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Screenshot-Original (1)Last year I wrote about a game called LIMBO, an indie platformer that I really enjoyed. So did critics and gamers as it earned rave reviews and was ported to several different platforms and consoles. The sales and support allowed developer Playdead, a small independent studio based in Denmark, to begin work on a second project, and INSIDE is the result of six years work and development. While it benefits from improved graphics and audio that games can now offer in 2016, spiritually it stays true to a lot of the values that made LIMBO such a unique game.

Screenshot-Original (4)You, the player, control a boy and must keep him away from danger (guards and dogs initially chase him down) while guiding him forward through dangerous and increasingly strange scenes simultaneously beautiful and eerie. Inside’s several similarities to its ‘little brother’ LIMBO include a unique graphical style, a 2D perspective, a minimalist (or, not immediately obvious) story, and very unsettling, creepy undertones. But the experience of Limbo has allowed Playdead to build on their talent of creating disturbing worlds with vague and haunting themes.

Screenshot-Original (5)The graphics are outstandingly beautiful. Limbo was set in a monochromatic landscape but with Inside the black-and-white environments contain dashes of colour. However there is far more detail on show.T he screens don’t do Playdead’s artistic direction justice. Lighting and particle effects, rippling puddles and dripping water; the level of detail in the varied environments (where you explore farms, factories, offices and science labs) is outstanding. There were times I had to stop to take it all in.

Screenshot-Original (6)And while I’ve said Inside is a 2D sidescroller, that’s not strictly true. At key moments in the gameplay, the camera will pan to give breathtaking angles of the environment. Movement is still restricted to left and right, up and down, but the depth of the world makes it seem much more grander in scale. Animations are superb all round; the boy runs, jumps and climbs in a way that feels organic and true, and when matched with sounds of his panting and grunts of pain, the need to get him through these ordeals is that much stronger.  

Screenshot-Original (7)Inside initially follows a similar theme to Limbo: a boy needs to find his way through a series of seemingly abandoned environments, avoiding hostile enemies (guards, dogs, other…things) and the hazards around him. These involve circumventing traps and puzzles, some of which really caused me to scratch my head. It’s a short game, but you will die frequently and some of the puzzles require an element of trial and error. As to what the boy is doing here, what he is looking for, and what the hell is going on in this world, I will not even speculate on. There is a message, or a theme, and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts and interpretations, but I won’t spoil anything here. Inside needs to be experienced, and the less you know the better. I can’t stop thinking about the whole thing.

Screenshot-Original (9)I said something similar when I wrote about Limbo, but Inside is a piece of interactive art. The dividing lines between a game, a story and art is blurred into something undefinable. Without any words being spoken, Inside is compelling and thought-provoking, subtle and creepy, beautiful and unmissable. It needs to be experienced.

Sometimes on this blog I talk about something a little different, not necessarily relating to something I’ve read or written. Today it’s a video game. Well, I see it more as an interactive piece of art. A little indie title named LIMBO.

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Developed by independent game developer Playdead, LIMBO was initially released in 2010. I remember seeing it and thinking it had a great art direction, but ultimately 2D platformers aren’t really my thing. A few months back I downloaded it, being on sale at a really good price I figured I might get round to checking it out at some point. I’m so glad I did, because LIMBO is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful little games I’ve ever had the joy of playing.

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I thought I would show a few screenshots I captured on my Xbox One. Straight away you can appreciate its black and white tones and the lighting used, but what you can’t get from simple screens are the grainy animations and minimalist sound design, which all add up to create a wickedly eerie experience.

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And it is an experience. In terms of gameplay it’s wonderfully simple but very clever. It’s a platformer and puzzle game and I’ll hold my hands up, I got stuck plenty of times. I also died plenty of times, as this is a hellish world where almost everything can and will kill you.

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The plot is as wonderfully understated as the aesthetics. A boy wakes in an evil forest and must make his way through in order to find his sister. Along the he encounters aggressive creatures (such as a giant spider which is freaking terrifying, and parasitic maggots which take the movement of the boy out of your control), violent people (?) who lay traps and throw projectiles to keep the boy from escaping alive, and the environment which, with its sheer drops and sharp edges, will hinder your progress at every turn.

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The game has received critical acclaim, and if you own a PC or gaming console and haven’t given LIMBO a try yet, you should. It’s an absolute bargain, a haunting, beautiful game, a disturbing, never-ending dream. Or nightmare.

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In 2011 Ernest Cline released his first novel, Ready Player One. A self-confessed geek, the book is a tribute to 1980s culture of games, films, television, music.

It’s 2045, and everyone spends a hell of a lot of time logged into the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a 3D super-realistic virtual reality simulation and a gamers paradise. The appeal of the OASIS is that it also acts as an escape from daily life for the population, with the world beginning to crumble due to overpopulation, pollution and power shortages.

The plot follows Wade Watts, a eighteen year old boy. He, like everybody else, is hooked to the massively multiplayer online game that is the OASIS; its creator, James Halliday, revealed a contest to the world once he died. The Hunt encourages users to locate several keys and gates hidden across the sprawling OASIS, a trail of breadcrumbs for the ‘gunters’ who idolise Halliday and spend their time researching and reliving the 80s neon pop culture than Halliday loved so much. The winner will need to pass various tests of skill, intelligence and discovery to obtain the Egg, giving the winner the billions of dollars in Halliday’s estate as well as control and management of the OASIS itself.

Along the way we are introduced to several allies and enemies. Aech, Wade’s best friend. Artemis, the love interest. And Nolan Sorrento, the head of the ‘Oology Division’ at Innovative Online Industries (IOI). IOI is a huge corporation hell bent on winning the Hunt and taking control of the OASIS. They have hired thousands of employees to give them an advantage in scouring the OASIS for the Egg, and are deregoratically called ‘Sixers’. These corporate gunters will do anything to gain a foothold in the Hunt, and are they along with Sorrento are the business-like, efficient antagonists of the novel.

Trying to summarise Ready Player One’s plot doesn’t do it justice. Cline excels in the opening chapters, writing rich descriptions of the OASIS, its eccentric creator James Halliday, the real world in its current state and the culture of Gunters and their Hunt for the Egg. There is a lot that needs to be set up and explained, but once it does we join Wade as he stumbles upon the first clue and the book becomes a real page-turner, with the plot flowing rapidly from one world to the next.

I’m more of a 90s kid so some of the references went over my head. I used to be (still am really) a huge video game fan, so I did appreciate the huge amount of effort and skill from Cline to make plugging into the OASIS a really believable gaming experience. Much like DLC (downloadable content) in modern games money, or credits, are king. Credits are key to transporting your avatar through the thousands and thousands of worlds within the OASIS, to buying spacecraft to travel around solar systems, to casual clothing and protective armour, to powerful weapons and more.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first person perspective/narrative. I’m not sure know why – it can lead to contrived writing and I’ve always felt it can be a little ‘cringey’ at times. That definitely got in the way of my enjoyment initially but I had fully embraced it by the end, and the reader forms a real attachment with Parzival of the OASIS and Wade Watts of the real world. As the story progresses the Sixers become more and more ruthless, prepared to do anything to get to the Egg first, putting Wade in danger outside of the OASIS too.

I was surprised to be moved several times in the books closing chapters. Special mention to Wade meeting his bro Aech in the real world for the first time – that was deep – as was the ending and the implications Cline hints at. The passage below really struck a chord with me.

   Once I had the suit on, I ordered the haptic chair to extend. Then I paused and spent a moment staring at my immersion rig. I’d been so proud of all this high-tech hardware when I’d first purchased it. But over the past few months I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my sense, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.
Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life. I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.
But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognised everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.

It did take me a while to get into the plot. 80s reference are chucked at you relentlessly every few sentences, and we learn that Wade is an uber nerd – there is virtually nothing he doesn’t know about Halliday’s life. I felt at times this felt a little too convenient – there would be a problem or riddle to solve…Wade would spend hours to days to weeks agonizing on the solution, only for the pin to drop and Wade pulls the answer from within his vast, encyclopedic knowledge to lead him to the next step in the Hunt. But I guess this happens to everyone – you often solve a problem because something is triggered in your brain, that you already knew. It happens, but that actually process doesn’t always come across as naturally on paper.

The actual riddles and trials were very well done, and the best parts of the book come from the thrill of the chase, and Wade putting his considerable gaming skill to the test. When a riddle is finally cracked, Wade must travel as fast as he can in his spaceship, the Vonnegut, throughout stargates and across galaxies. There is a sense of scale and adventure that is hugely impressive when you consider the OASIS is only a ‘videogame’.

Ready Player One is unashamedly one of the geekiest books ever written. In fact it displays this proudly, and every 80s reference to film, tv, videogames and music is lovingly descriptive. You can tell Cline had a tonne of fun recalling and remembering his childhood obsessions. I somewhat think the appeal was lost on me; being a child who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, but there was still enough about it to make me thoroughly enjoy the ride.

Embrace your inner geek and check it out.