When designing a suspenseful adventure series inspired by the work of iconic movie directors, you could do a lot worse for your debut than taking your cues directly from the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. From visual and thematic standpoints alone, Hitchcock’s influence seems tailor-made for a mystery-filled game experience. Independent developer Dale Penlington certainly thought so when he created the black-and-white 2D side-scrolling thriller The Silence.
After an opening credit scene that could have been ripped straight from one of Hitchcock’s own movies, complete with cutout silhouettes and flashy titles all set to a convincing noir score, the game proper begins. The Silence follows the story of a man who awakens one evening inside a dingy motel room, with no recollection of how he got there or who he is. Deciding to examine the room and immediate surroundings for clues to his identity, it isn’t long before he encounters an abandoned motel reception desk, and beyond it, a deserted town in which everyone seems to have disappeared for some bizarre reason.
Presented purely in dark silhouettes, The Silence certainly looks like something Hitchcock would have envisioned. Characters and items in the environment are depicted in purest black, with no distinguishing characteristics, and are offset against a generally foggy, gray background. The effect is stark and moody, and as fans of Hitchcock’s work will know, there’s something quite disturbing about a silhouetted figure, all in black, coming at you. Exposition – what little there is between characters, and some bare-bones narration – is handled via cutaway dialog screens, silent movie-style.
The adventuring itself is a little on the rudimentary side, with little player interaction. You move the protagonist to the left or right by continuously touching the corresponding arrow near the bottom of the screen. You can examine and interact with objects, or pick up some items, simply by tapping them. Occasionally the game switches to a close-up view to let you manipulate an object in more detail. Inventory items you’ve acquired are displayed on the left side of the screen, and will automatically work in the proper circumstances. For example, tapping on a lock will result in a message telling you it’s locked, but tapping it again once you’ve found the key will automatically unlock it. There really is no further interaction, except for the two top-down plane-flying sequences thrown into the mix, which require you to tilt your handheld device to make your plane fly left, right, forward, and backward while dodging birds or shooting down an enemy plane. These sequences are brief and simple to complete, though they do feel awkwardly out-of-place.
Although nods to Hitchcock’s work are fairly on-the-nose early in the game (the harbinger squawk of crows, the flickering motel sign), they lose their luster a short ways in (the airplane sequences might have been a North By Northwest nod, but then again maybe not). In fact, the narrative in general leaves a lot to be desired, steamrolling right over the disappearance of the town’s citizens during the finale, and culminating in a “shocking twist” ending that can’t be described as anything other than ham-fisted. Then again, a deep and gripping narrative may be asking too much, considering it took only about 45 minutes to run through the game (and that included two or three reboots due to sudden game crashes and title screen freezes).
I liked the premise behind the game. I liked the ideas it offered to explore, and the visual style it utilized to do so. For under a dollar on both iPhone and iPad (the game is also available for Android devices), it may be worth a look on those merits alone. I simply didn’t care for the way the story – a must for any adventure or Hitchcock fan – became relegated to the realm of farcical buffoonery in its final moments, ruining a promising setup.
Poland’s Telehorse Studios, a one-man operation, has released its debut game Steampunker, an interesting but ultimately confusing and unsatisfying effort that demonstrates the risk of adventures being lost in translation – or lack thereof. An iPad exclusive, the game is a 2D point-and-tap that takes place, as its title suggests, in a steampunk-style world where the hero, Vincent, must battle robots who have taken over. He does this by moving from room to room, with minimal backtracking and only small clusters of rooms available in each chapter, and solving puzzles that will be all too familiar to veterans of iOS adventures: puzzles involving flipping switches, turning dials, and other activities that can be performed with just a finger, and without any inventory.
And frankly, without much instruction or context. Perhaps chalk it up to a language barrier, but it’s often very difficult in Steampunker to understand what exactly you’re supposed to be doing. There is almost no text, no dialogue, and no clues other than obscure visual indicators. One puzzle involving turning dials to channel steam into a certain path is a perfect example of one that appears to be an exercise in trial and error, with incomplete feedback on how your moves are actually changing the situation and, at least to me, offering no clear understanding of how I solved the puzzle when I did so. There is a built-in “hint” system, but it provided no meaningful guidance for me at all. This artificially lengthened a game that would have been over quickly otherwise.
Once the individual puzzles are finished and you return to the navigation phase, the old-school 2D graphics (reminiscent of digitized Access Software games from the early 1990s) can make it very difficult to identify correct hotspots. Though there is good use of shadow and lighting effects at times, items such as tables and pipes are dark and bland, and some important items are almost completely obscured by an over-reliance on shadow effects. The quality and detail of the protagonist’s animations are impressive, but they're dramatically overstated when walking or climbing, leading to some clumsy-looking character motion. The game does boast a cool musical soundtrack (fully composed by the game’s sole designer, Mariusz Szypura) but that’s not enough to redeem an experience that is generally too obtuse and out of context to feel like an actual adventure story.Continued on the next page...