Short, spoiler free summary: Inside is a good game. Absolutely play it if you like games with atmosphere, mood, or mystery. You may still enjoy it even if you don't like those things.
The rest of this review will have SPOILERS. Do not read past this line if you haven't played the game!
Inside is... a really fascinating game. It's only about 3 hours long, so it is very compact. It does what it needs to do - it tells a brief story - and then it's over, and that's it. Honestly, I'm a big fan of this style of game. I'm a bit tired of the 60 hour grind fest where the meat of the game is padded out by long, repetitive combat sequences. Better is when the sequences that do the padding are fairly unique. I demand new experiences!
...which of course leads to one of the main problems and ironies of Inside. Despite the fact that it's only 3 hours long, a lot of the core gameplay *still* feels repeated! I mean, how many times are you freaking dragging boxes from one area to another in order to jump up? It's <insert current year>, and the best we've got in atmospheric gameplay is pushing boxes?
I think, of all the things that astounded me about Inside, this was the biggest one. Your team spends how many years and how many dollars on beautiful graphics (and they are beautiful - I'll get to that in a moment) but yet somehow the MAIN GAMEPLAY COMPONENT you can think of to flesh out your game is to ... push boxes around.
So you can jump higher.
I mean, yes, that's not ALL of the gameplay concepts that Inside has, but of the ones that it does use, almost none of them are done in a new or unique way. You've got boxes to push, ropes to swing on, dogs to avoid, and lights to avoid. Of these, the only aspects that were really intriguing to me were the lights that I had to avoid. I can totally see the criticisms that these received - critics have argued that they're boring and slow sections - but in a game as beautiful and as atmospheric as Inside, I am actually okay with a few slower sequences, just so I can take in all that beautiful atmosphere. And they added a great amount of eerie tension to the game.
Unfortunately, this tension is something that Inside doesn't really know what to do with! It has a number of absolutely wonderful and eerie set pieces. I remember when I turned on the game for the first time and a guy came looking for me with a flashlight, I thought to myself, "oh man, I am going to love this." It was such a wonderful and eerie and scary thing - it was almost like it was taken from a horror game! But the pacing of these sequences was completely thrown off; they're spread out too far, amongst too many other sections that are neither creepy nor eerie. (In fact, some sequences are straight up goofy! I'll get to that in a bit.)
While I'm focusing on mechanics, there's a great irony that the game introduces a few concepts which threaten to be interesting, but which are never expanded on. Like, the really cool sequences where you put on the mind control helmet and start controlling other people. Now this - this is a fascinating idea! It's necessarily restricted by the game as is, because you need to control all the drones en masse, all at the same time. That means that the number of truly interesting puzzles you can solve is low. And then - and THEN - you have a slave put on a mind control helmet of his own! Your brain truly boggles at all the possibilities that THIS opens up for puzzle solving. The music syncs up with this moment (which is one of my favorite things to happen, as a musician) as if to say, aha, now you understand. And you DO! My god, recursive mind control helmets forever, each slave resolving a piece of the puzzle, this is truly a brilliant gameplay mechanic and THIS is why the game won all those awards---
Yeah, the game never explores that mechanic again. Back to block pushing! Because that's why you're here, right?
This is what bothers me about Inside! If you actually pay attention to the stuff you're doing throughout the game, so much of it is tedious and dull. It's punctuated with moments that are truly beautiful, though - and maybe there's something to that, some profound meaning to the fact that the game, just like life, is a sequence of dull things occasionally punctuated by moments of-
Yeah, I'm messing with you. I don't buy any of that "this game is boring on purpose" that people sometimes heap on games when they don't understand why they get critical acclaim. It's the same way that sometimes people say "yeah, the book is hard to read, but that's ON PURPOSE BRO"- I'm sorry, no, I don't buy that in the slightest. If a book is hard to read, it has failed as a book along that axis. If a game is boring to play, it has failed as a game along that axis. (Of course, it could still have great music, great graphics, great story, and so forth. Still.) Do you ever hear anyone say "yeah, the album was terrible, but it was terrible ON PURPOSE"? No, of course not. It goes right into the trash heap with Metal Machine Music all of the other albums made by artists who failed to make good art. "But MMM was art, bro!" Yeah, okay, you go listen to it for an hour then.
But although this game has a lot of boring moments, it has some moments that are just absolutely amazing. So, without further ado,
The best moment in all of Inside comes about halfway through the game. You step out onto a dock, and watch as a scientist gets out of - oh, snap, could it be? - a bathysphere and enters his house, talking with another scientist. They appear to be immersed in conversation, and you wait cautiously, because the game has taught you that other humans are to be avoided, and will kill you immediately. (To say nothing of dogs.) But as nothing further happens, you realize that the bathysphere has been left open, and you understand what you are supposed to do. You hop into the bathysphere...
Some people say that the moment when you step out of the vault in Fallout 3 is the greatest single moment in gaming history. These people have never played Inside. The difference between Fallout and Inside is that in Fallout, you know from the start that you're going to escape the vault. It is mindbogglingly obvious. So when you eventually do it, it's an awesome and beautiful moment, but it's not a surprise. However, in Inside, you have no clue until you see the bathysphere that you are going to descend miles down into the ocean. But the really great thing is how well the developers set up this moment. It's not like you've never seen water before - you've gone in it several times, sometimes to throw off dogs from your trail, other times just traveling - but it's always been a bit of a hazard, since if you stay under for too long, you drown, of course. And you can't go too deep, either, because... you drown. (This should be obvious.)
The reason the bathysphere is amazing is that it converts what was previously a hazard into something that you have conquered! And it does so in a way that is completely natural, yet completely surprising to the player. You can't anticipate it whatsoever. (Unless you read this review without playing the game, in which case, shame on you for spoiling the best part of Inside for yourself! You should learn not to do that.)
The descent in the bathysphere has all the beauty and awe-inspiring-ness of the exit from the vault in Fallout, but with the additional joy of something which is completely unexpected. The music is just the right mix of eerie and beautiful, and the graphics are absolutely top notch, as they usually are in Inside. (These are two subjects I will touch on later.) The entire scene taps into this archetypal sense of deep mystery in a way that very few things do. It's the same feeling that I get from a lot of Harry Potter, and a small part of why I feel like those books were so successful - like, for instance, when Harry opens and enters the Chamber of Secrets.
If I were to critique it at all, and I almost don't want to, the only thing I would say is that the experience could last even longer. It's the one moment in the game where I wished I could just hold down the key and watch the visuals for longer than I already was.
The best puzzle sequence comes about three quarters of the way through the game, and it is the best for a reason that has nothing at all to do with puzzles and everything to do with atmosphere. You hear this loud repetitive noise in the distance, and eventually enter a room marked with large "do not enter" signs. Inside it, you find this area where a large machine (never shown) is creating massive shockwaves every 5 seconds. You need to be hiding behind something when the shockwave hits, or you will be disintegrated.
The actual puzzling is simple and straightforward, as all puzzles are in Inside. You hide behind metal panes, and sometimes move them around. The reason this room is so effective is everything else. Despite just being in the air, the shockwaves feel real and visceral in a way that very few things do in games. This is due both to liberal use of screen shake and excellent sound effects. And despite having the same consequences of death as any other death in the game, this sequence feels much more real. The scope of the shockwave machine as a threat is so much more vast than that of being chased by Dog Pack #7.
About halfway through the shockwave room, when you solve one of the puzzles, the sound of the shockwaves switches up and becomes much more techy and glitchy. It's one of the coolest effects I've heard.
I have to admit, this sequence was spoiled by the trailer - there's a brief clip from this section of the game that the authors of the game probably thought wouldn't give it away, but unfortunately I understood what was going on immediately. Nevertheless, this section was still awesome.
As you gradually enter the facility, you notice this long line of slaves walking in lock step. Eventually, through plot contrivances, you become part of this line! Now you have to do exactly what the other slaves are doing, or else you'll get executed. This involves jumping in certain sections, walking in others, and turning around in others - all with proper timing. This sequence is wonderful because it unifies a lot of themes of Inside. It's incredibly eerie to see all these people moving in sync, but it's also kind of hilarious to see all these people jumping and walking around so clumsily! Further, it is quite tense because a single wrong move will instantly lead to your death. And finally, it's a wonderfully unique repurposing of the games central motion mechanics. This is definitely a standout moment in the game.
Knowing that something happens in the end of Inside is almost unavoidable - I certainly wasn't able to avoid it before my play through, because darn near everyone who reviews it mentions it. But even knowing it, I was still very pleased when I played through and something did in fact happen right about 20 minutes before the end.
The reason the ending is so successful is because for 95% of Inside you play as an incredibly weak kid. He can't fight and he can barely hop up onto boxes. His weakness is really driven home by the fact that tasks that other video game protagonists would immediately do take you a long time. I'm reminded of the sequence where you have to pull boards off of a door so you can go through all the while dogs are chasing you. You are only fast enough to pull one board off the door at a time before the dogs get to you and you have to hop over a fence to lure them away. With scenes like this, as you play through Inside, you build the intuition that everything you do is slow and weak.
And that's why it's so amazing that in that last 5% the game flips everything on its head and now you are this unstoppable Cronenberg beast. Everything that was hard before is trivial now. You smash through doors and walls. People who tried to kill you are now running from you. And all of this is enhanced by the way that you look - half horrific, half hilarious. (It recalls earlier in the game, how when you enslaved people, they acted dopey and ridiculous - grunting dumbly as they tossed you, stumbling over the ground half the time that they walked. The ending isn't the first time that Inside treats horrific things with a dose of absurdism.)
It's a true delight to have every aspect of the game flipped...
Wait a sec...
They wouldn't... right?
Yep. They did. Because after about 10 minutes of this truly delightful destructive sequence, you are back to solving block puzzles again. Seriously, at this moment, I stared at my computer in astonishment. You guys are really going to ruin the beautiful pacing of the ending sequence by making me backtrack across a couple of rooms to go pick up a block? AS A CRONENBERG MONSTER? (Not to even mention the weird ludo-narrative distance thing where there were blocks just an arms length away from where I needed one, but in the Z-axis, so I couldn't reach them.)
But that isn't even the biggest problem that I had. After the Cronenberg-ification of the narrator, you escape, smash some stuff, eventually get captured, then you break out (again?), and roll down a mountain to the sea, where you rest. (I actually thought that you had died! I mean, you are lying there, motionless. But in other reviews of the game, no one else had this conception, so I assume I was in the wrong here.)
That's the end of the game.
The entire pacing of this sequence was so bizarre to me that I spent about a minute trying to move my character and wondering what on earth had just happened before the credits started showing. Then I just stared at my monitor in confusion, trying to collect my thoughts. No questions are answered, no plot threads resolved. All that mind slavey stuff? Yeah, that's never explained. It just exists. For some reason. Ignorant of any plot resolution, you (?) just lie there.
This does not actually feel like an ending! If you had simply become a Croenenberg-thing, and smashed up some scientific stuff for 10-20 minutes, and then rolled out to the sea, that would have been perfect! Instead, after the big dramatic reveal, the pacing slows down dramatically as you are hampered for weird reasons. And then BOOM you win!
Alright, let's move on.
I'd be remiss to talk about Inside without mentioning the game's incredible graphics. Clearly a lot of effort and care was put into making these graphics, and it really shows. The big details are there - I love the specular highlights from the sun, which always look gorgeous - and a lot of small details are also there. They do an excellent job creating the dark, moody feel of the game, and they do so with style. In the same way that Wind Waker's graphics still hold up 10 years later, I think that Inside's graphics will, too. (Alright, they aren't as good as WW, but they are still really darn good.)
And of course, something I care about a lot: the music. Inside doesn't really have any songs to speak of; the musical direction consists more of sound collages. Eerie, sweeping pads consist of a majority of the sound in this game, along with sound effects. The music direction of the game, like the artistic direction, is top notch; only games like Portal 2 do better. The music syncs to the game as you play it and feels like a part of the world rather than background music that plays without regard to what is happening. This is almost as good as we can do. I commend Inside on this.
In sum, if there's one word that would encapsulate Inside, it would be: mood. This game is a moody masterpiece. There were points where I would just stop to observe in the atmosphere of the game, taking in the beautiful music and art. It's unfortunate, then, that the actual game part of Inside would end up being a little lacking. Games are still struggling to find their foothold in the world of art, and if you want to understand why, you don't have to look further than Inside, a game which nails the execution of every artistic aspect of a game - except the game itself. Still, a lot of mood can help where a little game is lacking, and I think that's exactly what happened here. Inside is a good game.
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