"Inside" the Game, A Story Without Words

Inside is a 2D puzzle platformer developed by Playdead (the developers of Limbo) that quickly immerses players into a mysteriously dark world. There are Limbo influences the style of the mechanics and puzzles, but Inside stands strongly as its own because of how the level and world design ties together its gameplay/puzzles in the overarching narrative.

I want to discuss how narrative and gameplay are communicated through level design. How the world sets a high concept that informs the puzzle and gameplay through key design elements needed to achieve a narrative without words. 

** And yes, spoiler-ish alert if you haven’t finished the game ** 
Will do my best to reduce specifics, but will need to describe some stuff regarding the narrative.

“Inside” - The High Concept

The main concept was all about the literal and figurative word, “inside” -- To tell a story and experience of a boy trying to figure out what is happening inside the mysterious facility.  

In the game, it was all about what was inside. How your objective was to get inside a facility. That inside was the reason the world was unsettling, mysterious... that it was up to you to figure it out, and perhaps, fix what was happening inside. And, as you progress, one could argue how the inside was a reflection of the main character in some way. That the boy you play is connected to the inside. That all along, you were inside this boy to help him “fix” or “free” what lies within. Or, perhaps, the inside is a dark reflection of mankind and how far people are willing to go for their own motives, experiments... making the boy a character of innocence, something that lives because of its opposing darkness, symbol of color in a gray world.

Whatever depth or conclusion players draw from their experience, the concept of the game was to penetrate the boundaries, literally and figuratively, and get to the core of what was happening with this world and feel its terror and suspense.

Setting the World

Once the main idea and theme was established, the world design was next:

The beauty of nature’s rural lands leading into a massive man-made compound. From outside to inside. From light to darkness. A descent.

(Playdead's "Inside" the game and its aesthetics)

(Playdead's "Inside" the game and its aesthetics)

The game’s narrative is in direct correlation with its setting. The early parts of the game take place outside where it establishes that something once peaceful is now unnerving. Once beautiful, but now dark. You are always moving to the right of the screen, almost like a field that extends forever with grasslands, farms, swamps, and roads. You begin to stumble upon danger but you push forward until you discover a warehouse or factory where mysterious people are entering. Crossing that threshold represents your objective of finding out what is happening inside. That you know the source of the darkness and mysteries around you must be deep within. You are always moving to the right, but this time, you mostly descend as you move deeper in the warehouse. So you are falling deeper inside as the level guides you relative that way to the world. With the setting of the warehouse as the remainder of the game, it contains layers and layers of unnatural and strange architecture. This factory is like nothing you have ever seen. And you may likely never get to see that outside beauty of the world again after going this far. 

(Inside the factory – layers that get deeper and deeper)

(Inside the factory – layers that get deeper and deeper)

Once you reach the core, no matter which ending the player ends up with, it is about the final descension, relative to the world location, and the boy’s final act with handling the inside.

The setting of the world now sets the tone for the design of the levels and game mechanics.

Identifying the Mechanics and Puzzle Elements

Inside is a 2D or "2.5D" puzzle platformer. (Will go over ‘2.5D’ in next section). The 2D platformer basic mechanics, at its core, are run and jump. The puzzle aspect brings mechanics of push, pull, climb, and interact. And as the game progresses, environmental and narrative context introduces the player to swim, swing, mind-control, and underwater-pod control.

The tool belt of mechanics allows for a different puzzle types and interactable objects. And will scale in difficulty and complexity as the player advances deeper into the game. 

Levels Design Teaching Mechanic and Puzzle Development

The goal of the level design is to inform story and gameplay using minimum words/UI. And the overarching world design introduces these mechanics and expands complexity of the level and puzzle design appropriately to its narrative.

Inside’s level is best described as “2.5D environment” which creates depth in the background. Although the playable space is truly a 2D platformer, various environmental dangers or storytelling occurs in the layers behind the player. Dangers such as dogs or humans emerging from the background towards the foreground enter the playable space. Think of the background as storybook you walk through and the playable layer utilizes shape, lighting, color, and camera placement/framing to hint to the player what they need to do in order to advance. These are the design elements used to make a successful puzzle platformer.

Utilizing Design Elements

Very early in the game, the player sees a car driving through the background with flashlights beaming out towards the playable layer. This is triggered while the player is running out of the woods and the lights in the darkness communicates that this is dangerous and you must to avoid being seen. 

(Player running to avoid being detected by lights, ridge below)

(Player running to avoid being detected by lights, ridge below)

The level is flat at first. But then slopes up and is quickly met by a ridge where the player has to jump down. The way the ground slopes up creates a cave-like shape at the ridge. As soon as the player lands, the camera frames this shape in the center, immediately hinting the cave’s importance for shelter, especially right as the enemy flashlight points directly towards the cave, enhancing its silhouette. 

(Cave-like shape hinting where the player should go)

(Cave-like shape hinting where the player should go)

This is a simple puzzle moment that the game is trying to communicate to the player. If the player chose to avoid the cave and kept running, they will be shot down by the enemies since the open field guarantees being spotted. As you can see, this was accomplished through simple level geometry supported by shape-language, lighting, and camera framing. It is these simple but powerful moments that communicate mechanics and dynamics to the player without using a single word – that’s the level design goal.

Two Types of Puzzles

Whether the player feels like they are endangered or just pondering over a room, all of these moments and encounters are puzzles -- all meant for the player to solve and overcome in order to advance. A good way to categorize puzzles is “time-based” and “brain-teasers”. 

1) Time-Based Puzzles - Requires either a certain amount of time to complete the puzzle or timing of certain environmental factors in order to move player to completion. Thematically, these usually involve some sort of danger to the player like dogs or people chasing the boy. Or deadly spotlights that move back and forth that you must avoid being seen. Sometimes, the player will learn through trial and error (error typically means death) to understand how to complete the puzzle if they do not notice the solution immediately. 

(Example of time-based puzzle - avoid moving spotlights)

(Example of time-based puzzle - avoid moving spotlights)

With the inherently dark environment, light sources can be used to communicate danger or guidance depending on their context. The image above shows a very straightforward time-based lighting puzzle. The player must simply move across without being spotted because light equals danger. The spotlights move left and right creating dynamic shadows cast against the playable space, in this case, the structural column, where the player objective is to remain in the shadows.

That was an easy introduction to spotlight time-based puzzles. As the game progresses, these time-based puzzles will add more and more intensity.

Time-based puzzles arguably welcome death as its trial and error when figuring out how to solve the environmental puzzle. Players may often die a couple of times when they first encounter a scenario because the camera and level does not always frame the answer in one screen, but instead, tease the goal. In previous spotlight puzzle, it turns out that if the player turned on the power switch and made it across utilizing the structural columns dodging lights as expected, they’ll find that there won’t be enough time to lift the door open without the spotlights catching the player – this was designed with death on purpose. Once the player dies, they’ll realize what they actually need do: open the gate first, run back to turn on the power, and then dodge the lights. Therefore, respawn points are carefully place to encourage the player to try again with ease, not punishing them for messing up.

The image below is another spotlight time-based puzzle that occurs not long after the first one.

(Example of time-based puzzle increasing in intensity/difficulty)

(Example of time-based puzzle increasing in intensity/difficulty)

Upon arriving, the camera zooms out to frame this view for the player in the image above. The boy looks up to acknowledge the spotlight that frames the steering wheel hinting its relationship to an adjacent hanging crate. This moment alone communicates what the player should do, but now it is a matter of how they should do it. 

(Utilizing dynamic shadows to cross to safety)

(Utilizing dynamic shadows to cross to safety)

Immediately, the spotlight will move left and right slowly casting its dynamic shadow for the player to safely cross. You must interact and spin the wheel and watch the cage go down. But the player will notice that no matter how fast they spin the wheel, it does not have enough rotation to complete its cycle without the spotlight returning to endanger the boy. So, of course, the player must run back to take shelter under the pipes in shadow then rinse and repeat to complete the puzzle.

(Taking shelter again under dynamic shadows as spotlight paths back)

(Taking shelter again under dynamic shadows as spotlight paths back)

The player is put on a timer and thus, creates more intensity in the puzzle. This sense of urgency due to timing will continue to grow as the puzzles get more complex later in the game.

With these two examples, we see the importance of camera framing the obstacle as lighting and shape-language communicate how to traverse the space. Even if the player may die in a time-based puzzle, the level’s design elements actually teaches the player and provides agency through their mistakes as it arguably becomes more obvious what they should do next. Death is not punishment, but encouragement in a good puzzle platformer design.

2) Brain-Teaser Puzzles - Puzzles meant to rattle the player’s brain as they ponder over how they should interact with the environment to bypass a dead-end or door. These are not time-sensitive, giving the player all the time they need to traverse the level and interact with the playable space. These are designed with a specific number of set pieces to interact with and can be solvable through trial, error, and exploration. It is also designed so that the player won’t get “stuck” if they mess up, but rather, the level allows them to interact, fail, analyze, reassess, and then try again. 

The example below is brain teaser early in the game where the player needs to figure out how to get up on higher ground in the warehouse. In the image below, the player quickly meets a dead-end and probably figures that they need something to climb on in order to get up. A box (marked with red arrow) can be found above and is probably the key to getting out. The camera frames the player in the image below so that they can assess there are two interactable objects (marked in green) and perhaps the suction (blue) is the key to knocking the box over.

(Camera frames the brain teaser for player assessment)

(Camera frames the brain teaser for player assessment)

After fiddling around with the two interactable pieces, in a matter of time, the player should recall an interesting environmental interaction that occurred right before entering this warehouse. Small baby chicks (marked in blue below) gathered and followed the player outside as they journeyed towards this building. These bright yellow creatures stood as a strong contrast to the gray monochrome environment. The level uses color to denote visual cues.  

(Recalling yellow chicks previous to puzzle encounter)

(Recalling yellow chicks previous to puzzle encounter)

Although peculiar at first sight, the player should have a light bulb go off in their heads: small chicks must mean they can fit in the small suction. So they became the key to finishing this brain teaser.

(Putting the final piece to together to solve the puzzle)

(Putting the final piece to together to solve the puzzle)

Once the player leads the chicks through the suction, the box will knock over for the player to move on. Whether the player gets the puzzle immediately or ponders, agency and sense of accomplishment awaits after every brain teaser encouraging the player to continue the game.

Conclusion

By understanding how to utilize different design elements in a level, a game can provide a lot of visual information without heavy gestures from UI and words. Personally, I believe that the camera placement and framing is the most powerful tool for puzzle platformers (working with its level/environment). It wraps up art and design elements into a nice package on the screen as it sets the goal in sight (or teases it) and hints at the requirements to meet that goal. If the camera cuts off or does not frame a hint in a good way, the player may completely miss it, even if it’s been lit, shaped, or colored differently. And if the player is being teased of the goal off-screen, the hints that are framed in the perspective, camera angle, and zoom provide scale to how far they must venture to satisfy the conditions.

Inside’s level/world design orchestrates fun mechanics and dynamics in a way where gameplay feel intuitive and the world immersive. I always enjoy a good 2D puzzle platformer, so this one is must for level designers!