Recently there has been a big resurgence in the popularity of puzzle games, and it has been a welcome trend. The very nature of these kinds of titles means that they do not require huge sprawling narratives, epic set pieces or thorough characterization to thrive. Rather, they excel when accompanied by unique flourishes, accessible mechanics and tough but enjoyable brainteasers to solve. The small-scale nature of the genre has meant that many smaller developers have been able to find great success within this category without having to rely on the big budgets or over-whelming manpower of the bigger studios.
Games like The Witness, the Little Nightmares series and Return of the Obra Dinn have all been released recently to critical acclaim, and rightly so. Along with a release that would one day (spoiler: it’s this day) be the focus of this very article, PlayDead’s Inside, and 5 years later the game is still held in high regard by those who played it.
Inside was released in 2016, and I’ll admit it slipped through the cracks for me personally until recently. It was a game that had always intrigued me with its unique art style, enigmatic storyline and the shroud of critical praise that seemed to surround it in some circles. But for one reason or another, it fell by the wayside.
For those unfamiliar with the title, it is an Orwellian side-scrolling puzzle adventure game (I know, not another one, right?) that follows a young boy as he attempts to traverse a dystopian, 1984-esque landscape in the hope of freeing himself from the fate of the rest of humanity. It pulls no punches regarding landing the player right in the middle of things. You’re dropped straight into a shadowy forest and forced to run for your life from the mysterious guards determined to hunt you down. The mystery and intrigue that fills your panicked mind in these early moments are themes that continue right the way through its run-time.
In fact, its strange setting and elusive narrative are some of its biggest selling points. It is a unique experience for the player as they carefully traverse this strange futuristic wasteland, carrying with them a consistent sense of dread without ever being certain of why they’re in such perpetual danger. Adding urgency and intrigue to everything that’s very difficult to ignore and really works when so expertly weaved into the genre. The game makes for one of the most endearing stories in gaming, despite how incredibly stripped back it is. You feel a visceral need to ignore the pit in your stomach and plow on to where you need to go in order to unravel some of what is going on around you.
The mysterious world which you traverse is another huge plus in the game’s considerable pro column, as it manages to consistently toss more questions at the player the more it reveals of itself. I find it incredibly difficult not to find yourself wrapped up in the intrigue of it all. There are very few games out there that can match the title’s wholly original world, and, even with so much mystery surrounding it, it is incredibly well-realized and fantastically presented with its equally unique art style. It has a stripped-back aesthetic reminiscent of PlayDead’s precursor title Limbo, as it takes that same stylishly Indie concept and improves upon it in every aspect.
The other area in which PlayDead’s most recent release manages to trump its predecessor is arguably the most important aspect of any puzzle game, the puzzles themselves. While the brainteasers in Limbo are well-thought-out and enjoyable for the most part, there are some moments when its slightly dated mechanics let it down. The in-game conundrums themselves can be clunky and awkward at points. As such, it can often feel as if the correct solution is not, in fact, correct simply because you’re struggling to put square pegs in square holes successfully. In comparison, this is an area in which Inside thrives.
The obstacles you must overcome are certainly not the most challenging you’ll come across, but they’re incredibly accessible while still posing an enjoyable challenge to the player. Each barrier the player comes across has a solution that can be worked out, and with each piece, you discover the solution becomes more apparent. Each one flows perfectly from start to finish.
Speaking of flow, the game successfully carries across one of Limbo’s best features, and that is the fact that both entries have no loading screens or save options. The entire game flows and plays as one continuous experience, with subtle checkpoints marking your progress. This works perfectly with Inside in particular as the player joins their nameless protagonist in an extended chase across the short run-time.
The title wants to be played and experienced in a single sitting. This is a refreshing approach for a studio to take in the current climate of bloated, open-world releases needlessly fleshed out with micro-transactions and expensive DLC’s. It is an incredibly brave choice from PlayDead and one that absolutely pays off. Inside is an incredibly immersive journey that revels in its simplistic approach and staggering originality.
Coming up on the 5 year mark of its release, all those who played this game back in the day should rest assured that the game absolutely holds up. Or, for those uninitiated, is well worth experiencing for the first time today. Its uniqueness, accessibility and haunting, minimalist beauty allow the title to stand out in a sea of like-minded puzzlers. With such varied and numerous competition available, it would be almost impossible to say absolutely that Inside is the greatest puzzle game of all time, but it is an undoubtedly worthy contender.