Detached: The Design of Inside

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Posted by Gamer_152 (14500 posts) -

If you have anything close to a serious interest in video game art direction then Inside is probably a game that crossed your radar. At first sight, it's easy wave it off as just a 2.5D Limbo, but it's more than that, with Playdead Studios drawing particular influence from Valve's work. In form, it has Team Fortress 2's use of blocky objects and flat expanses of solid colour. In tone, it has Half-Life 2 and Portal 2's use of vast, industrial spaces to create an atmosphere of alienation and gloom. The game's 3D engine is not just there to make it look more professional either. In comparison to Limbo, Inside has one more dimensional axis to work with, and that allows it to create more negative space around the player character. The size of the rooms compared to you not only makes you feel small and therefore vulnerable but also tells you that you're a tiny part of the much larger dystopia that the game never quite lets you see the edges of. Like in Valve's titles, the functional nature of the settings emphasises that this is not a world built for comfortable human habitation and reflects the reduction of the people to machinery within them.

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Both artistically and mechanically, Inside makes it clear that many of the people within these facilities are dehumanised by being treated identically to other work tools like lifts and mine carts. Even you as the player end up leveraging mindless drone humanoids to open doors and push heavy loads the same way you might use a switch or crane to do so, and it makes sense that the antagonistic forces of this world store these humanoids with all the other machinery. Meanwhile, you as the protagonist are just trying to work your way through the mechanism, failing to find anywhere that looks even slightly hospitable from one end of the game to the other. While Limbo had this balance of showing how both natural and artificial environments can be horrible to exist in, Inside is a montage of unpleasant experiences in purely constructed places. After all, there's no "inside" in the natural world.

Every inch of these farms, factories, and labs urges you to reach for your screenshot key, which is partly down to the highly deliberate visual composition and lighting of each portion of the environments. This meticulous attention to presentation wouldn't be so palpable without Inside's use of a fixed camera which comes as part and parcel of the 2D side-scroller. While 3D gameplay allows for a world to surround you and makes first-person gameplay possible, it usually forces the developers to give up control of a camera in a way that a cinematographer would consider unthinkable. There's often no such thing as a director framing objects or characters during 3D gameplay because the person pointing the camera is the one playing and they usually have neither the tools nor the motives to compose a shot artistically. 3D game cameras and their controls are mostly designed to facilitate gameplay and navigation, not cinematography, and these jobs typically encourage practical use of the camera, not artistic use.

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Inside's 2D side-on perspective gives the art designers a leg up. The camera's priority is still giving overviews of gameplay scenarios and routes through levels, rather than setting up the most beautiful framings of objects and characters, but surroundings are easier for players to handle when they only have to work with two axes. The player doesn't need a camera that can move or peek around the typical obstructions you'd find in a 3D space, and there can never be enemies or items nearby that the audience can't see on screen unless they move the camera. This lets some control of the camera be given back to the designers and artists without compromising function. Because the developers always know what angle we will be looking at a scene from, they can orient objects, characters, and lighting in scenes with the knowledge that we will always see them from the ideal angle. It's what keeps every screen of Inside looking so pristinely put together and what allows the artists to layer the foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds of shots with set pieces. In a 3D game, this dense scenery would get in the way. The side-on perspective also allows a lot of distance between the camera and your avatar, letting the game highlight the monumental amount of negative space around you, although there is another factor in the mix here.

Most action games, strategy games, or busy puzzle games need cameras close to the action because the player is going to be performing precision tasks like shooting a target or keeping track of many gameplay elements in a compact area. Inside doesn't deal in this kind of exact control and so is afforded a camera that can take these overpowering wide shots. Because the camera pulls well back from the models, those models also don't have to be as detailed to look complete, and the lower memory consumption of these less detailed assets has some positive side effects.

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By being light on resources, Inside makes its load times so short that they're virtually unnoticeable. This lends the devs the advantage of being able to seamlessly stitch stages together, meaning we can progress through the game without ever getting jolted out of the moment by a load screen. Similarly, as the game can quickly reload from the last checkpoint after you die, the designers can make it easy to die from hazards without wasting your time as you load back in after every death. This is relevant to Inside's tone because the multitude of ways through which the child can be killed emphasises how savage the game world is. See Limbo, Super Meat Boy, and Hotline Miami for examples of other games employing this link between scant use of memory, fast loads, a perpetual risk of death, and worlds that are hostile towards you. For Inside specifically, the result is that you feel like you're just playing one particular version of events in which the child happened to live instead of a strict singular canon about the kid making it all the way from the beginning to the end of their adventure.

The quick reloads are part of Inside's overall tendency to use shorter loops than other puzzle games. Solving an environmental puzzle in any game is about working out which objects, mechanics, and avatars must interface with each other and how they must do so. At its simplest, this might mean working out that a box must interface with a button by being dropped onto it. At its more complex you could have one of those co-op puzzles from Portal 2 where a cube must fall through an elaborate network of different portals to knock over a turret blocking the way ahead. The more objects, mechanics, and ways they can interface, the more the player has to consider in crafting their solution, and the more demanding the puzzle becomes. As puzzles become more demanding the player must spend more time figuring out how to solve them, and solutions may take longer to implement. This is especially true if these gameplay sections have components of hand-eye co-ordination. Limbo and Inside are minimalist in terms of the number of mechanical parts they have that can interface with each other. They have no inventory, virtually no equipment, and you could count on one hand the number of upgrades they make to the protagonist's abilities. Even late into Inside, many puzzles will be skinny enough that they contain only a single switch to flip or single item to drag.

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Inside has fewer mechanics to stack on top of each other than other puzzles games, leading to fewer ways in which mechanics can interface, making for briefer puzzles. With about 180 minutes of play on a standard run-through, Inside also doesn't have the time to build to highly complex challenges; play cuts off before that kind of design would become necessary. Because puzzles take less time to complete, you spend less time against one backdrop before moving onto the next. There's also the bonus that the designers must always be inventive enough to come up with a lot of different ways for us to make use of a small number of actions and items in conjunction with each other. More often than in other games of its family, the challenges of Limbo and Inside's puzzles are not in adapting to some remarkably new mechanic, but in figuring out how we must get highly familiar components to interface in new ways.

Inside and Limbo are often forced to design their challenges close to the rudimentary mechanics because their outlets for communication with the audience are limited. When introducing new mechanics to the player, designers often have to use text, speech, or icons to explain them. If the player has to manage resources or a lot of different items, then designers also have to turn to GUIs to allow the player to select items or powers and to give them feedback on the tools and resources they have at their disposal. Inside has no HUD, no in-game menus, no button prompts, and almost no written or spoken words. With one exception, the text it does have is only for flavour purposes anyway. Inside doesn't give itself the language it would need to explain a lot of specific mechanics or ask us to manage them, and so it relies heavily on us interacting with objects in ways that we've learned from interactions in other games or through real-world experiences. Hence all the puzzles that are just about basic movement, pushing heavy loads, and pulling levers.

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So why? What does a game get out of deliberately cutting its lines of communication with the player? Obviously, having no GUI makes it feel more like you're seeing an actual series of events unfold instead of staring at a video game and there's the aforementioned creativity in design this approach inspires, but it runs deeper than even that. Written and spoken language are very humanising forms of communication; they're the most efficient and comprehensive ways we have to let another person know our thoughts and feelings, so Inside's lack of language makes its world disturbingly inhuman and keeps you lonely. This is also why the artists don't give the human characters facial features: it would allow them to be too expressive for Inside's style. The lack of any direct voice in Inside also pushes its creators to turn to symbolism to convey a narrative and message which alters the way in which the audience processes it. By foregoing dialogue, narration, or any extensive character interaction, Inside forces us to hone a keener eye for the implicit and metaphorical aspects of its scenes and plot points, and this is the magic of minimalism. Minimalism removes all of the noise of conventional media and gives us the quiet we need to zero in on the heart of what that media is about. In the case of Inside, mechanics, characters, and settings are purged of all but their most essential aspects to both create a bleak emptiness and to fix our attention squarely on the symbolism and art that's left in. Thanks for reading.

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#1 Edited by FelixCulpa (108 posts) -

Nice write-up! Was an engrossing read. Really interesting points on it being a light resource game and how they take use of that fact in the games design with (i.e. no loads and quick restarts).

Really adore this game.

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#2 Posted by Gamer_152 (14500 posts) -

@felixculpa: Thank you. I'm glad it all came across in a way that was understandable because I know I was quickly describing quite a lot of concepts leading on from each other. I'm also sure there are a ton more examples of games that use the harsh aesthetic-quick loads trick. It's pretty common in the indie space.


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