It is easy to view Inside (2016) as "just" a puzzle game with nice graphics. Many seem to overlook how incredibly good the game is at letting you play a story. Inside manages to craft an engaging narrative through gameplay in a way that few other games do. I think this is quite the accomplishment, and I've seen way too little written about it. The playable story is what I love about Inside, so it's what this essay will be all about.
To start things off, it's important to explain what this narrative aspect of Inside is all about. It's very easy to only see narrative in very concrete things like dialogue, the text you read, or in film-like cutscenes. However, when talking about stories in games, we have to stop thinking like this. Instead, we should consider what sort of narrative we experience as we actually play. After all, that's what interactive storytelling is all about.
To make this distinction clear, let's compare Inside to another puzzle platformer. For this discussion I'll pick Unravel (2016) since it's recently released and has many similar aspects to Inside. I don't aim to prove that Unravel is a bad game by any means - I liked it quite a bit myself. It just lacks a number of the narrative elements that Inside has, and by comparing the two, it should be clearer what it is that Inside does so successfully.
Instead of relying on a connecting story to tie things together, Unravel is built more around "flavored mechanics". You have a range of objects that you can interact with and all of these are somehow connected to the environment you are in. For instance, in a level taking place in a garden you can push apples around and use them to get up to otherwise unreachable places. But while these things are nicely woven into the graphical style of the level, there isn't really any narrative connected to them and they don't tell you anything about the game's story when interacted with. Neither are these objects, or your interactions with them, an important part of the narrative that unfolds as you play. They are simply there to serve the central mechanics of the game.
Inside (and Playdead's earlier game Limbo (2010) for that matter) is very different in this regard. The various objects that you interact with are not only part of the world visually, they are key parts of the narrative as well. Interactions that you take part in at one point in the game will be of great importance to later events.
To make this clearer, let's compare how both games start out:
Unravel (see clip here):
Yarny exits a house and enters a garden. He is surprised by a couple of butterflies, and then runs out of yarn. He lassos a length of string so it gets stuck on a sundial, and by tugging the rope he manages to tip it over. This lets him gain access to more yarn and he can continue moving forward. A box of flowers is in the way and he climbs over it. Two buckets now stand in his way, and by using some tricks with his yarn he manages to get past those as well. There are more obstacles in his path, and by throwing out a piece of string and letting it attach to some glowing objects, he is able to swing across them. He eventually gets to a tree stump that can only be got past by throwing out strings of yarn and swinging forward.
And the game continues like this. It should be pretty evident how, story-wise, nothing really interesting happens. The game simply presents a sequence of obstacles for the player to get past. Also note that there are a bunch of things that doesn't make a lot of sense. For instance, why are all the conveniently placed pieces of yarn spread out across the world? And why does Yarny simply not just run around a lot of these objects? In terms of playable story, this game is quite weak.
Again, let me make it totally clear that this does not make Unravel weak as a whole, nor does it mean the game is totally devoid of story. For instance, Unravel has a lot of thematic connections between the photos you can find and the art of the levels. But this is also why Unravel is so interesting to compare to Inside. For while Unravel has story in it, almost none of it is playable. And focusing on playable storytelling is what Inside does best, and what this essay is all about.
Inside (see clip here):
The boy jumps down from some rocks and enters a dark forest. He comes across a fallen tree lying across a chasm and carefully balances across it. Further down the path he comes to a blockage with barbed wire and climbs through it. In the distance a truck can be seen and as the boy comes closer he starts sneaking. It is clear that the boy doesn't want to get spotted. Inside the truck he gets a quick glimpse of some weird figures, but before he can make out what they are a man shuts the door and the truck drives off.
The boy travels further into the forest; mysterious metallic pods are scattered in the background. One of the pods has a light turned on, and next to it stand two men. As the boy gets near, the men hear him and turn on a flashlight. The boy must now hide behind a rock so the men don't spot him. Eventually they leave and he can continue. He now comes across a long wall with barbed wire on top of it. Someone is obviously trying to keep people out. Various junk is scattered around the wall, and by pushing an old fridge up next to the wall, the boy manages to jump across.
And, for most of the time, this is how Inside continues. Unlike Unravel, there're a lot of interesting story events in this sequence. The protagonist is also an active part of the story, climbing past two obstacles, both of which make it very clear that we are entering a restricted area. So not only do these small puzzles give us an idea of the story (that we are closing in on a place we are not supposed to enter), but by being the one that manages to get past them, the player also becomes the one that moves the story forward.
On a purely mechanical level, there isn't a lot of difference between Inside and Unravel, but the framing of their mechanics is vastly different. From the very moment the game starts, Inside paints a vivid narrative and makes the gameplay a core part in it.
Here are some other examples how Inside manages to craft a playable narrative:
At one point the you come to a platform near a large body of water. A man arrives in a submarine and as he climbs up a ladder, you need to hide. Then at the right moment, when he is distracted talking to a college, you can sneak past and steal the submarine. All of this is framed as a puzzle, so the player must be the one that realizes the man is a threat and that the submarine can work as a means of escape. It's not a very complicated setup, but it makes a big difference in terms of perceived narrative. If the next level had simply placed the player in the submarine, without any playable section in between, the player would just have experienced a change in gameplay. By making the transition (stealing the submarine) into part of the gameplay, the player gets to be an active participant in the transition of the narrative. The player gets their personal story to tell: "I sneaked past a man and stole his submarine". This is a lot more powerful than simply having something like: "And when the level started, I was in control of a submarine". Inside is great at crafting these sorts of transitions. A submarine ride is not just another type of level - it is a new part of a narratively coherent journey.
Another great example is the pig encounter. This scene starts as the player walks past a seemingly dead pig, only to see it twitch. The pig then rises up and starts chasing the player. From this section the player will learn that there are parasites that can take control of animals, which is a bit of lore that will be of great importance later on. The player learns most of this through play. The pig's aggressiveness is apparent from the need to avoid it. Pulling out the the larva is something the player does through gameplay, and doing so results in the pig becoming friendly and thereby usable for a puzzle. So the two core ingredients in this lore bit - the different behaviors of the animal, and the worm causing it all - are both deeply rooted in the gameplay.
A final example is the imitation puzzle. Here the player finds themselves dumped among crowd of mindless "zombies". These have been controlled to walk in line and are forced to perform various tasks in order to (or so I at least guess) check that the mind control has been properly imposed. The only way for the player to survive is to act along according to orders, effectively becoming a zombie themselves. Again, this also lets the player discover a bunch of story through gameplay. And not only that, you also get to step in the shoes of these zombie people. In all it is a really neat way of bringing the player into the game's world.One could argue that this isn't anything new. Point-and-click adventure games have had this kind of gameplay for decades. You are faced with a puzzle that is directly connected to the story, and in solving the puzzle you move the narrative forward. But the big difference (and a big problem with adventure games, I think) is that the player lacks a lot of agency. Most adventure games (especially the ones of the point-and-click variety) thrive on constraining the player both in terms of what actions are possible and how they are carried out. In a point and click adventure game the player merely suggests the sort of action that should be taken, and it is then up to the game to determine whether it will allow it or not. For instance, if the player wants to enter a cave, the protagonist might respond that she doesn't feel like it. On top of that, the structure of these games is such that it can be very hard to guess what actions are possible. Actions that seem possible are often not, and actions that were possible in one situation is not in another. Because of all this, I have never felt that I properly played a story in a adventure game. I always felt more like a semi-active observer.
Side note: This is not the only reason why playable stories are problematic in adventure games, but this essay would go on for too long if I were to delve into that. If you are interested in finding out more about this, I have written about it here.
Inside is very different though. In this game you basically have control from the beginning until the very end. There are a few cases where you lose control of your character, but all of these make narrative sense. For instance, you lose control at one point when the character passes out and so on. Inside doesn't even feature any loading screens; from the moment the game starts until the bitter end, it is one continuous narrative. The game also features extremely intuitive controls and has a really good set of affordances. Because of this, you're almost always sure what actions are possible. This gives you a great sense of agency, strengthening the feeling that you are the one moving the story forward. Combined, these two things make a world of difference in how the playable narrative is perceived in Inside compared to a point-and-click adventure game.
Side note: A lot of the lore in Inside is extremely vague and ambiguous, and one could argue that it makes the game's storytelling worse. However, apart from a bit about premise at the end, I won't discuss that in this essay because it doesn't feel very relevant. While there are some instances of vagueness that help the game a great deal design-wise (such as how some levels are connected), for the most part it is not a crucial ingredient. If the developers wanted, there's a lot of lore and background information that could have been much more understandable, without much difficulty development-wise. It's pretty clear to me that the vagueness in Inside is a conscious choice by the developers. Because of this, it feels better to just focus on what Inside does best: storytelling through play.
One thing that makes all of this come together is the adaptive animation and action system. When the boy is in a place where he needs to sneak, he is animated in a way that makes this very evident. Because of this, the game implicitly tells the player what sort of things to expect, and the player can shift their mindset to match that of the boy's. In a similar fashion, the game also changes what actions are possible to performing depending on the current state of the boy and the game world. The best example of this is when you pick up a torch and use it to keep aggressive dogs at bay. The boy will automatically start waving the stick when a dog is near, and this lack of control feels totally OK to the player because it matches what they would like to happen. Partly, this is possible due to just mentioned adaptive animations. The other big factor is the setup of the situation itself and the previous hour or two of training the player has had in expecting actions to subtly change depending on the state they are in. On top of this the game also creates a credible setup that constrains the torch to a small, closed-off area. This makes sure that the player can't get it into another place where it feels like it could be useful, but where the action is not supported by the game.
Another interesting part of Inside's storytelling is how it handles its "cutscenes". Instead of taking away control from the player, these cutscenes take place in the background, allowing the player to keep playing as they occur. This is a pretty common trick in games, but what sets Inside apart is that these background events can often be dangerous if the player is not careful. For instance, if the boy gets spotted by some people in the background they'll chase and capture him. This provides a certain "realness" to the background events, and instead of just being some sort of decor they become a proper part of the game's world.
Despite being a fairly short game (around 4 hours) Inside hasn't manage get rid of all the filler material. Time and time again the game throws you a puzzle that is similar to one that you have already completed and that, more crucially, doesn't provide anything interesting story-wise. The reason these parts exist is fairly straightforward: coming up with new and clever puzzles that fit the story is really hard and time-consuming. I doubt Playdead added these sections because they thought they were perfect as is. Instead, they were probably just the, at time, the best and simplest ways to solve certain issues like pacing, gameplay set-up for tutorial-purposes, and so on. Whatever their reasons for being there, they stick out like sore thumbs and degrade the story-like feel of the experience. If you want to make good narrative through gameplay, it's crucial to minimize moments like these as much as possible.
In order to pull this off, it must be possible to take the game seriously. For instance, if the player comes across a hatch, they should be allowed to wonder: "why is this hatch here?" and there should be some sort of plausible explanation to be found. Because if the player can't do this, the game stops taking place in a living, breathing world, and instead is degraded to a simplistic play space. No matter how fancy the graphics and animation are, in the end it is the player's imagination that brings it all to life.
It's easy to believe that we take in reality "as-is" and what we perceive and feel is this unfiltered flow of information from our senses. This is far from the truth. First of all, our sensory organs are heavily flawed and various systems in our brain need to make up for this fact. For instance, our eyes can only have clear focus on a small part of our field of vision and have to constantly move around to scan the full field. Despite this, we perceive vision as if we have a clear picture of everything in front of us. This is all basically due to the brain guessing what it should be like in the blurry patches. So the raw data that comes in is severely lacking and we need to make up for this. The way this is done is by learning rules of how the world ought to work, and then extrapolating any accessible information to get a full picture. It's not just vision that works like this, but every single one of our senses (note that these go way beyond sight, smell, hearing, etc. and also include things like balance and sense of time).
Secondly, the information that comes in from our senses is not very valuable in its original form. At its very basic level, vision is just a list of dots and a value of how bright each one is. On its own this doesn't tell us anything. In order for it to be useful it needs to be processed. The human visual system first breaks the information down to things like borders and shapes. When this is done, it can start recognizing certain patterns and eventually figuring out what sort of objects are in front of us. Before we get a conscious experience of what's contained in our field of view, all sorts of work has to be done. This work uses data not just from what we can see, but also takes into account all sort of other related information. A simple example of this is the checkerboard illusion:
Squares A and B are the exact same color (check here for proof), but seem like they're different because one of them is lying in shadow. The brain has taken into account the green cylinder and its shadow when evaluating the squares, and similarly any other related information will alter how the final image is perceived. And do note that we're just talking about the "pure" act of perception here. When you want the player to feel as if they're in a living, breathing world, that's something which takes place at an even higher level, relying even more on correlating information. The end result is that everything which you put into your world affects the final perception of it.
As stated earlier, most of the time Inside does a good job at this. But there are a few moments where it doesn't work very well. For instance, at a couple of places there are pressure switches that open doors and control various machinery. Given what sort of people are supposed to work in the building and the level of technology they have, this doesn't really make sense. This makes it very hard to take these pressure switches seriously. Instead, you end up thinking of them as abstract puzzle devices. This is okay from a gameplay perspective, but if you want to make a playable story it's quite problematic. The player can't form an interesting and coherent narrative from using these devices. They have to go from "I am living through a story" to "I have to solve a puzzle that the developers placed here" and they are pulled out of the narrative aspects of the game. The world is no longer "real", but just a convenient place for puzzles to take place. The boxes that can be triggered to shoot into the air pose a similar problem, and there are a few others like this.
In order to have the best possible playable story, it's crucial to keep these situations to a minimum.
Another related issue is the trial-and-error gameplay of Inside. Now, in Inside, just like in Limbo, having the player killed a few times before completing a puzzle is key to how the game is supposed to play. So it doesn't feel entirely fair to point out a very intentional core feature of the game as a problem, but nonetheless, if the goal is to make a good playable story, trial and error pose a problem. The reason for it being a problem is rooted in how the player perceives the game. As I stated earlier, the final perception of a game is the combination of a lot of different data. The goal is for the player to think of the game as "real", but a designer will always face a problem: the game's world is an imperfect simulation. The trick is to never let the player notice this fact and it's here that trial-and-error becomes an issue.
There is one important rule all magicians have: never show the same trick twice. Why? Because on the second go, the audience know what's coming and is much more perceptive to all the tricks they'll be using. Almost all magic tricks rely on either false premises or misdirection, and it's rare that these will work as expected twice in a row. Games work similarly to this. For instance, the dog that's chasing you in Inside is not a real animal - it's just an animated mesh controlled by some relatively simple code. But if you show it to the player in the right way, they'll see it as real. However, every time the player gets to replay a section, they'll notice more and more discrepancies. The player will have additional information about the underlying mechanics that drive the dog, and this information will feed into their final perception of the whole scene. Repeat the same sequence enough times, and the dog will go from a "ferocious, dangerous beast" to "gameplay object that needs to be passed".
On top of that any fiction requires a certain suspense of disbelief. The player must be a willing participant in the events that unfold and have a certain level of roleplaying for it all to work. This is active work for the player's part and if they choose not to do it they will see the experience as "just a game". Trial-and-error wears down on the player's stamina; their ability to concentrate falters and they will become increasingly unwilling to roleplay. Not only life-or-death scenarios have this effect, but puzzles can too. If a puzzle is too unclear, or just too complicated to execute, the player can be forced into a trial-and-error loop that erodes the immersive qualities of the game's world.
Overall, Inside does a good job making sure that this doesn't happen very often, and that's despite the game's focus on trial-and-error scenarios. It seems to me like the developers have been more conscious about this issue than in their previous game Limbo as most challenges are fairly easy to complete on the first few attempts. But from time to time you do get trapped in trial-and-error loops, and since otherwise Inside is so good at crafting a playable story, it's extremely interesting when it happens. Pretty much all games have this issue, but in Inside it is especially evident as to the sort of narrative issues that it causes.
It's worth bringing up that trial-and-error is not always bad. Sometimes this type of gameplay is crucial to get the right type of behavior from the player. It needs to be clear to the player what sort of things to fear and having a life-and-death puzzle challenge is really good at this. Forcing the player to redo certain actions until they do it right also teaches them what sort of play styles this game favors. This can often be crucial to the player's enjoyment. For instance, if the player doesn't understand when to sneak, and can just sprint through stealth sections, a large part of the experience is lost. Finally, trial and error can also force the player to take the world more seriously. For example, the above mentioned background cutscenes are made more palpable by having certain gameplay effects on the player. The player learns to view things happening in the background as not just fluff, but crucial to their survival. In the end, this makes the world seems more real and increases the sense of being inside a life-like world. Keeping a fine balance here is key, and more than most, Inside does an excellent job.
Another important thing worth mentioning is that Inside doesn't have any superfluous actions. Pretty much any action that you can do in the game, every box, lever, button, bridge and so on, has a gameplay purpose. This has a huge benefit for the puzzles, as the player will always be aware of what the constraints of any situation is. They can just ask themselves, "Can I interact with it?" and if the answer is yes, then they know it will be needed in order to solve the puzzle. This allows the game to have lots of "out of the box"-type of puzzles without coming off as overly frustrating. Since the constraints are so narrow, the player is bound to come across the solution sooner or later. This makes the aforementioned trial-and-error-loops less likely to happen and you get a better narrative.
However, all is not perfect with this approach. By making the game's world all about gameplay, it also removes a certain sense of authenticity from it. As explained earlier, what creates the final perception of a game is all of the aspects taken together as a whole. Inside doesn't let the player freely explore the world, and because of this you lose a whole swathe of information that could have improved the overall perception. For instance, the player could learn more about the inner workings of the machinery or get a better understanding of its various inhabitants. Inside's interaction focus also forms a player role which is all about overcoming whatever puzzle is in front of them. While the player, in a certain sense, does explore the world of Inside, this is more of a side effect. The mechanics of the game almost never encourage the player to explore for pure, intrinsic reasons. Apart from a few scattered secrets Inside constantly revolves around solving the current puzzle at hand. This gives a certain sense of the whole world revolving around the player, and takes away the feeling of the place having an agenda of its own.
Side note: Adrian Chmielarz has a great article on how the most immersive games around all treat the player as an intruder. It is well worth a read as it goes over a lot of the issues that you can find in Limbo. Read it here.
A particularly big problem that arises because of Inside's straightforwardness is that the game's spatial representation suffers. When you go through a game, or any location really, you continuously build and update a mental model of the place. At first this mental model will be very sparse and lacking, and you won't really have an intuitive sense of the place - it just "exists". But as you traverse the world you start to understand how everything is connected and your mental model goes from being very simplistic to actually becoming a virtual representation of the place. It's when the mental model becomes sufficiently detailed that a world starts feeling real. As an example, compare quickly riding a car through a town and actually living there for a few days. In the former it's just scenery; in the latter it's an actual place. Not having this mental model is big problem in Inside. You always quickly pass by the various locations and never get to know them spatially. As such, the game's world never forms a cohesive whole in your mind. And without a proper mental model of the game's spaces, the final perception of its world suffers.
Again, just like the trial-and-error design, this is a bit of an unfair critique. The walk-forward-to-progress mechanic is part of the core of what kind of game Inside is. But that also causes issues to arise and it becomes easier to pinpoint narrative shortcomings.
Finally, another thing that that I think is worth bringing up is that Inside never properly introduces its protagonist. Early on there's a bunch of stuff done to get better a feel for the character we are playing, such as animations and the deadliness of the world. But there's never a shred of information as to where the boy is heading and why he wants to go there. This becomes problematic when your brain tries to weave a cohesive narrative through the game. At some points there are concrete urges that push you onwards, such as trying to escape some danger. In these instances, a story-like sequence will form in your mind and the journey feels like a proper narrative. But at other times there's no intrinsic reason for you to push onwards, and you only do it becomes the game tells you to. Once again, the makes the game go from playable story to a "just" being a puzzle platformer.
It's obvious that the developers intended for the boy's background to be vague, but I think they could have provided some more information. At least Limbo has "Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters Limbo" as a description, which at least gives us a clear goal: "find your sister". Inside has "Hunted and alone, a boy finds himself drawn into the center of a dark project," instead, which lacks a clear motive. And playing the game, I can't remember that I ever felt drawn towards something from a narrative perspective - the game itself compelled me to move onwards. It's fairly obvious that the developers intended the premise to be vague, but I think it's damaging to the game as a playable story. When we have a proper premise we can latch onto it is much more easily to create meaning around the various events. It also gives the player directions on how to roleplay and as a direct continuation of that helps enhance the perception of the game as a whole. A good example of this at work is the opening to to Last of Us (2013), where first a cinematic and then a playable sequence gives us a great setup for the character we are about to play for (most of ) the remainder of the game.
Note that Inside is far from a failure in this aspect. As I mentioned earlier, the animations and general setup helps a lot in setting up the character. I just felt the game left a bit more to be desired. And I find it annoying how many games skip over the the intial setup and start the game without any real sense of who you are playing. Interactive storytelling relies heavily on roleplaying, but without any defined role to take on this is very hard to achieve. Because of that I thought it was extra important to point out.
And that sums up my thoughts on Inside and playable narrative (for now at least!). While I might have come off as a bit harsh at the end of the essay, it's worth making it clear that I still think Inside is an amazing game. In terms of being a playable narrative Inside is really great - sometimes even genius - but that doesn't mean it's the best way to do things. As I've hopefully outlined in this essay, there's a bunch of stuff that can be improved. But it's also evident to me that Inside is on the right track. If we want to make proper interactive stories, Inside shows the way and is one of the best examples that currently exists.