Status: Completed, including secret ending
Most Intriguing Idea: Controlling characters is creepy
Best Design Decision: The workers throwing the boy.
Worst Design Decision: A main character without any clear desires or internality.
Inside is, I think, a lesser work than Playdead’s first game Limbo. Both games feature a child protagonist with limited powers who has to traverse a hostile world rendered as a two-dimensional space, and both do a very good job of cultivating a particular atmosphere. Limbo creates a world of constant, unexpected threat. Inside, for the most part, makes its dangers more obvious, instead developing a sense of foreboding by confronting its child character with organizations and structures of control that can be grasped at their edges but have fundamentally inexplicable intentions and mechanisms. If Limbo reflects the world as seen by a very young child who understands almost nothing, Inside may reflect the world as seen by a child who is old enough to recognize social architecture but too young to comprehend its purposes.
Accordingly, I think Inside is generally at its weakest when it’s openly game-like and declarative. The worst offender here is the “20 person” puzzle, because it’s very expansive and elaborate while simultaneously being obvious and gamey. Surprise, surprise, 20 people are needed to open a gate and precisely 20 are available! Some of the later bits featuring the blob also suffer from this sense of game-ness and a failure to decide or communicate whether the surrounding humans want the blob to succeed or to fail. In contrast, the segment where the boy has to copy the workers’ actions is openly gamey, but the purpose behind the demonstration and the reason the ruse fails remain mysterious enough that the sequence succeeds.
Like Limbo, Inside fails to come to a really satisfactory conclusion, even accepting that both of the possible endings are downers. The main ending comes very abruptly and feels more like a game running out of ideas than a proper denouement. Perhaps if I had any idea at all what the child wanted I would feel differently, but Inside gives its main character even less motivation than the ambiguous desires of Limbo’s protagonist. The secret ending has two problems. The first is that in this, the year of our Levine two thousand and sixteen it is not even slightly interesting for a game to crawl up its own navel about the philosophical implications of being a game protagonist. The second is that the game made this same point, in a much more succinct and creepy way, moments after the scene shown above, so the secret ending feels superfluous.
Inside is very tightly made, but it’s too often obvious where it should be mysterious and vice versa. Its endings make it simultaneously weightless and depressing. In a technical sense it is a stronger work than Limbo; but as an expressive work I feel it’s inferior.
Verdict: Cautiously recommended