The Thin Silence
Tackling a deeply personal subject through the medium of entertainment is a risky endeavour. Some people pour their heart and emotional turmoil into a project as a way of dealing with their situation. It can be a cathartic venture and they should absolutely be applauded for doing so; a step in this direction is a brave one, and can even lead to closure. When it comes to games though, translating that heartache into a playable experience can lead to a dichotomy. On the one hand, you need to use the game as a conduit for unexpressed emotion, a means of getting the issues you have off your chest. On the other hand, you are placing the end result in the hands of players who — above all else — want to enjoy playing the game.
It is here that a title such as The Thin Silence succeeds or fails. The likes of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Night In The Woods are two recent titles which have spanned this bridge between playability and emotional release wonderfully, resulting in genuinely interesting and different takes on the subject of depression and mental illness. They worked because they understood that, for a player, a game needs to be both engaging and enjoyable. The Thin Silence struggles desperately in comparison, because it isn’t sure whether it wants to be a platform puzzle game or an interactive story. In the end, it fails to achieve success with either.
Told through the eyes of Ezra Westmark, the game takes you from war atrocities to serene temples, via modern day military bases and underground vaults. Ezra is a man in conflict, someone who has done or experienced something so awful that he has locked himself away, struggling to deal with it. How this is portrayed is the game’s underlying problem. The story and timeline switch dramatically and frequently, with little tying each new location together. Because this transition happens so often, I found it tough to understand exactly what I was supposed to be doing, let alone feeling.
Gameplay comprises simple item interactions layered on a bare 2D side-scrolling pixel art environment. Ezra can create items from other objects he picks up, and then use them to get past whatever obstacle is currently blocking his progress. The crafting menu is tough to get to grips with to begin with, involving a rotating circle of your current items which combine into new ones, depending on your selection. However, it wasn’t clear from the outset how this functioned; I picked up a boot and a box of hooks which combined into a climbing boot — though I had no idea how I managed to create it first time around. Furthermore, when I came to a sheer wall and decided that it would be a good time to use the climbing boot, it didn’t work. Instead I had to use the hook to get me over the wall, which didn’t feel particularly logical. Later on you need those same boots to climb tricky terrain which makes more sense...but why do you then also need them to climb a ladder?
The first half an hour therefore involves little more than kicking rocks out of the way, spanning ledges, and triggering cutscenes about why you’re in a cave. A rest on a bench results in a spanning shot of the area of cavern that sprawls out ahead of you, but as the environment is almost identical throughout bar a few different permutations of ledges, electricity boxes and rocks, it is more likely to inspire fear than awe. The plodding pace is the main culprit here, as Ezra limps along at a lethargic pace. Any mistakes you make will cause you to die or force you to reset, forcing you further back in the game than is necessary. In many cases you’ll know what you need to do differently, but you still have to grit your teeth and wait for your avatar to get there.
When you do, the environments are so poorly signposted that you can spend a good ten minutes solving a puzzle, only to plummet to the ground because the delineation between foreground and background — often varying shades of brown — is nonexistent. My patience was truly tested towards the end of the game when a lever I had created had no effect on an environmental feature, despite it providing feedback that it may be getting stuck somewhere. After fifteen minutes of back and forth looking for possible alternate paths or items and hotspots I may have missed, I returned to the feature only to find out that I should have been using a hook instead. The clunky control system is another hurdle to overcome, and the lack of consistency combined with the teeth-clenching pace of the game results in a deeply frustrating experience.
The reason many of the puzzles make little sense is because the environment isn’t consistent. For example, you can use a grappling hook to pull a box currently above you to the left with far more power than normal physics would dictate possible. Given that this is a key step in an early puzzle, it opens the floodgates for a whole heap of similar misconceptions, meaning that any given obstacle you come across may be just as illogical. Rocks roll up and down steps with no regard for the laws of physics. Boxes plummet down off ledges at a 90 degree angle. Compounding this is the item creation mechanic which is fundamental to your progress, but requires a level of trial and error not seen since point-and-click adventures from the early 90s. Would you think of combining a power cell and a boot to make a battery boot? I didn’t, but stumbled upon it by accident. Worse still, the battery boot’s only use is to kick power generators into activity — something you can also do by selecting the power cell from your inventory.
Redundant items aside, the game’s layout and pacing also cause it to suffer. Ezra moves from past to present with very little grounding. At one point you’re wandering around an office-based security complex with no discernible goal other than manipulating computers to gain access to the next room and getting to the basement. This involves solving rudimentary word puzzles with clues that range from easy to completely obtuse. The next minute you’re in a series of ruined temples, ziplining between them. Why? Where is Ezra? It’s explained so badly that I was expecting some sort of revelation to tie everything together. It didn’t come. Exposition (thankfully error-free) occurs through pages of a book scattered throughout the game, but they only add further confusion since they are filled with paragraphs of vague metaphors aspiring to be aphorisms.
I can honestly say that I ended The Thin Silence a lot more confused about its intentions than when I started. The game makes it clear from the outset that it will touch on uncomfortable themes, but then fails to adequately follow through on their execution and resolution. I finished the game but had absolutely no idea what I’d done to trigger its completion. Perhaps it was the lengthy gaps between story segments or the rudimentary gameplay which distracted me. Maybe it was the lack of clarity about what the pages I was picking up actually meant. Or possibly the overall structure of the game was so obtuse and couched in philosophical contrivances that I couldn’t focus clearly on the experience. Whatever the reason, for all the good intentions that may have existed when developer Two PM conceived The Thin Silence, the message it ultimately delivers is drowned out by the noise.