I played the entirety of The Inner Friend twice, from beginning to end, believing that the game deserved a thorough exploration before drawing any conclusions on its story. After all, The Inner Friend is very much so a “story” game, a fact it asserts in everything from it’s official marketing to the very ways in which the gameplay is designed.

This idea of  “immersive storytelling” was what drew me in. Video games are a great evolutionary step for the art of storytelling. It’s completely fair – and savvy, knowing there are players like myself out there – to sell your game as a narrative experience.

After the first two and a half hours it took me to clear the game, I felt like The Inner Friend had kind of gone over my head, and that it was somehow my fault for not quite being able to piece together the game’s completely wordless story. I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I’m a little dense, so I went through it all a second time. As an interactive narrative, it relies entirely on the player to figure out the story by exploring each level and picking up relics from the avatar’s childhood bedroom, which serves as a sort of hub from which you leap into the game’s dreamy levels.

The connection between these places and the bedroom are supposed to slowly reveal a story, under the thematic blanket of exploring childhood fears. It’s all told in vocal silence. No dialogue, no text –  nothing to read and nothing that elaborates the places and creatures you encounter.

This storytelling choice puts the onus of narrative interpretation on the player. It’s something I’ve encountered with other games and is a conceptual play style I’ve had fun with in the past. But after a second playthrough of The Inner Friend – and four hours of my life I will never get back – I refuse to accept that I’m the one missing something here. This game is so narratively scrambled – bouncing between highly-imaginative concepts, to ideas so shamefully unoriginal that they can’t be ignored –  that I absolutely stopped caring about trying to interpret any deeper meaning.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
Interesting set pieces punctuate otherwise uninspired levels.

After being burned by zero rewards for finding everything in the game – an easy task, but one that takes time – I had lost all interest in sorting out exactly what The Inner Friend was trying to convey. For every creative step forward that could have given this game hope, its faults drag it into a deeply unrewarding place – kind of like the monsters that haunt its digital dreamscapes.

The Inner Friend relies on what are supposed to be emotionally impactful images of childhood traumas, presumably to tell some kind of cohesive story. This is an ambitious and fascinating idea. I can appreciate the attempt to tackle such a specific concept, but grasping for deeper meaning in ideas so psychologically intricate requires a longer creative reach than what The Inner Friend is capable of. It isn’t the minimalist gameplay elements or narrow environmental boundaries that neuter the game’s poignancy; there are plenty of games that can leave an impact with very little actual ‘gameplay’. The problem lies in what I suspect many will see as The Inner Friend’s greatest strength: it’s reliance on visual impact over the substantive narrative.

The gestalt is fractured – and ultimately ruined – by entire levels that are so trite in both concept and design that they take away from the game’s successful moments. Certain levels play like parodies of the psychological horror genre, with such little inspiration that the whole game almost feels incomplete. Note here, that this game is not a psychological horror title, but does contain related elements – elements that are so poorly presented that they pull you out of the game world.

The Inner Friend has the distinct honor of being the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, in regards to unoriginal level design. I’ve been frustrated by uninspired padding in the past, but this game actively tricked me into thinking it was going somewhere original when it did not. At least half of the levels are simple rehashes of genre staples that we’ve played time and time again. Schools. Hospitals. Shopping malls. All places we’ve explored in action, adventure, and thriller titles, most of which suffer from the same intrinsic tedium.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
Blueberry Head doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Pyramid Head, but I’ll take it.

Yes, there’s a point to this: these places are supposed to reflect the real world or places that people can relate to, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are completely overused. The absolute worst example of The Inner Friend’s biggest abuse of this is it’s final level as if to end the game on the sourest note possible. This final portion is my own personal hell, and the most phoned-in, played-out archetype in adventure gaming: the dreaded mine level.

This may sound like a highly specific nitpick, but it perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with The Inner Friend’s presentation. It almost undoes any narrative cohesiveness – which it already lacks, due to its wordless presentation – by relying on an environment that barely makes sense for its overall schema of ‘childhood fears’. Not only does such uninspired level design spoil any sense of atmosphere, but it does so with something so commonplace in adventure gaming that I can’t help but feel they ran out of ideas.

If the level is supposed to be a place for the child to face the monster that lives inside of it, then it could have been literally anywhere else. If it’s supposed to be reflective of a ‘basement’ then it failed that too. The level is a bland, weirdly-lit, sparsely detailed dungeon – one that any fan of adventure games has walked through time and time again. It is a mark of pure, creative laziness that unfortunately crops up all throughout the game.

Do we need to revisit places like underground caverns and mines again? What else can be said that hasn’t been said in a game like, say: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or Outlast 2, or The Evil Within, or Until Dawn, or  Resident Evil 7… and 6, 5, and 4. It’s an even worse staple in older games, like Alan Wake, Haunting Ground, and Silent Hill DownpourThere is an excess of games with the level archetypes found in The Inner Friend, and as players, we shouldn’t settle for this.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
Some moments succeed wonderfully in relaying the theme of childhood trauma and fear.

All of the examples listed above at least kind-of-sort-of weave the “cavern” level into the game’s flow. But The Inner Friend has no excuse to use such an unoriginal concept – not just because it’s a bad cliche, but because it doesn’t even make sense within its own conceptual framework. With the promise of a fascinating blanket concept – trauma from a child’s viewpoint – there is a massive sense of wasted potential, to the point of feeling cheated. It’s only made worse by the fact that these levels are so brainlessly easy to navigate that the rare moments of actual action just aren’t all that fun. Even with the occasional chase sequence rushing you through its barely-there labyrinths, it feels soulless.

At least the creature design is kind of neat looking, though I wouldn’t personally call it ‘scary’. Creative and memorable, yes, but that only goes so far when everything else around you is so disengaging. In the instances where you run into environmental hazards, or ‘enemies’, the worst thing about them are their fluid animations. The game is great in regards to fascinating monsters that pop with eerie life. Credit where credit is due, they’re pretty visually unique.

But the second you’re caught by one and are spit back out where the chase began, everything remotely scary about the scenario dissolves. It becomes just another chore to get through, with puzzles or sequences that are too short and simple to call fun either. Without any sense of consequence, all that good eustress is chucked out the window and you’re left with just another visual gimmick.  

All of this is supposed to be bolstering a narrative without any kind of elaboration through language. The gameplay is supposed to be a vessel through which a greater story is told, and even with a concept like exploring trauma, a concept that holds amazing potential, The Inner Friend quickly feels like it’s own story’s worst enemy.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
Creative visuals stand in stark contrast to The Inner Friend’s unoriginal level archetypes.

The game drives home the point that we’re exploring places steeped in childhood trauma. But what kind of child is playing in underground mine shafts? It would be fine if these levels were designed as imaginatively as it’s more surreal environments, which do exist among the mix. Getting lost in the mall, the anxiety of getting your haircut, and hospitals in general – I can absolutely see what could be scary about those scenarios, especially if we’re experiencing them through a child’s perspective. The problem is, even the levels with potential don’t always play to the strengths of the game’s greater themes. The levels that actually take advantage of this concept of fear work because their surreal designs are actually well-realized, even if they’re tragically short or filled with banal half-puzzles.

Importantly, the few good levels – the hospital, for example – do a better job of displaying the world from a child’s point of view. That same feeling does not exist in every level, though. The few levels that do succeed in conveying this perspective are very specific, relatable situations. Even though a place like a ‘hospital’ is just as cliche as a mine level, The Inner Friend at least has its own successful spin, where it’s other levels fail. On the virtue of it’s surreal qualities and the tiny gasp of narrative clarity we see through the hospital’s cutscenes, the level is a fine example of what I believe The Inner Friend tried to accomplish: tell a story through emotional imagery, while allowing for open interpretation on the player’s part. The problem with this, is that it’s only one of maybe two levels where the game hits this mark.

In the hospital level, the imagery we’re provided is a little more impactful, a little more concrete, and you get a better sense that there’s an actual tale being told. Maybe this is the level that simply ‘resonated’ with me, where the others were unrelatable, but something about the hospital feels a little more thought-out than the cavern, the ruins, and the mall. Maybe it’s the fact that it runs twice as long as some of the other levels. It’s a shame that this feeling could not translate over into every scenario. I might be the only one who feels this way, which could stand as a testament to the idea of relatability in their choice for setting and theme.

However, I don’t think what makes The Inner Friend such a chore to play boils down to what is “relatable” or what isn’t. The simple fact is, for every imaginative level, there are twice as many that are downright boring to navigate, even when they’re chock full of interesting imagery. Even a level with action sequences and fascinating things to look at, like the art gallery, is ultimately marred by tedious movement puzzles that rely on patience more than anything. The silver lining is that the controls are good enough to where if you mess up, you know it’s your fault. I didn’t run into any weird glitchiness throughout either playthrough. The quality control of the most basic ‘video game’ elements is actually top-notch. Playmind can certainly make a clean game, even if I personally dislike how it’s presented.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
At least meet me halfway, dude.

There is a lot about the Inner Friend that can – and I’m guessing will – be lauded as “creative”. It’s got the look and feel of a game with something deep beneath its surface, and I’m willing to bet people are going to fall for the same trap I did. It may seem unfair to fixate on the negative so much, but it would be equally disingenuous to ignore what’s poorly done, simply because portions of the game have the appearance of something unique. I could pass this game as interesting based on the original snippets we get here-and-there – like the scenario spent flying through the level hub, which remains a memorable moment. I really liked those moments, to the point where I feel bad having to dish on the parts I disliked. However, where it shows so much imagination in a few choice spots, The Inner Friend turns around and shoehorns in entirely blasé environments (with gameplay to match) and then expects the player to stay fully engaged with its already vague story.

When the story is so reliant on visuals and eschews cohesiveness for interpretability, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for level design that doesn’t fully engage the potential of their narrative themes. Boring levels will only make the story boring as well. When your puzzles are too simple on top of this, and the minimalist controls limit any kind of dynamic gameplay, it all begins to stack up into an experience that I simply wanted to be done with… and yet, I still played it twice, because I believed I’d get something out of the story. I wanted to give The Inner Friend a real chance. Even after giving it a second shot, the reward of a worthwhile narrative never arrived.

If a game is going to demand it’s players to follow along with a narrative through this exact kind of presentation, everything about its design needs to be watertight, or at least a little tighter than what The Inner Friend presents. The actual ‘writing’ relies on so many audio-visual cues, “emotional” cutscenes, and general aesthetics, that you really expect those aspects to be done with a little more finesse. Even when you get a cutscene, they’re melodramatic, baffling, and hard to take seriously. These are elements that, when judged separately, wouldn’t necessarily ruin a game that provides a more concrete extrapolation on what’s happening. When a game is so insistent on a ‘silent’ narrative, everything begins to fall apart the moment you skimp on certain design elements.

The moments where The Inner Friend shows it’s potential are, however, moments where it’s inspiration shines with impressive clarity. It makes me realize I could have liked this game if it simply worked more with its strengths, and didn’t rely on the crutch of genre staples. There is so much potential in the idea of ‘childhood trauma’ that could have provided many more memorable moments, rather than the vignettes they chose to focus on. Instead of original levels like the hair salon, we get tired old thriller archetypes that only tangentially relate to the story’s larger themes. The disappointingly short play time and the downright confusing relationship between the player’s avatar and the ‘Shadow’ only make for what feels like a series of random ideas thrown together in a row, instead of an actual story.

Perhaps this was the goal after all; simple moments in a child’s life that are meant to be relatable to the player. But there’s definitely supposed to be more – the game is trying to tell an actual story, but the story just doesn’t feel there. For all I know, it probably is, but all of the problems just made me stop caring about piecing it together. I’m not asking to be spoon-fed a story, but if I’m expected to forage for my own conclusions, don’t leave me starving.

The Inner Friend Screenshot
One big scavenger hunt, that leads to – spoiler alert – absolutely nothing.

The Inner Friend is framed through opening and closing scenes involving an old man, on what appears to be either his deathbed or in the throes of some kind of retrospective trance. It’s images like this that are clearly left open for interpretation but indicate that there is, in fact, a larger narrative meant to be understood. The game provides random dots for you to connect: pictures and ‘puzzle pieces’, or objects you find around the levels that you bring back to the bedroom, and place around. Ephemera of childhood: toys and electronics, books and knick-knacks.

But the randomness of where you find these objects only add to the overall mystery, and in ways that often feel completely thoughtless. Why are you picking up a baseball bat in the middle of an empty mall? What does this have to do with the Shadow, the avatar, or anyone else we’ve seen? Is there any implied meaning behind these objects, or are they simply there to give you something to give a little flavor to the otherwise bland hallways you’re meandering?

I found, on my second playthrough, that it’s completely the latter. By collecting every object and every picture piece, you unlock nothing. No new cutscenes, no new levels, no new ending. Going back through each level to pick up the missing pieces provides zero rewards. If the reward is supposed to be a better understanding of the story being told, then I feel completely trolled. The randomness to the objects, their placement, their general disconnect from one another – other than the fact that they once belonged to the child who lives in the game’s bedroom hub – only serves to convolute a story that already makes little sense. The idea of collecting pieces of your childhood to reflect something more could have substance to it, but they really offer no look into the character’s deeper psyche, even when you try to contextualize them in relation to the areas in which they’re found. They’re souvenirs, of sorts, but don’t exactly reflect the locations or levels; they’re nothing more than bits and bobs of experiences, detached from the experience itself.

It is genuinely upsetting, knowing I wasted my time to search for all of these objects only for nothing about the game or narrative to change. This is The Inner Friend’s worst crime. It wasn’t so much that the story was “confusing” – anyone could parse together the cutscenes and objects into their own interpretation if they really wanted. If anything, these themes are kind of simplistic, and frankly, none of it is hard to really wrap your head around. Things are scary as a kid. These things leave an impact. These things influence who you become. That’s the easy-peasy look at it, but it feels like there’s supposed to be something beyond that, something the writers were trying to say.

The problem is, I don’t really care enough about anything that happened in The Inner Friend’s story for me to even want to think much about it – and being burned by this lack of reward just turns me off all the more. The Shadow, the boy in the room, the old man, and the avatar that is all connected through this dreamy hub – these objects, these memories, and the visions attached to them; they’re all the sparks of something that could be interesting, but the complete and total lack of guidance on behalf of the storyteller gives me no reason to care about the story itself. By providing so many dots and so few lines, it’s hard to find anything endearing. It’s disjointed, unclear, and bogged down by an inconsistent creative quality.

The Inner Friend Screenshot

Everything about who these characters are seems defined by the places you travel, the objects you find, and the surreal figures you encounter – but sometimes, it’s simply too vague to give you anything to sink your teeth into. Why on earth should I care about these characters? Perhaps, because, they’re a child in a scary situation, and you’re the one controlling their fate. But even from a basic standpoint of empathy, that’s hard to connect with, when you’re playing as a weird, cracked mannequin figure and it’s detached Shadow.

I’m all for interpreting stories. I’m fine with open-ended ideas, and I absolutely love a good mystery. But there is a point where you have to give your audience a little something to work with, or else there’s no reason to get invested. Something more than pretty images. Otherwise, it becomes a  mess, and when that mess is already set in places I’m not interested in exploring, I definitely need a little more to keep me engaged. When you’re not given enough to work off of, it’s hard to care about some faceless Shadow or the worlds it guides you through, even if they’re supposedly encountering moments that are meant to be ‘relatable’. At the end of the day, a story without someone to root for feels like a waste of time – and If I wanted to waste my time, I would at least play a game that provides something a little more stimulating than a scavenger hunt with no reward at the end. Or, I would play a game that uses almost the exact same idea, but makes it feel fun and enriching, like Yomawari Night Alone.

The Inner Friend is a definitive example of ‘style without substance’. What promised an interactive and engaging spin on psychological exploration winds up being a series of vague vignettes too steeped in their own weird imagery to form any kind of substantive narrative. Following the Shadow in and out of these worlds was too much of a roller coaster through creative highs and lows for the story to feel worth interpreting. The upside is that the game has beautiful sound design and some interesting set pieces that look impressive. It even shows a lot of potential when the developers hit their mark in regards to translating childhood fears into the game’s more inspired levels. But when you take so much as a fingernail to the story – the reason for why most people will play a game like The Inner Friend – you’re left with something, not unlike the avatar itself: the shape of something with great potential, completely empty on the inside.

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