Playdead's 2010 indie hit LIMBO is one of my favourite games ever. It was one of the only games I ever bought off the XBLA and I bought it based solely on its imagery, as it looked like it would be super atmospheric and mysterious and all that jazz. And naturally, I was very correct. But on top of the impeccable atmosphere and visuals, the game design is what truly stole the show. LIMBO was a masterclass of game design; game design in its purest form. No additional modes, or options or fluff - just a handful of simple mechanics and a linear world to use them in. I adored the game and couldn't wait to see what Playdead did next.
Fast forward seven years, and I have finally played what Playdead did next - INSIDE. On paper it simply looked like LIMBO 1.5 - a side scrolling puzzle platformer where you play as a small child in a mysterious and uncaring world. And whilst that is pretty much what INSIDE is (and that isn't a bad thing), it is also enough of a step up and away from LIMBO for it to be considered as doing more than just retreading old ground.
The set up is about as simple as it can get. You control a young boy who starts out in a forest, and he is either running away from or towards something. You can run, jump, push and pull objects, flip switches and eventually use a device that allows limited control over human-like drones. That last bit sounds like it doesn't really mix well the other abilities you have, but within the context of the game, it makes sense. Just like in LIMBO, the story of INSIDE isn't really about characters or events. In fact there is even less story in INSIDE. At least in LIMBO you were told that you were looking for your sister who was lost (or dead, or you were both dead the whole time and you were finding you way to heaven, or whatever). INSIDE just gives you a direction and tells the rest of its story with its locations, and with its atmosphere.
It's difficult to put into words the feelings that INSIDE's atmosphere and world building evoked in me. The feeling of desolation, alienation, isolation and urgency all hit me more than any other game I've played this year (except for maybe The Last Of Us). It's not like there are jump scares or horrific amounts of blood and gore (although there is the occasional gruesome death); there is just this sense of absolute dread from all of the little details you witness in your three hour play through. From your first steps into the forest being chased by men wearing blank masks, to goose stepping with mindless drones, to fending off hideous under water trolls, everything has a creepy edge to it.
Besides the solid atmosphere, INSIDE also excels at game design. Just like its predecessor, it has zero fat on it. Every single element of the game is used to full effect, and is used in multiple, varying scenarios, testing you in new and creative ways. Visual cues as to how to proceed are executed perfectly, but still allow for you to mess up the first one or two times. So it remains challenging without getting frustrating. Playdead takes each mechanic that LIMBO introduced and cranks it up to to a new level in INSIDE to the point where you think "There is no way they have another way of using this mechanic!". And yet they do, and they use it in a way that isn't repetitive or derivative.
As much as I love Playdead's two games so far, I do hope that they don't do side scrolling puzzle platformer for their third game. There is perfecting a concept, and then there is milking one beyond belief. LIMBO and INSIDE are perfect, and, unless Playdead can make lightning strike a third time, a third puzzle platformer would just start being a detriment to their past titles.
Although to be fair, if any studio could make lightning strike a third time, it's Playdead.