Silence is a plane of existence on the cusp between life and death, and it was originally introduced back in 2009’s The Whispered World, when it was known as Silentia. It’s not an idle change. Just as its name has shifted from its Latinesque form to simple English, so too is the world itself now more approachable for players wishing to test themselves against its many puzzles. Sometimes, in fact, it pushes that accessibility to extremes, and also pushes some of its characters off the stage too soon, but its lush imagery and interactive elements usually yield an escape as welcome for players as the world of Silence does for its heroes.
Silence–the game–is The Whispered World’s sequel, even if it never explicitly announces itself as such, and it insists on complicating its narrative with references few newcomers will understand. However, it’s not too big of a problem. Early on, Silence does a beautiful job of communicating its major themes while Noah, the Whispered World’s protagonist, comforts his frightened sister Renie by telling her of his days in Silence as Sadwick the depressed clown. Soon after, the bombs send them back to Silence, and the two siblings’ affection for each other grants this chapter many moments that pack an emotional punch the The Whispered World never really delivered.
These moments are generally strong enough to redeem an otherwise dreamlike, disjointed story. Noah and Renie’s return to Silence finds it overrun with oily, spindly creatures called Seekers, with only a handful of rebels keeping them and a “False Queen” from total domination. Yet the Seekers never feel like an urgent threat; much narrative weight is lost in the swift switches from fart jokes in one scene to a rebel expressing her willingness to become a veritable suicide bomber the next. Each character is distinct and memorable, but the plot rushes along at such a brisk pace that few get the characterization they deserve. And then there’s Noah himself, who once again becomes the often insufferable, cowardly Sadwick when he dons his cap and bells.
These problems may have been more troublesome if Silence weren’t so beautiful. The Whispered World’s environments enjoyed a similar hand-painted aesthetic, but its softly drawn characters left it saddled with an “afternoon cartoon special” vibe. Silence, though, stands apart. Here the wonderfully animated 3D models make its visual wonders even more inviting, as they look like they fully belong in the dreamworld that surrounds them. Sometimes I found myself trying to maneuver Noah or Renie offscreen so I could save its views of towering, glowering stone heads touched by shafts of light for future use as desktop wallpaper. Silence is colorful and striking, serving as a stark contrast to the snow and concrete in the game’s vision of the real world.
It’s a good thing this art direction works so well, as the actual puzzling rarely requires great feats of thought. Silence is more interested in telling its story. Much as with a Telltale game, everything aside from the plot is mere icing (and, much like with a Telltale game, even several of its big choices don’t really mean much in the grander scheme). There’s not even an inventory here. Everything needed to solve a puzzle is nearby, and a tap of the spacebar shows everything you can interact with. As far as puzzlers go, it’s actually rather easy.
Yet Silence breaks up possible monotony by injecting some physicality into the mix. Sometimes Noah needs to overturn heavy slabs of concrete with steady tugs of the mouse; at other times, he balances on spinning globes while you nudge his center of gravity into place with a meter. Noah’s caterpillar friend Spot, who can inflate into a ball or lay as flat as a coin, usually comes into play in the tougher spots, but even there the challenge is often one of timing rather than of mental dexterity. Some of the best moments were those when the puzzles themselves become part of Silence’s visual poetry, as when Renie traces out constellations using a shard of glass and the glow from a lighthouse.
I’m convinced true brainteasers would spoil such moments rather than enhance them. Removing the possibility of frustration allows the puzzles to work hand in hand with Silence’s cinematic angles and lovingly painted backdrops to create moments of emotional power that the 2009 outing never reached.
Appropriately dreamlike with its narrative that shifts from one strange moment to the next, Silence bounds from powerful emotion to powerful emotion in its last couple of hours, and there’s a sense here that these are the feelings that developer Daedalic wanted to stir the first time around. The story, in fact, ends on a final choice that’s a little too close to that of The Whispered World. Despite this, it still works. I saw from a mile away from what was coming, and even so, in the story’s final moments, I could only sit there in stunned, thoughtful silence.