It comes as a surprise for me that Playdead’s newest release — Inside — is on the one hand lauded for its apparent genius by reviewers and audiences, and on the other hand criticised sharply by the same people for its ending and general ambiguity. The same thing happened back when Limbo, their first game, was released. Indeed every time when games like these are released, articles, videos and posts pop up that try to somehow make sense of the game; to explain what its purpose is. It is often the people who got some purpose explained to them that most loudly claim “a stroke of genius”. It seems to me that people are looking way too hard for a full explanation. That it is logic in the end that makes the game complete and enjoyable, and not the themes, expression or the emotions the game invokes whilst playing. That purpose is important and not meaning in the existential and personal sense. Even then, what others think of the game may not be what you see in it. Why not, then, think about it yourself? Thus I want to claim first and foremost here that this is not going to be an explanation of or a search for any universal meaning. What I am going to talk about in this article is my personal experience playing Inside and Limbo back to back, while also interpreting and comparing the gameplay, storytelling, and aesthetics of the games.
It should go without saying, but: Massive spoilers ahead.
Ropes and Crevices: The Gameplay
Let’s start with what is arguably the simplest aspect to analyse: the core game mechanic. Limbo has you walking from left to right and, like in a classic platformer, overcome typical obstacles like clefts, bodies of water, and more man-made traps by jumping or swinging over them. While the first few puzzles of the game mostly involve those core mechanics of movement, later physical objects like boxes or rocks are introduced. Very briefly at the end of the game, we see a “rotating room” puzzle and a new gravity mechanic. Most of the puzzles, platforming or not, are based on timing, while a few exceptions require more complex puzzle-solving skills like using momentum or exploiting the machinery in the game. The more basic traps one encounters in the game cannot really be called puzzles, since those are primarily failure-based and require only one retry to get right. Those are more of an environmental hazard, and shall be discussed in the storytelling section, where they will be compared to the evasion puzzles Inside has.
Inside is not so different from Limbo with regards to gameplay. Pretty much all core mechanics from Limbo are still there, but the puzzle mechanics have been changed a lot. Gone are the multitudes of timing puzzles that were often frustrating and needed several attempts to get “just right”. The problem with timing puzzles is that the player understands them right away (or after the first failed attempt at least) and then only has to compensate for the timing element.
No further thought or logic is required, one just needs to time one’s actions right. Puzzles like those become boring fast and are more so frustrating than pure logic puzzles precisely because of that. It is working against time instead of thinking about a solution — in fact, the solution is already known and just cannot be implemented. In the end, however, this is not only frustrating, but also detrimental to the flow of the game. Replaying Limbo after having played through Inside highlights the immense abruptness it displays in its pacing because of failure in timing-based puzzles. This is a point I will comment on further when talking about the music of the games.
Inside builds its puzzles on a fundamental base of game elements and logic. There is little waiting for machinery, and essentially no time-based interaction (with a few — albeit easier — exceptions). Instead, the player has to solve logic puzzles (in case of the mind control and gravity mechanic) or observational ones (in case of the girl in the water, the mind-controlled pig, breaking through stone walls or the interaction with the scientists in very late parts of the game). In fact, most of the puzzles are based on observation more so than pure logic.
A good example for this is the puzzle in which you end up in a queue of mindless puppets and have to fall in line and conform. Nothing in the game explicitly tells you so, but the environment makes it clear in a nice and subtle way. By observing other people in the queue it becomes obvious how you are supposed to act. Later, when only a specific group of people standing in a delimited area start jumping, the game conveys the goal simply by showing the player a specific motion. After the whole line is halted because a dog seemingly noticed the player’s presence, the player character starts fidgeting and gets ready to run away. Here the game tells the player that it is clearly time to start running without actually forcing them to. This whole puzzle can be solved instinctively, without any deep insight or logical choice, which makes it a great puzzle in that it both is challenging and world-building at the same time. The latter comes simply from the aspect of control that is portrayed; that some third unknown party has most of it and wants to keep it that way.
Another example of this kind of puzzle is the pig puzzle at the start of the game. What starts out as a simple challenge of evasion later is meshed into an observational puzzle, when — after knocking out the pig — a small worm that attached itself to it starts to wiggle. The game gives no prompt, but hints with subtle movement and contrasting colour at the puzzle’s solution: pulling the worm out.
Here, storytelling, puzzling, and the visual element are combined. The game shows through this puzzle that there is some kind of entity that can control living beings. It is also established that one can remove the threat or at least control it. Indeed, right after one solves this puzzle, the main mind-control mechanic is introduced and suddenly it is the player who controls and not any unseen outside force.
Thus, in direct comparison to Limbo, the puzzles of Inside are more connected to the world it portrays and the story it wants to tell. The gameplay blends in, becomes a part of the world. This makes for a more immersive and real experience. In fact it is only at the very end of the game when Inside features some more detached and purely logical puzzles that Limbo had throughout. At that point they feel less out of place than those at the end of Limbo, just because it has already been established beforehand that the world of Inside is an alien one and that they have a more meaningful metaphorical connection to the humanoid beings you control.
Something worth mentioning furthermore is that Inside lets the player backtrack more often than Limbo. Instead of (almost mindlessly) going from left to right, very often Inside has you travel back from right to left. Together with a more vertical gameplay experience throughout the middle and late part of the game, this opens the world up more and makes it feel both intriguing and real. In Limbo the only time you backtracked was when you were controlled by one of the brain bugs. Inside enables you to make the conscious effort to go back, explore more or finish a more complex puzzle that way. In the end, this makes the gameplay work for the story and world in Inside and indeed against it in Limbo. The puzzles there feel too construed, too detached to make sense and connect to the experience. They finally are even in their variety only puzzles. The challenges and puzzle themes in Inside give the storytelling and aesthetic design an interactive element on the side of the player. The player is allowed — through the puzzles — to interact with the real world the game has created. The puzzles make the game come alive more. They are a part of the world.
Machines and Oppression: The Storytelling
Neither Inside nor Limbo have any kind of introductory text or prologue. The only palpable hint one gets is the game’s description. Seeing as a deliberate and obvious presentation of storytelling in the games themselves is very rare, this only makes sense. There is always a sense of deep vagueness, both in Limbo and — even more so in my opinion — in Inside.
Limbo’s description hints already at what most people consider the core story point of the game: a boy’s search for his sister and his resulting journey through limbo. The journey itself is presented via a variety of setpieces connected by obstacles, environmental threats, wildlife, and human enemies. Several times the boy nearly finds (or at least comes close to finding) his sister. Throughout the beginning and middle part of the game the boy is also targeted by what one can only describe as a tribal group of people; they use spears, spikes and very primitive traps to kill or otherwise incapacitate the boy.
The earliest — and perhaps most prominent — enemy our boy has to face is a giant spider that takes an uncanny interest in him and returns several times until finally defeated, maimed, and then used as a stepping stone for a puzzle. After the aforementioned tribal group is defeated by luring them into deadly mechanical presses, the game only presents one more “natural” enemy: the mind worms.
Those take possession of the boy, stopping the player from turning and moving in the other direction. At the end of the game all puzzles and obstacles are chiefly of a mechanical nature (and even supernature). Magnets, conveyor belts, giant saws, electricity, gravity; all those form the experience at the end and create a more abstract and disconnected one.
It is hard to consider there being no connection between all those elements. It feels very much like a depiction of the boy’s development in life and how he dealt with certain obstacles. It is a reliving of his life. The spider, an early irrational (but quite instinctual) fear. The tribal group, a rival gang in the boy’s early years. The mind worms, being forced to conform to society’s values, being challenged in one’s own aspirations by pressure from an outside party. And finally, technology and indeed the physical and real world itself with which the boy came into contact and to which he possibly lost his sister.
Thus, the game escalates more and more towards the end, putting more and more pressure on the boy, requiring more skill, and presenting several obstacles at once. This escalation culminates in a final course with several machine guns, huge saws, and hydraulic presses all while the gravity keeps being inverted by an outside force. The very last puzzle requires precise timing and aligns the boy perpendicular to a pane of glass, falling towards it. The game slows down and the boy shatters through the glass…
Limbo so ends in a final catharsis for the boy, but an open ending for the player as the game cuts to black right before the boy can look his sister in the eye in an open and grassy field. In this sense, the story is told more clearly than the one in Inside. There are less vague depictions and more simple, certain (but still very allegorical) images. Even the game’s title is more apparent in its meaning and less vague by far than Inside, in that it is connected to the catholic idea of afterlife without being assigned to hell.
From the very beginning, Inside is more restrained in making its story or themes clear to the player. In contrast to Limbo’s description, which draws a more obvious and immediate goal, Inside alludes only to a dark project and the state in which the boy finds himself: hunted and alone. What the dark project is and why the boy is both hunted and alone is never stated in the game, but hinted at and referenced through its environmental storytelling and visuals. The description is so vague, in fact, that one may conclude it describing a general theme and not the game itself. This can also be said of the title. After all, what is “inside”? Where is “inside”? These are very broad questions. Thus it may be said that Inside is not a complete story in itself, but rather one great allegory on life. More specifically on the themes of control, conformism, loss of identity, loneliness, individualism, and the resulting nonconformism.
Like in Limbo, nearly all of the storytelling is emergent from the journey the boy takes through the environment. Immediately at the start of the game, the boy comes sliding down a big rock in a forest. A few steps further he comes across a truck driving away and a group of people seemingly searching for something. If at any point the boy makes himself visible to those people, they start hunting him straight away. What happens to the boy should he be caught is not shown, the game only fades to black. This notion of being hunted is omnipresent throughout the game just until the very end.
In fact, many of the early puzzles are specifically set up to introduce that theme. Oftentimes the boy has to evade people or dogs that chase him. This parallels the environmental hazards and wildlife the boy from Limbo had to face. Here, however, it is not any primordial or natural fear that is conveyed. Rather, the boy has to escape an entirely man-made and artificial danger in lieu of that. Not only is it then a basic fear resulting from physical danger, but also an idealistic and indeed authoritarian fear that results in a feeling of oppression, hopelessness, and loneliness.
A good example for the loss of identity and the theme of control shown is the mind-control mechanic. Early in the game after evading the pig and removing the mind-control worm from it, the boy comes across a strange contraption. A futuristic helmet connected to thick black wires is dangling from the ceiling. Once the boy connects to it, his movements are mirrored by several humanoid shapes that before were kneeling down, unmoving. These puppets do everything the boy instructs them to do, disregarding their health or general well-being. At this point one can draw an obvious parallel between the boy and the player, since the boy is essentially the same thing, a mindless puppet. Later on the player even controls more than 10 of those people at once. Who is really controlling those people? Where lies the identity when a group of people mirrors your every move? Are you still one, or are you suddenly many? Furthermore, if you are still only one, then which one are you?
From the boy himself emerges the theme of individualism, he is one actor against many. Against a whole system of thought, even, when one regards his fight as a clash of dogmata and ideals. Barring the contrast between the muted game world and the bright red shirt the boy wears, he exhibits just through the completion and overcoming of puzzles an almost natural counter-force towards the whole system of oppression depicted in the game. The game does not stop there with its analysis of control and individualistic goals. Even though one might infer a goodness in the boy, he himself uses other beings as tools to further his own goals as well. This not only applies to the puppets, but also the more innocently and purely displayed animals. At one point the boy has to use a machine to smash a group of small chicks against a bale so he can use it to reach a ledge. One of the chicks dies in the process. It is left only to wonder whether the usage of any organism to further one’s goal is in any sense moral.
Curiously, the game ends not in a triumph of individuality, but rather a more complete loss of it. Having finally found the dark project alluded to, the boy tries to disconnect several mind-control devices attached to a huge blob of living tissue and human limbs.
Before he can remove the last one, he is grabbed by one of the limbs and swallowed by the blob. For the rest of the game you control this blob, guiding it through the facility and aiding it in its struggle to escape.
Horrified scientists and workers look on as the blob destroys parts of the facility in a display of pure strength and will. It is in this hive-mind of people that the boy within it escapes not only from the facility, but also from the nightmare of oppression. After breaking through a wooden wall and tumbling down a rocky hill outside, the blob rolls to a beach and rests there peacefully in the sunshine. This theme of breaking through something to achieve catharsis is also apparent in Limbo’s ending and signals the end of a struggle — maybe even the end of a story — but most importantly a finding of new freedom and peace.
White Noise and Black Depths: The Aesthetics
The visuals and music are at the very core of the experience in Limbo and Inside. They are the elements one notices first and foremost when starting to play and they are indeed the ones most talked about, since they are the most obvious candidates for a more objective discussion. In the end it is the visual element that itself shapes most of the storytelling. Information and themes are conveyed in Limbo and Inside through game environments, contrast in colour, lighting, shading, composition, layering, and — simply — movement.
Limbo is a very clear and minimalist example of this. The whole game is in black and white and has very hard contrasts throughout. For example, the boy’s eyes are a glaring white on a black body. These are in fact the only difference between the portrayal of the boy and other humanoid beings; the members of the tribal group lack any eyes. The backgrounds in Limbo are very subtly designed, a layering only apparent by very fine differences in shades of grey. Oftentimes there is only one single vague light source, shining down on the boy from the top right. The environment, common enemies, interactables and obstacles are all one deep black. Highlights, on the other hand, are a bright white. Interestingly enough this is also the case for the mind worms, to give them a visual distinction. In later levels, electrified surfaces are also highlighted this way.
Overlaid on top of all this is a grainy filter that makes Limbo look like an old film in movement. It is a game equivalent of film noir. There is a certain vintage quality to it, maybe even a nostalgia. The closest it comes visually to anything else is David Lynch’s 1977 movie Eraserhead, which coincidentally also had very industrial themes. In that sense, Limbo achieves a dreamlike atmosphere of dreariness and hopelessness.
This is accented also by Martin Stig Anderson’s acousmatic music, which, while eerily palpable and present, is almost too abstract to place anywhere concrete. It is not so much music, but rather a tone, one elongated warbling note that branches out and diffuses in a space beyond the headphones or speaker. Juxtaposed against this more ambient approach are the very hard-hitting and unrelenting sound effects of chainsaws, machine guns and cog wheels.
In comparison to Limbo’s very clear visual distinctions, Inside operates on another level of contrast. White as the colour of peace is still very much present in Limbo, battling fiercely with the shades of grey and the utter blackness of the surrounding world. Therein lies the core battle, the core contrast. Inside, instead, is not so clear. Every colour in it is muted, washed out, overcome by a certain oppression. It is a bluish-grey dystopia in which displaying any bright or saturated colour is pure dissension. The mindless puppets being controlled by an outside party are all wearing clothes of lifeless browns, greys or indeed blacks. Faces are featureless, emotions suppressed.
The contrast therefore is not a juxtaposition of colours, but rather the complete absence of saturation and the blurring of colour. Unlike Limbo, Inside does not go out of its way to show any existing and inherent contrast. It is not immediately apparent, but builds itself up over the course of the game. Finally it is this absence of contrast that becomes the contrast. In instances where there is a single point of focus and juxtaposition in the frame, the contrast becomes much more striking. This single point of focus is often a distinct light source, casting long shadows everywhere and often highlighting the boy himself. The best example of this is the end scene, in which a soft light shines from the top right corner onto the beach where the blob rests. Ultimately, light (and not chiefly colour) is Inside’s notion of hope.
Aurally, Inside is even more deliberate and still than Limbo. The core elements of Anderson’s acousmatic music are still there, but are this time more connected to the visuals and gameplay. Before, in Limbo, the music stopped and restarted every time the boy died. Inside does that differently, it keeps the music and sound effects going, no matter what happens. This makes it less personal than Limbo, since the whole world it portrays is wholly ignorant of the boy’s death. It is more nihilistic and uncaring. It is in the end an experience not centered around the boy, but the person controlling the boy, outside of him. If there is something inside that dies, the outside continues to exist; in fact, it can never stop existing.
Both games are about a struggle. While Limbo operates on lower, more instinctual levels, Inside orchestrates the elements of storytelling, environmental design and music to create a sense of emotional turmoil; an existential angst, if you will. Limbo is about a very personal loss and the resulting pain. Inside is about the even more horrid pain and turmoil resulting from oppression, the loss of control, and — resulting therefrom — the loss of freedom.
In the end Inside makes us think about ourselves more so than Limbo does. It operates outside of itself, inside us — as both controller and, in the bigger societal picture, controlled. Inside has a deliberate transcendent factor that is apparent also in Limbo, but far less pronounced. It seems that Limbo was originally supposed to be Inside, but could not achieve the same kind of gravitas, being limited by time or perhaps finances. Limbo displays a kind of roughness that Inside lost. This roughness does not at all work against the game, however. It makes it something different, something unique. It makes it an artistic milestone. A milestone, perhaps, in the creation of a work that is supposed to transcend common borders and inspire to both think and feel.