Inside - Teaching through Level Design
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The word tutorial can often make many cringe. We’ve all played through a long and tedious tutorial at least once. It pulls you right out of the game; no matter how immersed you may have been. On the flip side of that conversation, there are some games that do a fantastic job of teaching the player exactly what to do. I’d like to discuss one of those games with you.
Inside Spoilers Below
I aim to discuss one level at a time, but Inside is done as one large level. I sectioned off this chunk of gameplay because it encompasses your escape from the opening forest. So let’s just say that this level’s objective is to evade your captors and escape the forest.
Play Dead has shown excellent mastery over level design in their previous game, Limbo. Which could have an article of its own. However, the successor of that hit game is the one we’ll be talking about, and that game is Inside. The opening moments of the game set the tone for what’s to come. In the main menu there are no prompts to press any buttons. Admittedly I actually sat here for a moment because I expected something to come up, but then what did I do? I pressed A. The menu text fades away and leaves us with a scene set in the woods with a small rock ledge. A child slides down from the rocks and I now have control of the games character.
This is a basis for everything else that is to come in Inside, and it started at the menu. The designers are telling us that we’re going to have to figure this out on our own. I know, that’s not exactly Level Design, but we’re getting there!
As we traverse the forest we encounter the levels first obstacle, a fallen tree. For those familiar with games you probably assume that we need to jump, and you would be right. After a few button pressed you’ll discover that A, the last button you pressed, lets you jump. While subtle, it is the level teaching us that A is jump, and you’ll be needing to use this mechanic often. Hence why it is your first real obstacle.
As we progress we encounter some of our antagonists. Two mask wearing individuals who, after we drop down and snap a twig, are triggered to search for us. One of them switches with a flashlight and heads in our direction. If you try to make a run for it, he will notice you. You can’t outrun him and he brutally strangles you to death. Running isn’t an option in this scenario. Instead there is a large metal object along your path where you can hide and wait out the masked men. So now as a player we know that running isn’t always the answer. Sometimes we will have to wait for the right opportunity.
Next we come across a wall that is far too tall for us to jump over. The level is saying you can’t pass, but we know we have to go forward through lighting (another topic for another time!). So what can we do? Well, conveniently placed next to us is an old fridge that just happens to stand out via it’s placement and contrasting color. Not to mention as we approach it a bird that was resting atop of it flies away, catching the player’s eye. A few button presses later reveal that you can grab and drag the object over to the wall, which allows you to climb over. This not only teaches the player something, but also makes them feel like a problem solver because they didn’t just prompt you to do so. So now the player is engaged and they’ve learned how to move, jump, climb, hide and drag objects without a single word of text.
This all may seem simple, but that is part of what makes it such good design. While playing through these small obstacles you feel like you’re figuring it out on your own, but the level is guiding you. That subtly is what makes or breaks these tutorials. The game could have had a message appear saying “Hold X to grab ahold of the fridge and move it”, but by doing so you would be breaking the player’s immersion, and you would rob them of those small ah-hah moments they’ve experienced which are key for the puzzles to come.
Another thing Inside does really well is ramp up the tension. Our next obstacle and in-game lesson comes in the form of a dog. A fast dog. A really fast dog! The player ends up crossing a body of water, which slows him down. The dog then comes sprinting from the background toward you at a breakneck speed (you get it if you’ve played Inside!) as you wade through the water. With the dog closing in it creates this intense situation where you have to move, and now! If done just right you make a leap of faith across a gap, barely escaping a really rough fate (I’m sorry lol). Now what is just right? Well you need to hold the joystick right the whole time. You need to move as fast as you can, otherwise the dog will get you. So while we learned that sometimes we need to slowdown and hide, there is also times where we have to move fast as possible or die.
This is important because Inside is about to test us. The level now has us going deeper into the forest. It gives us a moment to breath after our close encounter with the jaws of death (man these dog puns). This is important because these ups and downs keeps our player engaged. If you pressure them too often you risk losing them, and same if you have too many slow areas.
We eventually come to a road where we notice a van with another masked man peering out of the side in search for us. Where we are being out in the open, we have to move quickly. Here is the catch, there is a slight drop off up ahead. On my first play through I kept on running, which resulted in me getting shot by the man in the van. What did I do wrong? I think it took me a couple tries but eventually I noticed I could go back under the drop off and there was a place to hide. This taught me two things. One that sometimes I would need to go left in order to overcome obstacles, which is important to teach in a side-scroller. The other being that I’ll need to mix speed with caution.
In fact, the next puzzle tests you on this again, but with more risk. This time the masked man from the van has caught up with us and is chasing us. We get chased right into another group of masked men pulling up in a truck. With van guy right behind us we have to hide behind an old RV to not get seen by truck dudes. However, right as the truck passes we see van guy’s light getting closer and we’re back on the run. It’s this mixture of run and hide that teaches the player that they will need to think on their feet.
In that same scene, a pack of dogs is let loose on us. Which leads us right to our next lesson, which is about water. We leap again out of blind faith to a small river below. We end up underwater. From a nearby bride there is a light being shined into the water, assumingly from another masked man. So I try to swim forward under the light. That’s when I hear my character cough. Clearly signaling me that I need air. Now that is a sound que, but did you notice what the level did? It put you under water to begin with. It wanted to teach you that yes, you will need to worry about oxygen while underwater. Sure that might be a given these days while playing games, but you never know.
Next up, after passing through a corn field, you come to a barn. The door won’t seem to open, but there is a rope dangling from a platform above. The level guides you to the rope by the way it stands out and you can see light coming from the hole in the barn above. We know how to jump so let’s give that a try? We do so, and we grab ahold of the rope. After climbing up a way you discover you can swing on the rope and jump from it. Thus teaching you just about all you need to know about ropes in the game.
There are some later examples of this teaching method as well. Such as when your progress is halted by a boarded up door. When you first encounter this there isn’t any real pressure. You calmly discover you can grab ahold and pull the boards off of the door. This directly sets up a later puzzle where you need to use a fence to avoid dogs and have to race to get boards off of another doorway. However, I wanted to focus on the tutorial of this game, which does not feel like a tutorial at all. It’s actually one of the best, tensest openings to a game I’ve played in a while.
All of that takes about 8 minutes of gameplay, maybe longer if you die a few times. In just 8 minutes though Inside teaches the player, without breaking immersion at all, how to do all of the basic mechanics of the game. This is why I think Inside does an outstanding job of teaching through Level Design.
Inside does away with the boring traditional tutorial in favor of teaching us through varying obstacles in its levels. All while never pulling us out of the game, showing any text or giving us any prompts. This is the kind of immersive tutorial that games should strive for. It didn’t feel like a chore, but instead taught us what our character is capable of. All while fleshing out the world around you, thus drawing you deeper into the game.
Did you enjoy Inside? How did you feel about its level design?
thanks for reading, I’ll see you in the next level!