So here you are again – a boy, alone in the woods. There’s no explanation, no backstory, no words at all, in fact: just a place that feels as deep as it is deadly. You move, in the greatest of video game traditions, from left to right. But even your first tentative steps in that direction quietly evoke a half-forgotten childhood nightmare, shrouded in mist and shadow. And in no time at all, when you’re not hiding or running along the very edge of death pursued by lights, you die.
It’s been some six years since Danish indie, Playdead, gave us the creepily effective Limbo, where an unnamed child wanders a hostile, otherworldly forest in search of his sister. That game strongly evoked the 1991 French-developed classic, Another World, with its equally atmospheric setting and opaque story and puzzles. Playdead has been working on Inside from almost the moment it shipped Limbo, and has somehow created an experience for which the term “puzzle platformer” is even less adequate. But, for all Inside’s similarities to its predecessor (and there are many), it stands completely apart as a mini masterpiece, not least in how – during its relatively short playtime – it slowly changes the way you see the world outside it.
The world inside is both familiar and alienating. You see faceless men caught in the dazzling headlights, looking uncannily out-of-place in the dawn-grey forest. They chase you, shooting something dart-like and deadly. Later, whirring machines taser you on sight with umbilical, curling wires. But this is the kind of world where everything might kill you. And even what seem to be lifelines – the scattered cones of light that dot your path – turn sinister.
As do the soundscapes. Inside gives you a distinct tell for every enemy and transmits it directly to your nerves, exploiting that terrifying fraction-of-a-second between hearing something and seeing it. But what’s startling is how quickly those otherwise ordinary sounds become triggers, no less disturbing for how mundane they are in any other context. Take the yapping of the dogs that home in on you. After the first time you’re caught, and hear the crack of your adolescent neck in their jaws or glumly watch them tearing your tiny limbs into delicate red ribbons, you never want to hear a dog again. Even the music grows out of what threatens you, an electronic pulse that guides your timing – or pre-announces the consequences of your miscalculation.
So where Limbo felt like a rogue fairytale, Inside is both darker and far closer to home. As you journey from the forest into an ever more claustrophobic world, the narrative sinks in by stealth. While hiding, scrambling, solving puzzles – nearly every one is a quiet triumph – the details you’re not focusing on infect your imagination. Those faceless men in the distance, the deserted, near derelict buildings, the strange, blinking machines, or even just an overturned chair add up to more than growing unease. There’s a story here that you discover by surviving in it – one of a blandly industrialized horror where familiar objects take new shapes.
This is no forest full of spikes and spiders, then. It’s a creeping, scientific dystopia built on tangible cruelty and implied menace. Look, there, stood in the light of the doorway. Is that a man holding the hand of a child? How can he bring him here? How can they silently watch what’s happening?
And the more time you spend with that beautifully animated, fragile, blank-faced boy, the closer your unspoken connection becomes. Each death is meaningless in game-terms – you won’t sit grinding your teeth in frustration, endlessly replaying minutes you already mastered – but you will care. The refusal of the game to pass judgement on each dispassionately grisly, silent ending is powerful and far more striking than the loudest of screams. Sure, there’s that gamer’s urge to try something new next time. But most of all there’s a horrible feeling of both distance and proximity. In a game where you’re never sure of your place, every time the screen goes black, you don’t just feel mournful for having failed the boy. You feel responsible. It’s almost as if this world gets inside you the longer you spend in it.
It’s also a place that refuses to become normal, forever subtly shifting before you can get used to it. Those muted, washed-out hues are at once real and illusive. “Did I imagine that slight warp to the way the camera followed me, or remember it?” you wonder. The answer might be both, not that Inside‘s saying anything out loud. Keep walking, let the world tell the story. It’s one where, no matter how fast or far you run, the only destination is further into the very thing you’re running from.
So what happens when we make it all the way to the right? Well, for Inside, that means an ending that no one will see coming even though you know it’s on its way. It’s an ending I’ve spent the last day failing to describe for the very best of reasons: it’s literally indescribable. Or, more accurately, it’s something that means nothing until you find yourself having been quietly sucked into the world. I couldn’t spoil it for you if I tried: all I can tell you is that I put my controller down without saying a word – for the simple reason that I was lost for anything to say.
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