I was something of a late bloomer compared to most of my generation of gamers. I started out with an original PlayStation, while my friends were playing their PlayStation 2s, and then moved on to a Game Boy Advance SP, when all the cool kids were rocking Nintendo DSs.
It wasn’t until the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation that I caught up, buying the former at the closing down sale of my local Woolworths. That’s when things really got going. Although held back somewhat by cautious parents, I was soon exploring all there was to offer in the console gaming world. I started with favourites Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Halo 3, before getting online with the likes of Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops and then having my mind blown by Red Dead Redemption. Between those AAA titles, I would occasionally dip my toes into the waters of indie games: Fez, Trials Evolution… and Limbo.
Six years on from the release of that chillingly atmospheric side-scrolling puzzle game, and Playdead, the game’s developer, are back with Inside. The only problem is I don’t play games anymore. My Xbox is at my parents’ house and I find mobile games an unnecessary distraction. I do still watch gaming videos on occasion, however; usually to check up on what titles people are talking about, or to provide a laugh or two as I eat my lunch.
So, when I saw Achievement Hunter had posted a “Let’s Watch” (one person plays through the entirety of a single player campaign, while the rest of the team comment on the action and crack jokes) of the first 45 minutes of Inside, I thought it was worth a click. I was transfixed.
I usually don’t have the patience for these extended videos (an episode of Preacher >>> watching somebody else play a video game), but there was something different about this. Maybe it was the fact that it doesn’t look like a traditional game. There’s no heads-up display or any quick time events flashing coloured buttons in your face, there’s just a young boy running through a forest trying not to die.
That doesn’t stop the grim reaper from swinging his scythe: repeatedly. But, with every death, the boy continues unfazed. Sometimes, it’ll take being attacked by dogs half a dozen times for him to realise you can distract them by jumping over a fence before moving on, and then another handful of arterial maulings to perfect the timing: and all with no elaborate kill screens or endless loading bars. A simple fade to black greets your every demise, as you trudge on, wondering what this place is and how on Earth (or not) you got here.
I proceeded to watch all three hours worth of videos over the course of a couple of days. Not once did I feel alienated or distanced from the developing mystery. Quite the opposite, in fact: I was entirely enveloped in this cruel science fiction-inflected dystopia. I flinched when the boy was dragged away by the coiled barbs of patrol turrets, my heart raced as he tried to outrun the latest gnashing mutt, I racked my brain for solutions to seemingly endless puzzle sections and I marvelled at mysteries just waiting to be solved, only to be left troubled by the resulting “answers”.
All of the AH crew’s jokey nattering was left muffled ten blocks away. It was just me, alone in my office, watching a young boy try not to get himself killed in the face of increasingly dire circumstances. I can’t speak for the gameplay or the graphical fidelity, but I can say that Inside transcended both its video game origin and its repurposed video form to hit me on an instinctual level.
It was only in looking back over the videos in order to write this piece that I realised Geoff Ramsey, Achievement Hunter’s co-creator, offered a telling Freudian slip right at the start of the first video: “so this er, this movie […] this interactive movie: some folks call it a game”. But none of those three labels do justice to Playdead’s latest offering. Inside is simply… indescribable.