Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
In 2010, a small Danish indie named Playdead released a game called Limbo. This two-hour adventure followed a silent, nameless child as he navigated a German minimalist nightmare wherein the monsters weren’t nearly as trauma-inducing as the constant, unrelenting sense of dread. As a simple 2D sidescroller set in a grayscale world, the series of escalating puzzles making up the core of the gameplay ranged from annoyingly obvious to intentionally convoluted, but what made up the individual elements of said puzzles would haunt you. Very little in Limbo extends beyond a traditional series of box and lever puzzles, but where the box might be the corpse of another child and the lever might be the gigantic claw of a super-sized tarantula that you intelligently tore from its carcass. If you’re picturing Lode Runner or Bubble Bobble but for the Hellraiser crowd: you’re there. One of the most financially successful games of that console generation was a simple series of puzzles broken up by violently sadistic child-murder from the basement of David Lynch’s personal Black Lodge.
Six years later, the same indie studio followed up Limbo with a game called Inside. Again, it is a 2D sidescroller where you control a silent child in a world that is equally familiar and storybook cruel. Again, the game begins with your character crashing into the world from just left of frame. Again, there are no answers and barely even enough footing to ask questions in the first place, but it is one of the most frightening and important games I’ve ever played, because in building on the original experience it dares to remind us that the world is always getting worse. This is fatalism on parade.
Inside adds color to the world, but Playdead refuses to venture beyond a shared universe of pain wherein both of its tales are set. Death is a promise and a constant. In discussing survival horror, there are few games where you are as defenseless and brittle as being a child in a Playdead game. Limbo leaned a little too hard on surprise traps that would kill you with no warning, but Inside corrects from this. Scares don’t have to be unfair, but that doesn’t mean they need to be understood. Whereas the first game would present situations where you were repeatedly torn asunder by bear traps that were the same color as the background, Inside introduces giant factories or underwater labyrinths where the elements of said machination break free in order to take out their industrial blood lust on you.
In addition to removing the cheapness or certain tricks, a meta improvement exists in a grounding you’ll understand before even starting the game. This is set in the living world and not a self-described after-life. That makes everything hit a little harder. Limbo could get weird in a way that seemed like a metaphor, whereas Inside creates a lot of metaphor monsters that you are expected to believe made themselves manifest in a dark future for our world. It serves as a warning and as a dreamscape.
You, easily killable boy, are undertaking a journey that is equally unexplainable. Your character isn’t necessarily on the run when he first appears in the forest, but within twenty minutes, you’re embroiled in some sort of world conversion/invasion that involves cloning, monster animals, mind-control and a class of humans that have enslaved those beneath. This journey is much more complicated than merely escaping the afterlife.
Inside creates a series of much larger set-pieces, as zones, wherein the gameplay begins to fluctuate wildly. Some are just about out-running a threat while others involve multi-level puzzles and backtracking while changing the environment of the world around you. Along the way, you learn absolutely nothing about your antagonists or why they feel such a compulsion to brutally (and constantly) murder you. The non-human elements – monsters and demons and animals – eventually bend to your will or accept you as an ally. One in particular keeps killing you until it winds up giving you super-powers instead. Engaging twists can come from a reality with just enough threads to leave you guessing.
What takes Inside from clever to historic is a moment near the end of the game when your character transforms in every way imaginable, and in some ways unimaginable. In a single incident, you go from the weakest possible physical manifestation of life into an unkillable God – trapped in the midst of your antagonists. Never has a game shifted power so suddenly and completely. It’s as if you uncovered a genie lamp and used three wishes to make yourself increasingly better at murder, but physicalized in such a Harlan Ellison form that ultimate victory will make you want to cry. I’ve never had a game force such a mix of emotions on me within a ten-minute period and trusting a non-language experience to convey so much is the pinnacle of this art form’s capability.
Inside exponentially increases the emotional resonance of Limbo without going the traditional route of “bigger is better.” Inside not only shows how artists can learn and improve upon a straightforward idea, but also how creators who know how to cut directly to the emotional core of an audience can transpose the same devices into any new vessel and achieve similar, or better, results.