Many years ago I began watching video game reviews on the internet and stumbled across the now-defunct site called GameTrailers. The site attached a score between 1-100 to games by examining them in constituent parts: story, presentation, gameplay, and design. The first two categories, story and presentation, are pretty clear-cut, but the distinctions between what constituted “gameplay” and “design” confused me for quite a long time. It’s funny to think that now, over ten years after I first saw these reviews, I truly understand the difference. Innerspace is a game with fun, satisfying gameplay that is ultimately let down by stilted, confusing, and unsatisfying design.
No Flight Plan
I want to preface by saying that I love the core gameplay of Innerspace. Flying the various airframes through the surreal spherical landscapes has a surprisingly low learning curve and it’s fairly easy to move into a serene trance as you soar with balletic grace. This is gameplay, the moment to moment actions that players perform in the game world. Design, on the other hand, refers to the broader structure within which these actions are put to use.
Innerspace is billed as an exploration adventure game, designed to take advantage of this smooth gameplay. The problem is that the design does not incorporate the gameplay’s strength. In fact, I’d characterize Innerspace as more of a puzzle game than an exploration game. Sure you need to explore to figure what part of the puzzle actually needs to be solved, but I never felt like the discoverer of a lost world that the game tried so hard to characterize me as.
You don’t have a lot of options in terms of interacting with the world. You can fly into things and that’s pretty much it, which means any attempt at solving a puzzle usually ends by careening haphazardly into a hard surface only to be knocked into a difficult to control tailspin. This trial-and-error isn’t satisfying and it makes the process of solving puzzles a jarring and tedious experience. Not knowing what to do in Innerspace isn’t an invitation to explore the world because not only is there nothing to really discover, but there’s nothing that will help you solve the puzzle either. The game’s design strips the excellent gameplay down to finding a shiny piece of the environment, flying into it, and hoping it’s the rope, wall, or kelp branch you were supposed to break.
It’s like a haystack. Jump into a massive pile of hay and you can have fun tossing it this way and that, diving to the bottom, or simply relaxing into a nap on top of it. The stack itself is the fun. Start looking for a randomly hidden nail in that stack, however, and suddenly the pile is a hurdle, a frustration blocking you from your objective. In a similar way, Innerspace introduces frustration to its design by pulling focus away from the gameplay’s strength, exploring a trippy landscape, and putting it on the game’s weakness, finding pre-designed objectives and performing lite puzzle-solving. As an example, I want to take a look at the Mornsea, Innerspace’s third level and also the one with the most untapped potential.
On entering the Mornsea, you’re greeted by a frozen landscape that is almost utterly barren, there aren’t even any collectibles in sight. I spent some time flying around the space, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do, when I landed on a perch to survey the landscape. Upon landing, however, a textbox opened on the screen describing a “Barometric Array” that had become frozen due to “ice accretion” on several terminals. I clicked a button and dazzling lights suddenly sprung to life depicting a massive technological marvel that had ceased to function. I was stunned, not just by the pretty lights, but by the idea of what the world might have looked like in the past. Then I had the idea that if I could remove all the ice from the terminals the station would be restored to its former glory.
So I did the only thing I could think to do. And started smashing some icicles. This did not go very well. I crashed into walls on almost every run and at the end of it all, nothing happened. In truth, solving the Mornsea has nothing to do with clearing ice shards. Even though completing this level involves the best-designed mechanic in the game, following the flight path of shimmering bird creatures to force them into a power station, I was disappointed. For a second I had caught a glimpse of the kind of experience the entirety of Innerspace could have been.
Perches in Innerspace could have been designed as the player’s initial goal. You enter an area and don’t know what’s going on, so you explore to find these points that give players a bit of information about the world while providing vague hints about what you’re supposed to do. In the Mornsea’s case, each perch could somehow imply that the Barometric Array has failed due to cold climates. The player realizes that removing ice from terminals could reactivate the station, releasing the birds you need to interact with into the environment. This would organically tie storytelling into gameplay as players would learn about the world while working to “solve” it instead of learning about each habitation by running across optional relics. It would also make players think about directly interacting with their environment rather than looking for the next door to open.
My biggest problem with Innerspace is that the game doesn’t have a way of communicating with the player which makes it hard to “read” the environment, and leads to the aforementioned aggravation. There are several objects that players are naturally inclined to pursue in-game: Wind and relics. Neither of these have any relevance on forward story progression. Despite Wind’s apparent importance to the Inverse, the only thing it’s required for is powering different airframes, all of which are optional. Using perches as a guide system, something for the player to actively pursue because they know it will help them complete a world would give the game a form of communication with the player. They could even be more hidden than they are in the current game, points that need to be sought out and discovered through skilled piloting. This would make exploring the environment an active search and not a passive flight while you look around for a shiny object to smash into.
The point of Innerspace is supposed to be exploration and discovery, your AI companion explicitly tells you this, but the design is like a funnel. You just kind of stumble onto the correct way to open a door after looking around enough. Usually, it’s somewhere centrally located on the map. This doesn’t encourage player exploration, it’s like digging for a needle in a haystack.
Innerspace is a game in conflict with itself. Its beautiful art style craves patient appreciation of a wide angle while the gameplay demands focused attention on what’s right in front of you. Mind-bending shaped environments present the allure of exploration, but a constricting design reveals how shallow and empty the levels are. Satisfying and smooth gameplay is interrupted by trial-and-error puzzle solving that leads to frustration. Innerspace is at its best when you get to relax and enjoy a fanciful flight. It’s unfortunate that the game’s design is so frequently in opposition to this experience.