Are Video Games Art?: A Review of “Inside”

In Playdead’s Inside, you’ll spend your short time with it roaming a side-scrolling, dystopian world that’s quite alien to the one that we live in. It’s a world that’s almost entirely devoid of color, and entirely devoid of friends, in a game that is at all times captivating, horrifying, and breathtaking.

You control a faceless young boy, whom you’ll soon find out is being hunted by similarly faceless men — men who will not hesitate to gun you down on sight if you are to make the wrong move as you venture into a mysterious facility and progress towards the game’s awe-inspiring climax. The story here is vague, the color-palette minimal, and the sound design champions silence, but all of this heightens the superb atmosphere that is perhaps Inside’s best trait, all making for an entirely original experience that’s quite unparalleled within the medium.

Inside is a 2.5D puzzle-platformer, so, naturally, you’ll spend the majority of the game working your way from the left of the screen to the right, all the while completing increasingly tricky puzzles, and attempting harrowing leaps across rooftops along the way. Inside is in many ways very similar to Playdead’s previous release, 2010’s Limbo; another one in which you played as a faceless young boy journeying through a (mostly) monochromatic world with little to no outright explanation as to what is really going on. And like Limbo before it, Inside’s gameplay is broken up into two distinct styles: one being the puzzle bits, and the other the platforming sections.

Inside gradually builds its physics-based puzzles by slowly introducing increasingly compelling mechanics over the game’s three-hour-length in order to keep the act of completing them fresh, and you’re never bombarded with too many new ideas or dauntingly complicated puzzles. It’s likely that you’ll never be stuck on any one section for more than five to ten minutes, as Inside may technically fall in the “puzzle” genre, but it’s not too concerned with actually testing you. Rather, Playdead has created an interesting world and thematic story which they want you to experience with as little pain as possible.

On the platforming side, Inside again is similar to Limbo in that you’ll likely spend a lot of time watching your character die in detailed and haunting scenes of violence. Inside early on establishes the act of trial-and-error, an idea found within many of its sequences — sequences that see you sprinting for your life away from bloodthirsty hounds whose growls and barks convey they’re very quickly closing the distance on you. But scenes like this are only the beginning. It starts as a simple act of hopping a fence in order to escape a ravenous dog’s jaws, but Inside quickly heightens its macabre machines of death — literally — with mechanical monstrosities designed solely to maim you.

Inside is most successful in these moments, as each of these chase sequences is perfectly designed to only ever allow you to barely scrape by with your life — one false move will almost certainly treat you to an act of mutilation upon your character. There’re dozens of these harrowing set pieces in Inside, each one just as well choreographed as the last. Even as I ran from a pack of dogs for the half-dozenth time, my heart still raced as fast as it had the first time. Each of these moments ended with a celebratory sigh of relief, and a couple seconds of downtime in order to collect myself.

And while the trial-and-error-ness may make Inside sound like sort of a pain to play, the developers do an incredible job of subtly informing the player as to how to survive each encounter before you’re even presented with it, and the checkpoint system is extremely generous. So, even if you are to die, you will only lose at most 30 seconds of progress — if even half that amount of time. And it’s especially nice that the game is exceedingly quick to load each checkpoint, as well, so you never feel particularly penalized for making the wrong move; you’re back in it as soon as you die, and it’s always gratifying when you successfully finish a section you’ve been stuck on.

The surrounding aspects of Inside are just as stellar as its gameplay. The look of the game is immediately striking, and stays that way until the credits roll. Playdead’s decision to transition from the stunning 2D art of Limbo to the 3D models seen here is valiant, and this change definitely pays off, as the models are all rendered beautifully with incredible detail and fluid animation. The world is almost entirely made up of grays and blacks with some hushed colors scattered throughout — colors like the character’s shirt, which gives off a hue of red. Similarly, much of what you can interact with in order to solve puzzles is highlighted through minimal shades of reds and yellows, expertly guiding the player through the game. 

The sound design is first-rate as well. Much of the game is played without a score, instead opting for a minimal aural experience where you’re treated to the pitter-pattering of rain and the crunching of leaves underneath your character’s feet. This makes the few moments in which music does begin to swell in the background truly memorable.

It’s not very often that I finish a game in one sitting these days, but over the course of three hours, on a perfectly fitting hot summer night, I completed Inside without once stopping. Inside took a hold of me from its initial button-press and never let go, presenting a masterfully paced tale that even led me to watch in amazement as the credit sequence played, my mind racing in an attempt to piece together what had just transpired in front of me. There were so many moments throughout that three-hour session that I could point to — especially during the final 20 minutes — where I literally muttered to myself, “this is so cool. This is so fucking cool!”

What Playdead has created here is undoubtedly incredible. Inside is not only one of the year’s best games, but one of the decade’s best, as well. It’s a game that will be pointed to in the future, when confronted with that age-old question of whether or not video games are “art.” Of course, I believe video games have the capacity to be art, same as any other medium.

Inside is a prime example.

— Michael Lane, Blog Editor


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