Originally published on Trevor Trove on July 19, 2016
TL; DR(eview) – An eery world helps this fairly straight-forward puzzle-platformer stand out above the crowd but left me unsatisfied overall, possibly by design.
A caveat up front: I have never played through Limbo. I didn’t own an Xbox 360 and when it eventually came to PlayStation, I picked it up but I never actually played more than a few minutes of it (got to the creepy spider and said “Nope. Not in the mood for this,” and have not gone back). By all accounts I’ve read, it you like Limbo, this game is right up your alley.
Inside, the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Limbo by Playdead, doesn’t tell you a thing. It drops you in a forest as an unnamed boy with nothing exceptional save his red t-shirt, which pops against the otherwise drab – albeit beautifully shaded – world around him. It’s up to you to discover the gameplay from there. Of course it is pretty simple and straighforward. You can move. You can jump. And eventually you realize you can interact with certain objects in the world around you.
The entirety of the roughly 4-hour campaign is built around trial and error in this manner. As you leave the forest, you start encountering things that will kill you. And you will die. A lot. In often disturbingly animated detail. Fortunately, the game skews much more in the direction of a Hotline Miami compared to a Bloodborne when you die and you won’t be stuck in a prolonged loading screen and you often won’t lose much progress as the checkpoint system is well-designed around the game’s many potentially fatal scenarios.
The puzzles never felt too difficult or even unfair. If I didn’t solve it outright in the first attempt, I was almost always able to discern what I was supposed to do by the second or third. The only problem eventually came from the timing of the solution. Often, you will be faced with very harrowing moments where it’s a race between whatever is trying to kill you and your outmatched, red-shirted boy and there is very little room for error. Again, it always feels fair, but there were definitely a lot of “holding my breath” moments as I hoped I would successfully outrun what was about to violently murder me.
As alluded to in the title, this is a spoiler-free review, though admittedly, apart from a couple of beats in the game, I frequently wondered while playing what “spoilers” all of the tweets and reviews were trying to protect me from. Given the simplicity of the mechanics and puzzles described above, the design of the world certainly steals the show but, for me at least, the “story” fell flat. It posed a lot of questions without offering up any answers. The central motivation: “why is the boy doing any of this?” is never addressed since the only “story-telling” going on is environmental.
The whole experience very much reminded me of the abundance of experimental theatre and avant garde plays I studied, attended, or participated in during college. Nearly everything means something and, oftentimes painstakingly so, with hours upon hours going into seemingly the smallest decision. But the audience never gets that historical perspective on the project. The audience, in this case, the player, is left having to analyze the world presented to them with little more to go on than, “these are the guys who made Limbo.” One of my favorite mentors who despised the pretention of a lot of this kind of work preached “take care of your audience.” And I walked away from the game thinking they didn’t really take care of their audience. They certainly didn’t abuse me, either, but they left me with questions and no answers.
Pardon the pun, but that left me feeling empty “inside.”
Now it is entirely possible that this is exactly what Playdead was going for, but it simply did not resonate with me. It’s a beautiful game and well worth the time I spent playing it, but I was also certainly left wanting more. Whether that can be attributed to the level of praise I was seeing about the game before playing it or the creators’ intent is impossible for me to tell.
I’m glad I experienced it. I might go back and try Limbo again now. But I also feel like I wouldn’t have felt the void of not playing this game had I skipped it. Others have described how this game sat with them after beating it. I’m already on to the next thing that I haven’t even started yet.
Inside is available now on Xbox One and PC. For more information, visit the game’s website.