The Greatest Games: INSIDE (2016)

Inside (2016)
Developed by Playdead

INSIDE is a masterpiece of surrealist horror seamlessly integrated with truly ingenious level design. Each area introduces an unforgettable concept, both stylistically and in its handling of platformer-based puzzles. Though the game can be completed in a single sitting, each second will make your skin crawl.

What makes this so effective is that INSIDE never stops to clarify its events. The game begins with a boy fleeing armed guards. This suggests a basic story of survival in a dystopic setting. There’s only one problem. This boy is not escaping. As the title suggests, you quickly realize he’s heading deeper inside this monstrous facility. With every door revealing a greater horror, you’re left begging for answers. None of these rooms quite connect to one another. And when the game finally delivers an answer, things only get worse from there.

INSIDE, like Limbo before it, has a very simple art style. The protagonist even lacks a face. One might wonder how this can cause such effective horror, but the simplicity allows the developers to get away with some truly grotesque violence. You do not want to die in this game. Not only because it means going back to the last checkpoint, but because the death scenes are legitimately distressing. Whether he’s being ripped apart by guard dogs or shredded by a propeller, the little details they put in are nauseating. This reinforces the central question; why would anyone put themselves through this danger?

This is the part where I suggest turning back if you want to avoid meaningful spoilers. Because this game is built around constant atmospheric shifts, discussing any level in detail beyond the first without spoiling any surprise borders on impossible, but I would also be doing this game a disservice by limiting myself to surface observations. Even then, words cannot capture the presentation of these moments; this is truly a game which needs to be experienced, blind if possible.

After being chased through the countryside, the boy arrives in a city where people shamble in file like a pack of zombies. The boy is forced to join this line, keeping pace in hopes the guards don’t notice something off. As they get further in, the people start doing certain actions which the player must follow. This methodical moment is already tense, and the game will likely earn a deserved kill when you inevitably freeze up after finally being discovered. There are no rules to this game beyond survival, and the key is recognizing when the primary threat changes.

The one room I’ll never recover from is the shockwave chamber. After spending most of the early parts of this game avoiding enemies, the boy finally comes across an empty room. Every few seconds, a shockwave pulses through the entire area. If you do not have cover, you will instantly be blown apart. This starts simple enough, requiring the player to dodge between obvious safe points. But later cover includes moving machinery, some of which moves much quicker than the player. The level becomes a horrifying timing puzzle, requiring you to find the exact moment for temporary cover. It’s terrifying and oppressive and I never felt a greater sense of relief than when I finished this nightmare.

This is followed by a flooded chamber, where the boy enters a small sub and must avoid long-haired girls who will quickly break through the glass and drown him. They can be scared off by light, which requires a fine balance between forward movement and paying them attention. Again, these levels work due to the lack of information. What, exactly, are these girls? It doesn’t matter – what does matter is that whoever is behind this facility has unleashed all of our worst nightmares.

And then there’s the finale, which is the one part I should really emphasize not reading about if you’re unfamiliar. At the same time, I was actually exposed to the finale without context and did not realize until I reached the ending – that’s how off the rails INSIDE can get.

During the final moments of this game, the boy swims inside a vat and releases a gigantic writhing mass of human bodies which quickly consumes him. And then you begin controlling that mass. The final level feels like playing as Spirited Away’s No-Face as he rampages through the bathhouse, with the gathered scientists fleeing in terror as the mass mows them down. More than ever, you have absolutely no idea why you’re doing this. The mass eventually breaks outside, tumbles down a hill – and then it’s over.

It takes a second for the pieces to click. This actually is a game about escaping, but not in a way anyone would have imagined. You were not helping this boy survive. Rather, in a game with constant elements of mind control, you were the pawn of a psychic eldritch abomination. Many cosmic horror stories feature characters being tricked into helping Ancient Ones. INSIDE succeeds in making you play that role, putting yourself and the poor boy through a horrifying ordeal in the name of assisting something which has no right to exist. Unlike other games which force the player into a moral dilemma, INSIDE does not reveal you’re doing something wrong until it’s too late.

INSIDE is as tightly-focused as video games come, telling a riveting narrative purely through environmental storytelling while packing unforgettable level design.

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