As a child, I had an innate fear of dogs. I’d never been bitten, never once crossed by the nation’s most loveable household companion; and yet the nightmare-tinged idea of bared teeth deciding to sample the taste of my jugular in a sudden and unforeseeable flood of irrational, unprovoked violence, billowed in my brain the entire time I was forced to be around one. Any dog posed a threat, and even the smallest seemed likely to make a gruesome and unstoppable attempt on my life at any given moment. Since then, of course I’ve grown to love dogs more than I love most people, but after finally delving into Inside recently, I might be about to go thundering back to one such childhood fear. And maybe a few more too.
Let’s just get this said, if we may. Inside is incredible in ways I’m going to be unable to describe. If you can, don’t even bother reading this and just go and play the first half hour at least – my money’s on you falling in love.
But it won’t be love like you might expect. It’ll be different, a unique attachment – crueller; a love of curiosity, of detail, of a spectrum of gloomy shades and charades that make you unable to stop staring.
You stumble into a clearing and find your feet, as trees, thin and spindly, swarm around you, straining off up into the sky with unwavering effort. It’s dark, grey, cold; your feet clap against the ground as you break instinctively into a run. There’s an onset of inferred panic right from your first audible heartbeat. The leaves and the branches fallen and scattered around snag at you, upsetting your canter but never halting it, as you trip and falter with a dread-encumbered weight. You’re scared. Adrenalin. Keep running. You hit a muddy slope and come to rest at a break in the trees. Crouch behind a fallen log rotting in the blanket darkness, and the hum of an engine lingers in the background, louder as you approach. Headlights send cones of gradient yellow violently onto the night, turning blacks to greys and hurling stretching, grasping shadows everywhere, juddering in wait. Authority. A man. Tall. A uniform, a hat. Faceless, a shadow.
He signals to the van to move off with a clatter at its body using the palm of his hand and a wave. He’s done this a thousand times. Your heart is louder, urging hasty decisions beneath the searching, looming eye of the silhouette. The man. The growling machine disappears into the dark with a sense of enormous distance, unreachable dominion, and you crawl on with increased urgency. It’s a hair’s breadth, panic stricken run past the hapless gaze of men with torches, before your path is blocked by a wall. Your tiny stature presses up against what appears to be a discarded fridge; abandoned in the woods, an absurd figure against the trees, weathered away by nature’s immutable tide. With great effort you finally topple it; an almighty thud, and you shush it in terror, hastily heaving it into position by the wall, allowing you to scale it at last, struggling over and disappearing off into yet deeper waters.
It’s simple stuff; there’s a simplicity in fact to the whole game, though it’s rarely apparent due to genius, gratifying level design and encapsulating art. Everything is inferred and circumstance and situations make not just for progression-based puzzles, but for wonderful potential metaphorical set pieces.
There is a sense of danger woven so intricately into Inside, you may fail to realise it’s creeping up on you. That imminent sense of approaching authority, your childlike helplessness when faced with evading the adults, with cars, and torches and strength and speed; there needs be no explanation as to why you’re trying to escape the clutches of your antagonists – instinct does the work. The sound of distant car doors slamming and engines chugging into the night inspires a peculiarly well-placed sense of childhood fear, at least in me, that I wasn’t even aware of prior to playing. Shrouded often in the darkness and shadow, rarely getting too close, this distance from your pursuers somehow speaks volumes, imbuing further still that infantile sense of having done something wrong and being hunted, chased down by authoritative figures, and later lost in a murky, non-sensical world of constant danger.
The animations are a sight to behold; as your character falls, and slides and scrambles; his frail stature somehow withstanding ploughing relentlessly on. Although when you do die, those death sequences, like the game’s older brother Limbo, are absolutely brutal. Your character’s gaze lingers at certain environment cues, and from pulling debris out of a blocked entrance, to pressing your nose against the glass of a window, your character feels such a part of the world. Even the scenery and parts of the environment that you can impact have a unique physical flow to their movement; though of course this is most prevalent in the characters. As recognisable as a Disney film, the walks and mannerisms of the the player character and NPCs become a real part of the fabric of the setting.
Inside’s pacing is something of note too. No puzzle is ever too much of a logistical nightmare not to be overcome before long, at least with a bit of trial and error. This in fact helps to accent the experience of the game as a whole; making it more than the sum of its puzzles, a dash and a delineation (to some degree) of its message. Being largely physics-based; it often takes a little bit of tinkering to figure out what’s being asked of you, but once you get it, and you’ll get it often, the pay-off is pure gaming satisfaction.
As your progress motors away, the winding, flowing path through Inside introduces concepts that border, before eventually fully submerging you in, the surreal. These concepts are often integral to the completion of puzzles, but by the time you’re fully ‘submerged’, you never think to question it; it has unravelled before your eyes teaching you the paradigms through displays of increasing illogicality. A success when you reflect on things that happen later in the game.
Visually too, Inside is a real achievement. I’m a sucker for environment art, and through not more than a handful of bleak, blackened shades, Inside creates environments that somehow feel consistently interesting and intriguing and full of substance. Despair, foreboding, emptiness, abandonment, fear; these sentiments are stitched into the seams of the places you visit, and the things you see. It manages to be distinctive in a way that symbolises this bland, bureaucratic, drone-like protocol, while never feeling recycled or reused, or purposeless in itself. There are moments that will make you stop and stare and feel these places.
So then, to the dogs. Not only does Inside do inferences and metaphors and themes, it also does out and out fear. And not cheap, jump-out-at-you modern day horror tricks – but genuine, situational fear. Dogs deal out arguably some of the most brutal deaths in the game, and it waits for you to drink it all in as well before allowing you to reload. There’s one moment involving a chain fence, three dogs and an escape blocked by planks of wood. With tremendous effort you have to pull each plank of wood from its fastening; with dogs tearing their way toward you constantly. When will you stop? When will you run for safety? How long will you leave it, as you strain and heave to pull each plank away before you’re met by rabid, blood-thirsty, snapping jaws. This section is utterly stand-out for me, a genius of design, imparting waves and bouts of panic and relief and fear and a fleeting sense of safety, like no game I can recall of late. Also angry dogs.
The world increasingly seems to be a parody of itself, an exercise in absurdity, a celebration of Camus’ theories, perhaps. Inside seems to touch on a shed-tonne of potential narrative and metaphorical cruxes from one moment to the next, but as the game winds on, there’s an increasing sense of the philosophical statements being made between the lines, as the narrative veers off wildly into mesmerising, unknown territory. Of bureaucracy and fear, of the absurd nature of the modern world, its fickle functions; a collective want, opulence, a boundless need to consume beyond our means, beyond nature; the deserted and disconnected journey of the mind, jumping through the hoops. Few games have left me feeling so reflective on the thoughts and ideas that went into each stage of its development, fewer have caused such theorising on the multiple possible meanings behind each section, and I know this won’t come as a surprise since I’ve sang the song of its people for the last few hundred words, but Inside is the best game I have played this year. More on Respawn soon.