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In this review of Inside from Playdead Games, I will not be delving into any end of game spoilers. I have to spoil one thing, but I will warn you about it. If you’ve been reading my reviews on video games you probably realize that I don’t use spoilers tags. It’s obnoxious, but try as I might I just can’t seem to care about them. The reason for that personality quirk is this: I cannot be surprised.
There has not been a game, film, book, or really anything else that has provided a twist that has dumbfounded me in a long time. Really, if you consume as much pop culture as we do in this age, you probably look at plot twists in the same way. A giant and sweeping shrug. I think that’s probably why so many forms of entertainment prefer to got with spectacle or shock rather than truly inventive plots, but this is not the place for that discussion.
All that being said I did guess what the end would be. Albeit my guess was accurate only in the sense that if I said to myself, “Oh, tomorrow, there will be cake.” Upon walking out my front door, the band Cake has set up on my street and is now blasting out “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.” In the cake/Cake example I am happy, because I enjoy the music of Cake. And I am right, because technically I did say cake will be there. But if I claimed to see it coming, that makes me kind of an asshole if I try to take credit for it.
So without spoilers at all, Inside goes places that you absolutely do not expect it to and ends in a place where you are utterly shocked. Sublime moment of true and absolute surprise. It was refreshing. If there was nothing else to this game than that I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Because of that I will use spoiler tags when I spoil today.
However, Inside is a beautiful, atmospheric, and challenging puzzle platformer that uses intuitive and sparse controls to the best of their abilities. The puzzles increase in difficulty so organically that you hardly notice the way you’ve managed to get from one puzzled to the next. There are no cues. There are no hints. There is only your character and your instincts to push you forward.
The greatest strength, of this game crosses over storytelling and gameplay. That strength is pacing. Inside is phenomenally paced to the point where you cannot stop playing it unless you have a doctor’s appointment that you really shouldn’t miss.
The moment I pressed start and just fell onto the screen as the boy, I was a little out of my element. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was expecting some sort of pregame scroll to lay out what has happened, who I was. Nope. Didn’t happen. I was just running.
I was hiding.
I was a pulse pounding chase sequence in which a dog nearly bit my foot off as I leaped into the lake below. It was unbelievably fun. I whooped.
Then as I moved forward through creepy fields of corn and a mysterious farm I felt my critical side get annoyed. I thought to myself, “Ok, so I’m just running away from something. Big whoop.”
Fair warning, the next paragraph contains a spoiler for early in the game.
The exact second that crossed my mind, I hit the first big twist of the game. Which was the ability to mind control. It’s a simple move. A simple mechanic that’s so easy to pick up, and at the exact same times it reframes the entire game. As a result the mystery is intensified, the game becomes more challenging, and more creative puzzles start jumping out at you.
Every single time I felt that I had figured this game out, from a gameplay standpoint, it threw a new wrinkle at me, that wasn’t just new ability, but also deepened the plot of the story. Every twist changed Inside into a new game with new goals.
The thing is… I’ve been thinking about this game, almost nonstop from the moment I beat it, and I can’t quite figure out exactly what happened. I retrace my moves, the abilities that I had. I think I figure it out, and then I remember a small element that utterly changes what I think it means. I always talk about games as an analogue to novels, or TV or movies. Narratives with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Rising action, falling action. Identifiable themes and tropes.
Inside doesn’t conform to that. Inside does have a starting point, and it does have an ending point. There is a middle. Yet since there is no background for the game, or any specifics or dialogue I can’t identify a theme. The context for every action is completely opaque making any trope you think you’ve noticed essentially unidentifiable; there isn’t an antagonist; there is no rising action or falling action? No.
Inside is rather more like a great poem. It is simple, short, and somehow complex. It is dense. There are layers to be peeled back and explored. It revolves around its images. Haunting, beautiful images. And in the end it leaves you unsure, unmoored by what you just experienced. Unsettled. It leaves you mentally exhausted and drained, as if you were lying alone on a beach watching the sun’s dying rays as it sets away over the horizon.