Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This column was contributed by Lilly Devon, a freelance developer and consultant who has worked on Transformers Universe, The Outsider, Heavenly Sword, and more.
You're standing on the shoreline of a foggy beach. The air is muted, thick and silent aside from a soft but ominous rhythmic thud coming from somewhere in the distance. A single red light blinks faintly on a far off building. Each step you make the boy take feels heavy and laboured like there's no breathable air.
It's at this point where I had to take a moment. I knew pressing on meant bad things for us, but I couldn't stop now. Not when things were about to get REALLY weird.
I get really impatient with games. I need quite a few boxes to be ticked in order for me to really commit time as otherwise I just glaze over. Long games really put me off, overly complicated games make me die inside a little and games that say nothing in either the story or art, etc. … I'm just like...why. Why do you exist.
I nearly always veer towards playing indie experiences, as I just find they're more my cup of tea. Shorter, made by smaller collaborative teams and usually with an interesting story or some kinda cool hook. They are normally more personal, like peering into an artist's head to see how it ticks. They are an expression of the developer and closer to what an art house film does for cinema. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule - larger games/studios that have good directors with a clear unified message can achieve similar.
"The entire game itself felt like a semi-conscious body, one that doesn't want you there"
I just want new experiences. I want to exist in a world that is alien to me and feel things as a player rather than be passive.
Inside is truly unlike any game I've ever experienced before. There's quite honestly nothing about this game I don't love. I would go as far to say it is a masterpiece in game design and art direction. Everything about it has a purpose, a reason. There's no 'filler.' The game only has the bare minimum of what it needs to tell you the story. There's no fluff. It's bare. Stylized. Empty almost. It makes you feel like an unwelcome guest controlling this cursed child. The entire game itself felt like a semi-conscious body, one that doesn't want you there. Honestly at points, I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to do the things I knew the game was going to ask of me. I felt like a spectator, wincing at an accident on the other side of the road. I just couldn't help but look.
If for some reason you've not played Inside, then stop reading any further before I spoil it for you. It's a game that should be experienced cold, with no prior expectations.
Still here? Good. So, as you know, the game is centred around navigating a small boy though a variety of strange and unsettling puzzle-based environments that range from a farm to a mass of laboratories to waterlogged buildings to beaches. There is no dialogue, no signposting, no hints, no tips and absolutely no joy.
This is not a 'fun' game in the technical sense. It's not really a game to play with other people either. It's a solitary experience, preferably with headphones on a dark, late night. The story unravels via clever environmental storytelling using gameplay mechanics, set pieces of character interactions (the player and other people), and of course the environments themselves. However, as with the best of games - the story means different things to different people.
"You're just thrown into the deep end of this dystopian and bleak as hell experience and then spat out the other end when it's done with you"
To me it was a commentary on social conformity, constant manipulation, the power of the 'herd,' being a sheeple. Don't stand out! When I say jump, you jump. Mind control was a central theme with the 'worms' and copycat mechanics. I often felt that my actions were never my choice and everything was an orchestration to the point of being extremely unnerving.
The base story was one of weird science experiments: gravity swapping water, mind controlling maggots, thunderous and violent air blasts that exploded anything in its path to a fine mist. There isn't a typical beginning, middle or end, and I feel the game is centred around a non-existent part in time (perhaps the middle somewhere?) but the game never really technically starts or finishes. It just 'is.' You as a player experience these…things...but there's no release or comfort in the ending and no explanation at the start. You're just thrown into the deep end of this dystopian and bleak as hell experience and then spat out the other end when it's done with you.
The thing is - there's no real gore or blood. Most of the action is done at a distance and with faces being nondescript and blank, it never felt as disgusting as it could have (but still clearly very much was). I must admit I was pretty horrified at several parts, but equally stunned at its beauty and sheer ballseyness.
One of the things this game really excels at is its Art Direction. There's not many games out there with such a muted, drizzly and grey colour pallet, but it works so well. The lighting really does a lot of the work in these scenes, either to add some depth or contrast with a shaft of post-rain sun or to light up the depths of some murky water. I found it really intriguing how the majority of the surfaces on every prop, building, and character were completely matte and had almost no surface response. The only thing that did was the water, which featured fairly heavily in quite a lot of levels. The contrast between the flat stylized colourings and the reflections of the water really added to the game's overall signature style.
The camera also quietly played a rather big part. With games that are side-on, you tend to lose a bit of the dynamic/cinematic edge. Playdead got around this in a few ways, but a lot of it was to do with the ever-moving camera. Even if you were standing still, the camera would still softly move. It added to the sense of organic and fluid motion and the odd 'breathing' sensation I got from looking at the screen. Which I guess plays nicely into the secret ending (which I won't give away, I'm not a monster).
"I felt such a strong connection that I was controlling this small human with all of its weight and bounce and pivots"
I remember one of the very first things that really blew me away was controlling the main character. I felt such a strong connection that I was controlling this small human with all of its weight and bounce and pivots. He felt alive, scatty, and ultimately terrified. It made me feel like I was actively responsible for each and every one of his MANY deaths. And hoo boy, was there a lot of those.
Their animation/controller system was so good - as with all of their tech in the game. But nothing was more spectacular than The Blob. Oh god. I don't think I'm articulate enough to fully express how that...thing made me feel. I just remember thinking, "What in sweet hell is going on right now." It was so disgusting...so absolutely horrifying. The moaning, groaning and crying as you moved this huge mess of melted bodies across the final level was A Lot.
Oh you betcha it got worse when there was any kind of height involved. It would cry out in pain as you dropped from platforms, with body parts flying off and squelching away into the distance. There were so many voices that came from the thing and I never heard the same audio cue more than once. It was a spectacular lesson in how audio can dramatically change a scene from 'great' to 'mind-blowing.'
However, it was the movement and control of the blob that really stood out as an unforgettable moment. After playing the entire game as this scared, agile and quiet child, to then posses this giant hulking, screaming mass with the ability to smash through windows, doors...people. It felt GOOD. But the game made you feel bad for that inner delight every time you moved. The blob's screams never stopped. The horror. The horror. The legs and arms constantly searched for surfaces to grab hold of, its knees buckling under the sheer weight of bodies as it slips and shifts and writhes around in discomfort. So utterly gross, so incredibly mesmerizing.
I love how most of us developers are using IK behaviour for generic foot planting, etc. -- but Playdead are using it in ways that are just completely left-field. I love that! We need more weirdness in games. More out-of-the-box thinkers. To me, this game is a benchmark in what we as developers can achieve and how far we have come as an artistic medium.
Inside won four BAFTAs in 2017: Narrative, Original IP, Game Design and Artistic Achievement. It was also a nominee for Audio Achievement, Music, and Game. One of my proudest achievements was sitting on the Game Design board that year and voting for Inside to win. We were all so blown away by it, that it was pretty much a unanimous decision.
There are very few games out there that leave such a lasting impression on the people that play it. This game is very much one of those. No matter who you are or what your background is, there's an aftertaste that hangs around in the back of your brain. It leaves such an impression that maybe you dreamt playing it. It's like an experience you witnessed but you were somewhat removed. It's definitely not a mind controlling worm.
Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.