Having made an indie sensation must feel like a mixed blessing. It comes with prestige and accolades, but it also sets expectations for the next time. Playdead, the developer of 2010's Limbo, has chosen to lean into its prior success, making a spiritual successor that looks and plays almost identically, but strikes a slightly different tone.
To start with the similarities, Inside is minimalistic and mute. It consists of no words, so all of the storytelling is environmental. The figures that occupy this world are no longer blackened sillhouettes, but rather plain white-faced manequins. The puzzles largely revolve around traversal, and creatures occupy the world that present an ever-present threat to your player character, who again is a child. It feels immediately familiar, but signifies a proper amount of evolution for many of the concepts that Limbo established.
And like Limbo, that means that it's profoundly unsettling and tense at times. One of the most common threats, especially early, are packs of attack dogs that will run down your young boy and quite literally go for the jugular. I couldn't quite tell if the ragdoll animation made a point to show his neck being snapped or if my imagination filled in the blanks, but either way it was certainly chilling. Another creature, later in the game, threatens you in the water, making each dive a stress-filled race to dry land.
The attack dogs are being kept by the antagonists, a group of (mostly adult) manequins who appear to be rounding up people for some unnamed purpose. Whether by curiosity or heroism your boy follows them, driving the central mystery of the story.
This mass exodus also plays into the puzzles. You'll sporadically encounter pieces of the antagonists' technology that allow you to mind-control a handful of limp-limbed victims, to have them help with heavier tasks or open up areas that you can't access on your own. In my time playing, it served as a nice change of pace to the more traditional traversal puzzles, making for smoother pacing.
However, the specificity in its story may prove to be a hazard in this case. While Limbo was symbolic and interpretative, Inside appears much more literal. The world is somewhat recognizable, with structures and buildings and clothing that we'd all recognize from day-to-day life. I really appreciated Limbo's dreamlike approach, and Inside feels a little less imaginative through its realism.
It does seem to push further than Limbo in one significant way, though. While death in Limbo raised the tension and felt appropriately creepy, Inside uses it as a narrative tool. There were various points in my playthrough that it seems I was meant to have died to a particular kind of threat, because it would then reverse or subvert that in a later encounter. The subversion wouldn't work if I hadn't died, so the game was counting on me to have failed at some point to enrich the narrative. It's a strange interplay that's only possible in video games, and I really enjoyed seeing Playdead flex its narrative muscles.
Inside appears to be an evolution of Limbo's foundation in visuals, design, and narrative structure. I'm sorry to see the more hazy approach of Limbo traded in for a plot that plays it straight, but I'm still digesting the revelations in this more standard structure. It certainly shows a step forward, and even after six years, Playdead looks primed to avoid the sophomore slump.
This Inside preview was based on a full demo of the game provided by the publisher.
Steve Watts posted a new article, Inside Preview: Unsettling Feelings