I grew up on point and click adventure games. The Broken Sword series, the Lucas Arts and Sierra catalogs of which the Quest For Glory series was pretty much formative for me as a gamer. The Longest Journey, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle. I loved how many types of worlds, themes and tones could be explored with the simplest set of mechanics. And then the genre started slowly dying. With Sierra grinding to a halt, Lucas Arts starting to focus more and more on star wars and Telltale Games pushing the new Interactive Film niche, there were no companies left who were dedicated to Point and Click Adventure. At least not to my knowledge. Unbeknownst to me, a studio in Germany named Daedalic Entertainment was hard at work developing and publishing the type of game I yearned for. They have a staggeringly large catalog of which I’ve only played a handful of titles which I’ve enjoyed for the better part. And now their latest title, the gorgeous-looking Silence came out. As of this paragraph I haven’t played it. I just know it’s a sequel to their 2009 title The Whispered World, which I haven’t played either, but we’ll cross that hurdle when we get to it. See you later.
Silence: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Developer: Daedalic Entertainment
Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
Release Date: 15 November 2016
Price: 29,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
The Whispered World and Silence
Well, this was awkward. I was about 15 minutes into the game and most of what the characters were saying to each other sounded like complete nonsense. So I pieced together that Silence not only took place in the same world as the previous title but it was, in fact, a direct sequel to The Whispered World. I pensively held my controller staring blankly at the screen and allowed my completion compulsion to kick in. I usually can’t play or watch an installment without being deeply familiar with the rest of the series. It’s what had me play six months of Souls games in anticipation for Dark Souls III. I glanced at my Steam library and saw that I already owned The Whispered World because of course I did, because I’m a terrible human being and buy I bundles and games on sale that I then never play. So I preceded my 5-6 playthrough of Silence with a 7-ish hour playthrough of The Whispered World. Because otherwise my Universe would unravel.
I can’t talk about Silence without a brief synopsis of its predecessor. So spoilers for a 7-year-old game, I suppose. In The Whispered World players control a depressive clown named Sadwick and his pet caterpillar Spot as he inadvertently gets tasked with holding the fate of the world (Silentia, or Silence) in his hands. An oracle predicts that Sadwick will destroy the world and he decides he’s finally had enough of being pushed around and decides to push back and save the world instead. What follows is an epic journey littered with colourful characters and the revelation at the end that Sadwick’s tale is just a story being read by a father to his comatose son in a modern hospital and Sadwick is merely a projection of the son’s subconscious. Sadwick realises that destroying the world means that the boy in the real world wakes up and he accepts his destiny to do it. The Whispered World not only approached one of my favorite themes – “the dying world” – and gave me strong Neverending Story vibes but its visual and narrative style reminded me strongly of the works of Don Bluth, the mastermind behind The Secret of NIMH and The Land Before Time, pitting a reluctant, endearing, outmatched protagonist against a cruel and dangerous world.
Silence begins with some children playing in the snow in a World War II-type setting just before an air raid. One of the children’s older brother grabs her and takes her to the safety of a bunker, her friends left behind. This is how we’re introduced to the protagonists: Renie and Noah. Noah, it’s soon revealed, is none other than the child that dreamed of Sadwick in The Whispered World, and is about to revisit it. A few moments later, the bunker is hit by one of the bombs and the two children find themselves in the world of Silence. Renie having heard the story from Noah many times, both of the children are now aware that they are dreaming and that they need to destroy the world in order to wake up. The only way to destroy it, however, is to reach the Throne Room and destroy the mirror there. Luckily, they are accosted by rebels who also seek the Throne Room and need to find The Shard in order to usurp the False Queen. Sounds like pretty standard fantasy, doesn’t it? It does. But nearly every element in this story has a subversive spin to it, most of them being revealed as the story nears its conclusion. Of course, the Queen has its own helpers: the creepy eldritch-looking Seekers that hunt for the shard, killing anyone that stands in their way and who will hunt our heroes for the better part of the game.
Upon arriving on Silence, the duo is almost immediately joined by Spot, the shape-changing sidekick from the first game and from here on in, the game alternates between Noah, Renie and Spot during playable sequences. While Renie and Noah play mostly the same, there are a handful of differences, with Noah being too big to fit through small spaces and Renie lacking the same physical strength and height, but both give indications about their surroundings when examining something or interacting with objects. Spot is a bit different in that he has the ability to change in several different states, each with its own strengths and weaknesses: the heavy form has a hard time rolling uphill, the flat form falls too lightly, like a leaf in the wind and so on. Additionally, Spot can gain temporary properties by interacting with various elements such as thorny vines, water, lava and others. However, he doesn’t speak, so it’s not always obvious what needs to be done.
Puzzle-wise, Silence situates itself somewhere between an old-school point and click adventure and the Telltale Paradigm of interactive movies. While there are cinematic dialogue sequences where the player needs to choose a dialogue option which will have some form of consequence or performing a rudimentary quick-time action to keep balance or move something heavy, the player has a lot more freedom to walk around and explore places where they can pick up items and interact with the environment in order to progress. The game is generous with its dialogue hints and there are no inventory puzzles. In fact, if you already own the item needed to solve a puzzle and find the place where it needs to be used, the game will display an icon telling you this. There is a bit of challenge in solving and progressing, but if you get stuck, more often than not brute forcing is a simple matter of interacting with the objects around you until something works.
Sights and Sound of Silence
I consider myself moderate to a fault. I hate speaking in hyperbole because I feel like it limits one’s ability to be critical. That being said, holy shit is Silence one of the best goddamn looking games I’ve ever played! Its use of parallax scrolling in its lavishly painted backgrounds had me double check if they were absolutely certainly not using fully-rendered 3D. The attention to detail in each and every scene is overbearing and the colours are positively vibrant. During sunlit sequences there are discrete lighting effects emphasising the scene and specks and flecks of dust and other particles floating about, confusing the hell out of my cat who was trying to catch them every now and again. Add to this the stylised character models with their incredibly well-animated facial expressions which blend in perfectly with the environment and you get a visual masterpiece. Where The Whispered World was reminiscent of late 80’s, early 90’s Don Bluth animation, Silence looks like a cross between a Pixar film and something that Studio Ghibli would put out.
The same attention to detail can be found in the ambient sounds and overall effect fidelity. I played a chunk of it using my headset and another using my speakers and in both cases, the environmental effects enhanced the immersion greatly. The soundtrack, much like the narrative themes and story leans heavily on melancholy, using subtle orchestral piano and violin solos. The voice acting, however, is not the best I’ve ever witnessed. While not exactly bad, it seems to be a bit lacklustre. Renie, especially, is obviously played by a small inexperienced child and the rest of the cast’s dialogue ranges from great to phoned in, depending on the scene. It’s the variation in quality that bothered me more than anything else. The lip syncing is similarly not great (understandably so, good lip syncing is not cheap to make) but it was quickly overshadowed by the aforementioned facial animations and I eventually stopped noticing it.
The story has its strengths and its flaws. As I mentioned before, I’m a sucker for melancholy, dying worlds and fairy tale tropes and in that regard Silence was just the fix that I needed. And while the story is serviceable, the narrative could have been better. The execution is a bit cliched and the characters are given hardly any time for actual growth and development. In fact, there is one plot element that takes up screen-time twice and goes absolutely nowhere in the end. It feels as if the development budget might have run out at some point and that the game was supposed to have been longer originally. The lavish backgrounds show a vast world and the journey should be epic in scale, but instead everything seems to be cramped together in the same five-mile radius for the majority of the game. Mysterious mythical valleys of legend are just below the castle walls and the long trail to the highest mountain in the land is just a short hike away from the heroes’ camp. Silence is a game that desperately wants to tell a story that it has no room to tell and it’s a crying shame that it could not have been more.
Another element that was probably intended to be more useful is the mechanic of switching between playable characters that are in different locations. While the last stretch of the game features a sequence where the protagonists need to alternate between helping each other to progress, that is the only place in which the mechanic is necessary, although it’s inexplicably present in a lot more places. It would have been nice to see it used to its full potential. Did I mention I like Day of the Tentacle?
Ok, we’ve gone on for a lot longer than I originally intended so I’ll briefly address a few final points. Firstly, Silence is very confusing if you haven’t played The Whispered World as the characters keep referencing the previous title throughout the game. It’s a pretty good adventure and available for cheap, so maybe check it out. I wouldn’t say it’s mandatory but it’ll go a long way towards enjoying Silence. Secondly, I’d like to give a shout-out to the German style of humour which is a lot less concerned with “being safe” and a lot more uncompromising, making it feel like the characters were written by actual people and not by an executive boardroom committee. For example: name another game where you can see a small child willfully engaging in the consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic substances. Lastly, one thing I loved about Renie’s character: although she’s a small child, she doesn’t fall into the helpless burden archetype. She’s constantly taking action, using her wits and helping the party forward and she does it with unwavering, infectious positivity.
Misgivings about its narrative shortcomings, occasional dips in voice acting quality and its constant referencing of The Whispered World aside, I’ve found Silence to be thoroughly enjoyable. It’s characters, although not terribly developed are fleshed out enough for the player to be invested. Each location is depicted with overwhelming attention to detail and the characters’ faces are masterfully animated. It’s one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played and it touches on fantasy themes I enjoy greatly, such as dying worlds, fish out of water and battles against overwhelming odds. It’s for this reason that I regret it even more that it wasn’t given the opportunity to further dive into the world and characters and achieve excellence. As it stands it’s just a great, fun journey, albeit a predictable one.