We all fear the tragedies that life can throw in your paths. Some people accept them as an inevitability of existence. But others, refuse to succumb. This is a story about a man who chose the latter. Diagnosed with cancer, he fights for a happy ending. Can a determined man defeat fate? Find out with our review of the award-winning game In Between.
When you think of platformers, many iconic titles may cross your mind. This includes classics such as Super Mario Bros, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Super Metroid. But this is a vast genre, and several games fly under the radar, overshadowed by these giants. In Between is one of them.
In 2015, Gentlymadreleased it for the PC. Critics praised the game, and it won awards in events of the industry, including the German Video Game Awards and the RedDot Award. Now, four years later, the developers brought their platformer to the PlayStation 4. But how does it hold up after all these years?
In Between aims to deliver an emotional narrative-driven gaming experience. To do so, it puts you inside the thoughts of a dying man and makes you go through 60 puzzles that challenge your perspective of reality by defying the laws of physics. You can change where gravity pulls you, as you walk on walls and ceilings.
This is the goal of In Between, and this game review dissects it to understand whether it was successful. To conduct this analysis, KeenGamer also interviewed the developers to get their perspective on the pros and cons of their project. You can find their thoughts throughout. Now, let´s start this game review of In Between.
The first five minutes of a game will either motivate you to continue playing or will make you drop the controller. Creating an opening sequence that captives players is vital. This is the argument that the game designer James Portnow makes in his YouTube channel Extra Credits in the video Starting Off Right.
Let´s review how In Between foster empathy. The game starts with a sentence that resonates with you. “Sooner or later, everybody dies.” Then, it provides a twist. “It’s ridiculous.” This change in direction provides a surprise, and it also tells the goal of the protagonist: surviving. The writer did all this with a short opening statement.
Introduction – Negatives
In Between features an in medias res opening. According to Robert McKee in his book Story, it means that it starts in the middle of a conflict. Although this is a popular way of starting a story in this industry, it comes with its risks. The biggest one is causing confusion due to poor contextualization of the game’s plot.
The director of BioShock, Ken Levine, mentioned during an interview that his project almost failed due to a lack of information being provided to players in its intro, leading them to not engage in its story. It was later revised and became an icon. This game review must point out that In Between repeats the mistake
It shows a character in a certain situation but it fails to answer all the six questions needed for context: what, when, where, why, who, and how. The game answers these questions relatively quickly in its first few levels, but not in the introduction, thus keep it from its full potential.
Introduction – Developer commentary
While developing the game we always wanted to portray a mysterious, dream world-like atmosphere. In the end, you are inside the protagonist’s head. And there, not everything makes sense, time jumps – from one thought to the next – are normal.
We were okay with confusing the player a little bit without giving all the context, so the situation matters more when it clicks. Our idea to unlock and solve the story while playing In Between was part of the metagame. If this really worked is something very subjective, everyone has to answer for themselves.
We agree that doing the more classical approach of an exposition, answering all the questions from the start gets more players onboard from the get-go. But we were rebels back then and thought that it would be bland and uninteresting and that the way we did it is the one that really urges the player to get to know more.
Score for the introduction: 9
The protagonist constantly chases after his dream of staying alive.
Story development – Positives
The narrative itself is a puzzle. This game tells most of its story via the thoughts of the main character as he reflects upon his life and recounts its events with short lines of dialogue. He tells his story out of order. To do this, In Between takes one storytelling concept to the extreme, let´s review it.
During his 2012 TED Talk, Pixar’s writer Andrew Stanton shares the concept of “two plus two instead of four.” Instead of outright giving information to your audience, you should find ways of making people infer things on their own. The goal is to keep people’s minds active during the story, making it a more engaging experience.
This concept summarizes the storytelling of In Between. The game gives you access to various fragments of the protagonist’s memories and it is up to you to make sense of the story. The same principle can be seen in the dialogue of In Between. For example:
“One day, the TV set was at the repair shop. We built a snowman together. I never saw him so happy. Then, the TV returned.”
You know that his father started watching TV and neglecting his son again. But the writer did not explicitly tell you this. He let you connect the dots to discover the meaning behind the sentence. Using the same principle throughout the whole story, In Between is an intellectually stimulating experience.
The protagonist recounts some events of his life through short flashback sequences.
Story development – Negatives
There is one problem with this approach; however. Two lines of dialogue rarely address the same topics consecutively. This creates an issue in terms of pacing, as the game rarely addresses one topic for more than a few seconds before moving on the next.
With this approach, it is difficult to get the momentum going and deliver a punch that will hit players in the stomach. Pacing is crucial in storytelling, and the puzzle-like approach of In Between mentioned in this game review hurts the flow of the narrative, thus diminishing its emotional impact.
Story development – Developer commentary
With In Between we tried to use game mechanics to support and express narration and reward the player with the memories and bits and pieces of the protagonist’s life story. A part of the problem was that the voice-over, as well as the visual mind fragments in the game, came very late in production.
Before that, In Between, was solely a puzzle platformer with one special gameplay element every chapter, that was a reference to the stage of grief the protagonist was in, plus the story levels which introduced the next stage of grief. We felt that we were missing the opportunity to connect both worlds, gameplay, and story.
We started working on the mind fragments, little visual sceneries the player can reveal, giving more hints to the story. After having those in we still felt that this was too vague and not enough for players to want to immerse themselves in the story.
So we hired our story writer, Wolfgang Walk, and he took a good look at all the parts we had already implemented and started to form a more concrete picture of the story, by bringing in voice-overs not only during the story sequences but also during our mind fragment events and gameplay.
It was a very tight collaboration in which he pitched us his ideas and we implemented them as events in the game. I guess the feeling that some parts of the story are too loose or too short comes from the fact that our collaboration with our story writer was so late in production.
Score for the story development: 7
In Between features a variety of gameplay elements you must overcome by shifting the perspective of the map.
Tutorial – Positives
Knowing how to teach you how to play the game is vital. But it needs to happen in a way that is intuitive. In Between mostly succeeds in this area. This title often relies on dialogue to explain concepts but without turning them into exposition dumps. Let´s review an example of how the game In Between does this:
“Is down really what you are standing on?”
This sentence alludes to the fact that you can change the map’s perspective to walk on walls and ceilings. The game constantly uses this method to teach you how to play. It is up to you to understand its dialogue and figure out the clues that it delivers.
Tutorial – Negatives
The downside to this approach is that it can turn the game into a process of trial and error. If you are unaware of some clues delivered in the dialogue, you will have to figure out how some mechanics work the hard way. This can lead to an experience that creates more frustration than enjoyment.
It would be possible to fix this issue by adding visual clues in the environment. This is the advice that Scott Rogers shares in his book Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design. For example, in a situation wherein a moving wall can crush you, the developers could add subtle visuals to signal that.
The game constantly adds new variables, making tutorials even more important.
Tutorial – Development commentary
We are huge fans of Valve games, especially Half-Life 2 and the Portal series. Both games feature outstanding ways to immerse the player into their game world without hitting you over the head with UI popups and tutorials but rather lead and focus your attention in subtle ways, as diegetic parts of the game world.
Considering our focus to create an immersive and atmospheric puzzle platformer, we wanted a similar approach. We tried our best and it was very hard to find a similarly effective way instead of outright telling the player what to do. I think we did a good job but sometimes we were too subtle and failed.
Especially some levels disturb the flow state of the player, which is partly a result due to a lack of external testing. The trial and error aspect of the game is partly intended, but it is a slippery slope to always guarantee the perfect game flow.
Score for the tutorial: 9
The challenges of In Between become increasingly more difficult.
Game mechanics – Positive
One thing that stands out immediately once you start playing this game is that it gives dramatic significance to some gameplay elements. Some represent the feelings of the protagonist, while others represent his fears. This section will avoid details about these aspects to avoid spoilers.
In addition, the game constantly adds news mechanics, increasing the complexity of the maps and its puzzles. Teaching them to you in an intuitive manner, this title offers a subtle progression curve, with few difficulty spikes. But, bear in mind that this game is slow-paced, which may or may not be your preference.
Game mechanics – Negative
Not every gameplay element has a dramatic significance. For example, what do the spikes placed on the map represent? What about those boxes? And those green force fields? It is odd that the developer chose to justify dramatically some gameplay elements while neglecting others.
Another downside to the gameplay in this game is that its goals are not dramatically tied to the story. Your objective in every puzzle is to reach the end of the map, but how does that help the main character in terms of the story? This separates the story from the mechanics, which is far from ideal in a narrative-driven game.
The protagonist runs away from the darkness, a concept that the story explains.
Game mechanics – Developer commentary
Having a game that wants to tell a deep story while being a hardcore puzzle platformer sometimes really makes you feel that there are two worlds clashing together. It was a constant struggle to decide what we value more, to tell the story or to make a challenging puzzle platformer.
We settled with dedicated story levels, one dominant new gameplay feature referencing the stage of grief the
protagonist is currently in, mind fragments and voice-overs during our gameplay levels. Everything else in our gameplay levels is strictly driven by game mechanics.
Spikes, force fields, boxes, buttons are all part of our repertoire to make the levels challenging and fun to play.
We agree that In Between shows potential in terms of meaningful game mechanics that contribute to the narrative experience on the one hand but lacks the consistency of fully using this potential on the other.
The spikes, for example, are not as strong of a symbol that contributes to the story, but merely boundaries of the gameplay system, that define the losing condition. We took an effort to dress things up nicely, to make it not feel completely out of place but to the mindful player, it can be bothersome.
Score for the game mechanics: 8
In a hospital, the story starts. Is it where it will end?
Graphics – Positives
With hand-drawn 2D graphics, In Between has a strong visual identity, which deserves praise from this game review. Despite the limitations of this approach, character models and environments carry plenty of details. In an industry that constantly craves photorealistic 3D visuals, this game offers a breath of fresh air.
Graphics – Negatives
But this approach has its problems. You only see characters from the side. You never take a good look at their eyes, which diminishes the emotion of the story. According to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in the book The Illusion of Life, people communicate emotions mostly through their eyes and eyebrows.
Score for the graphics: 8
Animation – Positives
In terms of animation, In Between shows attention to detail. One evident example is the scarf the protagonist wears. Do you think it is just for show? Think again. Movement is a vital aspect of the experience this game aims to create. Naturally, finding ways to heighten the sense of motion that you feel is a priority.
Making the character wear a scarf does this. Richard Williams in The Animator´s Survival Kitexplains the idea of “follow-through.” In short, it means giving to a character a moving piece of cloth, so when he moves, it also moves, emphasizing the motion. This is why many characters in fiction have bandanas, coats, and so on.
You will understand this image in a second.
Animation – Could have been even better
This section of the game review of In Between had to have a different name. There is nothing negative in this department. But it could have been better. Considering that the developers put so much effort into their animation, they could have gone one step further. There is one thing missing here: smears.
Functionally, they are similar to follow-through. They aim to better communicate motion. For this reason, they work well in tandem. Their absence in this title is a missed opportunity to add a detail that would have had a great impact on how the game feels, according to the teachings of Steve Swink in his book Game Feel.
Visuals – Developer commentary
We tried and swapped out different animation techniques during production. In the beginning, we did the classical approach of sprite sheet animation. But it became obvious that this was way too static and clumsy for the kind of game we were making.
Then we used skeletal animation, which has now become the standard even for 2D games. But even this was not enough, so we reincorporated sprite sheet animations for the character’s torso which is evident especially in the story levels.
This gives the feeling that the character really moves his chest while walking/ running. I guess the point I’m trying to make is: There is really a lot going on in terms of animation, which might not be as evident at first glance, you just have to pay attention to the details.
Score for the animation: 7
The game´s strong use of complementary colors adds to its visuals.
Sound design, soundtrack, and voice acting are vital for the aspirations of this project. In Between deserves praise in this part of this game review. With music that blends in with the art, an actor that conveys the emotion of the plot, and sounds that communicate actions clearly, most of the time.
A downside, however, is the lack of footsteps when the protagonist sprints or lands. The absence of aural feedback for some actions can become jarring. Another negative is that songs can become repetitive. Due to the trial and error nature of a few levels, you can take a while to clear them, bolstering the problem.
The soundtrack was a collaboration of many different artists, including our internal team. I must say that personally, I really like to come back and listen to it. But yeah, I get that it could have had more tracks for each chapter to make it more diverse.
It comes down to a time constraint as at some point we had to prioritize other things as we felt that the soundtrack overall was diversified enough As for the sound effects: We do have footstep sounds, for all gameplay and story levels but I guess they are too subtle.
We are very happy with the quality and the overall sound design but agree that there could have been done more in this regard. We had a very good sound studio we hired but it was us who overlooked the importance of sound design for quite some time.
We agree that the music and sound could support the game even more by dynamically adjusting to the different gameplay situations and individual player flow, but we lacked the experience and time budget at this time of our creative journey.
In Between offers a premise that will capture your attention. But idea and execution are two different things. Although the game has many positive aspects, it also tumbles in some departments. This is the case of a good game that could have been great. If you are a fan of the genre who is looking for a game with novel concepts and interesting challenges, then this title certainly has this for you. With intuitive tutorials and a smooth difficulty curve, In Between will satisfy you. However; if you also wish to experience a moving story, structured in traditional fashion, whilst playing, then you may wish to look elsewhere. The problem is not the plot itself, but how the game tells it. Its puzzle-like structure may seem confusing. But, if you are interested in the challenge of piecing together this narrative, then the outcome will be worth the effort. As mentioned in this review, the introduction of this game is powerful. And its ending, even more so.