For those who have played Limbo, Inside is immediately familiar. The fundamentals of the two games are essentially identical: a dark side-scrolling puzzle game where a lone boy embarks into a dark world filled with mystery and danger. From a technical perspective, Inside looks quite a bit more polished than the simplistic silhouetted sprites and backgrounds of Limbo. And while Limbo was a purely black and white experience, Inside features actual color, most notably the bright red shirt identifying the protagonist. But while Inside is a significant visual advancement over Limbo, the game always feels like the successor to Limbo. The atmospheres of both Inside and Limbo each share a unique shade of foreboding, gloom, strangeness, and hostility that mark them as brethren.
Both of these young protagonists face a long journey through an unreal and corrupted world that lies before them. However, the settings of Limbo and Inside are actually quite different. Limbo is essentially a dark fantasy, an evil fairy tale, that takes place in a living nightmare that a lone boy must overcome to find his lost sister. But while Limbo skews toward the preternatural, Inside is more of a twisted science fiction tale that plays heavily on dystopian and apocalyptic themes. The game begins with the central character of Inside making his way through a dreary, decimated landscape while he is hunted by a band of men and dogs out to kill him. Eventually, he makes his way into a bastion of civilization amidst the (possibly) apocalyptic countryside, where the player comes to discover increasingly dark and disturbing revelations about this perverse future.
The controls of each game are incredibly simple, the boy can more left or right, jump, or grab and move objects. Yet from these very rudimentary actions, the designers do a good job of crafting puzzles that stay interesting across the course of the game. Like Limbo, the puzzles in Inside are all obstacles that make sense in the context of their environment. Usually the goal the player is faced with is something relatively mundane like reaching a ledge, hiding from patrolling enemies, or crossing precarious passages. Safely overcoming these obstacles requires observation of the environment and understanding the interactions available to the player at that particular moment.
One common observation/criticism of Limbo was that there was a heavy emphasis on trial and error. That is to say that often the player wouldn’t be aware a threat was present unless they had already triggered it once and died. Some people disliked this, some were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t mind. The seemingly out-of-nowhere deaths that would often befall the poor boy actually created a long string of startling and often farcical surprises in Limbo. With Inside, I never really felt the same trial and error tension of Limbo. Dangers and threats are often very obvious, and the player is given plenty of time to react to them, which meant that the sudden deaths of Limbo were far, far less common. As someone who wasn’t bothered by this element of Limbo, I’m rather neutral on the lack of it in Inside.
A major problem I know I and many others had with Limbo is that the first hour of play is the highlight of that game, with everything else feeling downhill from there. I felt Inside had a much better arc, as the game slowly ramped up the weirdness and bewilderment factor until the incredible and bizarre climax. There is a great deal of intriguing dystopian world-building that is unraveled over the course of Inside. And as far as the final act of the game went, I would never in a million years have seen that coming. Because the starting premises were so similar, I thought Inside was going to end in a similar fashion to Limbo, but I was thrown a complete curveball. If the name “Inside” seems odd for this game, it will entirely make sense by the game’s finale.
Although… I can’t say that I didn’t immediately feel some disappointment with Inside’s final scene and resolution. I walked away from the game with way more questions than answers, and I wanted a little more closure and understanding of what had just transpired after the game’s unforgettable final act. Inside, like Limbo before it, is primarily a game that tells the story of its world through fine details left in the game’s environments. Nothing is explicitly told to the player, but instead close observation of details in each scene is required. There’s nothing wrong with this storytelling technique I guess, but I found the world and events of Inside to be so intriguing and the finale to be so bizarre that I really wanted more answers than I got.
Limbo has a similarly opaque story, but I don’t think it really bothered me as much. I think it was because the world of Limbo was more like a living nightmare, and nightmares by their very nature lack rhyme or reason. I think that’s why I was fine being confused and unsure of the plot to Limbo. Inside, on the other hand, makes evident that there’s a well thought-out dystopian world that lies beyond the view of the player, and the hints and teases of this world-building left me keen to learn more.
A little deterred by the ambiguity of the ending, I took to YouTube to find some fan theories for the game, of which there are many. For as disappointed as I initially was, I really think watching these fan theories helped me make peace with the game. A lot of details and facts were pointed out by the videos that I completely missed or didn’t really grasp the significance of during my playthrough. I actually reflect much more positively on the game now than I did immediately after closing the final scene.
But is it good that I had to go seek outside sources to help me come to grips with the game? Is it a mark of poor storytelling that I needed to look for information outside of the game itself to be satisfied with Inside? My knee jerk reaction says yes, a game’s story should be self-contained enough that any player can reasonably appreciate it without needing to look to external sources to fill in the blanks. But the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that this is true. The truth is that it’s a lot of fun to read and listen to fan theories and to use those theories to come up with your own ideas and conclusions. The Dark Souls series has been the quintessential example of this sort of obscure, enigmatic storytelling and has spawned a slew of popular and interesting fan output. I could see how obscurity could easily become a crutch to avoid creating well-crafted stories, but examples like Dark Souls and Inside show that in the right hands it requires even more thought and planning than stories with explicit plot details.
Inside is a cool game. While it’s easy to look at it as just a “better Limbo”, I feel that would be underselling quite a bit. It might not have the novelty of Limbo, but the puzzle design, world-building, and general atmosphere and tension are far better crafted in a way that is a step above the improvements that normally occur when going from a predecessor to its sequel. Fans of Limbo really shouldn’t miss out on Inside, and for those that have never played Limbo and are on the fence about Inside, I definitely recommend giving it a try when a Steam sale comes around.
Posted on August 29, 2016, in Essays, Reviews and tagged Gaming, Horror Games, Indie Games, Inside, Limbo, PC Gaming, Playdead Studios, Steam, Video Games. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.
Spoilers ahead. If ya haven’t played it, might not wanna read this.
As someone else who hit the rumor mill in search of answers, were you able to find any sort of reasoning as to why the mer-person saved the child in the middle of the game? Personally, that was an immersion breaking irreconcilable moment and I’ve been searching for any sort of reason to justify it. In your search for meaning did you find any such reasons?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Most everything I’ve read seems to gloss over that part and focus purely on what happens during the meatball section of the game. I kind of wander about that myself. Why were those things killing you, but then suddenly help you out?
Exactly! The sudden break in logic and any sort of emotional reasoning is a glaring issue in an otherwise nearly flawless game. I would have accepted it if the character drowned and then it helped me out of some sort of perverse sense of honor. Or if they were constantly trying to drag me toward those machines but the character drowns on the way. Are they being controlled the closer they get to the lab? I have no idea… whereas in the face of all the other sort of vague story elements I have SOME idea.
Visually this game looks fantastic, in my opinion. I think that’s the main thing that’s selling me to play, honestly. Not sure if I’d prioritize it over other games on my HUGE backlog, but I definitely want to give it a try at some point. I keep reading super positive review about it! Awesome post!
I’m actually the Community Content Manager for NowLoading.co, and I would be thrilled if you considered cross posting your stuff to our platform. If you don’t know much about us- we’re the same team behind MoviePilot.com, and push to give awesome writers (like yourself) the exposure they deserve. Feel free to email me! My email and more info is on my about page. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Nice write up. I saw this on the PSN store the other day and was mildly interested. Might wait for a sale though, as I found Limbo to be pretty meh. Sounds like the finale would irk me because I don’t like the company’s vague approach to storytelling.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yeah, I don’t think anyone could walk away with this game without more questions than answers.
LikeLiked by 1 person
There’s opaque storytelling done well, and opaque storytelling done poorly, but I feel it gets a little tricky in that the difference between them is somewhat subjective. The best examples of opaque storytelling give you enough concrete clues that even though they don’t give you a story directly, they give you direction, and let you build a story yourself. But how well you can follow the breadcrumbs, or even find the breadcrumbs in the first place, is pretty much up to the traits of the individual.
It’s also really easy to go too much in one direction or the other, either giving not enough clues, to the point the story is more conjecture than evidence, or give too much, to where the story just feels like it’s a normal one full of plot holes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Very well said.
I have not played this game, or Limbo. The visual style looks interesting, with the contrasts of bright light and dark shadows creating a sense of foreboding. I like the idea of creating different puzzles with a simple gameplay, but the trial and error aspect seems to be annoying. The player should be able to overcome obstacles by using their skills, rather than by repeating the same trap until they work out the optimum tactic. I actually enjoy fan theories and feel that one of the advantages of the internet is it allows users to access other explanations for stories (I never considered that Link might be dead during the events of Majora’s Mask until I found a theory). I do agree with the points about the story being complete, it allows the player to know what the developers wanted to say, rather than relying on possible misunderstandings. Reminds me of The Shining, the film has a lot of unexplained plot points, while the original novel describes what happens and why the characters are affected.
How are science-fiction elements incorporated into the story? How is the future dystopian? Does the gameplay develop over the game?
That’s an interesting comparison I hadn’t thought about with The Shining!
It’s hard to say for certain, but the game seems to take place in the post-apocalyptic future where a technologically-advanced enclave is using mind control on zombie-like people for slave labor. As the game progresses, we get more and more glimpses into the enclave’s experiments with mind control. The gameplay is basically all puzzle solving, but I felt that the game managed to keep the puzzles more interesting throughout than Limbo. It introduces a few new elements to the puzzles along the way. It’s only like a ~3 hour game, so it doesn’t really overstay its welcome.
I mentioned The Shining because it was the most prominent example of two approaches to telling a similar story where one explains everything, while the other leaves a lot of mystery. The game reminds me of Red Faction, with the story beginning as something fairly ordinary, before introducing darker Science-Fiction elements. How does the mind control affect the gameplay?
LikeLiked by 1 person
This game is definitely on my list of games to play
LikeLiked by 1 person