I can’t deny that I’ve heard some of the fuss being made about INSIDE‘s [official site] console release last week. I haven’t read any reviews, knowing I was going to be reviewing this myself once PC code came in, but I couldn’t help picking up that people were excited. So I was excited. I rather loved Limbo. I’ve been anticipating this. You can hear the but coming, can’t you? Yeah, but, I don’t love INSIDE. In fact, I’m not sure what there is about it for anyone to love. It feels like an empty, procedural, albeit often beautiful platform game with not a single original idea in its belt. Here’s wot I think:
The game begins with your playing as an unidentified small boy, in an unexplained location, with undefined controls. I like all of that. There’s not a single moment of interface on the screen, you learn by doing, and indeed by dying. (Although I did check the game’s options to be sure that there were only two buttons used here, which is the case.) You move toward the right, because the boy is stood on the left, and you quickly learn that everyone, and everything, in the game wants him to be dead. What’s going on, where you are, why you’re there, is all up in the air – all you know is that danger is behind you, potential safety is in front, so you keep on moving, ducking behind objects, timing your jumps, moving objects to create opportunity, and jogging slowly to the right across barren scenes.
We can’t avoid discussing Limbo at this point. Not least because the above paragraph describes it equally as well as it does this newer game. Playdead’s phenomenally successful silhouetted platformer was a sublime experience – I adored it, and could barely find criticism (beyond technical issues with the port). And specifically, I was strongly in favour of the game’s intent on killing the player. I thought that Limbo did this as a statement, as a means of communicating something to you, to defiantly be a game that was purposefully messing with you. Kieron rather strongly disagreed, and we argued about it on the site. Kieron’s position being that it was bad game design, Rick Dangerous-esque, to force the player to fail in order to proceed. I contended that this was an exception to that rule, something special, something deliberately taking a mistake other games make and using it as a strength. We still disagree. But I’ve a strong feeling we’d agree on INSIDE, where the same justifications for player death really cannot be made.
Just as with Limbo, you will die an awful lot during your inexorable journey from left to right, and most of the time because you couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen next. Sometimes, you could have. Sometimes – and this is where the game is at its best – it puts visual clues to a potential surprise in front of you, letting you pre-empt it and ‘outwit’ it. And gosh, those moments are great. Until something breaks beneath your feet, or you drown, or a dog tears you apart, or a man throttles you, or a ghostly underwater girl rips your throat open. For no reason, for no statement, simply because I guess they thought it worked in Limbo so did it again.
That’s the other really odd part of INSIDE: you get to watch a small boy be brutally murdered an awful lot. In Limbo there was something horrifying about this tiny wisp of shadow being eviscerated on spinning blades, but it was abstract, detached. INSIDE is simply watching a cartoon kid get brutalised over and over. And you’re made to watch – no skipping a death scene to start over here – sit still and watch the man’s hands around his throat as his body goes limp. Cheers.
At about four hours long, varying depending upon how stuck you get during its more oblique moments, it is a deliberate vignette. And yet despite this, there are long stretches of dreary repetition. There’s a section in a miniature submarine pod in particular that goes on and on and on, having you repeat the same actions so many times, with little variation. And pretty much everywhere, if it has a neat idea for a puzzle, it’ll likely do it two or three times with diminishing returns. It also commits the absolutely cardinal sin of having you escape a particular enemy a number of times, and then scripts a sequence in which you fail to. Bleaurgh.
Let’s think about some strengths. The character animation is utterly wonderful. And it’s never better than when tugging open a door, or ripping boards from a window. There’s such a good feeling of struggle, of the effort. The boy moves beautifully, his jumping and landing madly unrealistic but always rewarding. It controls extremely well, everything feels natural, and that’s very hard to get right. Kudos there. And it’s an extremely pretty game. Or, at least, it begins as one.
This is what’s perhaps most strange about INSIDE – the game begins in near-monochrome gloom, and stays that way for a little while. The first real glimpse of colour is the presence of a flock of chicks, incongruously bright and cheerful in this grey and white world. But as you progress, more colour begins to seep in, and wow, it looks wonderful. Just hints, faded hues, mixed with the light, and the effect is often spectacular. Which makes it odd that it’s an effect it almost entirely abandons by about halfway through. The bulk of the game is spent in squint-inducing dark, with occasional greys, and even the clever use of light and framing dropped in favour of miles of identical grey buildings with grey stairways and grey containers. Well, just take a look at my screenshot folder to get an idea:
Oh, and bloody hell, the ending. I won’t say anything, obviously, but good grief it’s utterly dreadful. Catastrophically stupid stuff. Impressive physics, but the atmosphere of one of those dreadful movies that would be introduced by Dr Terror on BBC2 in the 90s. Not quite where I saw it heading.
Clearly others are adoring this, so read around. I certainly will be now to try to work out what on Earth was going on last week. But I completely didn’t get this. It has a few decent puzzles, all of them boringly repeated. It looks lovely, when it remembers to, but mostly doesn’t. It moves and controls wonderfully, but that’s not so great a feature when what you’re moving and controlling is so bland. I found no pathos, no meaningful peril, no attachment to the ever-dying yet always-living character, and ultimately, no purpose.