Coming out for PC, Mac and Linux now, iOS and Android later this year and next gen consoles next year, In Between is an ambitious project for both developer and publisher. It also happens to be one of the most thought-provoking and moving puzzle platformers we’ve seen. Here’s our full review.
While at Gamescom earlier this month, we got a sneak peek at In Between by German developer Gentlymad and it was one of many pleasant surprises we encountered in Cologne. The game had previously won ‘best upcoming game design’ at the German Computer Game Awards, and today marks the release of the game, published by Headup Games and tested on Steam.
It’s worth pointing out that this, as opposed to many puzzle platformers, is not necessarily meant as a game you’re supposed to “enjoy” – its subject matter is far too grim for that, and frustration can reach ‘super meat boy’ levels at time. The central element in this game is the notion of death through a terminal illness – lung cancer – and a person’s journey through life as he approaches this certain fate.
Certainly not the type of topic usually explored in a videogame, but nonetheless crucial to the experience here. The story is told using hand drawn animations that are mixed in seamlessly with the 60 or so puzzles in the game. Both the animations and the puzzles also feature voiceovers by our protagonist, whose life story unfolds as you continue to complete levels.
Before progressing further into the game, we feared that the death element was merely a loosely connected gimmick, but it’s actually an integral part of the gameplay as well. Without giving too much away, our protagonist has to go through five stages in his process towards death, the first two being denial and anger. The denial stages refer back to his childhood fear of darkness, when his mother told him the darkness would go away if he would only face it. In the game’s “Denial” chapter, darkness approaches from the sides of the screen, and can only be pushed back by facing your character in its direction – which may not be the way you want to travel.
In the “Anger” chapter, pulsating red orbs illustrate your anger, which ties into your character being fired from work after being diagnosed. The actual gameplay itself is constant through the entire game – you avoid traps (usually of the spikey variety) and try to get to the exit. There’s no jumping here though. Instead, your right thumbstick controls gravity and pulls your character towards the side of the screen you push towards. This allows you to avoid danger, but will also cause other object (that are not fixed in position) to move – either helping or killing you.
It’s a fairly simple concept, and will turn into a mix of hardcore platformer (with a ton of retries required) and puzzle gameplay as soon as the tutorial levels are over. What elevates the game beyond what would otherwise be a fairly generic (though well done) puzzle platformer is its use of a moving narrative to tie everything together. We’ve rarely played a puzzle game where the story played such a big role in moving us forward – and despite the sad story and frustration, we kept pushing on. Perhaps that’s exactly the thematic nature of the game the developers were aiming for.