Dreamy flying game InnerSpace is Abzu’s awkward cousin

innerspace-pc

There are two games in recent memory which left me with an immediate thirst for more. Not in terms of story answers or glitzier sequels – it was simply that I wanted more of the same experience. I’d play a second Inside in a heartbeat – just more strings of strange and blackly comic scenes with well-judged, lethal puzzling. And I’d leap at the chance to swim in more of Abzu‘s gorgeous oceans, fish-watching anew. In lieu of that, InnerSpace looked like the next best thing – flying a spectral plane over land and undersea, gawping at fantasy fishies, revelling in glorious freedom of movement and a wash of colours, enduring no pressure other than that which I imposed upon myself.

InnerSpace isn’t that, despite appearances and more than a few similarities. InnerSpace is far too scared that I might get bored. And so there is smashing, and strafing, and chatty demi-gods aplenty.

I’ll lay off the Abzu comparisons shortly – I know it’s a touch malign to repeatedly hold up one game against another, but I mentioned it because our outward looks at InnerSpace couldn’t help but evoke that beatific swimming/fish-gazing affair. It’s certainly why I gunned it up. InnerSpace is probably best described as a sort of astral flight sim, with a gentle focus on stunts such as zooming through cramped tunnels and using your nose to break open walls or wings to slice apart ropes.

It has a heavier focus on storytelling than I expected, which, honestly, is my biggest problem with it. Though it’s admittedly not talking most of the time, when it does start to chatter away, it doesn’t have the lightness of touch that would suit the dreamlike mood. A guide/quest-giver character is a right old prattler, while awoken, piscine demi-gods can’t wait to tell your their tale in what is always just a few too many lines.

I’m afraid that I simply didn’t engage with its ideas about an inverse universe and napping demi-gods, which are simultaneously too vague to achieve any emotional resonance and too over-explained to hold my attention. And too many front-loaded cutscenes, including sitting through the ol’ faux-computer boot sequence chestnut, made me feel like I was being kept at arm’s length from cosmic acrobatics from minute one, while not allowing me to raise the resolution above a smeary 1024×768 until I was ten minutes into proceedings only served to undermine its intended prettiness.

These are ancient oversights, and though I don’t hold InnerSpace up as one of their worst culprits, they added to a mounting sense that it didn’t enjoy all the common sense checks it could have done. Abzu – sorry! – managed to create the mythic tone that this is going for entirely wordlessly (as did Inside, for that matter). A little bit of show, don’t tell would have worked wonders here.

innerspace

But it’s the pairing of this failure to appreciate brevity with too many strict progress gates that made my couple of hours (I didn’t play the whole thing; this is not a ‘review’ but rather than an explanation of why I drifted away from it early) with InnerSpace less than the sum of their wannabe-cosmic parts. I’ve mentioned Superman 64 syndrome around these parts a few times, but to summarise, it’s when a game grants unfettered freedom of movement to its players, only to then seem to panic that it isn’t game-y enough, and so then demand that they have to fly through particular hoops.

This, notoriously, was quite literally the case in Superman 64, and InnerSpace falls into much the same trap. Yeah, you can fly freely within whatever pastel-hued cavern formation or sparkly lagoon you’re currently in, and unlike Superman 64 there isn’t any kind of angry timer or combo meter that punishes failure, but to progress to new areas, it’s hoop o’clock.

In fairness, the hoops take quite a few forms, including smashing through walls, using a slightly wonky drift system to rope-slice (and thus open up new doors) and button-mashing to escape from demi-gods’ bellies, and generally it’s fairly inventive about its open-the-door puzzles, but ultimately it’s still hoops. Plus there’s a whole collect the power-ups and magical floating orbs thing going on. Dopamine, my old enemy, can I never escape you?

In other words, InnerSpace spilled a whole lot of videogame all over a pretty, pleasantly noodly alt-flight sim. Maybe you need fixed challenges and plenty of lore to engage with a game, but in something that seemed to me to sell itself on a cosmic sense of freedom, it sadly turned me off before I saw it through. In other words, though I appreciate some of its flights of visual imagination, I just can’t find a good reason to play more InnerSpace instead of playing Abzu again.

16 Comments

  1. nitric22 says:

    Abzu, much like Journey on PS4, have each rewarded my three play through’s, each about six months apart, with a new experience. That is because, as you’ve indicated Alec, those games just shut up and get out of their own way. That leaves me free to bring any emotion, thought, personal baggage of the day, or whatever else to the table and use those games in a cathartic manner. A silent game affords a more tranquil time in that game’s world.

    I think the comparison is apt. And I’m grateful. RPS has become a hidden gem and recommendation barometer for me over the past few years, and I’m always glad to get the insights of an article such as this.

    • Sargonite says:

      Another one like this, for me at least, was Hob. Without any verbal storytelling, it was something I could just experience and explore and feel through in my own way. It’s a lovely way to play.

    • TheSplund says:

      Well said. Abzu is superb but this just seems to be trying far too hard

    • fray_bentos says:

      Absolutely! Your reasoning is also why I failed to engage with Okami, while so many people rave about it. Intrusive text, text, text, text…rabble…blah…

  2. poliovaccine says:

    Just nabbed this one, and while I’m too freshly in to have any insight to offer, I’m really glad to see it getting some press! So far it’s a pleasant little meditation experience, which is what I was hoping for.

  3. Daymare says:

    I want to like this a whole lot. Would it be hard to implement a “story”-lite” mode, you think?

    Sort of like … Diablo II or Dark Souls, where the story is there, but kinda not in the way of most of the gameplay (i.e. slaying monsters and exploring)?

    Or even Subnautica, or perhaps Abzu — which I own but haven’t played.
    … I should probably try Abzu in the meantime, then.

    • poliovaccine says:

      I mean, I may be misunderstanding which part/s you’re wanting to like out of this game, but as the article mentions, it is already less pure “gadabout-sim” than something like Abzu or Proteus, so if you’re after a “story-lite” mode, well, not really having a solid guess at what you mean by that, I’d at least offer that Innerspace does keep its momentum up compared to others of its general family, mostly via those “videogamey” elements. Whether that works for you or not is your call, but me, I’m not any sort of purist, and it’s just enough to zone out to while still feeling like you’re doing something other than just holding down W and swiveling the mouse (you’re really not, in the big picture, but it feels more active anyway).

      I am curious what you mean by story-lite?

      • Daymare says:

        The part where Alec writes this:

        “It has a heavier focus on storytelling than I expected, which, honestly, is my biggest problem with it. Though it’s admittedly not talking most of the time, when it does start to chatter away, it doesn’t have the lightness of touch that would suit the dreamlike mood. A guide/quest-giver character is a right old prattler, while awoken, piscine demi-gods can’t wait to tell your their tale in what is always just a few too many lines.”

        And I suppose I’m wanting to like the part where you’re just free-form exploring a weird but beautiful universe. Haven’t played it yet, so maybe I’m having the wrong expectations but it looks like that seems to be its main draw, no?

  4. Lurid says:

    Innerspace to me is a game about a spaceship blowing up icons and viruses inside your computer.

    • RadicalHorse says:

      I wonder how is it legal to use old game’s name and bury it in internet searches.
      I liked that game too. It was the only game I know where you could create friendships with AI in natural and organic way. You see AI ship farming currency, help him blast asteroids and he will start to like you. Once you help someone defend from pirates, he will got your back next time.
      It’s also noteworthy that makers of this game are disgustingly greedy, game is 25yo and they still sell it for $39.95

      • poliovaccine says:

        Never heard of that, and it sounds pretty cool – but to be totally fair, there are definitely at least a small handful of other games with that friendship mechanic, achieving it at varying levels of success but doing it just the same.

        I’m immediately intrigued by any game with AI like that, though. I always like having a slightly broader range of interactions than just “murder.” This is why I don’t think people give STALKER Clear Sky enough credit, btw – that is, because for all its faults, the faction thing actually, mostly *worked,* and it was really cool when it did.

      • dontnormally says:

        What is the name of the dev? Just as you two suggested it is now not possible to find it without that information.

  5. G_Man_007 says:

    Needs more Martin Short.

  6. kalzekdor says:

    Is Innerspace a good game?

    Well, I liked it. I mean, it was kind of cheesy even back in the day, but it was still fun and… wait, what’s this about flying?

    link to en.wikipedia.org

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