Like most so-called “spiritual successors” of note, Playdead’s Inside maintains an active conversation with the developer’s previous title, at times even flirting with overt reference. Yes, the shadowy deathscapes of 2010’s sleeper hit Limbo loom large over Playdead’s second game, both in style and form, as this is yet another minimalist puzzle-platformer more interested in contraptions and logic than timing and reflexes.
In the hands of any other developer, this familiar formulation may taste a bit stale, but in the case of Playdead, it’s just another way for the game to futz with the player’s expectations, one deft set piece at a time. Anyone who begrudged Limbo for its noose-tight scripting and affinity for the macabre will find little recompense here, as Inside offers few opportunities to go off its beaten two-dimensional path, and most of those terminate with the child you control dying in increasingly grisly ways. Still, while the crawlspace linearity of this left-to-right adventure can occasionally stifle, especially when certain elements of the background appear so inviting, Playdead uses this aged template to deliver perhaps the most immaculately authored gaming experience since Fumito Ueda’s 2001 classic Ico.
Amputated from the whole, the constituent parts would be nothing remarkable: a collection of clever conundrums that manage to find some new flavor in some of the genre’s dustiest chestnuts. Crates, as it turns out, are your boy’s best friend, followed by mysterious red buttons, ladders, and inert switches, all conspiring to help him stay alive just one puzzle longer. While none of these obstacles will hold back a shrewd player for very long, with the exception of a memorable multi-parter that comes in right as things start to slow in the second half, they all display a spare ingenuity that seems to mark Playdead’s signature. Again and again, one feels that these tiny dilemmas are entirely unworkable—that is, right until they unfurl beneath your probing of its switches and slopes, another victim of experimentation.
These puzzles are connected with the striking world design that Playdead’s previous game boasted, slowly shifting as the boy gets closer to his goal. But unlike Limbo, which was stitched together by a sort of dark dream logic that revealed theme through unsettling juxtapositions (like a spider’s nest giving way to dilapidated machinery), Inside’s route is far more concrete, tracing its way from dark woods to an abandoned city to a sprawling laboratory complex. Where Limbo’s barren world dripped with a formless supernatural malice, the dark forces that underlie Inside seem all too human, and the result disturbs far more than any mosquito, bed of spikes, or bear trap ever could.
Only a select few humans appeared in Limbo, and most of them were corpses; in Inside, they’re everywhere, and they’re all acting in concert against you, a tiny child. When they catch you, they don’t shoot you, or stab you, or take you to their masters. No, they smother you to death, slowly and carefully.
When looking back on a game like Inside, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to break it down to its most shocking scenes—a hotel sign here, a spider there. Many will flock to the web shortly after the credits roll to discuss these moments, anxious for someone to tell them what they all means. But while those set pieces certainly leave an impression (like the final one, which is as close to a statement of intent as Playdead will likely ever allow themselves), focusing on them alone does the rest of the game a serious disservice. Like Limbo, Inside is one of the few video games that reaches the level of allegory. What that means exactly is up to you, and one must play it first to find out.