Looking back over my ever-growing library of indie games, I realize I need to set a tone early that I’m not going to simply review games with positive, warm-and-fuzzy messages, much as I adore them. Variety is key. There’s a reason why the Fast and Furious franchise is able to consistently produce movies that in no way resemble their previous releases…..ok that was a terrible example. Moving on….in keeping with the theme of reviewing my favourite games first, but wanting to choose one with a much darker, somber tone, I bring you INSIDE.
The first point I have to make in giving some exposition around INSIDE is that it is the spiritual successor to developing/publishing studio Playdead‘s insanely successful side-scrolling 2011 release, LIMBO. Indeed, INSIDE is also a Playdead creation. Though the two titles are in no way connected, it is not too much of a leap to envision a bleak, foreboding world full of darkness, monstrous peril, and gruesome deaths. The second point is…..
Well, that’s kinda it. There are extremely few details that one can acquire about INSIDE other than from someone who has played it. The ‘About This Game’ section on the game’s Steam page literally comprises of one picture and a one sentence description. That’s it! Even the trailers are vague and only serve to build intrigue whilst adding scant few takeaways. The developers have done a marvellous job of stifling information and building a culture of awe and mystery around their work, almost as if to tease: “Isn’t it just driving you crazy? Play it and you’ll find out!” Well played, Playdead.
“Ok, let’s butter this muffin…just load up and….wait, wha-…what?! No main menu?? I’m in the game already?! But, my settings preferences! How will I…oh thank God, the pause menu has me covered….” (N.B. I actually do say the words “Let’s butter this muffin” in my head whenever I start a new game, like Jimmi Simpson’s character in Stay Alive. Don’t judge me.)
The lack of a main menu is definitely jarring. Even the most spine-chilling horror games have that buffer zone between loading the game and starting the game where you can basically just focus your thoughts, adjust your settings, and absorb the initial tone through the art and soundtrack. The developer took one giant middle finger to established game protocol and said: “Swivel”. It’s a simple concept, but it accomplishes two things: first, the game wants you to understand that this not so much a game as it is an immersive experience. You are plunged into the action straight away, and off you go. Secondly, coupled with the noticeable omission of a tutorial, the game is effectively telling you that it is not here to hold your hand. You’re on your own.
So, away we go. Turns out, lo and behold, the atmosphere is every bit as eerie and macabre as anticipated. The parallels with LIMBO are striking, though they’ve done away with the faded and blurry monochromatic artwork in favour of a slightly more colourful palette (though just barely). It also soon becomes apparent that we are indeed once again going to be hunted by faceless adversaries. And dogs. Yep, everything is trying to murder me. I suppose it’s only natural. I’m a small boy in a dark and dreary landscape; I should just have a ‘Fresh Meat’ neon sign flashing above my head. But I digress. I love the realistic running animation; it’s easy to see a lot of time and effort went into it. The omnipresent white noise feels ominous and adds much-needed tension, as do our echoing footsteps and ragged breathing. The clarity of the contrast between flashlight and shadow is expertly pulled-off, not an easy thing to do. I escape a few bad guys, jump a few logs, outsmart some stupid dogs, and it feels comfortable, like I’m in cruise control.
Then come the dead pigs.
Yep, you read that right. Porcine mass graves. A virus? Nuclear fallout? Agricultural decline brought on by economic downturn? Disgust and disbelief bludgeon my senses, and I have no idea what to make of it. I’ll leave first impressions there, for fear of revealing too much.
[WARNING: Spoilers ahead – Skip to Final Thoughts to avoid]
The game progresses and this world begins to reveal its secrets one tidbit at a time. The story-line is without a doubt one of the most unique concepts I’ve encountered in a long time. Through land, mud and ocean our silent protagonist journeyed, until at last arriving at a mysterious facility. It’s clear there’s some kind of state-sponsored mass mind-control experiment being conducted on the general population. Mindless husks of people march in single-file like zombies, complete with overseers with dogs. This is indeed a worrying dystopia. I’ve loved the puzzles and perils along the way, including the hellish underwater mermaid/banshee thing, which I still can’t explain and murdered me an embarrassing number of times. But even after I think I have it sussed, it catches me and gives me the ability to breathe underwater! I mean, I can’t even…
But nothing prepares you for the final twist. I reach a huge window where there’s a gathering of people all anxiously pressing their faces to the glass in fascination. This feels like the object of the quest. This is the culmination of all the Kafkaesque crap the game has thrown at us. A few minutes later, it’s clear it’s a vast spherical tank with a way in at the bottom. Courage is summoned, sinew is stiffened, and at last we discover what’s inside….
Who took ‘Huge Amorphous Flesh Ball With Protruding Limbs’ for 500? Anyone? No??
This thing is straight out of a teleporter malfunction where everyone got mushed together. There must be 15-20 people inside it at least. As I’m trying to fathom what kind of warped mind produced this monstrosity…oh God…we’ve been absorbed! It’s us now! I have control! An unholy amalgamation of flesh, arms, legs and heads, unified by one common goal: ESCAPE.
And we do. We finally do. There are a few more puzzles to solve on the way, as well as gratuitous amounts of smashing and smooshing, but the tortured, monstrous entity that is our character finally comes to rest on the peaceful shore of a deserted beach. The soft sunlight shines on our gently undulating mass, the camera pans out, the credits roll.
I am….speechless. My feelings are difficult to isolate and categorize. My interpretation of the story is as follows. Boy travels huge distance to infiltrate and shut down a government-run mind control project, housed in a remote but immense facility. The shapeless limb-blob, like a Death Star’s reactor core, powered the whole show. When boy makes an unimaginable sacrifice to free it, presumably the project underwent a system failure and the husks got their minds back. Limb-blob gets to live out the rest of its life (however short that may be) in the warm embrace of the sun.
Suspending the disbelief and disgust at the sheer density of grotesqueries packed into this game…I find it inspiring. One boy, alone in the face of overwhelming odds and immeasurable terror, found the courage to put right what he knew was wrong, and made the world a better place. I think this is the main product. Though the product is hard to make out through the gift-wrapping of bewilderment and insanity, look hard enough and you’ll find it buried deep within. This game is the embodiment of uniqueness. Never have I played a game that enchanted, perplexed, inspired, disgusted and provoked me from one moment to the next. These emotions may just as well have been cats in a bag, all fighting with each other over which one would be the next one out.
As I said before, this creation is less of a game and more of an experience, one I would urge anyone who gets easily fed up with re-hashed story-lines and reboots of existing franchises to check out. I guarantee that other than LIMBO, you’d be hard-pressed to find another title to compare this to. Depending on how skilled you are at puzzle solving, I estimate it takes most people 2-3 hours to complete. At £14.99 on Steam, this may concern some who think it doesn’t give great value for money, especially as replayability is pretty limited. I urge those of you who are somewhat weary of this to look up its Steam favourability rating. 95% positive. 95%. Absolutely stratospheric. Hopefully that should speak volumes. Don’t worry about graphics, don’t worry about the soundtrack, you play this for the building intrigue and to see how many competing emotions you can cram inside of you at any one time.
And remember my friends, if you want those all important settings adjustments, the pause menu has you covered.
Letter Grade: A-
Thanks for reading, and see you soon for another review!