Six years ago, myself taking the form of an undeveloped adolescent mind, my nerve endings suddenly bifurcated while my brain witnessed a strange, albeit promising trailer, for an upcoming horror/adventure game that was LIMBO.
Knowing nothing of the title, even less the gameplay, I was immediately immersed in the bizarre greyscale aesthetic superimposed under my confused, over-stimulated eyelids. I was wondering if all this would develop into a one-time gimmick, a simple bait for lovers of everything gothic to numb their darkest desires without actually providing food for the soul.
Boy, was I wrong.
After finishing my first playthrough, all I could think of was – nothing. I wasn’t deeply moved, nor was I satisfied; I felt neither compassion nor sorrow; I had become one with the game – even truer – I had become THE GAME.
And then along came INSIDE
Where the two are similar in aesthetic, game-mechanics and sounds (including music), they completely differ in tone, theme and atmosphere. As if LIMBO leans more toward a poetic catharsis, in contrary to INSIDE – which is, well, let’s just say more bizarre and grotesque than I firstly anticipated.
(To save time, I will omit any definitions, historical analyses and comparative crossings with the convention of the bizarre in famous films and literature, even poetry. No one deserves to sift through that much amount of brain suffering.)
To continue, and from the get-go, INSIDE intuitively feels like LIMBO but with color, and better graphics for that matter.
Further down the road, again by intuition, one learns the key difference – INSIDE’s world is as much real as the player’s, as opposed to LIMBO, which took the form of one big, SPOILER ALERT – metaphor for dying, purgatory, rebirth and eternal suffering. So, INSIDE – real; LIMBO – a metaphor. (that isn’t to say that INSIDE doesn’t have its fair share of analogies).
Furthermore, INSIDE’s themes are nothing like LIMBO’s, although with the element of suffering being present in both, one can simply state the two games have an identical narrative goal – to reach a destination for which their protagonists (and players) know little to nothing about.
Where’s the story in all this fine-sounding mess?
Well, first of all, as chaotic and dystopian the world INSIDE’s kid inhabits may seem, its integration with the player, the protagonist, the game mechanics and the puzzles is done seamlessly. This means every detail counts and sits there for a reason (think Chekov’s gun). Every shadow, button or scene serves a purpose within the world it inhabits. For this reason alone, playing INSIDE feels like living INSIDE.
And INSIDE’s story is one of many meanings, although I gave up meaning long before I developed conscience, since everyone nowadays seems to define it semantically different. Instead, what I want to focus on is – structure.
It starts with a boy on the run through unfamiliar woods. Grown men hunt the boy, seizing its freedom whenever they get the chance to do so. They use hunting dogs, man-made traps and heavy machinery among other trickery. You’re constantly fleeing from an unknown, eerily discomforting feeling of wrongness that you just can’t for the love of god explain it to yourself properly.
There’s no in-game-tutorial to guide you, no signposts to provide you with valuable information and no language the strange would-be dwellers use to communicate and settle differences with you. There’s just an agile, yet fragile boy, a goal, and two buttons to press in order to achieve it.
The narrative flows seamlessly
Each action done in a previous scene, through plausible cause-and-effect translates into the next one (or further down the road). Not just introducing new mechanics to play with, the game also provides you – the player – with carefully planned structure that’s either working as it should, or falls apart after something goes terribly wrong. For a dystopian, chaotic, man-made corporative world, INSIDE’s world is structured perfectly.
As cause-and-effect take their turn, you slowly gather every piece of visual cue and scamper with it inside your brain (like solving a depressingly existential jigsaw puzzle). Then you try to make sense of it all by carefully placing each piece in its right position, again, and again, only to find out there’s infinitely more layers of jigsaw puzzles – each more complex than the previous – than you initially imagined.
At this point in time, you gallop through obstacles, but your brain cannot help but feel slightly confused.
Also sound. Sounds can be your ally, by timing certain minimalistic “beats” (or the lack thereof) to which you coordinate your actions; also, sounds can be your enemy, by literally breaking you to shreds if you do the wrong move; or, they can be both, the same pressure loop from the sonic boom that kills INSIDE’s kid serves as a timing phase to which you count your salvation (or your final doom).
Sounds also compliment the gruesome deaths (game failure states) by emphasizing a grotesque nature of dying (or dying – by getting caught). Silence also serves purpose: it reminds the player to sit back, relax and incubate an idea to later bloom fully and solve a certain puzzle.
INSIDE interweaves visuals, level design, game mechanics and sound into a perfectly blended concoction of a structure, which builds up an open-ended narrative that’s not as salient as the sums of its individual parts. All without uttering a single damn word.
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