I've been diving deep into the Switch's indie game crannies over the past couple of weeks. A lot of it has seen me catching up on games which have been available on other formats for a while, but also it has been about countering a degree of fatigue I've been feeling towards triple-A games.
I've had Detroit: Become Human sat next to my PS4 for ages now, and not been able to muster sufficient enthusiasm to play it. The joy of Indie games is that they're cheaper and shorter, but tend to be more authored, more personal - and stuffed with more ideas than most blockbusters.
Frequently, they offer as much worth, and similar gameplay values, to the best games I grew up playing. Albeit with the benefit of everything we've learned since.
To be fair, Inside is not a tiny-budgeted game - it was created with the help of a $1 million grant from the Danish Film Institute (which also assisted Lars von Triers' controversial Nymphomaniac) - but it nevertheless feels like a singular vision. As, indeed, did its thematic predecessor Limbo.
The two games are similar in a lot of ways; they both have a dark, almost monochromatic, art style, both are physics-based platform/puzzle games, and both are unremittingly bleak. In many ways, they're an extension of games like Flashback and Another World; a mute protagonist finds himself in a strange and mysterious environment, where progress is made via repeated deaths, and the buildings are full of power buttons.
Inside, however, builds on everything that made Limbo so feted, while also pushing video game storytelling forwards in an incredibly brave fashion.
Inside has you playing as a small boy fleeing enigmatic captors. That's it as far as the overt telling of the plot goes.
You run on, and on, and on - avoiding torches and searchlights, tracker dogs and creatures who lurk in deep water. You run through forests and farms, factories and across rooftops. There's a lot of hiding in shadows, and a lot of getting your timing just right to avoid being exposed.
Controls are limited to jump and an action button, the latter being used to pull switches, move boxes, grab ropes and the like. You can't attack in a conventional sense; instead, you must use the environment around you to evade your pursuers. It's often a case of keeping an eye out for a subtly-hidden clue - something that's a slightly different colour to everything else - or wondering what you might do if this was really happening to you.
"Oh! If I lead this thing over here... then I might have enough time to get over there..."
This relatively, and deceptively, simple set-up is nevertheless packed with ideas. Rarely does the game ever repeat itself, throwing new ways to play at you - at points, you can control multiple mindless drone-like figures, who mimic your own actions, and later you'll find yourself in a Musk-style miniature submarine, of the sort a "pedo guy" would disparage.
The whole experience will only last you a few hours, but I'd wager those hours are more satisfying and rewarding than an entire month spent on, I dunno, Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
Yes, Limbo is incredibly atmospheric, but it doesn't rely on atmosphere alone.
What it really achieves is in telling a story without overtly telling a story. There are no cutscenes, there's no dialogue, not even a single scene-setting title card giving you a precis of the story thus far.
Everything you need to know is contained within the animation, and the worlds you're running through. That old edict "Show don't tell" has never been more apt. It's a game which trusts that the player isn't an idiot, and gives just enough for there to be an emotional connection between player and character. The sense of the protagonist's vulnerability is what binds you to this game.
Video games are often about power fantasies; all overly-muscled, chest-beating, heroes, or bare-buttocked women with guns. Inside strips you of power, makes you vulnerable, and therefore when achieve your aims against the odds... it feels like a real victory. Your successes are that much richer than in a game where you're mowing down enemies with a machine gun.
Inside also highlights just how pompous and overstuffed many games are when it comes to narrative. Take the recent God of War. It received multiple plaudits for its story, but to me it just felt overblown, with its on-the-nose characterisation and pervasive foreboding. The gorgeous art design, and how epic everything felt, seemingly blinded players to how rote its story-telling actually was.
In any great story, less is more. You allow the person you're experiencing the story to fill in the blanks. You never hand it to them on a plate. Yes, God of War had moments where it held back - Kratos could be a man of few words, and the occasional grunt or emotive facial animation could speak volumes - but I found the whole thing rather chilly and remote. I never engaged emotionally with it, and part of that is due to its reliance on cut-scenes - which immediately severed my emotional connection with the characters. It would change the game from being my story to a story I was being shown.
God of War - like so many games - is what people think storytelling is, when in reality proper storytelling is what Inside offers. More pertinently, it's a story that could only be told in a game; it never, not once, tries to be a movie.
By being brave enough to be a video game, and by not coquettishly winking at Hollywood and going "Is this what you want?", it tells one of the best stories in video games ever. Indeed, by almost not telling a story at all.
SCORE: 9.931231393 out of 10.00001