Playdead’s INSIDE is a Nightmare Trapped in a Dystopian Daydream

INSIDE, a new atmospheric horror game from the creators of Limbo, follows around a little boy as he makes his way through a world that’s bent on his demise. The game manages to find a way to be both melancholic and indirectly terrifying, as the player guides the faceless boy through the shadows of a forest, a dystopian cityscape, an underwater lab, and to the end of all things.

The terror of INSIDE isn’t in jump scares or psychological twists. Instead, it’s tightly bound to a player’s empathy. Games that feature small children as protagonists, especially in a horror setting, elicit feelings of helplessness that an adult protagonist in similar situations may not. Clementine from Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the two-year-old from Among the Sleep, the little boy from Limbo, and now the faceless boy from INSIDE all present us with an evolutionary imperative: protect the innocent.

As I led the boy through the first moments of the game, I was immediately struck by how realistic the movements felt — I’ve watched my son move like that, running and jumping and crouching while playing with his sister and friends. My heart broke a little every time that the boy was caught by his pursuers. Each time a dog worried its way through his throat, I would gasp and look away.

The faceless boy managed to become every little boy I’d ever known. It hurt to watch as dogs tore him apart, as a pursuing agent broke his neck, or as a shockwave blasted him to pieces. Call it a severe dose of empathy or parental instinct, but guiding a child through a murderous landscape required me to step away several times to compose myself before continuing.

INSIDE’s puzzles are minimalist and rely on a combination of atmosphere, physics, and timing, the latter of which tended to infuriate me beyond measure. The game’s real challenges are nestled in the player’s panic. The ability to shove down your horror and alarm as dogs are chasing you or as robots are attempting to electrocute you is what will set you up for success or failure. A combination of nerves and a lack of timing is ultimately what did me in during some of the game’s more intensive puzzles towards the end of the game.

Expect to fail a lot while you play through INSIDE. As is the case with many puzzle platform games, the only way to learn the solution to a physics or timing puzzle is to try it. Then, try it again. And try it several more times until you uncover the solution somewhere in the middle of a mental breakdown and an epiphany.

The creepiest, and my favourite, puzzles of the game involved gathering up and controlling Husks, lifeless meat puppets that are controlled by a helmet that the boy slips on. Early in the game, the Husk-powered puzzles are fairly simple, requiring minimal coordination to complete tasks. The final Husk puzzle is several parts deep, requiring coordination, stealth, and excellent timing.

INSIDE’s narrative exists as both a cultural commentary and as a glimpse into a dystopian future, where the many exist to benefit the few. The cultural significance of a game like INSIDE is palpable — it’s easy to empathize with the cog-in-the-machine perspective in today’s Silicon Valley, productivity-obsessed economy. Stand out or resist at your own peril.

As you wind closer to the end of the game, which I won’t spoil because you absolutely must experience it first-hand, you’ll notice that your escape is being aided by people who want to see you free — the people who might’ve been trying to kill you this whole game suddenly see the error of their ways. Or, you have become their beacon of hope to escape from this life.

Empathy is the beginning and the end of the game. My terror was predicated on how I felt for the faceless boy as he ran from his faceless pursuers, especially at the beginning. At the end of the game, the empathy that faceless boy encounters from others is ultimately what helps him to escape from his traumatic surroundings and burst free into the world. And it was a lack of empathy that had put the faceless boy and the Husks in such a predicament to begin with: as experiments and faceless tools to be used without consent or consideration for free will. 

Playdead has managed to create a new kind of atmospheric horror game: one that feels like an art house horror film and plays as fluidly as one can hope for in a physics-based puzzle-platformer. The narrative, especially the ending, provides more questions than answers, provoking both conversation and speculation that seek to uncover INSIDE’s “why”. It is, after all, the questions that drive us to dig deeper into stories. And I look forward to digging back into INSIDE’s secrets… as soon as my nerves heal up a bit.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)

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