percentage of puzzles involve the creepy human vegetables. You can manipulate these beings by launching yourself into a mind control helmet, after which you enter their brains. Once in control, you manoeuvre them strategically to solve increasingly difficult tasks. These sections, whilst faintly disturbing (what exactly is going on with the human vegetables?), are ingenious.
At one point, you round up a group of a dozen of them and they follow you around, lolloping in their strange way. Sometimes they fall like a sack of bricks, slamming awkwardly off the floor. Often times they also make grunts and moans, some faint remnant of humanity lurking within. It’d be cute, if what’s happened to them wasn’t so horrifying.
Having touched on the absorbing soundtrack above, it’s worth paying it the attention it deserves. It’s often subtly humming away in the background, or not there at all, and only on a few occasions does it swell orchestrally to ramp up the sense of haunting beauty of this mysterious world you’re in.
It shouldn’t be understated how difficult a task it must have been to represent INSIDE’s world through music. The eerie, ethereal quality it has certainly complements the madness of the events that occur. Importantly, it doesn’t dominate your attention – instead, you’re free to wonder about what lurks just ahead, with the perfectly timed swells of volume and intensity judged to perfection.
The sound effects are also critical to the emotional impact of INSIDE, whether it’s a car door closing, dogs barking, a twig snapping, or the disturbing marching footsteps of the human vegetables. You can hear the latter in the first trailer at the start of this review, immediately building suspense and uncertainty.
The boy’s rasps for breath and gasps of panic are also used to great effect. As the player, perhaps strangely, you never really feel as if you are him. It’s his story, you’re simply there to try and guide him through it. As an observer from the outside, however, you’re still left shocked, exhilarated, and mentally drained by his experiences.
This is something the slight nature of it all (over in as little as 120 minutes) exacerbates. The lunacy of what you discover throughout INSIDE, and the perfection of the game’s delivery, are what astonish most. It’s a combination of a talented developer and its team working in unison to deliver a masterpiece. I only wish I could enjoy playing it through for the first time again.
The 8-bit Review
A beautifully shaded 2.5D that suits the macabre nature of the game perfectly. There are grey hues, lots of gloom, and the occasional burst of colour, all punctuated by the young boy and his red top. It’s beautiful to behold, whether it’s the sunrise you observe in the opening phase, the submarine section lit only be one light, or the ghastly monstrosity you come across at the game’s conclusion. You’ll swoon, you’ll gasp, and you’ll be delighted.
The attention to detail should be commended, too, as with each playthrough you’ll discover something new. Ultimately, INSIDE is about so much more than its appearance – it wants to get into your very soul and it has a number of nefarious ways to achieve that. But to look at it on an aesthetic level, in all its splendour, it’s really something.
The soundtrack is minimalistic but used superbly. It surges in from the background and either leaves you terrified, exhilarated, confused, or awestruck. Full credit to composer Martin Stig Andersen for nailing this one.
The sound effects also deserve considerable praise, as these provide many jump scares, terror, and anxiety. They’re often quite loud and sudden, shocking you amongst quiet moments, or triggering off a nearby fascist maniac who’ll attempt to take you out.
The worst of the lot is probably the savage, lunatic bark from one of numerous dogs looking to shred you to bits in uncontrollable animal lust. Whilst dogs are wonderful in the real world, the ones who inhabit INSIDE will freak you out the moment you hear them.
INSIDE’s appeal is with its inspired use of audio and visual tactics. The increasingly demented scenarios you come across are so captivating, you’ve really got no choice but to keep on running.
I did see one reviewer on Steam having a go at it – the user summarised the game along the lines of, “You hold right for two hours”. This is to completely miss the point. It’s not your standard button bashing extravaganza, for sure, but it is a nuanced experiment in scaring the living daylights out of you.
To do this, Playdead minimalised gameplay mechanics to ensure you can focus on the moment: solving puzzles, evading those terrifying aquatic hairy dudes, and stopping for a moment to take your breath before you continue on your journey.
There are only a couple of buttons you use. Compare this to your average modern game, with maps, inventories, endless moves, and other gimmicks to wade through. Playdead ignored it all for a stripped back demonstration of enthralling you on a psychological level – human curiosity gets the better of you and you just want to find out what’s hiding around the next corner.
It’s an emotional game, one that plays with you, drains your sense of reason, and turfs you out the other side desperate to run through it all again.
Your more casual gamer (I don’t mean this in a negative way) might baulk at it – the “hold right until it ends two hours later” mentality might not seem like a gaming experience to some.
For indie game, horror, or properly mature gaming fans (I don’t mean CoD “mature” by that), you’ll jump in and be riveted by the end of the opening section. A few minutes into the game (one of your first tasks involves shifting a fridge, I don’t mean this bit), there’s an aural surge and your first moment of terror as you leg it from a pack of howling dogs whilst fascist lunatics open fire wildly in your direction. You should be hooked from there!
First time out, the puzzles will challenge you. Some of them require some serious thought and, due to them being so ingenious, you’ll be delighted with yourself when you wrap one of the more difficult ones up.
After this, there are achievements to unlock, as well as a secret ending, and the requirement to overcome your fears to take it on in the first place. I’ve maxed out 100% everything (which I rarely do for most games I play) and I’m most proud of that, too.
I finished the game in a few hours and immediately ran through it all again. The first time you experience INSIDE, it’s out of this world.
Subsequent playthroughs don’t have quite the same impact, but you can explore your environment to a greater extent, attempt to work out what’s going on, and complete all of the achievements. However, first time players should buckle in and enjoy! After that, when you return it’ll be to revel in the deranged nature of it all over again, minus a little bit of your initial trepidation.
Although confounding and cryptic, INSIDE challenges the player to consider the gaming environment beyond more traditional “There’s a bad guy… BOOM! RATATATA TATTT!” type shenanigans.
It can be what you want it to be – an existential consideration, a spiritual experience, a condemnation of communism, or a contemporary diatribe about capitalism out of control. It’s subjective, naturally, but these philosophical musings are matched by engaging gameplay that’s innovative and constantly inspired.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Unquestionably one of the greatest indie games of all time, Playdead’s INSIDE showed up all of the AAA developers in 2016 with a short but eventful game that delivers a PTSD stunner. It’ll stick with you for a long time.
The sense of dread, anxiety, and tension it creates will appeal enormously to horror fans, but INSIDE is much more than a bunch of jump scares jumbled together. Its ingenious use of puzzles shows how clever it really is, which works in tandem with its baffling nature – you’ll dig a bit deeper to try and work out what it all means.
It also looks brilliant, has spine-chilling sound effects, and a soundtrack that swells and stirs like it’s watching over your journey and judging your mood. You may come out of the other side of this one mentally exhausted, but it’s completely worth the trip. Whatever Playdead’s next project turns out to be, it’ll have to be sensational to top this.
Aggregated Score: 9.1
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review