So few games get childhood right. It’s the same with other media, too. Writers, filmmakers, and game developers tend to reminisce only about the warm fuzzies of childhood days when our only cares were getting the baseball back from the other side of the fence or passing notes in class without getting caught. And it’s true; those kinds of things did matter. But those same stories often forget about the existential crises that haunt children just as much as adults. Children may not have the same responsibilities or burdens that adults have—but they don’t know that. They struggle with discovering who they are and determining how best to assert themselves. Some kids draw, some play sports, and some even turn to bullying in an attempt to show their worth. They’re all trying to figure out the world and their place within it.
It's this insight that makes works like Where the Wild Things Are and Pan’s Labyrinth so effective when dealing with childhood. They aren’t all rose-colored glasses and sun-drenched nostalgia. From an adult perspective, the world of a child is blissfully ignorant and carefree, but from that same child’s point of view, the world is out to eat him alive. Daedalic Entertainment’s The Whispered World succeeds in large part because the developers seem to understand this as well. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the game features absolutely stellar hand-drawn artwork and clever puzzles that will string players through a fun and surprisingly emotional storyline along the way.
Needless to say, the protagonist of The Whispered World is a child. Yes, he’s an exaggerated cartoon—precocious and just a bit too witty and world-weary for his age (which we never find out explicitly)—but at his core he is true to life. Young Sadwick loves his family (but claims to hate them), and wants to please them (but doesn’t know how). He wants to do great things (but doesn’t think he can), and has a brave, honest heart (but thinks he’s a coward). He has cloaked himself in fatalistic cynicism, something we often forget kids are perfectly capable of.
Sadwick is a clown in the fantastical realm of Silentia, where he travels with a circus featuring only his brother, his grandfather, and himself. His life consists of menial chores, burping the alphabet for audiences, and playing the cannonball in the headlining human cannonball act. His brother despises him and his senile grandfather forgets he exists. Sadwick’s only friend is his structurally-ambiguous green blob of a pet caterpillar, Spot. He dreams of loftier performances, reciting poetry, theater or philosophy, but his brother will hear none of it. Who wants to listen to poetry when they can watch juggling? Oh, and he’s also haunted by nightly dreams of the end of the world and is convinced that these dreams are portents of real doom. Sadwick is a sad clown, indeed.
Of course, all of this changes when Sadwick meets a messenger en route to the royal kingdom of Corona. The messenger is carrying a magical artifact called the Whispering Stone, which is urgently needed in order to help prevent the impending end of the world. Sadwick, making the connection between his dreams and the messenger’s goal, asks to help. An early encounter with a mystical oracle only complicates things further: the oracle prophesies that it is Sadwick’s destiny not to save the world, but rather to bring about its inevitable destruction. With this heavy burden, he sets out for Corona, Whispering Stone in hand, to prove fate wrong. That journey will take him all over Silentia from the colorful Autumn Forest to an eerie, candlelit island cut off from the rest of the world, and even to a mountain stronghold populated by a race of monstrous, evil Asgil. He’ll have to escape capture, track down magical creatures, and of course, try to save the world, all while evading the Asgil and his own crippling self-doubt.
Some of this may already be common knowledge for those who have been anxiously awaiting The Whispered World's release for many years. The game, which began life as a student production by now-lead artist Marco Hüllen, has jumped between development teams and publishers several times, only to land in the capable hands of German developer Daedalic Entertainment. All told, it has been nearly seven years in the making, and while many games delayed this long end up disappointing, I’m pleased to say that this wait was worth it. This is a beautiful, polished, well-realized adventure in the classic tradition. The production values rival LucasArts at their mid-‘90s apex, and the gameplay stands up well against even the best the genre has to offer. The game’s rather generous play time is really just icing on the cake.
The first thing you’ll notice when playing The Whispered World is the quality of the visual presentation. This game looks good. It’s a joy to simply walk around and take in the scenery. The developers claim they took cues from the Monkey Island series, and the visual style is a clear blend of The Curse of Monkey Island with a dash of animator Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical whimsy: colorful, exaggerated, and wonderfully nuanced, every background and character has been beautifully hand-drawn and animated. The art oozes life and personality, with each screen packed full of details like flies buzzing over a long-abandoned meal or Chinese lanterns swaying in the wind. The animated cutscenes that bridge each of the game’s four chapters are ever-so-slightly less impressive, but are short, sweet, and get the job done. The only reason they seem lacking at all is because they are sandwiched between some of the best 2D artwork adventure gaming has ever seen.
The only downside to the level of artistry on display is that essential clues and hotspots are occasionally indistinguishable from mere background art. On one screen, a rock lying on the ground of a debris-strewn room fails to stand out from the rest of the rubble, yet it is essential to a later puzzle. This leads to unfortunate pixel hunting in a few cases, though the addition of a hotspot highlighter that causes items of interest to glow negates this issue. It’s a shame you’ll probably require it at times, but it’s an acceptable price to pay for this level of detail.
The sound is every bit as impressive. From the opening title screen, TWW’s music sweeps in with majestic grace. Every track sets a fitting mood, whether expansive or constricting, inspiring or foreboding. The score is fully orchestrated, with lush arrangements accompanying equally rich visuals. The title song is particularly memorable. In fact, I was humming it through much of the game and for a while after finishing. The sound effects are appropriate and immersive, with howling wind, creaking wood, and chirping birds figuring heavily in the soundscape. There won’t be a whole lot you haven’t heard before, but it’s all very well done here.Continued on the next page...