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Polygon’s 2016 Games of the Year #2: Inside

Inside twinkles in the spaces between events, the long and gauzy corridors that drape across its many puzzles.

It's here that the protagonist, a vulnerable boy, stumbles through puddles and trips on obstacles, fearfully jerking his head as he looks for the coming of the men, the dogs, the machines. His manner is not heroic. He lacks the power of violence. This alone marks Inside as brave and extraordinary.

Inside is polished to a state of perfection. Each animation, each scene, each puzzle is perfectly itself. I found it to be everything a video game ought to be: beautiful, engrossing, challenging, fun, funny, scary, clever and grave.

The boy's exacted animations illustrate Inside's story. His head is down but his shoulders lean into the coming challenges. He is frightened but he is also determined. The pauses between action give us time to be the boy. And so, when he dies, which is often, the pathetic matter of his crushed flesh and bones are all the sadder.

In other games, these little death animations — the ripping apart by dogs, the dismemberment by explosion — would be a matter of cheap laughs or gaudy gore. But here, they are simply descriptions of the world's callousness and the boy's weakness.

This is not to suggest that Inside lacks humor. By unraveling the puzzles, we render their power risible. Inside gently mocks the pretensions of grand schemes and the complex machinations of power. There are moments here of the bleakest comedy.

Puzzles come in variations on the theme of stealth or utility, and in these variations it is endlessly inventive, a marvel of physical imagination.

Often they are about timing, simply moving between barriers while the searchlights sweep elsewhere. There are parts of this game that are pure sideways scrolling platforming. The boy runs as fast as he can and jumps as far as he can, and he lands in the right place. Or you've timed it wrong and he crunches to the ground and you have to try again. But still, these age-old devices are made to feel new and fresh.

Other puzzles require the boy to make use of whatever is at hand — levers, platforms, pumps, derricks, submarines, heavy objects, angry pigs — and combine them usefully. Inside's ingenuity is in taking standard puzzle formula ("here are some things, now put them in the right order") and making them seem new and unique each and every time.

Extra novelty is provided by water-based levels that turn the world upside down, also providing one of the most disturbing adversaries in recent gaming history. There's also a mind control machine that allows the boy to briefly make use of creepy human drones who are scattered about the world.

The puzzles never feel frustrating. Sometimes they are pleasantly rote. Sometimes they take thought and patience. Their resolution is always satisfying, even joyful. Creating four or five hours worth of physical puzzles that feel original, fun and challenging is a major game design achievement.

Action takes place along a strict two-dimensional line but the story plays out in the passing scenery. It is presented as a passing tableau of events, omens and characters that illustrate the background, like a sumptuous medieval tome. These marginal spaces provide a Dickensian pacing and plot, confounding the player's expectations with surprises and fleeting characters. Light, shadow and movement set a foreboding atmosphere.

Inside is a world of dreadful charm. This is a place of satanic, looming factories and gray men, of barbed wire, broken things and corruption. It is someplace between a 1940s blitzed city and a futuristic death camp. It is the opposite of a wonderland, and yet, such is its awful beauty, I never wanted to leave.

Inside's greatest trick is its overarching and unsolvable narrative puzzle. Who is the boy? What is this world? What do the endings mean? These are questions I was free to ponder, at length, long after I’d enjoyed discovering all the game's micro-secrets.

Polygon is counting down our favorite games of 2016. For more on the process behind how we choose our top 10, read this guide to our voting process.