It is remarkably rare for a game to strive to be more than just entertainment; to try and have tangible positive effect in the world. It is also admirable for a game to deal with heavy subjects such as mental health. This is what The Thin Silence strives to do.
The developer duo Two PM wanted to tell a story of depression and overcoming the challenges of mental health by drawing from their personal experiences. All the while donating a portion of the revenues to Check Point, a charity tackling mental health in the games community.
The intentions are admirable, but they build expectations that are not fully met in the final product. Right away, a clear dissonance between the mostly traditional puzzle mechanics and a narrative focused on the inner struggle of the main character is clearly noticeable.
The game shines with its pixelated graphics and a beautifully effective ambient soundtrack that ended up making even my dog anxious. A Soundtrack characterized by long, hardly perceptible sections, flowing seamlessly into occasional melodic portions to highlight whatever moments of emotional significance. All of this, wrapped in a clunky control scheme that could, admittedly, be easily fixed with a couple of updates.
Quite generally, The Thin Silence is a puzzle platformer with a very slow and reflective pace. It tells the story of a sad white guy battling with high-stakes choices in his past; all taking place in a political landscape dominated by a generic militarist autocracy, and an equally generic rebellion.
Let’s Take A Peek Under The Hood
The team behind this indie title clearly tried to achieve something interesting with its mechanics. The game mostly amounts to using the right item with the right environmental object, in the right order. Items are obtained through crafting: by mixing and matching a series of basic ingredients found around the environment. At its best, though, the system is riveting.
It’s great to stumble upon a visual cue and figure out a way to mix the items you have in order to make something that’ll get you through the challenge. You find some scaffolding; how can you build something that’ll help you climb it with a pair of boots, a hook, and a rope? It makes you feel like a little, clinically depressed, MacGyver.
Unfortunately, the system is hindered by its simplicity and limited choices:
- Only, at most, three items can be joined into a new one,
- the order in which they are joined doesn’t matter,
- crafted items cannot be used as ingredients,
- and only a couple of the grand total of five basic items can be used more than once in a recipe.
Effectively, this makes systematically mixing everything that can be mixed the most efficient strategy. It usually takes few seconds to cycle through all possible combinations every time a new basic item is discovered. Puzzle-solving skills are hardly useful when items can be crafted and puzzles solved by quickly cycling through every option available.
Then, somehow, even those few items are clunky and fiddly to equip. In The Thin Silence, players do so by cycling through them with the controller’s triggers (or relative keyboard binding). This becomes a time-consuming and annoying task, considering that – quite quickly – the inventory becomes filled with mostly useless items. Some cannot be used for anything other than crafting, others become obsolete once a more effective or multi-purpose version has been created. Finally, there are the fire-making objects.
Some Re-Assembly Required
When combining matches together, for instance, we’ll obtain another fire-making item with different color, name and sprite, but exactly the same effect of a single match. Making it so that by the third chapter, you have three items that do exactly the same thing.
In fact, most items are distributed in the first couple of chapters, leaving you to play the last two with an inventory full of mostly useless junk. Which brings us to the problem that most breaks the immersion in Ezra’s story. The controls are quite often inconsistent and occasionally plain clunky.
The action becomes quite more manageable when using a controller, but the problem remains: from the back button being different depending on the menu, to the same puzzle with the same cues (a jammed cog) needing different solutions in different places. To be fair, those are all little things that I can see the developers correcting quite easily with a couple of UX-focused updates.
Another mechanic that maybe has little to do with the others is hacking, which is actually quite fun to do. I found it a bit weird that this system is almost exclusively relegated to the third chapter, incidentally the one where other items are hardly ever used.
Regardless, the puzzles work quite well and require a good balance of analytical thinking and ingenuity in interpreting the hints. It’s just a bit of a shame that hacking is mostly used to uncover hordes and hordes of lore that hardly ever affect the narrative.
So.. What About The Main Plot?
In a bit of pretty-on-the-nose shadowing, The Thin Silence starts by giving us control of Ezra as he tries to find his way out a cave. It becomes clear quite quickly that something happened to him, and we are left to piece it together through snippets of dialogue with occasional characters and hallucinations, as well as through flashbacks.
Trying to avoid spoilers, suffice it to say that the protagonist was involved in some sort of political scheming between a militaristic authoritarian regime and the must-have rebellion. In a flash of morally dubious inspiration, Ezra and his family seem to be much more involved in the totalitarian regime than the rebellion. And rest assured that you will talk with all members of his family, even if it means finding them in a random hole in the middle of a level!
As Ezra comes to term with it, we’ll slowly find out what happened. We’re facing a narrative structure with a lot of potential, but that cannot get rid of its own many problems. To begin with, we’re left to deal with a somewhat simplistic and uncommitted view on Ezra’s mental health; one which quite often comes across as little more that melodramatic guilt.
The story does provide a foundation through which one could build a compelling character arc. Sadly, pleonastic dialogues, an over-reliance on the character’s back story and a lore that fails to differentiate itself from a pretty generic dystopian future work together to make the story mostly uninteresting.
I would argue that a generic and unremarkable world would be necessary to focus on the inner struggle of the main character. I would argue that that was the intention of the developers too. But the sheer amount of lore – they pride themselves of featuring over 40 unique documents – gives a level of very distracting, unnecessary detail.
That might work in an RPG, making quantity of content one of their main selling points, but it’s just plain contradictory for a story that is focused on introspection. All in all, the game ends up being a simplistic and unfocused abstraction of mental health, with a hint of the main character personal struggle, in a sea of pointless lore.
Togetherness Or Lack Thereof
The contradiction is not to be found exclusively in the relationship between the lore and the main story of The Thin Silence, but also and quite more evidently between the game’s story and its mechanics.
Beyond the character movement, slow and stumpy, there’s not a lot in the way the game is played that hints at a struggle with mental health. Through player input, the main character is shown resiliently advancing, while MacGyver-ing his way through horrible trauma. All by himself, with the people closest to him abandoning him one at a time.
Still, he placidly walks to the end of each level, scrolling through items, resourcefully figuring out what to do about each obstacle; hardly ever being mechanically troubled by his depression. I mean, when I went through a moment of mild depression, I could hardly put a book on a shelf, let alone build a zip line out of a sign post and a hook; a thing which is really at the root of why the experience fell short, at least for me.
I was already familiar with Check Point, having struggled through my own fair amount of depressive episodes and adjustment disorder. Hearing of The Thin Silence made me hope that the game industry might be starting to take those problems seriously and do something about it.
I will admit my expectations were quite substantially high. Were I to randomly stumble on a puzzle platformer and find it attempts to deal with mental health disorders genuinely, I would have been blown away. But with their marketing efforts focused – as it was – on how the game tries to tackle head-on mental health disorder, I could not help but feel discouraged on how, once again, games seem unable to tackle serious themes meaningfully.