The monochromatic 2D silhouetted art-style of PlayDead’s first game, Limbo, captivated many. It set the mood for what (I thought) was a satisfying (if simplistic) retelling of Dante’s trip into Hell. Inside evolves this art style, making sparing use of colour to accentuate a similarly bleak world. Unfortunately, it evolves very little else.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here (and are worried about spoilers).
Inside uses storytelling which is now characteristic of PlayDead, eschewing language in favour of evocative imagery as it draws players into its world. Without any introduction, any prompting, players are given control over a small child as they move through a hostile world. By shifting to 2.5D platforming and adding colour to its palette, Inside immediately looks better than PlayDead’s Limbo, and aesthetically it feels like a step in the right direction. Those familiar with Limbo also already have footing in the game world — like PlayDead’s first game, Inside is mechanically simple, using just two buttons and a thumbstick to give players control over their character.
It’s up to the player to work out how those two buttons are best utilised. One jumps, the other interacts — grabs chains, pulls levers… that’s about it. By keeping things simple, Inside very quickly empowers players with the tools necessary to solve the puzzles hidden within — with zero combat and very little exploring, Inside is a platforming puzzle game through and through.
As the game progresses, the little boy in Inside evolves, adapting to his surroundings. He exhibits control over mindless drone types who occupy his dystopian world — at first by way of a mind control hat, but inevitably via an innate ability. He finds himself capable of breathing underwater, eventually. And by the end of the game he becomes an amorphous blob thing, capable of crashing through walls, crushing people and waiting for other people to open doors for him.
So why am I down on it?
The puzzles of Inside are not good. To explain my issues, I’ll have to explain what I expect from a puzzle game. In its purest form puzzle games represent a video game world where interaction is not dictated by violence. The puzzles themselves come in different shapes and forms, but they typically require three things; a well established degree of knowledge about the game rules, a degree of manual dexterity and some degree of logical and/or lateral thinking.
The player is challenged to solve whatever puzzle is presented, and they’re (usually) rewarded with greater challenge and (maybe) some world building. Tetris is a great example of this transaction between puzzle game and player — the more challenge they’re capable of solving, the greater the challenge becomes. Eventually there are diminishing returns for the block dropping game, as the best players reach a degree of game knowledge which removes logical thinking and reduces the game to manual dexterity, but only a small percentage of people reach that level of skill.
For me, what made puzzle games tick clicked with the release of Portal. Portal puts players in the shoes of Chell, an experimentee trapped in some sort of terrible testing facility, and she (and the player) are tasked with solving a series of puzzles of ever-increasing difficulty. The puzzles require logical and lateral thinking, a degree of manual dexterity and a complete understanding of what made the Portal world work to solve, and as you progressed you received not just greater challenge, requiring you to combine more of the above at once, but also world building.
But what actually provided the glass shattering moment for me with Portal was the phrase “Now you’re thinking with portals.” A throwaway line at the end of the trailer for Valve’s wildly successful puzzle game, thinking with portals struck me like a Eureka moment. The truly satisfying puzzle games build a depth of game knowledge deep enough that players who find themselves in the zone begin to think in the game’s terms. The puzzles are essentially a language. Someone learning a language thinks in terms of translations. They translate the image they see into their idea of the word, and then they say the word in the correct language. They see an apple, they think ‘red fruit, tastes good in urine coloured juice, is an apple’. Or they think ‘that’s an apple, but I’m in Germany, I better say apfel’. Someone who is fluent in the language immediately thinks ‘apfel’ or ‘apple’ based on the context of their current situation without any required mental energy.
For a long time I just thought of this as being ‘in the zone’, but that’s too broad a concept. Being in the zone in Quake isn’t the same as being in the zone in Portal. Acing a team in Rainbow Six Siege doesn’t require the same mental processing as solving the last puzzle in The Witness. That’s not to say that one is better, or requires something more of players than the other — they’re just inherently different. Great puzzle games don’t get you to slip into ‘the zone’. They teach you their language and then they give you opportunities to become fluent. And once you’re fluent, they make you rap battle, or something, this analogy has fallen over a little. Still, a great puzzle game asks you to become fluent and it uses fluency to increase challenge.
That’s what great puzzle games do. That’s what Portal, The Talos Principle and The Witness did — although The Witness approached teaching you its language the way the huntsman taught Hansel and Gretel about orienteering. So when you’re thinking with Portals, you’re able to use its language without any mental adjustment. In the Talos Principle you think with lasers. In The Witness with lines.
And so we come to Inside. As a puzzle game, Inside never really asks any more of you than basic trial and error. The first ‘puzzle’ you solve involves jumping to not trip over a log. If you don’t jump at the correct time, you’ll fall and die in a pretty terrible way. It requires a modicum of manual dexterity, but ultimately if you screw up the first time and you’ve ever played any Mario game before, you won’t make that same mistake again. When it’s really working the player, Inside challenges you to some simplistic memory tests, or some dexterity tests combined with timing. The most complex puzzle in the game — where you need to bring 20 bodies to a platform to open a door — challenges you to explore a few more screens and remember a single location.
You do learn the language, but it’s a language of grunts. It’s a primitive system, and while the optimist in me would put it down to a sincere desire for every player to finish the game, the cynic in me attributes it to laziness. Because what’s worse about Inside is that it doesn’t even evolve the language much beyond what you already learned if you played Limbo. And I 100% agree that other games don’t evolve much — shit, some of them evolve too much *cough*Doom MP*cough* — but the silhouetted puzzle game with the minimalist story-telling isn’t really afforded the slot machine skinner box reward mechanisms in Call of Duty, so it doesn’t get the same sort of the same leeway that Activision’s juggernaut has been getting less and less of. It doesn’t tap into the primal neanderthal brain that wants to compete and win and destroy and conquer. It’s trying to make the player think — but at the end of the day, it seems like it’s not trying to get you to think very hard.
That’s my overarching problem with Inside. It doesn’t try very hard. I think PlayDead’s use of imagery is fantastic, and it does a good job of evoking all sorts of feelings, from unease up to terror. But I think that by giving me so little challenge it failed to engage me in any real way. Because the gameplay is dull, I have ample time to view the background art. And I come away with very little. For me, the problem is that things appear and then disappear, never to be heard from again. A mind-controlling worm lives in the bum of a pig, and you never see it again. A room where soundwaves explode you that exists just to exist.
Because the puzzles are simplistic and because the game never bothers to attempt to build its language out, all I can see is a series of consecutive tricks, a lot of them exactly the same. Like if a magician pulled a dove out of a hat, then a pigeon out of a cap, then a parrot from a beret and mugged for applause the whole time. And because the game fails to obfuscate the illusion of depth in its puzzle design, it makes the rest of the so-called depth of the game seem so much more superficial. This carefully constructed game world exists for me to experience it and for no other reason. You march to the beat of the game’s drum at all times. Even the triumphant escape, when you, a giant blob, escape free of the shackles of the game and make a break for the outside — even that exists entirely within the game’s control. Once you break through that final wall, you no longer have control. Maybe that’s the game’s point, that you as a giant blob thing can only exist within its confines. But I’m afraid The Witness already made me question why I even play games at all if the point is that it’s all bullshit and there’s no meaning to anything, so I can’t accept it from Inside as well.
Just prior to the grand evolution in Inside you’re straight up naked. And then you get sucked into a blob and it’s basically all downhill from there. I don’t want to be all “the emperor’s not wearing any clothes!”, but Inside seems to have said it already.