An INSIDE Joke (Inside Review)

So I don’t get this game. I just don’t get it. I think that’s important to state upfront so people understand that going into the video. It’s the first time since I started this channel that I can say this and mean it: I don’t understand the critical reception that this game has received. This isn’t like my response to The Witness, Fallout 4, Darkest Dungeon, or Uncharted. I can look at those four games and I can relate to people who love them—I don’t agree with their perspective, but I can see where they’re coming from.

INSIDE, however…

The things reviewers have said about this game on major review sites are so gushing that it borders on being a parody parade of positivity. But it doesn’t just stop there. Even some of my fellow freelancers have joined in with the march. Consider the following quote:

Describing Inside is difficult, not because one can’t find the words, but because it has to be seen to truly be believed.

That’s the opening line from a 10/10 review by Jim Sterling. And honestly, maybe that review IS a parody or exaggerated for effect. I can’t tell because I’m not that familiar with the man’s work. But they can’t ALL be a joke, right? Because the list just keeps going and going. The game’s surrounded by more perfect 10s than Taylor Swift in a mirror maze.

I didn’t hate INSIDE. I mean I hate the name because it makes it a pain to google, but I didn’t hate the game. I’d give it about a 6/10. Nowhere near a masterpiece, which is why I’m so confused about the reception it’s gotten.

My spoiler free summary that you can leave with right now if you want to play it yourself is that INSIDE has a bunch of minor issues and one giant, writhing fatal flaw. The little things are that it’s overpriced, it’s too short, the story it tells is pointless, and that Limbo, the previous game by Playdead, already did a better job at this same idea.

The major problem is that the game is boring. So. God Damn. Boring.

INSIDE is a 2D puzzle-platformer that’s based in a 3D world. So as you move from left to right there will be a bunch of stuff going on in the background and foreground, but you’re kept trapped on a single horizontal plane for a reason that’s never explained. And that’s okay. The game takes advantage of this limitation: it can provide the same simple method of directing the player as a traditional 2D game, but also explain how threats and enemies can appear from different angles.

You can see an example of this at the start with the humans that are hunting you in the background. You also get a good taste of the visuals in the game. These parts of INSIDE are more in the category of the EXPERIENCE you have while playing. Originally I wanted to say STORY here but I don’t think that’s the best word for it. There’s no dialogue, or narration, or any text to read in this game. It attempts to tell its story through these moments that you EXPERIENCE instead—hiding, being hunted, chases, and the oppressive atmosphere of the city that you move through.

This could be good but it’s ends up being a waste of time as far as I’m concerned for many reasons. Chief among them is that it builds to a payoff that, while initially shocking, ultimately deflates. Actually it literally deflates now that I think about it. It’s a waste of time and I suspect was made to be as shocking as possible so people would talk about it. Like The Witness and too many other games lately, INSIDE suffers from a terminal case of Ambiguitus. It’s Too Cool to tell you a story. You have to find some pieces and imagine your own.

I’m going to push aside this EXPERIENCE for now so we can talk more about it at the end, and so that shocking moment can be seen in something close to a proper order by those who have no intention of playing the game but still want to watch the video.

Instead, we’re going to take a look at the other half of INSIDE: gameplay.

Like Limbo, INSIDE shifts between puzzle-based encounters, and then calm progress forward with some neat visuals to look at while you’re holding down right on the controller. I’m not overly fond of Limbo—it has a lot of the same problems that this game does. Too much of it was boring. But it had more interesting ideas and puzzles than INSIDE has—like gravity puzzles, the world twisting around, the giant spider. It also cost a lot less upon release and is much more inline with its 2 to 3 hour runtime.

In comparison, the puzzles and chases in INSIDE are a lot more bland. There are people. Dogs. Spotlights. Swimming sections. Levers to pull. Cover to hide behind. It would be okay if it was ONLY thematically dull but the game is rarely engaging with these ideas—the game is never challenging but, far more importantly, it’s rarely INTERESTING either.

In my opinion the biggest crime it commits is that it recycles SO MANY ideas and encounters even though the game is so short. Because I am a big fan of fantastic, refined shorter games instead of bloated, boring long ones. Whereas INSIDE somehow feels too short and TOO LONG at the same time.

Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every encounter in this game can be put into one of three categories:

      1. Hiding and Running

      2. Threat Management

      3. It’s a Puzzle

The first is the easiest to explain. You’re either hiding from something that wants to kill you. Or you’re running from something that wants to kill you. There’s often a lot of trial and error involved in these encounters. Sometimes you can guess your way through. Other times you’re going to stumble, get yourself killed, and then repeat the part with the knowledge of what to do next time.

You can see examples of this all over the place early on in the game. You’re being chased here. There’s no way to know that this guy will shoot you—especially since you’re already being chased by another human who ISN’T doing that—and there’s also no way to know that the right way to get through here is to stop and wait, even though you’re already being chased. Suddenly the second guy isn’t pinpoint accurate with his gun anymore and you can proceed. Similarly there’s no way to know that this branch will trip you or if it’s something the player character will automatically adjust for like so many other things on the ground that you’ve walked over before now.

I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing the game for being obscure. I’m not saying that a lot of time should have been spent to make warnings and telegraphs that the player could memorize and look for. I’m just pointing out how much the game relies on trial and error for the player to learn the right way forward through a series of deaths.

Another example is one of the dog chases after you reach the city. There’s no way to know that you don’t have enough time to make it to safety without trying and getting killed first. You’re meant to hold back, lure the dog down the ramp, and then climb so the dog needs to take the long way around. This standard of try, fail, and learn, is used again and again in INSIDE.

The game doesn’t have limited lives. And it uses frequent checkpoint saves so that you can restart each encounter close to where you failed. This system was likely thought up early on—or was just ripped from Limbo—and is used to justify these moments of trial and error. It’s strange then that the game relishes in killing you. The animations tend to be bloody and, while they’re not drawn out exactly, they’re not all that quick either.

These chases suffer a lot from a lack of depth in player control. Aside from maybe two brief moments, there’s never any timing required on the part of the player when they’re in danger. Or, at least, there’s no timing that’s meaningful. Instead the game has planned out the distances you need to get through while being chased to make it look like you were almost caught, and that you scraped by. It looks tense. When all you were doing was holding right on the controller.

Chases become less common as the game goes on and it’s probably for this reason. Instead, these kind of threats evolve into things you have to manage more as you play the game.

This is a concept that INSIDE uses over and over. The first instance I can think of directly shows that evolution from a chase. There are three dogs. You can climb a fence to get away from them. On the other side is a boarded up doorway. So the game wants you to pry the boards loose while remembering to run back to climb the fence to manage the threat of these dogs. And even though you only have to do this three times, it was already tedious before I was done with it.

And it’s all over this game. Task and Threat and Safety. There are search lights and a lever. But the lever is in the path of the light! So move it while you have a chance and remember to run back to safety. Do it a couple of times. This puzzle is pretty much copy and pasted to be used again later too.

Make sure you turn around and wave fire at the dogs while you’re moving forward. If you forget they’ll kill you!

Make sure you turn around and point the light at the girl from The Ring in the water. If you forget she’ll kill you!

Hold onto the handle while the fans are blowing so you don’t get cut to pieces! When they stop you can move forward. If you forget they’ll kill you!

These aren’t inherently bad, but it’s one of many groupings of ideas that I can show that prove that the game recycles a hell of a lot considering how short it is.

Even one of the first puzzles in the game could be put in this category: when you have to manage the threat of the charging pig while figuring out what the game wants from you. You have to jump onto it before it can hit you until you try luring it to the right-most wall. The pig charges through it. Then you repeat this exact same thing all over again even though you JUST did it, so you can pull the dazed pig to climb onto it—instead of the more interesting solution in my opinion, which would be timing a jump off its back to reach the mind-control helmet.

This is the second puzzle in the game if I remember right. And like most puzzles it’s about giving you a set of variables and an end goal to achieve with those pieces. Some of these are okay. But again there’s a lot of repetition.

The first one has you leading an army of chicks—which is a great way of introducing this concept of leading drones that’s expanded on later with human-sized followers. Here you need to gather them all up on the far end of the room so that you have enough time to run to the other side and flip the switch before they can chase you. All of them get sucked into the machine and push the bale of hay for you to climb. It’s simple. But it’s early on so that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately a lot of the puzzles involve these ideas. Find something to climb on. Find something to move so you can proceed. Whether that’s pushing something over or down a ramp to create a way to go up. Or pushing the same something over so it breaks through a wall or floor so you can proceed that way.

Levers and switches are used a lot too, and the trend that I noticed while playing—which added a hell of lot to how bored I was as I went through them all—is that so many puzzles had the same core solution.

It goes like this:

Flip a switch to start the puzzle.

Try to solve it.

Turns out you need to go back and flip that first switch back to its starting position.

Now you can solve it. You might even need to flip the first switch a third time!

Wow!

For examples you have what I believe is the second mind-control puzzle with the door that you open to let one of the drones out, which you then have to close again to get the positioning right.

There’s the spotlight turrets and the elevator. You turn them on at the start. Realize that you can’t open the elevator while they’re active. You turn them off. Open the door. Then turn them back on again so the elevator has power.

Real quick while we’re at this one, is this fun? I mean, seriously? Is this an interesting concept? Hide from the light? Because the game does it a lot. You move when the light isn’t moving and stops where it casts a shadow. Does anyone actually enjoy this? Because not only is it really bland to me but it’s so tedious since you’re forced to wait each time. There’s no way to risk it and move faster or anything. No matter how much you understand the challenge you’re forced to wait.

Flip a switch to lower the water level. Try to get forward. Flip the switch again. Pilot the bathysphere to the next area. Then swim back to flip the switch again.

Even the last puzzle you solve as the boy has this pattern. You have to flip a switch to stop the fan in the water. Then you go into the water and think you solve it. Then it turns out you need to go back out and turn the fan on again. Too many puzzles follow this sequence in my opinion.

There are several that don’t, but they have some of their own problems. Two of the most memorable sections for me were the underground complex when you lead an army of fake human drones. And the next section after it with the pulsing sound wave machine.

I enjoyed these sections. The first one had a lot of different paths to go through. There were options and different, mini puzzle scenarios to find and solve. But there was an immense amount of backtracking to do here. And none of the puzzles individually were all that interesting. One is a seesaw puzzle that feels like a joke inclusion in games since physics-based engines became a thing.

It was amassing followers that was satisfying here. And, although there is a section later that briefly reuses this concept, I think it’s a wasted opportunity that a more challenging version of this puzzle wasn’t done. The game chose the wrong type of thing to recycle instead.

For the big harbor area—the explosive sound comes at a quick, steady pace. There’s a lot less downtime than waiting around for moving lights. Although it’s true some of the early parts are just like those dog chases—they’re carefully measured distances so that it appears like you made it just in time—there are a few encounters here that require more timing on the player’s part both to set up and execute.

Again, it’s a shame that this is so brief yet, in comparison, the game spends so much time devoted to being underwater. Either with hardly anything to do but float around, or being chased by the same enemy over and over.

Toward the end of the game you enter a research facility and are introduced to a more surreal concept than what’s come before—it’s very much like the shifting gravity alignments at the end of Limbo. And this is the best way that I can communicate how much INSIDE falls short of its predecessor. Because while Limbo uses these new mechanics in multiple interesting ways—and creates a long series of puzzles that, while far from perfect, are at least a little challenging and engaging—INSIDE only has two. And even these are dull.

It makes you go through so many standard swimming sections, breaks its own rules to give the player underwater breathing, and has this huge spectacle of an introduction to this concept. And then promptly forgets about it. Doesn’t do anything unique with it. It’s such a waste.

If you haven’t played INSIDE then you might be shocked to know that, by going through these examples, I have shown you most of the game. There are a few more things we’re going to get to now as we start to talk about the EXPERIENCE side instead of GAMEPLAY. I haven’t spoiled the big surprise at the end yet. So if you think I’m completely wrong and everything I’ve shown so far looks awesome to you, now’s your last chance to stop the video.

So here we’ll be discussing the EXPERIENCE or the STORY, depending on what you want to call it. This is a part of the game that many people have praised. And some might argue that the gameplay is meant to be on the blander side in order to facilitate this more engrossing world… or situation… or, whatever you want to call that the player finds themselves in.

So for the first 95% of the game you have no idea what’s going on. You’re meant to be confused. Some might argue that you’re meant to be scared too, but I disagree with that. It builds into an initially shocking payoff that we’ll get to shortly. I’m saying this now so that, as we go through the environments that the game sends you through, that you understand that you’re not meant to have the slightest clue about what’s going on.

Right from the start you’re shown that you’re being hunted. The majority of players are going to get killed right here when they’re testing the games rules to see if the other people are hostile or not. Or they’re going to infer through the boy’s reaction—and that he’s already sneaking around—that it’s a good idea to stay hidden. Why are the adults hunting you? You don’t find out until the end.

The brutality of each death, and that you can never fight back, hammers home what the game is trying to make you feel: you’re prey in this game. You’re meant to be stressed. Encounters are tense. Everything wants to kill you. And it continually gets worse and more creepy as you make progress.

Except that, this is what the game WANTS you to experience. But it falls flat on its face.

Death is meaningless. There are unlimited continues and restart points are all over the place—like I said earlier it’s how the game can have these trial and error encounters. So all the tension of a dog chasing me means nothing when I know that, if I’m caught, I immediately start again with the same dog chasing me.

And, in another example I showed earlier, the game has one of those trial and error moments so early on here, with the man in the pick-up truck that shoots you, that every player is going to learn that death doesn’t mean anything.

This lack of punishment on the player failing means that the only reason to fear death is so you don’t see the boy being killed. For me this didn’t work because I didn’t care. The quick restarts also helped me get to that point. Death was only a minor inconvenience. Nothing to be worried about.

There’s a part fairly early on when you fall through a floor and into the middle of some sort of test procedure to make sure that the drone people are properly synchronized. And you have to follow the actions of the drones around you, while being watched by a spotlight and real people—who are marked as real by the masks they wear—to make sure you’re one of the drones. And this should be really tense because there’s danger all around if you mess up. But if you do then you get to try again immediately so who cares. There are even checkpoints within stages of this encounter.

Did you ever have this experience when you were a kid? You were going up the stairs, or down a dark hallway, late at night and you imagine that there might be something coming to grab you from behind? So you rush because you’re scared and there’s all this relief when you get back to safety? Into your house or your room? Well a big part of that tension was that the imagined monster wouldn’t immediately let you go and let you try again as many times as you like until you get away…

If the game had limited lives then suddenly a lot of that tension is back. And before you pause the video and write a comment saying that’s a terrible idea—I agree with you. Forcing the player to restart the whole game after dying so many times in this game as it is now would be awful. But it’s undeniable that some sort of lives system—maybe with some extras hidden to reward exploring each level—would make the encounters more TENSE. And that’s a major part of the game’s experience that failed.

But that would mean the game couldn’t resort to trial and error challenges. Time would be needed to make sure dangers are properly communicated to the player, and that solutions are introduced ahead of time, or that they’re intuitive enough that the player doesn’t feel that it wasn’t their fault if they die.

Let’s finish with the story then and how you go through most of the game confused. Why are there fake people? Why are real people wearing masks? Why do they want to kill you so badly? Are you a rogue drone that managed to get away? But then why are you able to control the drones too if you use one of the weird helmets? There are lots of these questions that you’ll collect as you play.

Why are there all of these layers of defense to keep you out? Why are parts of this giant city flooded and lost?

Toward the end you reach a facility and learn that the drones you’ve been seeing aren’t people. They’re constructed, or maybe even grown, in these suspended chambers full of water. They’re more like living mannequins. There are rooms here where experiments are being performed. There are a lot of researchers at work and, for some reason, you’re not being hunted anymore. There’s something else as well—one of their experiments is attracting a lot of attention. They’re all looking through the windows. The game doesn’t let you see what’s inside yet.

You work your way around the facility. You solve the puzzle with the fan underwater that I showed earlier. You get swept into the big chamber that everyone was staring into and find this…

The game abruptly changes and, for a few brief minutes, becomes very, very interesting.

You control the Cronenberg flesh monster. You are now the hunter, not the prey, as you break out of this facility destroying walls and rooms and killing people as you do. The gameplay mechanics are changed ever so slightly since the monster controls differently than the boy—there’s some weight to it now that you have to balance, along with multiple pairs of arms to carry and pull things. But the idea behind the puzzles themselves remains mostly the same. Even so, this section doesn’t last long.

You continue to break through layers of the facility. But it ends with you being captured in another watery prison. Which you then break out of again. And the credits run as the monster, seemingly free for real this time, rests on the coast.

The end.

So what’s all that about? The only other information the game gives you is in a secret ending. There are these machines hidden throughout the game, usually marked with some sort of yellow-colored hint that you can follow. Some are easier to find than others.

At the end of this scavenger hunt you go down into an equally hidden bunker and find this room. You pull a socket out of a wall which causes one of the mind control helmet things in the background to become inactive. This causes the boy to slump down in place just like the drones do when you’re finished controlling them and they become inert.

The theory that most of the internet has come up with is that you were never the boy. You were always the monster. You’re being kept prisoner in this facility and you are constantly reaching out to control some outside entity in order to find your way into the city and free yourself. That’s why there are all those layers of defense set up. To prevent each attempt that the monster makes to escape.

The problem is that the game communicates the rules about its setting to you with visuals and, occasionally, gameplay. And because of that terminal case of Ambiguitus that I mentioned near the start of the video, it’s not always easy to tell what’s intentional. Or what could be a mistake—a lapse in consistency in the experience that this world has been built to give you.

To show you what I mean: why do the humans hunt you so aggressively at the start, but don’t care about your presence at the end? This is one that has an answer. You’re clearly a rogue entity at the beginning. The hunting humans aren’t recognizing you, specifically that boy—they’re identifying you as a threat because you’re not acting like one of their drones, and that you don’t have one of their masks on that identifies you as real. It’s why they don’t immediately kill you in that conga line later. You’re blending in. They don’t know the boy’s specific appearance.

So at the end of the game, the reason you’re not grabbed in the facility is because the people here are confident in the lines of defense they’ve set up. It’s why the masks are gone here too. This is their area and they believe that they’re okay.

But other questions aren’t answered so easily. And you have to wonder if they have answers at all.

Despite what happens right here, the boy isn’t a drone. He’s human. He bleeds when he’s torn to pieces. The drones don’t bleed when they die. The drones can also survive falls from great heights. The boy can’t. So does that mean the monster can enforce its will on humans in some way? If so, how did it ever get captured again after breaking out, and how is it doing it all when it IS captured? Why is it a prisoner in the first place and not killed? Are the people using it in someway to control their slave army of drones in order to prosper? Why is so much of the city and surrounding countryside ruined if that’s the case?

Why does the girl from The Ring in the water want to kill you the first few times you encounter her? But then the last time she takes you down and gives you the ability to breathe underwater instead? This takes a long time—you are long drowned and dead before she gets you to this device, so it shouldn’t matter that the times that she killed you before now are farther away from this machine.

If dogs can sense rogue drones, why aren’t there dogs all over the facility at the end as a contingency plan? They went to the trouble of creating a massive, sound blast cannon that I have to assume was built in a giant circle around the entire facility to keep you out. A few dogs shouldn’t be too hard to keep around the monster.

But even this part is inconsistent because the events at the end call into question whether or not the researchers want to keep you out at all. Many people have pointed out that the final area that the monster reaches resembles a miniature model system in the facility, implying that it’s fake and just another, more extravagant prison cell.

Why are the people so paranoid about keeping the boy away, but then help the monster as soon as it’s freed? There are at least three instances here where people lend a hand. They open a door for you. Wave you in order to guide you to a solution. One even pulls the rip cord on a hover box so you can use it to proceed. This leads you to a room where a large group of people are there to witness you grope for a box dangled obviously as bait so you fall into another trap.

The questions that spawn from here can’t be resolved. The whole thing can’t be an act because they go to too much trouble to try to kill you early on. The best answer is that this end trap IS the contingency plan for when the hunters in the city fail, so the monster is captured again. Some of the ruined sections early in the game look like abandoned parts of the facility, which imply that this has happened a few times before.

But if that’s the case why hasn’t the monster learned by now? It’s clearly intelligent. Why follow and accept the help of these people during its escape? Why fall for what is so clearly a trap in the big audience room? Why do so many people run and scream in panic—and in some cases actually die in a splatter of blood—when these others are so cool and calm about helping you? Maybe they’re drones being controlled by other people but, as shown with the blood, not all of them are. Maybe they’re drones being controlled by the monster just like the boy was to help it, but then why does it lead to a trap and…

Do you see what I mean? These questions can’t be answered. It’s a waste of time. The game lets you soak in confusion in order to have this big shocking payoff. It’s the best part of the game. It gets people talking. But is ultimately meaningless. It’s flashy for the sake of flash. Entertaining but a letdown for me since this is the only thing the game has going for it. Aside from the visuals.

Except…

The other possibility is that the game is trying for a meta-experience. You have a controller in your hand. You’re controlling the monster. The monster is controlling the boy. The boy controls drones as you go through it all. Oh my god, is someone controlling YOU then? Who’s controlling you as you hold the controller! Which is why the game ends suddenly at the secret ending. You’ve unplugged the connection between you and the game itself. It might have been funny if it caused your gamepad to stop working for a second or two.

And this is interesting but also nothing new. A few games are going this way lately with trying to have some sort of commentary about player control in their game. It’s also separate from a lot of the rest of the game—the cycle of freeing the monster that came before now. The old parts of the ruined, flooded city.

This wasn’t enough for me to enjoy INSIDE. And it needed to be after the bland, repetitive gameplay. And that the game was so short despite these reused ideas. I hope I’ve explained why, while I didn’t hate it, that I don’t understand where all of the perfect 10s and talk about a masterpiece is coming from.

At twenty dollars, compared to Limbo, I expected something more substantial. Instead I got a game that I started playing after I put my son down for his afternoon nap. And I was finished with it before he woke up again.

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