Review – Milk Inside a Bag of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk / Milk Outside a Bag of Milk Outside a Bag of Milk
Using games as a medium to address mental health and talking about the difficulties of the neurodivergent is hardly a new approach for developers and activists. From Natural Sunlight to A Walk in the Woods, topics of a sensitive nature have been explored from multiple angles, some more effective than others. Yet it’s always something to make me sit up and take notice when the approach feels different. When I’m no longer a compassionate observer or a sympathetic witness, but someone who feels like they’re in the thick of it all. Nikita Kryukov has taken the time to assume the position of someone ready to tell a tale that, at times, made me feel sick, confused and genuinely upset. Thanks to the publishing of Forever Entertainment, the duality of milk is now available on the Nintendo Switch with the release of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk and Milk Outside a Bag of Milk Outside a Bag of Milk.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the games as simply Milk Inside and Milk Outside, though both are important works that directly connect with one another and take on a different sort of feeling. The original, Milk Inside, is a very short journey in the grand scheme of it all. Clocking in at about twenty minutes, the objective is simple: take a visual novel style approach to assisting an unnamed girl in going to the store and buying milk.
On the way to and from the store, our protagonist is assaulted by thoughts and ideas that stray in and out of her mind. Meanwhile, you, the unseen player, take opportunities to choose different options for how her inner dialogue progresses. While the decisions are few, it’s possible to essentially make the “wrong” decision, which results in the game ending abruptly. Our protagonist simply decides she cannot buy the milk and go home, and that’s the end of it all. Successful choices means that you “win” by getting home to a mother who is clearly abusive and getting to go to bed.
Milk Outside takes place the second Milk Inside finishes with the protagonist attempting to get ready for bed. This soon becomes a Herculean task as intrusive thoughts interrupt and our protagonist shifts her own narrative yet again. While Milk Inside had her fully acknowledge being in a visual novel (at least in her own thoughts), Milk Outside takes a moment to give a point-and-click set of choices for the player, where we get to see more and push further about what life and perspective is for the protagonist. For example, clicking on a backpack gives the protagonist an opportunity to relive her final day at school, which she portrays as something fun and peaceful, though she is confused by how abruptly it ended. The player can push, however, to get her to repeat herself, which causes the information to change, and, gradually, we find out her father had to come and get her when she had a violent breakdown and that was her last day of school. It seems to hurt both player and character, but it does help to peel away the veneer of denial and opens up further choices and ideas within the game.
Both titles use unique art and audio stylings, with Milk Inside being more primitive and abstract and Milk Outside using a variety of styles, including some fully animated moments. The raw, gutteral feeling of Milk Inside cannot be discounted, though it’s understandably (and purposefully) ugly to behold. Much of everything through the protagonists’ eyes are colors and shapes, distorted and often blurring together with other items.
The people of the corner store where she gets milk appear as phantoms and ghosts, though without a distinct enough form to say what they definitely are or aren’t. At one point I was greeted with splotches of pink and black, and then told that was what remained of her father after he committed suicide. Due to the disjointed and potentially unreliable tone of the narrator, I wasn’t sure if this was fact or her own conjecture.
By comparison, Milk Outside uses so many different approaches in portrayal that it’s clear Kryukov wanted to experiment and push the boundaries for both comfort and expectation. On the one hand, being able to see the protagonist in full form – complete with disheveled hair and haunted eyes – garners sympathy and, at times, almost derision for how flippantly the situation is handled.
On the other, the shocking moments where the protagonist is crying very vibrant tears or being choked by some unknown person (possibly herself?) hit you that much harder because there isn’t the subjective nature of it all. I will admit that it didn’t always land properly when it came to the point-and-click aspect. At times the color scheme was too dark, too stark in contrast with the lighter selection points that came with rooting around the room, trying to find the missing thoughts (represented as fireflies) that the protagonist has lost.
The audio portions of both titles are also something unique, and I mean that in the most intrusive, potentially awful way. This is not the soundtrack that you listen to outside of the game to help you with writing, with meditating, or trying to focus on your day. This is a level of dissonant noise that nearly (but not quite) borders on totally unlistenable. It’s a series of tracks that move between highs and lows in terms of music and distortion, constantly giving you a sense of unease and disquiet.
It’s not the rapid shift to static and distortion when something terrible happens: that’s almost to be expected. Rather, it’s the entirety of the thematic – of not being comfortable inside your own head – that makes the soundtrack stand out in such an enigmatically terrible, but perfect way. While aptly designed for the game, I cannot understand why there is also a jukebox feature to listen to the music in the main menu. I want to distance myself from the score as soon as I’m finished so I can theoretically still live a happy life.
At this point, a player must consider what they are hoping to get from Milk Inside and Milk Outside. If you’re looking for a game that is a game, even a visual novel, you might be horribly out of luck. Milk Inside runs from start to finish in no time flat and only seems to have one different ending. The perspective and dialogue is nearing incoherent and the visuals are just blurs and dregs. Milk Outside is visually much more stimulating and showcases some real design talent, and there is significantly more dialogue, choices and endings that come about in the game. Having said that, it’s still ultimately quite short and you’ll find yourself rooting out all endings and choices in a day, if you were so compelled. From the perspective of someone who enjoys replay value, it’s hard to want to go back to this game again once I’ve reached completion.
However, as an expressionistic piece and informative media, I’d say that Kryukov succeeds beyond all expectations. The sense of discomfort in your own skin sets in so quickly in Milk Inside, and it carries through (perhaps lighter) into Milk Outside. The word that crawls into your ear is “unwell:” our protagonist is clearly unwell and cannot decide if she does or does not want to do something about it. There’s a constant battle between taking medicine and not taking in. In confronting her abusive mother or hiding from her. Of nakedly facing what has happened or continuing to bury it in labyrinthian thinking and escapist hallucinations.
The young folk of the early 2000s would spout random words and sentences in an attempt to be funny or appear “crazy.” Our protagonist says and acts on ideas that, when you take a beat, you can tangentially connect to other ideas, like a rapidly spinning spider web of paranoia and overcompensation. The thoughts are not just nonsense being hammered out by a thousand keyboard monkeys: these are the stream of consciousness of someone who is truly sick and cannot get help. It is, in a word, shocking, but also completely engrossing.
To say this title surprised me is an understatement. I was so torn in continuing to watch and wanting to look away that this was my entire evening, and then a rather restless night of sleep. It’s something to behold, but I would only want to behold it for a short period of time and then not behold it again for a long, long while. If you’re into a narrative that tracks in no direction and a visual novel that’s breaking the fourth wall constantly, then you’ll find something here. It may be what you want or what you didn’t want, but it’s still there, nestled in the sleeping bag, trying desperately to sleep. Our protagonist has always hated milk. So why are we always trying to find it, to keep it, to give it a place in the home? Milk inside a Bag of Milk inside a Bag of Milk Outside a bag of Milk Outside a Bag of Milk…
The rapid shift from abstract colors to anime design is a bit breakneck, but both elements capture the picture the developer is attempting to paint with each tonal shift.
Ultimately, it’s a read-a-long with some very light point-and-click elements in the second game. Par for the course for visual novels, but the number of selections is sparse and, for the first title, almost inconsequential.
Wildly animated and upsetting, never before have I been so impressed with a score that I genuinely never want to hear again.
Fun Factor: 8.0
Fun might not be the right word, but I was hooked with Milk Inside and Milk Outside from the drop and could not, would not stop playing until my curiosity was slaked.
Final Verdict: 7.5
Milk Inside a Bag of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk/Milk Outside a Bag of Milk Outside a Bag of Milk is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk Inside a Bag of Milk/Milk Outside a Bag of Milk Outside a Bag of Milk was provided by the publisher.