If you haven’t played Inside, you shouldn’t read this. You should play Inside.
“What about the civic opera?
Those were the longest three hours of my life.” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
Superhero movies have trained their audience to simultaneously crave miniscule promotional detail while decrying reviews with the most basic plot summaries as heretical attempts at sabotaging an idealised unending childhood.
Their primary function is to remind their audience of something, often something they’d been told to read up on first so they could be reminded of it later. The way superhero fans have been taught to wield the conceptual framework of “spoiler” might be the most successful example of weaponising fan enthusiasm against fan discernment.
“But they didn't mean shit to you.
I didn't get to you.” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
Though the Venn diagram of fans of superhero movies and games is almost a circle, spoiling games can be different. While the theming (“intellectual property”) of games is largely sold off familiarity, aggressively so, the impact of any mechanical revelations a game holds can be as diminished by explanation as a joke. You are not being reminded, you are being surprised.
So stop reading and play Inside if you haven’t played Inside.
Like all opposites both sides of this distinction often contain each other. When you see Mario, you are happy. It’s Pavlov’s bell but instead of ringing, drool and steak, every time you see a caricature of an Italian plumber, your heart warms at the thought of how good his jump feels.
You like the plumber because of the incredibly-articulated jumping, you open yourself up to more incredible jumping and the ever-expanding application of same when you see the plumber (as Drake remarked “Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman: fuck was you expecting? Wow!”).
“Jesus knows that I don't wanna lie no more!
I'm like a bull in a china store
That can't make up its mind and it's fine except
I keep getting mixed up in these
intertwined metaphors!” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
The people who made Inside also made the massively-popular, much-discussed Limbo. Inside feels like a definite iterative leap forward from Limbo, a leap seemingly driven by weaponising the very second-guessing that tends to stem from the massive success of something so slight. They have filled Inside with observations about games, their mechanics and how they can be balanced to create a feeling of realising along with the game, just as the character does.
Theming and mechanics have a particularly taut grip around each other’s throats throughout Inside. It articulates its questions and ideas through an intricate structure of rhyming sequences, deliberately tangling what you have learned with what you are doing to learn something else to apply to what you will do in the future. It comments on itself consistently throughout without grinding your experience to a halt to do so.
For a game insisting you exist at a breakneck pace, Inside has less to do with prominent indie 2d platformers like Spelunky and Super Meat Boy than it does with Gone Home or Beginners Guide. It’s a “walking simulator” for walking right. Inside takes the increasingly-popular, first-person concept of a carefully-choreographed experience where limited agency propels you through a series of set pieces and transplants it onto a 2D landscape. Inside isn’t something you can be good at, it’s something you experience.
This distinction is important. Spelunky is a perfectly-tuned set of interlocking gears inflicted on every turn of a kaleidoscope while Inside is a diorama of the factory where those gears are made. Inside helpfully underlines this by taking place in a literal, diorama-esque factory peopled by faceless, disposable avatars who can be controlled remotely.
Early on in Inside, birds follow you but not if you get too close. You have to trick them into marching into machinery so their weight can push over something to create a new route. One of them dies. Later you marshall full size human mind slaves onto a platform so their weight can open a door to create a new route. One of these mind slaves is already dead.
Inside is built on rhyming concepts like this: contrasts that echo and emphasise each other, indicating just how inextricably linked they are.
One may expect obvious parallels to be drawn in a video game that involves your avatar taking control of various avatars. Sure enough, the secret ending all but confirms that all along, a greater power was being exerted.
Inside does strive to articulate this standard “maybe the most dangerous animal...was man”-style revelation in a far more muscular manner than many other video games. This is also where its observations begin, rather than come to a screeching halt .
At a key point early-on, Inside forces you to act exactly like one of the many mind slaves you control throughout the game. Not hugely subtle but it’s a section that rhymes nicely with what happens later on when you have to follow a strict path of jumping and turning least you be annihilated by an unseen force. A game telling you it is a game telling you about games over and over.
Sound is interpreted when it reaches the skull. Inside’s soundtrack is, like around 80% of indie games that don’t feature chiptune, inspired by 80s John Carpenter soundtracks. An extra layer of reflexivity is added however by actually processing these synthesiser sounds through a real human skull to give them a hollow, sombre quality. Soundtracks tend to feed off each other and lean extra-hard on influence and reinterpretation. True to form: Inside presents you with interpretation of interpretation, already pre-interpreted by the physical medium you are about to reinterpret it with.
Until its famous conclusion, it feels like the only character in Inside you are on fairly equal footing with are the dogs. Their drive to harm you rhymes with how your primary mode of defense is your total lack of self-preservation. They won’t jump where you will, that that thrill is just for you.
Speaking of potential equals: the game’s first empowerment moment, boarding a submarine to make a vertiginous dive, is swiftly undercut when you are confronted with a powerful water wraith. It can’t stand light, you can’t stand the pressure it exerts on your submarine. You are immediately at the mercy of each other’s weaknesses.
Later in the game, you make another deep dive. This time it is prompted by powerlessness and sparked by the very creature who attempted to sabotage you in the first place. A shift in perspective: it seems any earlier murders at the hands of this creature was, as murders often are, the result of poorly articulated and interpreted intentions.
The first encounter had you resist while traversing obstacles, the second involves overcoming serious obstacles by giving in. Though this is an interesting comment on how getting good at a game might mean giving in rather than mastery, it is still one of the few moments in the game that feels a little off pace.
“So I'll quit while I'm ahead
Before things get violent
I'd like to thank the environment,
and god, what a glorious day!” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
Inside ends with a well-worn video game twist. After spending a whole game avoiding any living thing at all costs, suddenly everything is running from you. Far from going the gravity gun route however, the power Inside’s fantasy is rhymed with how it is depicted in the environment: painful, alienating and something that inspires supplicance through incomprehensible horror.
The way you rip and tear through the environment echos the damage wreaked by the industrial setting you’ve just navigated through. Powerful, helpless momentum, still solving the same tasks of picking things up and putting them down again with bigger things and larger impacts. When you become powerful, or rather revert to being powerful as the game seems to suggest, you do not really get to break the rules. You get to follow new ones.
The ending is where Inside peaks. There, at the beating heart of the game, so many comments and inversions of game design tropes rush past it becomes a microcosm of what came before: carefully-constructed set pieces meticulously placed to feel as manic as possible.
For instance: Inside eventually becomes a game where you intentionally kill a single character. This is a murder for which the entire game has, unbeknownst to you, been an rigorously articulate argument. Inside has also primed you, however, for how hollow, pointless and unimportant this death will feel. When this murder happens it is messy, impotent and clumsy. Even at the centre of a grotesque, massive machine there’s no real catharsis. Deep in the factory two gears grind off each other, nothing more.
Inside is also punctuated with stealth sections so of course it jams a critique of the nature of video game stealth into its sprint to the finish. A character is terrified of you and can only complete their arbitrary task of pushing a button when you are at the opposite end of a room to it, both in plain sight of each other. You are suddenly at the other end of the mechanic seesaw, poised in the comical squat position instead the dizzying, precarious one.
“Please accept this cycad,
a token of my epic disfigured view of
This big twisted picture.
Really what more can I say?”- Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
None of the observations made by Inside feel like negative criticism of other games. It feels, instead, like an acknowledgement of the current generation of games centered on subverting the expectations created by games up until that point.
Games reflecting on games are no longer even a novelty, mechanical self-awareness is as much of a tradition as climbing a tower to unlock a map or whatever the second thing that happens in every Ubisoft game is.
Inside has as much to say as the Stanley Parable, about the possibilities of inside and outside of play and how the expectations around gaming can be limiting while setting a path for discovery. The crucial difference is Inside goes for feel instead of freedom. The prize you’re offered for straying from the path Inside presents is an even more direct, insistent lampshading of the ending reveal.The actual visual aesthetic does occasionally suffer by dint of being too on-the-nose: once someone says it looks like a Tool video that becomes difficult to miss. This is compensated for by a finely-tuned, degree-perfect camera nudging you toward every set-piece with care and attention proportional to the Resident Evil camera’s leering sadism. Sometimes this is a little too coddling and these choreographed movements can occasionally feel like an over-emphasised punchline.
Inside is a diamond: full of reflections and odd angles but also palpably generated by sheer fucking pressure. It can feel like a David Fincher film: an attempt to turn compulsive, perpetual second-guessing and self-awareness into a smooth marble wall of enjoyable genre entertainment.
Its most confident sweeping movements and set pieces betray its need to show its work. You have to be looking a particular way... you have to definitely hear your character’s anguish. They are willing to literally hit you over the head with a worm-infested pig so you know they’ve seen Upstream Color.
There may be flaws, but it is hard to play Inside, a game ostensibly about alienation, without empathising with what it feels like to create a game in a field where every game changes or comments on some major accepted truth of gaming. The destructive cascade of pure ideas at the end feels like great pressure being lifted, impossible to wade through all those perfect throwaway comments without feeling immense waves of (fittingly) someone else’s relief.
“...so you lock the basement tight
And cover the windows to keep the demons out.
Thought bubbles cause trouble but you muddle through...” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder
You finish Inside outside, totally free and completely absorbed.
“...Oblivious to what's right in front of you...” - Dieffenbachia, Kleenex Girl Wonder