The Danish word “hygge” has no direct English translation. It means a general sense of atmospheric coziness and peace and is regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture. Puzzle platformer INSIDE, created by Copenhagen-based studio Playdead, can best be summed up as whatever the opposite of hygge is.
INSIDE, like its stylized-in-all-caps one-word title, is bold, ominous, and minimalist. The game stars a faceless boy in a red shirt, who the player controls through a few simple gestures. There are no points. There are no levels. There is no backstory. The title card fades into a forest, and you’re off. Instead of being forced to memorize different commands and controls and navigate menus and maps, INISDE’s clean interface and simple controls help create an immersive, endlessly interactive world that unfolds more like a film than a video game.
By controlling the boy, the player must solve puzzles to advance through the landscape and avoid certain nightmarish death that lurks around every corner. The puzzles are plausible and make sense within the world of the game. You don’t need code-breaking skills, a photographic memory, or any outside knowledge to get through it; you just need logic and a basic understanding of physics and timing.
Through the intricate backgrounds, BAFTA-winning art director Arnt Jensen lets the story unfold without dialogue. The beautifully drawn landscapes are desaturated and bleak, but glow with color here and there; red on the boy’s shirt, yellow chickens on an abandoned farm, an eerie green-tinted forest, and borderline cheerful breams of morning light that illuminate the concrete. Easily missed clues stand out with pops of color as well—red levers, flickering neon signs and glowing buttons contrast against the bleak backdrop, subtly helping the player out while keeping the sense of unnerving realism intact.
The landscapes are beautifully unwelcoming. As the boy moves through the rain-soaked countryside and into the foreboding interior of the facility, the death traps around every corner change from falling trees and deep water to security cameras, dangerous machinery, and armed guards. The few other characters in the game—guards, dogs, failed experiments, feral pigs—are all out to get you. Most of the game relies on trial and error, so needless to say, the boy dies. Over and over and over again.
Like many video games, INSIDE is violent, but its quiet depiction of violence is what sets it apart from similarly themed games. The death scenes are gruesome, but not overdone. INSIDE’s goal is clearly to tell a story, not to be unbeatable. When you inevitably mess up and kill the boy, the game fades to black, before resetting to where you were right before you kicked the bucket, Martin Stig Andersen and SØS Gunver Ryberg’s haunting score playing uninterrupted throughout.
“One of the things I took with me from Limbo [Playdead’s debut game], was the thought of it almost being like a music video,” Andersen said in a 2019 interview Death in Design (originally in Danish with English subtitles). “Even if you die and respawn, the music will continue playing underneath.”
The game’s sound design, also by Andersen, is disturbingly effective in creating a sense of atmospheric dread when combined with the art. So effective, in fact, that Playdead never released the soundtrack and requested that the score not be presented separate from the visuals. Humming machinery, barking dogs, and the intriguing, constant drone of rhythmically marching footsteps create a sense of suspense and dread on a much more subtle level, to the point that the background noise becomes part of the score itself.
In one scene in the game, the boy has to navigate what looks to be a deserted testing site, where a series of rhythmic shockwaves rattle the landscape. You must run for cover during the six seconds in between explosions, or else you are blown into pieces. “That explosion occurs every sixth second, and becomes almost a piece of music,” Andersen says. The explosions, like the rest of the score, continue to play even if the boy is killed and the game reset to the last checkpoint. “[The music] hasn’t been ruined by the fact that you’ve died,” says Andersen. “It’s almost just made it better.”
Clearly, this story does not revolve around the boy (or you, the player). He is unimportant—a side character in an indifferent world. Not even the music stops for him. In the world of INSIDE, there is no penalty when you die. No lost points, no game over. You can reset to an earlier scene at any point in the game. The only way to lose is by giving up.
INSIDE is available on iOS, Playstation, XBOX, MacOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows.