Video games often traffic in delayed gratification. Experienced players who pick up a new fighting game or an RPG are likely aware that it will take time for them to come to grips with a game’s intricate systems or submenus. “The Thin Silence” pushes the concept of story-based delayed gratification. This is not a game that’s in a rush to lay out what’s going on. At the start we see a man sitting near the wall of a cavern. Then the image cuts to a distressed man with his arms gripping his head standing between a torch-wielding crowd and a band of armed soldiers. Eventually it grows clear that the seated man and the person caught between the contentious groups is Ezra Westmark, an ex-government minister who is tormented by self-recriminations. Why he feels as he does is more obscure.
Ezra stands up in the cavern after a small chunk of the ceiling collapses, causing a shaft of light to stream in. Maneuvering him about turns up your first item: a boot. Over time you’ll discover a variety of other items — a hook, a sign, matches, etc. Some of these things can be combined via a simple crafting menu which allows you to add up to three components. So, for example, the hook paired with the boot changes into a climbing boot with obvious functionality. It makes sense that you should have to craft such an item early on since on a visual and metaphorical level “The Thin Silence” is about a journey from the depths to the heights, from internal confusion to self-acceptance.
As you traverse the world using the items in your inventory to overcome obstacles — from spatial gaps to obstructive objects — you’ll come across documents that allude to a civil war raging between government and rebel forces. The most intriguing of these are authored by Dr. Shavi Mantha a psychiatrist who is acquainted with Ezra. Mantha contends that the surrounding society is sick, that the ruling government is outrageously corrupt and that its citizens have lost a sense of shared purpose and community. Through his samizdat writings, Mantha, sounding very much at times like the self-help author Mark Manson, encourages his readers to embrace the suffering they have known and use the knowledge gained through this suffering to push their society in a different direction.
While I took a modest bit of pleasure in expanding Ezra’s tool kit and learning how to bypass puzzles, I was, for stretches of the game, unsure of what was going on or what I thought of it. I was not enamored enough with figuring out ways to get from point A to point B to ignore the reason I kept playing — discovering context and meaning for my efforts. By the time I reached the end I had discovered both which made me retroactively appreciate how the game had courted my uncertainty.
When I spoke with the game’s creators they told me that the way “The Thin Silence” plays with expectations is by design. Apparently, I’d fallen into their trap perfectly. Later, over email, Ricky James noted: “‘The Thin Silence’ takes place in this big, empty world both physically and socially; there are huge panoramic landscapes devoid of people, and this sense of loneliness everywhere. We wanted to evoke that sense, and put the players in a position to feel not only isolated but also like this was a world of so much promise that hasn’t been realized, or has been lost. That’s the position Ezra is in as he grapples with his mental health. This emptiness is the result of a civil war, a parallel of Ezra’s internal conflict.”
At its core this retro game is about our individual and collective difficulty with embracing different forms of forward thinking. It has the austerity and the warmth of a low-fi song about our not-so-charming inadequacies.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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