Playdead’s Inside is my favourite game of all time.
I’ve played it every year since it released in 2016 and every single time I’ve seen, discovered or realised something new. It’s a game with countless internet discussion boards, YouTube videos and written theories, all trying to dissect what actually happened in the game; desperately pulling at vague clues to stitch together a cohesive plot. It’s a game whose developers have been mostly silent about, which is both rare for this industry and only adds to its incomparable aura of mystic. In a nutshell, Inside is amazing.
But I’ve never put into words why, exactly, it has kept me enthralled for literally half a decade.
A small part of the reason could be that the studio’s first release, Limbo, was a monochrome, moody, physics-based puzzle game that was unyieldingly difficult, uncompromising, and when I played it as a small teen I couldn’t quite believe it existed. It wasn’t my first game. I had been playing games for years and had already gotten my hands on several blockbuster experiences. My disbelief at Limbo came from its artistic side.
I had never played an indie game before nor had I encountered a gaming experience that wasn’t trying to inject fun. Limbo wasn’t entertainment; it wasn’t a product in a traditional sense. It was trying to do something unique, to make some kind of statement – I was just too young to figure out what that statement was. At the time, Limbo’s difference to AAA games of the era – the Arkham series, Skyrim, Uncharted – were enough to keep me entranced. I was in love.
But by the time Inside was revealed I had already played many games, big and small, that did the same thing. Braid, Gone Home, Shadow of the Colossus, BioShock and others all stuck out as titles that were resisting trends, carving out their own path and trying to do, or say, something else. I was interested in Inside, but in hindsight, I wasn’t as excited as I should have been.
So, my expectations were moderate. I knew that I’d enjoy the game, that I’d at least like it. Shortly after it came out, I bought and downloaded it. One night I sat down, as close to my TV as possible, in pitch black and complete silence. I started playing it and I didn’t stop. I didn’t stop until the screen was black again. I didn’t even get up for a water or toilet break. Inside grabbed me, sunk its claws in and didn’t let go… and it still hasn’t, five years later.
I thought about Inside for days. I spent long showers trying to come to terms with what happened, what it was about, trying to make sense of any of it. I must have played Inside at least two more times that same year (I’m keeping that number low because I don’t want to come across as a complete nerd). And the developers were uncommunicative, at best. To this day they’ve never publicly spoken about the events of Inside and what it all meant. And I don’t think they ever should.
(There are some spoilers from this point on, so come back after you’ve finished the game. It’s only 2-3 hours so I don’t know what you’re waiting for!).
There are an infinite number of theories online. There are implied references to real world genocides like the Holocaust. There are weird details in the game like the fact that you always seem to be travelling downwards, even though even after you descend through an ocean, you reach land. Or the weird fact that the location at the end of the game has been created in a diorama earlier in the game. The annoying parasites from Limbo seemingly make a return here. There’s even a secret ending you can unlock if you collect all of the game’s odd, collectible orbs and if you can find where the ending is hidden and if you can solve another obscure puzzle.
There’s a theory that Inside is actually an allegory for the disease, cancer. This comes from the boy’s red shirt and the Blob that looks suspiciously like a tumour, near the end of the game. There’s a theory that the boys from Inside and Limbo are the same character, just that the boy in Limbo is in, well, limbo. There are theories that try to perfectly connect all of Inside’s disparate pieces to form a cohesive story and world. But the comments always throw wrenches into these theories by pointing out a part of the game that has been omitted by the author.
The best part of these theories is that they are all elaborate. Few of these online posts are as anaemic as what I’ve just laid out. They are all fully detailed, long, articulate and take a look at almost the entire game to prove their point. Inside, like all great art, is open to interpretation. Scratch that, Inside invites interpretation. It doesn’t beat its story or themes over your head with all the subtlety of a baseball bat. Inside is wordless; it’s quiet, it’s lonely, it’s bare. It begs the player to think about what it has to say.
This has drawn some criticism. Some have argued that that isn’t really storytelling. Some say that there’s a difference between being open to interpretation and not having anything to say at all. I can understand why the game has spurred some reactions like this. It’s about as obscure and uncommunicative as you can get. But there is something there.
Because Inside isn’t just about what actually happened, or why it happened, or how it happened. So much of what makes its narrative special, for me, has nothing to do with any of this. For me, Inside is way more about what the developers were trying to say. Classic literature often doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Shakespeare was around today, he’d be critically panned for presenting plays that often don’t make sense or conform to our ideas of logic. But classic Shakespeare is still classic because it’s not about what happens, it’s about what he was trying to say. Again, like all great art Inside is open to interpretation so the game will mean something different to everyone if they think about it for long enough.
At first, Inside was a transcendent experience. I had goosebumps as I played through its fever dream environments and lucid puzzles. I loved it as a game. Over time, Inside has taken on a new meaning. A personal one, an academic one, a political one. I won’t divulge too much on what I think it all means because that’s evolving and, honestly, I could probably write a book about it. Hopefully I will one day.
Either way I hope Inside’s place in gaming history only grows over time. Lesser games get several times the attention, especially now that all the ‘Best of the 2010s’ lists have been written. While other games are a Frankenstein’s monster of corporate trends and mainstream design, Inside’s only similarity to Frankenstein is that it’s a masterpiece.
Happy birthday, Queen.
If you haven’t yet played Inside, grab it right now from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. And once you have played it, get back here and let us know your thoughts in regards to what the hell is going on. The comments are below.