The Whispered World review
Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
The voice acting is less consistent in quality. Most of it is perfectly fine, but some characters, particularly Sadwick himself, start off sounding grating, though they’ll grow on you as the game progresses. At first I winced at Sadwick’s delivery, but eventually his lisp and stilted way with words became an inextricable part of his personality. The other characters are amusing and well-acted, though few are terribly memorable, most of them showing up mainly to prime players about the next few puzzles you’re going to have to solve. Still, the conversations are usually engaging, such as Sadwick’s discussion with a groundskeeper with a propensity for yelling at the top of his lungs, or a chat with a couple of rocks (yes, rocks) who are hatching a plot to enslave the world. The supporting cast may be more functional vehicles for puzzle clues and jokes than fleshed-out, intriguing characters, but the writing is entertaining enough that conversations never feel like a chore.
One reason these interactions don’t make the lasting impression they could have lies in the translation from the original German, which can be spotty at times. The dialogue is never unclear or nonsensical and isn’t a hurdle to the enjoyment of the game, yet its foreign origins are clearly apparent with lines like “Oh, Sadwick, I’ve heard enough of your phantasms,” or “I don’t think I could pick him up” (after trying to lift an inanimate object). This applies to the game’s humor as well, as many lines that rely on wordplay and quirky wit don’t quite hit the mark, instead tending to elicit an “I wonder if it was funnier in German” reaction. Fortunately, this mostly affects minor players, who rely more on jokey writing than the major characters. The Whispered World is not primarily a comedy anyway, so it doesn’t hurt the experience as much as you might think, and there are still several very funny moments throughout. Sight gags needs no translation—seeing Spot launch through the air from a makeshift sock-catapult never fails to tickle the funny bone.
One aspect of the writing that does stand out is the abundance of one-off comments Sadwick makes when you try to combine random objects. Daedalic (correctly) predicted the common puzzle-solving tactic of “use everything on everything” and has provided a more diverse set of responses than most adventures. I was consistently surprised when Sadwick acknowledged how stupid it was to combine two completely random items with a brand new quip.
The more he speaks, the more Sadwick’s personality comes through loud and clear as one of the more unique player characters in recent history. His constant despondency makes him the polar opposite of, say, the eternally chipper Guybrush Threepwood. Sadwick is the kind of character who doesn’t stop at telling you an item is too heavy to carry—he makes sure to add “Besides, I already feel the weight of the world on my back.” When peering into a deep chasm, he observes “A deep black abyss. Like my hope for the future.” At first I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret these kinds of comments—were they serious? Darkly comic? Eventually I found that Sadwick’s darker moments manage to be both hilarious and tragic. His unique blend of eager innocence and beleaguered cynicism seems contradictory but somehow works. He’s the most important character in the game, of course, and by far the most endearing and successful.
The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s played a traditional adventure from the mid-‘90s. Specifically, The Whispered World utilizes the “action coin” interface. Holding the left mouse button brings up a small display of possible actions (examine, speak to, and interact with), while right-clicking brings up the inventory. The game is heavily skewed toward inventory puzzles, which are very clever and satisfying apart from a few exceptions. Most of the time, the designers have done an excellent job of preparing the player, making sure that goals are clear as they guide you toward the correct solution. There were a few puzzles that left me scratching my head until after I had stumbled across what seemed an irrational solution, but these were in the minority. The bulk of the puzzles are very well done, with a few even reaching the brilliant, zany heights of the genre’s heyday. One sequence in particular, in which the player assumes control of Sadwick’s pet Spot, stands out as an example of clever, efficient puzzle design, managing to construct a satisfying and funny array of obstacles and solutions from a single “item” (that is, Spot).
In fact, Spot stands out as one of the best parts of the game. The one major addition to the standard point-and-click template that The Whispered World includes is Spot himself, who is far more than simply a cute sidekick. Interacting with Spot allows you to combine him with hotspots in the environment like you would an inventory item. Even better, Spot can morph between five distinct forms at will. At the beginning of the game, Spot can only transform from his regular form to a bloated, weighty “round” shape. Eventually he’ll gain more variations, including a flattened, paper-thin form and my personal favorite, one that engulfs him in a blaze of fire. These transformations are used in consistently clever and hilarious ways, and often a combination of forms in succession is required to solve a puzzle. I was thrilled every time a new obstacle called for me to use Spot (which happens several times per chapter), as I knew it would be a good one.
All of this is woven into a story with far more heft than you might first imagine. For quite a while the plot seems little more than a light, rather generic fantasy adventure, but by the end it proves to be something special. I’ll purposely remain vague, but allow me to say that I might have gotten some dust in my eyes as I finished the game, and afterward I found myself thinking about Sadwick and his character arc as he changes subtly from a sad clown with no hope to a … well, you’ll see. For a game that could have so easily ended on a clichéd, superficial note, The Whispered World takes a risk, and, at least for me, succeeded far beyond my initial expectations.
Even for those as cynical as Sadwick, The Whispered World is a game that will charm you. It simply will. It’s not perfect—the dialogue is rougher around the edges than I’d like, there are a scattered few instances of head-scratchingly irrational puzzles, and the story takes a while to get going—but it more than makes up for its minor weaknesses with astonishing artistry (both visual and aural), a uniquely endearing main character, and clever puzzles that lead to one of the gutsier and more emotional endings I’ve come across in a while. It will even take you a very reasonable 12-15 hours to get there (depending on how much you struggle with the puzzles, of course). Better still, it’s suitable for just about everyone. This is a game that can be enjoyed by children, but is equally adept at speaking to adults about a childhood we only now perceive clearly. It got to me, and I think it will get to you, so do yourself a favor and visit The Whispered World for yourselves.