Spencer Smith ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
There was a time when game developers only had gameplay to make an artistic statement. Game design was what drove a game’s theme, tone, and story; but games have evolved since then. More tools have come along that have created all new possibilities for the medium and the current rise of independent developers have lead to an increase in games more interested in artistic expression and innovation. While it’s great to see how far the art form has come, the artistic use of game design can feel taken for granted, especially in the face of publisher driven “flagship” games that put cutscenes and graphics over gameplay. That’s why Playdead’s Inside stands as an important reminder of the art in game design.
Inside begins on a mysterious night within a forest where a young boy is on the run from masked kidnappers. Eventually the boy comes to some kind of mind control factory that seems to turn abducted victims into controllable human dummies. From there, it’s a journey through even stranger environments within to reach the end. Rather than a standard plot, the game creates a subjective experience for the player. It’s actually very reminiscent of early side scrolling, as there are no cutscenes or even dialogue, instead it almost feels like one long, uncut chase scene with the boy serving as the player’s avatar.
The 2.5 puzzle-platformer gameplay is what makes Inside, not just in terms of puzzle solving but in how it expresses itself. Director Arnt Jensen and designer Jeppe Carlson’s work is very reminiscent of classic side scrollers as seen best in the nerve-wracking first minutes. Instead of using hints or tutorials, the game introduces game mechanics in a way that’s digestible for the player (i.e. climbing over something) at first in a safe environment, then introduce it in a hazardous one (i.e. climbing over something with dogs chasing you.) The entire game uses this simple, immersive device remarkably, and its intelligent design is the foundation of the game and its puzzles.
The puzzles themselves are fantastic challenges that reward creative thinking and rarely feel lazy or unfair. Most revolve around getting from point A to B (or rather left to right) whether to simply try to advance forward or to escape from the world’s many dangers. Yet the puzzles aren’t just brain teasers; they drive the player’s journey through thick and thin. After all the puzzles often involve masked kidnappers, feral dogs, and even water sirens creating a thick aura of oppression and hopelessness. The puzzles become far more meaningful and symbolic in the grand scope of the player’s own tale of survival.
Inside’s craft goes beyond superb design and puzzle solving. Jensen clearly also has a firm grasp of visuals and imagery. The game uses visual and even cinematographic techniques to set the tone and tell the story; one example is the remarkable use of background and foreground space for foreshadowing. When the boy sneaks into the mind control facility, the background space is constantly populated by the giant line of human dummies. Later the background becomes the foreground when the player is suddenly dropped into the line. This is one of the game’s recurring devices, one of many that it uses to masterful effect.
Yet for all its visual splendor, Inside’s mastery is in its game design. It shows that game design isn’t just a tool, it’s a painter’s brush. A game’s design can be all there is to establish the artistic expression of the game. It can provoke emotion and thought. It can tell a story. Inside is a display of what the craft can create. A surreal, magnificent, beautiful mood piece of a game, one that might be one of the finest examples of the medium in recent memory.