Playdead's Limbo of 2010 was a short game that stunned players that went into it with no prior knowledge of what to expect, and the exact same thing is true of the Danish studio's long-time-coming follow-up to that eerie puzzle-platformer, Inside. Honestly, it's definitely better that you approach this game without digging deeply into what makes it tick, its DNA, the sights and sounds – oh shit, the sounds – that your frail protagonist will encounter on another journey from left to right, always right (well, mostly right), overcoming physical obstacles and death-dealing adversaries along the way.
(So if you want to click away right now, and take on Inside without reading any more of this article, that's okay. Indeed, it's recommended. Right, back to it for the still-here sorts...)
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And déjà vu certainly bites hard for the first five minutes of Inside. If you played Limbo, you'll be instantly at home with the simple controls: move, jump and grab, that's pretty much it (though grab will double up as the button to press when flicking switches, and comes into play in a handful of other context-sensitive situations). And the environment will ring bells, too: Inside's first scene is set against the creepiest woodland. But then the pursuit begins. And you can't afford to pause and admire the gorgeously grim artwork or your red-shirted avatar will find some very different red stuff spurting from his neck.
And that's really all I'm prepared to reveal, in terms of specifics: the game begins in a wood. There is a chase. There are men, and there are dogs. What happens afterwards astounds, chills, inspires and shocks. There are sights in this game that cannot be unseen, imagery that I know I'll always consider some of the most haunting to have featured in a video game. Like Limbo – and this is no spoiler whatsoever – the childish hero of Inside can fall victim to myriad deaths, some spectacularly disgusting. And you will die, over and over, and that's a natural part of the process.
Some puzzles you'll fail once with gory results, and then nail the second time. Others will take several attempts. Perhaps you, like me, will take a break, step away from the game and come back the next day with a clearer head. As it's too easy for the mind to race away, predicting what will come next, what this contraption foreshadows for later, what this background art is telling me about the fate of these (not-quite) NPCs, what this puzzle's solution means in the grander scheme of the game's told-through-the-art narrative. You'll begin to add twos with threes to make eights only for a brainteaser of 20 minutes later to totally derail that train of expectation. Again, this is a natural part of the process: Playdead want you to be trying to second-guess them. But the chances are that you won't.
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Microsoft knows it has a game of the year contender with Inside, exclusive to the Xbox One at release and then coming to Windows in early July, with no PlayStation or other platform port on the horizon. (Never say never, of course.) Yet some will complain that they've seen this before; that it unfolds too similarly to Limbo, both in terms of gameplay and atmosphere. And it definitely is a case of its makers playing to their strengths, effectively building on what worked so well the first time with a more affecting second project. That's no problem to me. I'd rather studios recognised what the playing public liked about their output, what made it special, and kept those things, adding only extras that made the next experience(s) even more memorable. More exciting, and inviting. And just sort of terrifying, albeit with no "sort of" about it.
Inside is probably the most unsettling, skin-creepingly uneasy video game I've played in 2016, and that's coming after Oxenfree, after Resident Evil VII's Beginning Hour and Layers of Fear, after Dark Souls III and DOOM. Again, I've seen things in this game that I can't scrub from my mind's eye, one "creature" (which is repeated) in particular, a horror that agonisingly antagonises acute fears that I personally have about... No, no, to explain much further would be a definite spoiler. Your mileage will vary, of course, depending on what gets your knuckles white. Its themes, too, can be expressed broadly: manipulation, enslavement, technological dependence, playing god, societal breakdown. You'll pick into each as you play, and find more of your own, every black hole leading to a place somehow darker than before.
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If you have an Xbox One, you need to play Inside. It was still being only whispered about at E3 just a couple of weeks ago, but here it is, fully formed, in the wild, available to all. It's right that it's emerged so suddenly from the ether: a big build up for this would inevitably have resulted in a multitude of games press spoilers (which I feel I've mostly circumvented here). I hesitate to call it an early summer "treat" given how it's so thoroughly shit me up, in a way that Limbo never did, but it's one of those games, you know? Easy to get into, hard to put down; you press onwards, ever onwards, sometimes marching to a very literal rhythm, despite your primal fight-or-flee instincts screaming that you go in the opposite direction. It genuinely is a game of the year contender, and just like Limbo stands to leave quite the legacy.
Inside is released on June the 28th for Xbox One. Its Windows version follows on July the 7th. Find more information at the Playdead website.
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