IT’S CHRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAAAA- Ah, bugger it.
I hate Christmas. Well, I liked it down to a point, but my family slings more shit than they actually shit, so it’s come down to everyone having a cage match around the Christmas tree. At the same time, though, I can still get into the mood, gift everyone I can, and enjoy the volatile company I have,. One of the first gifts I, err, gifted to myself, was Inside.
Inside is Playdead’s second title, with the first being the seminal and medium-defining LIMBO. I mention LIMBO constantly while reviewing other games since it’s become such a reusable blueprint, and this is my first time playing Inside, so let’s jump in, hopefully as spoiler-free as possible.
The story is entry level ambiguity and anti-establishment, but with a more graphically grotesque edge. You’re a small boy, with a regular head this time round, and your world is steeped in a totalitarian, conformed entity where the unwilling are broken down, and an attempt at freedom is met with swift neutralization or death. The more things change, eh?
When compared to LIMBO, Inside is objectively superior in every way. The pretentious ambiguity is now replaced with a more fleshed out thematic approach, the puzzles are smarter, the horrific moments are more horrific than they have any right to be, and the narrative is slightly tighter. HOWEVER, I dare say that despite all these evolutions, Inside is still in the shadow of its bigger brother.
I mean “bigger” as in the sense of impact. As I’ve previously stated, the almost eternal effect LIMBO has had on the indie game market for the past 6 years is inescapable, and I still come across the clones that attempt the same song n’ dance. With that in mind, I think it’s harder to see Inside as the king of Playdead’s library. Before I jump into the heavy stuff, though, I’ll finish praising the game.
Despite my jab at grade school symbolism two paragraphs ago; the imagery, scenarios, and life of Inside manages to be just as striking and morbidly beautiful as LIMBO. There’s many moments where you’ll audibly cough nervously and check your collar as you get deeper and deeper into this unforgiving world, all the while being backed a brilliant ambient soundtrack.
LIMBO was mostly imbued with the sound of silence, with only a few moments backed by a droning lull. With Inside, however, there’s usually a wall of noise to accompany the adventure. I’s a sort of nihilistic beauty that fits with the industrial capitalized doom aesthetic that Playdead are going for. Despite its restraint, sound design, is at an all time high.
The puzzles are also brilliant, even if there’s a degree of perfectionism behind it. I’m not saying that every puzzle has to have 4000 solutions to the point where even Dean Takahashi can figure it out in an instant, but most of the time it felt like player satisfaction and a background skill ceiling were disregarded in favour of making every chase and outcome more cinematic, which wasn’t the case for LIMBO. It still wants to kill you though.
The violence in Inside is much more graphic and shocking. This little boy can be blasted by shockwaves, tranquilized, squashed, shot, drowned, suffocated, etc. It doesn’t contrast, as the world you’re situated in is a much more unforgiving and vile world, but it does reach a somewhat surreal explosion of sheer what-the-fuckery that is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.
Again, despite all of this levelling up, it doesn’t feel like it’s better than LIMBO in terms of scale, scope, execution, and tight focus. That doesn’t make Inside a bad game, it’s still up there with the best of 2016 and indie gaming in general, but you get the point. I prefer LIMBO. That comes down to 3 extreme reasons. First, the narrative.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s got more of an eye on the character than LIMBO did. LIMBO only paid lip service to a goal, save the girl, etc., and it seemed to be leaning more on the side of a straight-forward ending, and, err… it’s straightforward, yeah. Without wishing to spoil, it’s like remixing the infamous Fed-Ex advert with the package being thrown into the screen with the final 30 or so minutes of Akira.
However, it wouldn’t even matter if the ending had just stooped to an ambiguous lull like LIMBO, it doesn’t change the fact that no matter what happened, it was always going to be seen as an equal or an inferior follow-up. This is a really stupid comparison, but the only other thing I can compare it to is the recent trilogy of albums from California-based hip-hop collective Brockhampton:
There were about 20-odd guys who met up on a Kanye forum, and they come out of nowhere this year, releasing three of the most electrifying hip-hop albums of recent memory, dubbed the “Saturation Trilogy”. These albums are fast, furious, full of well-done chemistry and energy, poppin’, accessible to any music lover out there. As time went on they seemed to keep that all-time high that they were known for.
They released three incredible albums in the space of about 7 months, and in that time, it only seemed that they were keeping the groove that they had set. However, despite some of their best tracks being on Saturation II & III, like “JUNKY”, “TOKYO”, “RENTAL”, and “SISTER/NATION”, these albums still couldn’t compare to the boom that the first Saturation provided. It was impossible to not see the hurricane degrade into a strong wind as albums went on.
The third and final reason I still feel uneasy about calling this better than LIMBO is the theories that the game has cooked up. I know that might seem like an idiotic reason to detract praise, like rating a film you saw a lower score than what you would originally give it because some guy was screaming “PICKLE RICK!” during the screening, but let me state my case.
There’s a dirty rumour going around, that the game is supposed to be an interpretation of the boy being controlled by a “renegade force”, I.E, you. The player. Personally, this type of meta-narrative and design has always pissed me off, it’s like Spec Ops: The Line, where the game berates you for a choice you’re not in control of. Call me a cynic, but I don’t think the ending Playdead would’ve preferred is for the person playing to not even bother starting up the game in the first place.
I feel like I may have miscommunicated my point there, but hopefully the same thing I’m trying to explain when it comes to Saturation comes through here. Inside isn’t bad, it’s just an unfortunate soul who’s never going to reach the starlight his brother did. The ending might stick with you long after you’ve finished the title, but I fear it will be, or more likely it would have been for all of the wrong reasons.
Still, Inside is definitely worth the playthrough, even if the price does take a few litres of piss. You’ve got a horrific world to frolic in and many ways to meet your inevitable end. Inside still sticks out as an indie hit, but it’s not going to be a blueprint for years to come since the big brother took that spot already. Play it, join the conformed crowd.
An incredible follow-up to one of the indie G.O.A.T's, that still can't escape being more of the same, even if that barely affects it.