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‘Inside’ review: A gaming masterpiece

(Courtesy of Playdead)

Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Playdead
Available on: PC, Xbox One

There is a term in Danish, gennembrud, that means breakthrough. In 1883, the critic Georg Brandes used the phrase Det moderne gennembrud, or the modern breakthrough, to describe the ways in which Scandinavian literary artists were rebelling against the conventions of their time and forging new paths for artists outside of the region. Since then, the idea has been applied to the paintings of Edvard Munch and the films of Ingmar Bergman. An “art of siege, of takeover” is how Arnold Weinstein describes such works in his book “Northern Arts.” Though they labor in another time and another medium, the developers at the Copenhagen-based video game studio Playdead deserve to have their work studied in such a light. They, too, are pushing the boundaries of their chosen art form by making creepy, visually expressive games that tap into the dark areas of the collective unconsciousness.

Playdead makes children’s nightmares for grown-ups. “Limbo” (2010), Playdead’s first game, was about a boy who could die in many ways — a number of impalings stick out in my memory. Unlike so many brightly-colored puzzle platformers, “Limbo” unfolded in cinema-rich black and white. Its soundtrack was absorbingly minimalistic.  At the direction of its brooding atmosphere, I played much of it with the lights out. There is a moment near the start where the young boy, after awakening in a somber forest, takes a boat across water. The gray-washed scene was of such stark beauty that it brought to mind of work of the Danish filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer. Writer Tom Bissell likened it to “ ‘Super Mario Bros.’ as designed by Ingmar Bergman.”

The first half of “Limbo” is a high-wire orchestration of exploration, action sequences, and puzzles. (It has one of the most memorable spider encounters in any game.) Yet, the second half is dragged down by a series of puzzles that feels like time-baiting obstacles. Arnt Jensen, the game’s director and the founder of Playdead expressed his misgivings about the copious use of puzzles in the second half of the game in a 2010 interview with writer Michael Thomsen for IGN. When Thomsen asked if he was “picking at a wound” by bringing up the tonal shift of the game’s second half, Jensen responded, “It’s a big wound.”

“Inside,” the new game from the Danish studio, is a stunning rejoinder to the beautiful yet uneven “Limbo.” It has more puzzles than its predecessor, but none of them feel tacked on (though a couple have tight timing windows.) So finely calibrated is “Inside’s” pacing, so beautiful its imagery that I began playing it again immediately after I finished it. The game’s aesthetic qualities and tonal rigor put most big-budget photorealistic spectacles to shame.

Like “Limbo,” “Inside” begins with a boy running through a wooded area. He is being chased by men who mean him mortal harm and hounded by dogs who will maul him if given the chance. The somber color palette, the many long shadows — these cinematographic elements are as assured as the art direction is timeless. Particularly arresting is the way the camera tracks the boy as he moves, hovering in close at times but often alternating between medium and long shots. The game’s abstract visuals — the boy is blank-faced, the world is sharply stylized – suggest the artists were able to achieve their full vision. This is an advantage over a number of games that strive towards realism and whose visuals tend to date faster once something more photorealistic comes along.

What begins as something akin to “Limbo” soon grows stranger and more varied around the time you meet the brainwashed people. A new wrinkle is introduced when you learn that under certain circumstances the boy can take control of some of the pitiable people around him. This makes for a terrifically surreal counterpoint to the game’s probing of the fear of being chased. Hastened by the lush atmospheric soundtrack, I always felt the tug of the environment luring me to the next arresting sight.

The character animation is superb, composed yet gracefully fluid. Seeing the boy standing in place hunching his shoulders reminded me of watching a mime performing his act.

For a game where not a single word is uttered, “Inside” communicates a pervasive sense of dread without ever resorting to cheap scares. It’s a mood piece, a series of expertly framed environments that escalate in their strangeness. The game allows space for the player to wonder about what’s going on even as it generates a sense of continuous discovery.

“Inside’s” final sequence is as riveting as any I have played since “Soma” or “The Magic Circle.” It has the sort of reversal in fortune that you’d expect to find in a Lars von Trier film. The game is a procession of stately, grim exclamation marks. It is visionary art.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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