Inside is Playdead's second game, coming out six years after the critical hit that was Limbo. Everything that was great about Limbo has been ramped up for Inside. As an atmospheric puzzle platformer, there's next to nothing Inside does wrong. In essence, it's a game that can serve as a near perfect example of cohesive game design in all of its many parts, as well as being a collection of smart decisions.
Just as in Limbo, you start as a young boy in a forest, who starts running right. The first thing you will notice is the downright incredible look and atmosphere of the game. All of your movements are of a 2D platformer, but Inside makes use of depth in both the foreground and background to make awesome scenes. Once I started to think this way, there were countless scenes I thought would make incredible wallpapers. It's clean, aesthetically pleasing, and cohesive. Of course, how one enjoys the look of a game is highly subjective; however, there is no doubt that it is well-designed throughout the entirety of the game.
I can think of only a few games that have immersed me into something so readily and easily as Inside, something of which the art style and graphical design surely aided. Many scenes are layered, which creates this incredible depth that is often used to great effect. There were so many moments where the camera would pull back to reveal some grand room or area you were in, which hit home how alone you are as your character.
The sound, however, is what drives the atmosphere home. There isn't your standard music per se in Inside. Instead, all sounds come from what you interact with or exist to enhance the mood (completely atmospheric), whether it be eerie or tense. Often, there is no sound at all other than the boy's footsteps, breathing, and grunts as he leaps from one area to the next.
All of this comes together to create a sometimes overwhelming feeling of isolation and insignificance, which, at least for me, draws you into everything you see and hear. Your actions and what surrounds you becomes a singular focus as you progress through the game, which becomes powerfully immersive. You as the player are in charge of everything the boy does on screen. The only moments you do not have control are those the boy himself has no control; these moments get an intense emphasis in the shock that the controls have been taken away from you. This doesn't often happen, but it leads to Inside's most dramatic moments.
The biggest reason Inside draws you in and doesn't let go is the choice of design in the presentation of the world and story. Everything you take in is through some audio or visual cue. You will hear no voices spoken and will read no dialogue written. In fact, there is nothing to read at all. Everything you interpret comes from what you hear, what you see, and what you do as a player. Inside leaves it up to you to figure out what's going on in the world, who the boy is running from and why, and what the overall goal of the plot is—what the overall significance of it all is. There are no explanations, only more questions. It is this choice of storytelling and design that instantaneously piques your curiosity. My time with Inside was incredibly reminiscent of that in Journey, where it almost compels you to keep going as you have become so invested in finding everything out you can.
Inside begins with a boy in a forest running from people in masks. Slowly, as you venture to a farm, through other locales, and eventually make it to a dystopian factory/office/building type ... thing—there's a lot of going on in it. Nowhere does the game feel overwhelming. Players will continually generate questions about what is going on, and your mind will make connections to the significance of events that happened earlier. The ways this world works get revealed piece by piece, and eventually, the whos and whats of what you saw will become apparent. Drips and drabs come in as you try to figure out the importance of the boy and where he is going.
It doesn't end there, as the storytelling and atmosphere are married greatly to the gameplay mechanics. Many of the mechanics, in fact, created more questions and curiosity in my mind than anything I saw or heard on-screen. Significant pieces of the worldbuilding are revealed through new mechanics you need to progress further in the game. To avoid spoilers, I won't go into detail but just say that once you solve some puzzles using those new mechanics, you'll be hit with a sudden realization that brings all sorts of implications to the table and make you view Inside's world a lot different than before.
Something I appreciated most in Inside was the approach to introducing mechanics, which also informs the overall design of the levels and puzzles. In Indie Game: The Movie, Edmund McMillen has a discussion on game design with Super Meat Boy, where he says that they took the approach of teaching the mechanics of the game through forcing players to problem solve. A large gap in your way? You sit there and eventually figure out you need to run and jump to get across. Inside presents that underlying philosophy to the player. The game gives you a problem and leaves you to figure it out, with no attempt to explain the solution whatsoever.
It goes beyond even that, though, as each newly introduced mechanic is then built upon every time you see it again. For example, there are these boxes you pull the handle on, wait a few seconds, and then they shoot upwards into the air. The first time, the box serves as a simple platform to get to an area. The next time there are two of them that you must time to make sure they are each at the same height at the same time to act as stepping stones to get across some gap. Each time you see those boxes again after that, they are used in a new and unique way. They likely achieve this because there is a wide variety of mechanics combined with the fact it is a short game of only three to four hours. It points to the incredible design in that each time you see a familiar mechanic, you must apply the core concept behind it in a new way to progress. You may see some of the same things a few times, like pushing a box to some area to use as a platform. However, the purpose of pushing that box is always different. In one instance, it may be to have it go crashing down to the floor below to tear open a hole; in another, it may act as a floating platform for you as the water rises.
Everything is designed to create in you, the player, a singular focus on the task at hand: experiencing Inside. The whole time you play the game, you should find yourself engaged. Moments of respite where you are simply running from one area to the next will likely be filled with your mind working as your curiosity is piqued or just soaking in the environment around you. The rest of your time with Inside will be trying to solve what's in front of you or observing the many scenes that occur in the background.
In my title, I say that Inside is all show and no tell. That is a 100% true statement, almost to the point of detriment. While I found myself engaged the entire time I played Inside, I felt underwhelmed in the end. There was no satisfaction or vindication in my quickly conceived theories being confirmed or denied. Nothing was revealed. No questions answered. Inside doesn't seem to care, however, as its entire purpose seems to be to create those questions while leaving just enough crumbs to allow players to create a crude outline of what they think may be going on. Regardless, I can't help but feel that Inside may have been a little too mysterious—though it was really good at it.
Inside will likely be my go-to game when I need to point someone toward an example of a great game design philosophy executed brilliantly. It is an experience I will think about for a long time, and I was truly sad to see it end, as I was stuck to my seat the entire time. Even if you are not a fan of puzzle platformers (I personally do not care for them), Inside should appeal to anyone interested in playing a great game made incredibly well.
Inside was reviewed with a controller on PC using a code provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox One.
An easy Game of the Year contender, Inside is an example of game design executed near perfectly.