July 4, 2016 11:16 AM | Christian Valentin
At a glance, Playdead's two games - 2010 debut Limbo and 2016 follow-up Inside - seem quite similar. And many ways, they are. Both have the player controlling a young boy. Both feature bleak uninviting landscapes. Both revolve around simple mechanics of running, jumping, pushing and pulling and activating objects. Both hew to the short concise cinematic platformer formula, introduced in the former and refined in the latter.
But while Limbo's atmosphere was one of silhouetted wilderness and industrial complexes, the fear of the unknown in the deep shadows and indistinct haze, Inside doesn't hide its horrors. Clearly seeing the unsettling nature of Inside's world makes its few hours of tense platforming and puzzling that much more disturbing, eerie, and weird.
"Tense" is the most apt adjective for Inside. From its first moment to its last, the game establishes an overwhelming atmosphere of dread and tension, through its subtle score and muted color palette to the boy's hurried breathing when nervous creeping becomes panicked flight. From the start, there's a pervading sense that something is wrong here that permeates every area, a feeling that only grows more pronounced as you venture deeper inside...Inside.
That feeling of tension wouldn't be nearly as effective if Inside's animations and pacing weren't so perfectly linked. Your red-shirted boy, contrasted against threats and dangers of the world, immediately makes you feel weak and small and just barely fast enough to escape. How you stumble over branches in your path, struggle to push and pull ladders and boxes, put your weight behind levers. It's an achievement of atmosphere and pacing when my own mindset and the character's actions onscreen are so in sync, willing the analog stick to make the boy run faster as he indeed does begin sprinting in terror.
However, pacing is more than just those moments of fear and flight, and Inside excels equally at the slow-burn exploration and puzzles. It would perhaps be a disservice to classify Inside as a puzzle platformer, bringing to mind the image of distinct challenges where your main goal is to find the solution. No, Inside's puzzles are far more ingrained into its environment and world, with the intent of driving you forward to new areas or figuring out how to use the interactive objects in the surrounding space to escape or survive. Much like its predecessor, Inside doesn't stick with one concept for long, preferring to introduce new ideas rather than recycling or reiterating on a single mechanic.
The same can be said for the experience as a whole. Besides tense and unsettling and briskly-paced, "unpredictable" describes Inside just as well. The game you experience at the start can't prepare for you for the odd sights and places Inside takes you, nor for its quite-literally jaw-dropping finale. If there was ever a game to experience as blind as possible, it's Inside.