Restraint rarely gets the credit it deserves. We’re so quick to shower attention on the biggest and the boldest, when knowing how to hold back and get the most out of your limitations is an equally laudable skill. It opens up new realms of connection and expression, allowing the material that’s there to stand tall and the audience to fill in what’s missing. With one strange little game, Limbo, the developers at Playdead emerged as flag-bearers for this ethos, masters of minimalism and mood. Inside, the team’s long-gestating second release, finds the Danish studio digging deeper into the same rich earth that birthed its debut and returning with a game that’s even more disturbing but no less deft in its constraint.
Like Limbo, Inside is a wordless game—nothing spoken, nothing written. Its world and story are hinted at as you stumble, often literally, from place to place, trying to escape whatever happens to be chasing you at the time. Without more to go on than discrete glimpses—people herding humans into a truck here, a farm full of dead pigs and mind-controlling worms there—our imaginations are left to fashion some morbid logic to connect the game’s fractured horrors. There’s no easy explanation, but the ambiguity pushes you to ruminate on what you’ve seen and give every distressing detail more attention and meaning than it might have gotten otherwise.
It also lends itself to a stronger, more natural sense of moral ambiguity. In Inside, the only thing that’s clear is your pursuers are doing something horrible to other humans, and you’ll occasionally have to partake in it if you’re going to survive. Without a voice to speak with or an agenda to speak of, there’s no irritable attempt at moralizing or pointing out the obviously questionable nature of your actions. Inside would rather leave you to steep in your grim business. Whether that leads to indifference or some measure of guilt is a personal matter, and Playdead is wise enough to realize providing the prompt is more powerful than dictating the answer.
That same discipline is evident in the game’s sparse sound design. Inside is brutally quiet. Other than the pitter-patter of the boy’s feet as he runs through various woods and buildings, it maintains an eerie silence, so much so that any foreign sound becomes a universal sign of danger. The noise of a car door shutting or a dog barking or a machine whirring to life cuts through the quiet like a terrifying alarm, prompting the game to churn and flood its foreboding air with tangible menace. Limbo was often referred to as a horror game—likely because of its shockingly violent deaths and creepy atmosphere, both of which carry over to Inside—but Playdead’s follow-up tackles that label head on, and its ingenious handling of sound and silence is vital to its success.
Equally important is the intimacy of the game’s threats. It moves between relaxed environmental puzzles—pushing boxes and finding ways to make ramps or lift heavy gates—and nail-biting chases, the latter of which are scarier than anything in most of Inside’s horror contemporaries. The sensation of being pursued that the game is able to create, knowing that a rabid dog is one step behind you and ready to tear your throat out at the slightest misstep, is powerful and dreadful. The camera feels more connected to your movement than in Limbo, subtly jostling along as you run for your life over uneven ground and further drawing the player into the danger of the moment. Most importantly, Playdead designed the game in such a way that escape is only ever achieved by the skin of your teeth, so that each chase demands perfect execution and reaches peak tension.
There’s one big problem with that kind of design, and it’s a flaw held over from Limbo and its predecessors, like Another World. That feeling of being in immediate danger is inescapable and impressively cultivated, but it only works once. If you fail and suffer a violent death (it’s always a violent death), you’re forced to repeat the same sequence until you figure out the exact order and timing of things you’re supposed to do. After that initial rush, there’s no longer the thrill of the unexpected. Instead, the puzzle reveals itself and you’re tasked with going through the motions until you trial-and-error your way through. Especially when you’re stuck repeating it because, say, you misjudged a jump by a matter of pixels, the simple problem solving Inside asks of you is far less exhilarating than the desperate flight it evokes at first blush.
The other half of the game, made up of more traditional puzzles, is another beneficiary of Playdead’s restrained design. Inside never riffs on a single kind of puzzle for too long, opting instead to restrict its various concepts and tools to distinct chunks. It introduces an idea in a low-pressure situation than gradually turns up the complexity or danger before moving on to a new setting and clutch of puzzles. In Nintendo’s hands, this school of design is famously vibrant and user friendly. To Playdead, it’s also a way to ensure we never quite find our balance. Just as things start to make sense, you’re forcefully shoved into yet another alien situation and asked to adapt again. It’s never jarring, but it is in keeping with Inside’s goal of being elegantly discomforting.
And discomfort is what Playdead has proven itself to be best at creating. The studio understands that there’s disquiet in the unknown and the undefined, and that what’s unheard and unseen can be even more powerful than what’s right in front of us. This is a philosophy that informs Inside’s every trait, from its ambiguous narrative to its uncomplicated character designs and fragile soundscapes. What really cements the developer’s prowess is the finale, a shocking sequence that proves Playdead is just as capable of recognizing when to break free of those restraints as it is knowing when to apply them. But the less said about that the better.