Long gone is the time where games were just about shooting, jumping, and collecting things in small inventories. Now we have games that address all sorts of social ills and dilemmas. You have games that tackle addiction, depression, and domestic violence. You have games that are happy to tackle the toughest and most diverse subjects. The Inner Friend is one of those games: a game that tries to delve into the human psyche and examines creatively and abstractly the inner workings and turmoils of a person in pain.
The psychological horror genre is a place where the gaming industry has gone to multiple times in the recent past, with the genre becoming hugely popular. If you had to force me to categorise The Inner Friend then I would hesitantly put it in this grouping. The story starts with a faceless man squirming around on his bed, obviously in a lot of pain and anguish. Enter Shadow, a sort of broken white mannequin figure who you will be controlling throughout the game – the man’s Inner Friend. Shadow delves into the man’s childhood memories, travelling to places throughout his life like a school, hospital, art gallery, and a shopping mall. These places obviously have had a deep emotional impact on his life and the building up of his emotional makeup. All the locations are nightmarish and abstracted, filled with odd perspectives and monsters lurking around every corner.
The story found in The Inner Friend is great, told wordlessly through extreme visual storytelling. This works very well indeed, as you have to sometimes enforce your own meaning onto what has happened through these childhood memories that are presented. The world is built around you, reminding me of an Eisher painting with its impossible architecture and perspectives that have gone warped. You start each level in the person’s bedroom, as a home base, before heading through a crack in the wall in order to deal with a part of that person’s life. It is here where you begin to collect objects like a teddy bear or video game that will be used later on, or just left to gather up collectibles to display in your room, picking up a couple of precious achievements in the process.
The Inner Friend is an extremely simple thing to play, moving your character around, running, jumping and interacting with things. It’s pretty much a walking sim to begin with as you explore the environments and move from A to B. Soon though you will be involved in some basic puzzle elements, and then a smattering of stealthy elements are required as things get mixed up a bit. In one section – set in an art gallery – you have to avoid security lasers, slowly making you way out through the gift shop exit. On another level you’ll find yourself attempting to move past a creature, watching their loops and utilising ‘hide and run’ techniques. Other times you might have to negotiate a map and, like in “Ico”, help a ghost version of the man by holding his hand and negotiating him through an area. Whatever you are doing in The Inner Friend, it all works well and, even though there isn’t any tutorial of sorts, you won’t find yourself too stuck as you make progress.
It is in the visuals where the strengths of this game lie. The perspectives on offer are, at times, utterly breathtaking. A large room full of hospital beds that is beautifully lit, an underwater room, buildings floating in the sky, and strange art exhibits, are just some of the visual delights on offer for your eyeballs. It has never failed to wow me and The Inner Friend excels when it tells its story through these visuals. It is helped along by the soundtrack too, pushing out multiple moods, swings in tempo, and calming moments.
The Inner Friend does have its problems though, as initially it’s hard to understand exactly what is expected of you. There will also be sections that you end up repeating a lot, mostly due to the controls not being accurate or weighty enough, and that takes you away from the experience somewhat – especially when you find yourself situated in the more stealthy moments. And for as much as I like it as an experience, there is also the fact that the game is only a couple of hours long, and when you factor in the asking price it just doesn’t feel like there is quite enough on offer.
However, this is a brilliantly designed game that delves into the human psyche in an emotional and beautiful manner. I love the way The Inner Friend on Xbox One is presented with huge, strange distorted worlds and mazes of corridors, and when monsters appear it delivers genuinely frightening moments. It is a short playthrough though, but for some that length of time is perfect, however that needs to be taken into account along with the price asked. I would certainly recommend giving this game a go though, especially for those who have found enjoyment from this genre previously. You see, you never know what your Inner Friend might be trying to show you.