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Inside / 3rd of August 2016

Denmark’s Playdead Studios announced themselves in style with their darkly atmospheric platform-puzzle epic, Limbo, back in 2010, so naturally expectations have been sky high for their sophomore effort, Inside, from the very moment that it was announced. Well, it has finally arrived, but has it managed to live up to our rather lofty hopes? Oh yes, it most certainly has. In fact, it’s clear to me that not only does Inside match the exceptionally high quality of its predecessor, it actually manages to exceed it, creating an immensely beautiful, intriguing and intelligent adventure that is without a shadow of a doubt the stand out release of the year thus far.

In the wake of the “Brexit” referendum it seems pertinent to point out one of the biggest areas of our society that was horribly overlooked throughout the so-called debates on the topic; culture. Inside is a perfect example of why the EU is such a wonderful thing for all of us, as it is part funded by both the Danish Film Institute and an EU culture initiative to actively promote the creation and development of art across the continent, and in Inside, that is precisely what they got. The brilliant Albert Camus wrote that “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”, Inside is destined to be one such vision. Dark, haunting and dreamlike, it’s an experience that is as beautiful as it is cerebral, and it leaves an impression behind it that few will shake off, or ever hope to.
The development time has the game has been extensive, with initial planning beginning shortly after the initial release of Limbo almost six years ago, with the team also reducing their workload by opting to use Unity as opposed to a new proprietary engine, giving them more time to develop and hone the level design, pacing and puzzles to absolute perfection. Like Limbo before it, players take control of a small boy as he ventures into a dark and twisted fantasy world where death awaits at every corner, and this is all played out with graphic animations that are enhanced with suitably troubling and absolutely stellar sound design.

One of the game’s greatest strengths is its lack of instruction – there are no tutorials, no button prompts and not a single trace of a HUD, the entire space on screen is devoted to the absurdly beautiful action unfolding before the player. In that regard one might view the many gratuitous deaths that the protagonist suffers as being somehow unfair, but in reality that simply couldn’t be further from the truth. Each ignominious demise that the player suffers is a learning experience, instructing them in the use of the game’s core mechanics as well as the design of specific puzzles. This is suitably boosted by minimal loading times and a rather generous checkpoint system to ensure that Inside never feels frustrating, allowing it to perpetuate the player’s sense of wonder from start to finish.
The environments and gameplay here are also considerably varied, more so than in Limbo, with a great deal of the action taking place underwater, either swimming or tackled from within the confines of a one-man submersible vessel. The puzzles are physics based, typically requiring the player to manipulate their surroundings in some way, though some necessitate the use of lifeless bodies controlled by the protagonist, giving the player access to seemingly inaccessible areas and also providing a greater level of strength to manoeuvre objects when needed. Much like Limbo, with its iconic giant spider and Lord of the Flies-like children, the protagonist of Inside must also contend with pursuers throughout this adventure, from trained dogs, men intent on shooting or strangling the boy and mysterious underwater creatures that add a sense of urgency and tension to the proceedings. Such encounters are exquisitely choreographed, never once feeling like a cakewalk, the player only ever dragging themselves out of danger at the very last moment as their heart rate spirals upwards which only serves to make Inside’s relatively gentle three hour or so campaign feel surprisingly taut at times.

The conundrums that the player encounters here are undoubtedly less taxing than those found in Playdead’s debut effort, and whilst I must confess to having found myself stuck on a couple of occasions, it was never for very long and typically because I was attempting to over complicate matters. Everything feels wholly organic and items of interest are usually highlighted subtly to ensure that each solution is completely intuitive without ever being just outright obvious. The way in which Playdead mix up the mechanics, environments and opponents also guarantees that Inside always feels fresh and invigorating too as it works its way towards a surprising, totally unexpected denouement, and quite frankly, how many games is it possible to say that about? In all honesty, the manner in which the wordless narrative winds its way from start to finish is more than worth the price of admission alone, but as one might expect, there’s more, much more.
As I alluded to earlier, the audio in the game is exceptional, with Martin Stig Anderson having created a bleak, sombre soundscape that is tied so intrinsically to the animation, pacing and puzzles. What soundtrack there is limited to minimalistic synthesiser lines that typically raise the overriding mood of the game momentarily before resuming usual service wherein the ambient sound effects become the main driving force once again. With thunderous, percussive thuds from bizarre pieces of machinery, breathing noises synced perfectly with the animation and a variety of groans and mutterings that vary dependent on both the location of the character as well as their emotional state, Inside is a genuine masterclass in sound design.

Likewise, Playdead have used the Unity game engine to create one of the most beautiful looking videogames that I have ever seen, with hugely detailed environments and subtle flashes of colour to break up the otherwise monochromatic aesthetic. Each and every frame is simply jaw dropping in its beauty, nothing feels out of place or random, but rather a composition that has had many hours of care and attention poured into it by talented and dedicated artists. I repeatedly stopped and stared in awe at every minute detail, from the dust particles drifting across the many beams of light (the lighting is exceptional too), the deformation of sodden, muddy ground and the rippling on the surface of water pools as the character moves through them. The animation is far more complex than Limbo’s, with the boy stumbling after landing a running jump, the laboured movement of his chest after exerting himself and perhaps most impressive of all, the subtle ways in which he examines his surroundings, drawing the player’s attention to points of interest, much in the same way that the careful introduction of colour to the palette does as well. There’s still so much more, but ultimately all that needs to be said is that Inside is absolutely gorgeous, and a wonderful achievement for its ludicrously talented development team in Copenhagen.
Typically, I tend to bring up the breadth of content and longevity when weighing up the intrinsic value of a release, but quite frankly such concerns are wholly irrelevant here. There are far too few experiences like Inside available today, if any in fact. With a delicately expressed narrative and meaning that is sure to inspire debate, sublime audio and visuals, intuitive puzzles and perfect pacing, Inside is simply nothing short of a visionary masterwork. Ultimately, Playdead Studios have undoubtedly crafted the finest game of 2016, but in all honestly, its true value far outstrips such meagre sentiments because this not merely a game, this is art.
James Paton
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