Without 3D, there is no cinematic gaming. Yet despite Playdead’s cinematic ambitions (for no indie studio aspires to only making videogames), 2010’s Limbo hardly made any use of it. Missing the kind of believable setting that 3D makes possible, it resorted to draping itself in a blurred suggestion of a monochromatic underworld. It was a terrible compromise, but it fortunately worked out at the time due to both its dreamlike aesthetic and gamers’ renewed interest in small, 2D games. But our appetite for such nostalgic snacks has decreased, and if another Limbo is to succeed, we’re going to need something far more substantial.
Realizing this, Inside dramatically improves on Limbo with its fully 3D rendered world that immediately intrigues and draws us in. Far from being an afterthought or background wallpaper, the world here becomes an essential part of the experience, worth being invested in, and the way it wraps itself around the protagonist’s path can almost be called beautiful at times. I found myself constantly interacting with it both in order to understand its strangeness and in my responses to the various threats that come alive from within it. It’s awesome in that it’s so unexpected to actually see something like it in a game like this (i.e. in a Limbo-like). Sadly, it isn’t long before these wonders are dispelled by the same tired design from before. Thinking there was something worth preserving in Limbo’s dull puzzles, Playdead had them return. Along with their single-axis movement constraint. Now even though Inside can look quite stunning at times, the 3D environments end up conflicting quite violently with not only the restricted movement, but the multitude of immersion-shattering coincidences that constitute puzzle solutions. The game represents itself seriously, after all, but the puzzles nearly always end up subverting the world’s integrity. How can anyone take a story seriously that hinges on so many random crates just happening to be in the right place at the right time? This compromised design results in an experience that nauseatingly alternates between mesmerizing and ridiculous (ending on a high note at least, since the final chapter’s only got one terrible puzzle, and little else gets in your way).
Inexperience in 3D game design seems to be the culprit. A moment’s time with a more mature 3D cinematic game like Wanda to Kyozou or even an Uncharted would have revealed the way forward. But perhaps Playdead was unable to stray too far from Limbo’s design, feeling that puzzles like these were essential to a Limbo-like experience, a situation similar to what Tim Schafer wrestled with in Double Fine Adventure. It would be one thing if the puzzles felt like you were engaging with the world (and the best do, such as when you calm the pig or steal the bathysphere), but far too many feel random and disconnected from the rest of the experience, damaging the carefully crafted atmosphere. The ease at which you’ll be blowing past most of them makes me wonder if these really were the best things Playdead could think for us to do in this world. Many are solved on auto-pilot and forgotten as quickly as a Sudoku puzzle. There are a few exceptions, such as the opening scene, the underwater section, and the shockwaves, but few stand out apart from these. Others bring the game down even further, the worst of which being the mind control puzzles. That being said, even though so many of the puzzles are lame, the world itself remained interesting enough throughout that I stuck with it until the end, unlike with Limbo.
There was also a missed opportunity here. Games like this are still currently welcome in VR, and if it had been, say, developed (not ported) as a PlayStation VR launch title, it could have been something special. For a more historical example, it’s comparable to the way 2D games were lifted into 3D for the first time, as seen in Super Mario 64, Metal Gear Solid, and Zelda no Densetsu: Toki no Ocarina. All those games relied heavily on their new respective hardware platforms, and became practically essential experiences at the time. And it was never on account of their game design, which the wisest among them ended up ditching almost entirely as it matured. Rather it was the vision of the future that they offered, together with the hardware.
Of course, Inside does nothing of the sort. If it had targeted VR platforms, which the 3D environments seem to cry out for, then it might well have been worth playing. But as it is, the game falls flat.