In Between is a 2D puzzle-platformer developed by gentlymad that tells the story of a dying man who is dealing with his volatile emotions around his imminent death by navigating increasingly difficult puzzles. In Between is divided into two sections. The first is the gameplay-light cutscenes that illustrate not only the man's journey through the dying process, but also his life journey overall. The other section is the puzzle levels, split into sections based on the traditional stages of grief.
The story was surprisingly touching for what I would've expected from the genre. Used to standards like Super Mario Bros., I expected In Between's story to be minimal; travel a dangerous land and save the princess. But In Between was far from that. It told the sad yet compelling story of a man who was dealt a lousy hand not only in his cancer, but also in much of the rest of his life as well. Details abound with his childhood, early adulthood, issues with his family, friends, and career. With monologue-only dialogue and minimal animation, the player truly only gets glimpses into the man's life, but that turns out to be enough to sympathize with the character and to seek to finish his story.
The visual style is cartoon-like without being cartoonish. Each character is well-defined and visually distinct. The props and sets all have a minimalist feel, but still give the player an essential impression of the world the man occupies. In one scene, at the man's job, the player sees the man tirelessly typing away at a glamour-free, repetitive job. The character types and types. The piles of paper stack ever higher. Even the man's supervisor does nothing but move back and forth between her desk and the man's.
Another great scene happens when the man describes his father's death. The man walks from the church memorial service to find a votive candle, to exiting the church for the outside graveyard, where he joins his family at his father's grave. It's a simple action, with simple animations, yet, with the help of the powerful voice over, the player feels an entire emotional journey in the less-than-a-minute scene.
The man's voice acting was fantastic. The voice rang of a man who'd been through an exhausting life and dying process, yet who, rather than sounding only bitter and off-putting, was heavy with genuine pathos. At one point, the man describes his difficult relationship with his father. He says that at one point in his life, he "loathed him." The weight with which the actor speaks "loathed" gave the player a true sense of a decades-long relationship that anyone with a father can understand.
The music and sound effects were another highlight. One piece of piano music was a particularly strong point. It perfectly captured the melancholy of In Between. Even having heard it repeated several times in a level, I felt lost in its emotion. One sound motif that was also very effective was the background of clockworks churning. It was almost a reminder of the man's life-force ticking away.
The puzzles, arguably the heart of In Between, struck a fine balance between difficult and frustrating. The tutorial section provided ample time for the player to get used to In Between's conventions. From the gravity-shifting mechanic to the timed jumps, the learning curve never felt too steep, and a reward of a wonderful cutscene lay in wait when all was accomplished. In Between then upped the ante, introducing a new, section-specific mechanic to each group of puzzles. For example, the second section sent Super Mario World Boo-style walls of darkness after the player. The only means of escaping the darkness is to face it, but sometimes the path forces the player to turn away. Another challenge lay in the fact that many puzzles seemed simple enough upon level entry, but required plenty of practice and patience to master.
The ever-present gravity mechanic was, at times, almost controller-tossingly frustrating. The player would enter a level, see a clear path to a goal, only to realize plenty of spikes and other traps lay in wait. At first glance, it'd seem like a simple solution, except In Between would toss in a platform only reachable by changing gravity. The danger, then, would be that once the player changes the gravity, spikes that had before seemed so out of reach would now be right there within easy grasp.
The gravity switching was most challenging when, in later levels, the player must guide not only himself but also a mirrored copy. The two avatars faced equal, but opposite, challenges. The player had to be very careful not to take one avatar's current safety for granted as one false move and the other avatar dies.
The only major downside to In Between was the disjointed feel between the puzzle levels and the cutscenes. At times, the two experiences felt like they belonged in separate games. In Between also featured small story bits and animations in the puzzle levels that would play out once the player successfully passed certain points. I suspect that had the entirety of In Between been structured this way, without any of the cutscenes, the disjointed feel would have vanished. This is, however, a slight criticism as with the cutscenes as reward and their satisfaction in the telling of the story ultimately did outweigh any feeling of disruption.
With the combination of the increasingly difficult puzzles and the engrossing story, I truly felt a touch of sadness as the final cutscene faded. In Between was so much more impactful than most films and TV shows I've seen recently. If you enjoy puzzle platformers and don't mind raw, sad stories, then you should definitely pick up a copy of In Between.
In Between was reviewed on Mac via Steam with a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on iOS and Android.