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How Inside's levels were designed

With no plan and constant iteration

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Inside [official site].

Playdead don’t design games in the same way that other studios do. They’re the result of a process where nothing is written down. There’s no script and no design document. No member of the team owns any aspect of what they make and what will go into the final game. Everything is up for change.

From that creative anarchy rose Inside, a game of the leanest pacing and most intricate staging, and entirely wordless. Story and play are entirely communicated through its meticulously constructed environments, which spin subtle mystery and challenge with spare details - a chainlink fence, a hanging rope - created through five years of constant iteration.

This is how they were made.

Jeremy Petreman is one of the two dedicated artists who worked on Inside’s environments. Before joining Playdead six years ago, he worked at IO Interactive, where he was an artist on the likes of Hitman and Freedom Fighters, a designer on Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, and was game director on Mini Ninjas. (If you’re interested, I recently wrote about how IO designed Hitman’s levels.)

Making games at IO was down to pretty standard practices, organised into incubation, pre-production and production phases, each accompanied by lots of documentation. “I had been fairly indoctrinated into the idea this was the best way to do things, and hadn’t given serious thought to breaking out of that system,” he tells me. “At least, not as radically as I was about to.”

Playdead was nothing like that. “All of the efficiency and organisation was dropped in favour of a purely creative, open and iterative process.” Petreman thinks that Playdead’s ways arose as a kind of rebellion against standard practices, but it’s all carefully headed by Playdead’s director, Arnt Jensen.

This an early version, from around 2013, of the forest stealth sequence towards the start of the game, where you encounter guards with flashlights who hunt your character down. It started with one guard with a flashlight, and a simple placeholder shape provided cover.

“Early in the production, we sketched out the basics of what the very skeletal, overarching story of the game would be,” says Petreman. It came from the team talking, rather than writing it down, focusing on the themes that would underpin it, while a concept artist produced style and mood paintings that began to explore the world that these general events would fit into.

“We knew where it would begin, who you were, who you were running from, the rough details of what had happened in this world. We had laid out the key locations that your journey would take you through in broad strokes, the general points of how the game would progress. And very early on, almost right from the beginning, we knew how most of the ending would play out.”

The placeholder later became a tree, the guard with the flashlight adopted a different routine and a dog was added.

At this point, basic ideas for set pieces were mocked up with basic visual compositions and lighting set out to conjure mood, sometimes quite polished and other times very simply. “Without much discussion, one of the other artists might then take that and go with it, evolving it, sometimes even radically changing the layout. Then I might take it again and iterate on those ideas, and pass it off again to someone else down the road.”

The core of the narrative idea the environment was telling would remain, but the way the environments related it would evolve, adapt and twist, becoming ever more refined. “This went on literally for years,” says Petreman. “Almost all areas in the game were built, tweaked, iterated on, re-built, merged with other areas, polished, torn to pieces, and polished again so many times that I lost count.”

For Petreman, it meant shedding ego, since no one had sole responsibility for any area, and no piece of artwork was sacred. Day by day, the artists - Petreman worked alongside Marek Bogdan, who also came from IO - would spot around the environments as inspiration struck them, moving on when the flow of ideas ebbed.

”With each iteration, we were observing how testers reacted to the key elements of the puzzle,” says Bogdan. “Was the standing tree a more or less obvious hiding place? Did the bad guy’s patrol routine encourage the players to hide, or they try to bolt past him?”

“Occasionally, some little corner that I’d worked on for weeks and secretly fallen in love with would just get overridden by a different idea,” Petreman says. “It was something that was a bit painful at times, but we definitely learned to accept it. Over time, I think that we all came to this point where we realised that the process was working, and that by letting go of those desires to hold on to any one favourite spot, the environments as a whole were improving. The good ideas just sort of rose to the top, and the mediocre ones ended up naturally falling away.”

There was no art director, so Inside’s dark, soft-shadowed look, populated by curved, elaborate-looking objects and towering buildings, simply evolved over time, emerging from the initial conversations and concepts, including those of artist Morten Christian Bramsen, who also helped to design environments, director Arnt Jensen, and Bogdan and Petreman’s personal styles. “Eventually, the look of the world was just something that we came to understand without needing to discuss it,” says Petreman. “Our game director [Jensen] certainly steered that process, but often he even did this by saying very little at all. We could often just observe his reaction to things, and it would generally confirm what really we already knew ourselves.”

Eventually, the cover object changed from being a tree into one of the mysterious pods that you encounter throughout the game.

It’s difficult to talk about Inside’s environments without also talking about the dense atmosphere raised by Martin Stig Andersen’s audio design, or the game design itself. Petreman calls the relationship between the priorities of gameplay, story and visual art a “tug of war” where sometimes the gameplay would define the layout of an area, but usually it was more iterative, areas and ideas contracting and expanding, a back and forth that followed good ideas rather than any particular field.

“Sequences were often shuffled around, broken apart and recombined to suit the evolution of the story and to make sure that mechanics and visual cues were shown to the player in the correct order, setting up subsequent encounters,” says Bogdan.

“For myself, I was most interested in giving the world a sense of place and history; to use the environments to illustrate the various stages by which the world had eroded into its current state,” says Petreman. He - and the rest of the team - wanted to weave into the environments details that would give players a chance to figure out the history behind these places themselves.

In the final version, the dog was dropped in favour of a second guard. They both stand still until they hear the boy land behind the fallen pod. “The proximity of the guards to the playground, the flash of the white masks as they look in the boy’s direction, the activation of the flashlight, the legibility of the pod as cover… Every small detail of gameplay setup, animation, sound and environmental design played a part in getting the player to read the sequence correctly,” says Bogdan.

The forest at the beginning of the game was the result of five years of organic iteration, each part starting with one initial concept which was little by little altered and tweaked over that time. “In the forest, there were perhaps a handful of moments in that entire sequence which might resemble things from early in the project, but likely five times as many that we discarded,” says Petreman.

Of the surviving key ideas in that section, there’s the initial shot, the guard searching with the flashlight, the river crossing, hiding from the truck, and then the chase in the end. But their look and function changed greatly; the team knew what they wanted to get out of these moments but it took years to reach them, developing the coherent visual style of the forest and figuring out to tie the area with what came later in the game. “And then, finally,” says Petreman, “How to wordlessly convey the mood and feeling that we were going for.”

The reveal

The moment the antagonists’ activities are revealed is purely about storytelling. It’s a key point, a realisation of what the boy is up against. It took about a dozen iterations to get to a balance between explicitness and ambiguity.

Early solutions were pretty explicit.

Others were vague.

“Often, the tweaks were subtle,” says Bogdan. “But we also did not hesitate to raze an area completely and start from scratch.”

The lake

In the lake sequence, the boy initially was meant to pull a corpse from a sunken car and use it as a decoy to get the guards to leave the area.

In some versions, the corpse was hidden in a submerged pod.

”Eventually, we settled on the bad guys having a searchlight pointed at the water surface, which the boy had to swim under,” says Bogdan. “This was the simpler solution needed at this stage of the game, and did not seem contrived like the conveniently-placed corpse.”

The chase

The first attempts at the forest chase did not involve any dogs and took place in an urban setting. It was quite an elaborate sequence, requiring the boy to push obstacles out of the way or to use them to thwart his pursuers.

The chase ended up in the forest and included all sorts of ideas that did not make the cut - at one point, one of the guards ran at the boy from the opposite direction, blocking his path and requiring the boy to jump on him, knocking him over.

And apart from gameplay, the look of the section constantly changed. The dogs had their tails trimmed to look less like wolves and closer to a Dobermann. The outfits of the guards in the forest were made more guard-like. “Because, as Morten [visual developer, Morten Christian Bramsen] put it, they originally looked like architects, dressed in fitted black sweaters and slacks,” says Bogdan.

“For the most part, these were objectively better choices, but we often joked that there were probably also a few things that got nixed simply because we’d grown tired of them.”

“If you had asked me at the beginning if this sort of unstructured, creative process was going to work, I think that I would have said it was a recipe for disaster,” says Petreman. “Could this work for every studio? Probably not. A large part of how it worked for us was due to the fact that we were a very close, like-minded team.”

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