It's what's Inside that counts
Why I Love: Playdead's platformer is visually striking, but inXile's Brian Fargo was taken by its elegant and thoughtful design
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 Interplay and inXile Entertainment founder Brian Fargo, whose work spans classics old and new, from Wasteland and The Bard's Tale to Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera.
It's not often that I find the time and passion to finish a game but Inside was one of those rare gems that I had to see through to completion. I play a tremendous amount of games to stay on top of what is state of the art, to experience new UI approaches and to understand why people are enjoying it. One might assume that I only play RPGs, but every genre has lessons to be learned from and playing games in my own genre is often more homework than play.
When I was a kid (early Interplay days) I used to go to small animated movie festivals to watch experimental and crazed short films. Inside reminded me of the strangeness of those experiences. In fact, I remember first seeing Pixar's Luxo Jr. back in the late '80s at just one of those events.
One of the most difficult things to do in games is to set a strong sense of mood. Games like Hellblade and the original Fallout series did a wonderful job of striking the right tone and Inside does the same with its muted colors and subtle sound design. Ultimately our goal as game creators is to evoke a range of emotions (besides frustration) from our players. Strong mood aids immersion, which in turn gets the player's head in the space to emotionally react.
The game is simple in its implementation on the core mechanics of most every platformer: running, jumping, pushing, pulling etc. But Inside created a tension with its clever use of lighting, sound and timing. A simple flashlight became a terrifying moment that would result in an instant death if caught in its glow. Death was brutal and unceremonious with minimal sound effects to add to the bleakness of it all. Enemies simply stood over your dead body or strangled you silently. The lighting approach permeated the game as I was constantly avoiding headlights from cars and any number of strange machinery. It was a simple, effective and powerful.
"I've always felt that attention to subtle detail will be noticed or appreciated by the players even if at some subconscious level. And it is through the subtle detail in which the charm or soul of a game is felt."
Especially well done was the tension that the developers infused in the game, and with a special highlight on the dogs. Audio foreshadowing is a proven technique and the ramp up of the dogs barking as they approach always got my heart racing. Again, a simple maneuver but highly effective in the timing required to outrun them. I especially appreciated the small windows of time that would have me just barely leap from their jaws into the safety of the next scene. I loved it every time. There was a constant sense of foreboding as the strange adults were busy having conversations out of ear shot and turning knobs in some bizarre experiment that you could never get a handle on. My curiosity was piqued at all times.
The hallmark of good puzzle design is when I blame myself for not thinking of the solution should I fail at solving it, which is always a tight rope to walk. There were times when my desire to move forward outweighed my patience and I would find a walkthrough on YouTube and each time the answer was revealed I would know that I should have concluded it myself. Puzzles slowly cascaded up in difficulty and complexity but never to the point of feeling too rote. And again, the simplicity in thinking to solve them was always there. In one scene, the wonderfully terrifying dog chased me down to the edge of a lake, I jumped in to swim away only to find out he could pursue me in water and make his kill as I attempted my aquatic getaway. I felt like a champ when I realized I had to lure him into the water, quickly swim underneath him and then make my escape. Additionally, I found the overall pacing quite nice in that each room did not require me to solve a puzzle, sometimes I could run freely for some time before encountering another block. This freedom made the world more organic; putting a puzzle in every room can make the world feel overly gamey.
A special nod also goes out to the bizarre scenes in which you brain control a mob of ghouls to do your bidding to solve a series of clever puzzles. It was both inventive and broke up the flow of game by having me play with a different mechanics. In fact, Inside gave me the opportunity to play with different mechanics of movement several times throughout the game, a technique that I've always been a big fan of.
I've always felt that attention to subtle detail will be noticed or appreciated by the players even if at some subconscious level. And it is through the subtle detail in which the charm or soul of a game is felt. There were a number of techniques that I noted during gameplay that paid off this concept. Often when my character was running he would glance behind his shoulder to further the sense of being hunted. I also noted that the camera was in pretty tight during most of the game so that when it pulled out for the long shot I felt the sense of vast space.
Inside is a game that when played in retrospect might look like it was easy to design but that is only because it is so tight in its implementation. Pulling off the kind of gameplay they did takes a tremendous amount of effort and focus on the power of iteration. This was not a game you simply designed on paper but a celebration of the long process of tinkering. Using the sound with just the right tone and frequency, creating tension with tight moments and the natural feeling of the puzzles into the environment and the cascading of puzzle elements was something that takes hundreds of hours to hone. Inside represented all that is artistic in creating video games.
Upcoming Why I Love columns:
- Tuesday, November 21 - Voyageur's Bruno Dias on Magic: The Gathering
- Tuesday, December 5 - Lightseekers' Ana Steiner on World of Warcraft
- Tuesday, December 19 - Last Day of June's Massimo Guarini on ICO
- Tuesday, January 2 - Raconteur Games CEO Nicholas Laborde on Rainbox Six: Siege
Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at email@example.com.