Inside is strange. Were I to describe the actions and events, part of the magic would be lost; it is definitely something best experienced first-hand. But even 'spoiling' the game would fail to accurately capture the full extent of what Inside has to offer, and what playing it is like. These might seem like unusual, high-concept ideas for a simple 2D puzzle-platformer, but Inside is a particularly special case.
One of the first things I noticed while playing was how often I was just... walking. Inside allows you to run indefinitely, but going fast felt like it should be reserved only for specific circumstances in which speed felt essential. Even a boy on the run is unlikely to sprint forever, so I guided the boy along at a comfortable, sustainable pace. It just felt right. But leisurely movement has its own perks: many important details appear in the background, which means slow movement and careful contemplation are helpful, worthwhile tools. Plus, Inside is beautiful to exist within; even in minimalist, muted tones, the world of Inside is still visually captivating. The boy's bright red shirt is often the single beacon of colour in a world of black, white, and grey.
The visual design very much sets the tone, which is picked up and carried through the rest of the design. Even when taken at a slow pace, each step carries weight. Progression comes with its fair share of genuine tension, fear, and trepidation. Through one particular section—foreseeing the danger—I had to take breathers, steeling myself for the next challenge. Everything felt monumental. Without investment, this starts to unravel, but Inside tugged at my personal terrors and transfixed my attention.
But these negative emotions are not the only ones that Inside provokes. Putting the puzzle pieces together, be they from specific environmental puzzles or the larger narrative puzzle, brings satisfaction and delight. It's rewarding—not in the typical points and powerups sense, but in terms of self-satisfaction. Inside's puzzles are just hard enough to make you feel accomplished when you master them. It creates a rhythm of progression.
At a few occasions, certain puzzles proved too complex or challenging for me to master immediately and so this rhythm faltered somewhat. But, generally, this rhythm carries the player along. It continues to build intrigue and, unusually, confusion: new questions arise before any concrete answers can be gleaned, and so every step brings the player towards an uncertain conclusion.
And what a conclusion it is. In some ways, it reminds me of the final stages of Journey—though the similarities between them are far dwarfed by the differences. The levels—both emotional and physical—in each game map in a similar way. It's the design of these that provide a grand, escalating, climactic movement before leaving the player in the warm, gentle embrace of the denouement. The final, lingering scene is a powerful one.
To be more specific would to ruin the surprise, but do not expect things to immediately click at game's end. This review is written three days after completing the game; the events have been digested, aided by conversations with my partner and by reading online discussions, allowing me to arrive at a more thoughtful understanding. Even now, I'm certain I don't have all the answers—but I do still have something of value taken from the experience.
Inside unlikely to be a game that traditional audiences will connect with; however, Inside's abstract, surrealist narrative and its minimalist delivery are important design approaches that new audiences should be exposed to. Even if players only progress as far as 'I don't get it', playing Inside—and stepping outside of that comfort zone—will leave you changed, even if only a little, on the inside.
This review was originally published at Impulse Gamer.