It’s a premise that Charles Dickens would have loved, as half of his books cover similar ground. What happens when you subscribe to the saying that children should be ‘seen but not heard’, denying them the frivolous stuff like imagination, joy and even their own voices? What happens when you surround them with adults who keep them in metaphorical boxes, telling them what not to do, rather than what they can?
Silentown, you see, is plagued by monsters. Those monsters stray into the town at night, and they kidnap people with what seems – as a viewer – to be a complete lack of pattern or logic. But the adults of Silentown have decided that there is a pattern, leaning into their confirmation biases and determining that those who were taken were rulebreakers, loud talkers, and question-askers. Those that were kidnapped were too concerned about their own happiness and gave into demons of creativity and frivolity. The adults believed that if you stuck to the rules, kept to yourself, and didn’t rock the boat, well, you were safe. And if a sensible person was taken? Well, clearly they did all the bad stuff in private.
Lucy has grown up in this environment, and it’s not a happy-clappy place. Her dad subscribes to the town’s belief that ne’er-do-wells get taken, while her mum, Eloise, was clearly brought up with other ideas, but the social conditioning has made her reclusive. Eloise was a singer, and singing was precisely the kind of thing that attracted the monsters, thank you very much, so she has kept her singing private, only teaching Lucy when they are alone.
Lucy, to the community’s chagrin, seems to be following in Eloise’s footsteps. She sings to herself, and plays hide-and-seek and other games with the more rascally children. The townsfolk have mentally chalked her up as the next to ‘get got’. Only a mischievous old lady seems to pay any serious attention to her, and she is carrying some backstory with your mother.
It’s a community on the precipice, only inches away from toppling into chaos, and topple it does. Some principal players get nabbed, the community froths over, and the children begin to revolt. They rail against the rules, take risks, and uncover the real truth of Silentown.
It’s a fantastic crucible for a point-and-click adventure. You’ve got the crowd who are willing to talk to you – mostly children and the crone – and those who won’t. The people who won’t are your obstacles, and you mostly have to work round them to get what you want. Prominent among them is your dad, and a lot of the time spent in Children of Silentown is sneaking away from home and investigating the town’s curse.
Beyond the narrative, what makes Children of Silentown so steel-like in its grip is how it makes a familiar space seem unfamiliar. The physical space, the town of Silentown, makes up roughly half of the playtime and play area of the game. It should, by all measures, be repetitive and boring, but Daedalic and Elf Games do a fantastic job of changing the rules, over and over, so that the same spaces can be wrung dry of gameplay and interest.
The town becomes a location for a game of hide-and-seek, so you’re now searching all the places you’ve searched before for children. Then the town goes dark, and you’re hunting against the threat of capture. More impressively, it’s in Children of Silentown’s music mechanics that old spaces are made anew.
Lucy can unlock songs, and those songs have ancient, supernatural powers. One song can reveal the desires of a person, hanging in the air as a thought bubble. When townsfolk are as buttoned up as they are in Silentown, that ability gains additional potency – it can help you understand people who won’t deign to talk to you. Other spells allow you to rummage through adult memories and choose one for them to remember, like a pocket game of Inception. Others are more physical, making plants grow, or secrets reveal themselves. But what they mostly do is add layers to the game world. Suddenly, people and locations have levers to pull that didn’t have before.
These spells arrive with their own minigames, one per song. They are mostly very good: we particularly liked a Pipemania-style puzzle that used cogs to turn the pieces, rather than just let you manipulate them willy-nilly. It’s a novel take, one that we’ve not played before. There’s a route-making puzzle where you have to connect buttons without crossing paths, and another with lights in grid where you mustn’t cross an eye-block, placed on the grid, too many times.
What lets these minigames down is how obstructive they are. They block progress through the critical path of the game, and there’s no skipping or hints to remove them should they become too difficult. And in many cases, they are very difficult. It takes a while to understand the knack of completing the Pipemania puzzles, for example, so the initial interactions with them become deeply frustrating. It’s surprising to come across a modern puzzle game that leans so heavily on these obstacles, but then doesn’t let you skip them for some kind of price, whether that’s time or a lack of achievements. Equally, it’s surprising that there’s a lack of chapters on the game menu, should you want to return to old chapters and complete an off piste puzzle.
Just as you wonder whether you will ever leave Silentown, Lucy strays out of its walls and enters the forest. This forms the second half of the game, and we will hold back from spoiling how the rest of the plot plays out. Suffice to say that the secret of the monsters gets unobscured.
Console point-and-click controls can be clumsy as you like, but Children of Silentown has no such problems. It adopts the situational approach, with a radial menu of no more than a few actions per item or location. Using items on the environment and on each other is consummately done too, and there’s no slowness or awkwardness there. Elf Games and Daedalic Entertainment have this nailed down by now.
The graphic adventure logic is smooth as silk too. The litmus test is reviewing a game like this before it launches, when there are no walkthrough guides to tempt us. Can we still complete the game with that crutch? Outside of a couple of kinks – a lock that needed to be brute-forced rather than unlocked, and a sequence outside a windmill that had us tearing clumps – we made it to the end with relatively few hitches. Some of the puzzles even verged on the ingenious, dovetailing the songs with the puzzles neatly.
If there’s a downside, it’s a lack of ambition that gets inherited from the story. The narrative demands that we stay in Silentown, but the area is small, and no matter how inventive the designers are in remixing the area, it still feels small-scale. The moments outside of the town, too, aren’t quite as epic or memorable as they could have been: these are scenes that act as vehicles for puzzles, rather than significant landmarks. And throughout, Children of Silentown struggles to find a character to care about beyond Lucy and Eloise. When the culture of Silentown is to ignore others, stick to oneself and keep your head down, that’s to be expected. But like Lucy, we craved a bit of human contact.
Children of Silentown is yet another immaculately sculpted point-and-click adventure from Daedalic Entertainment. Compared to Deponia, The Dark Eye and their other adventures, Children of Silentown is somewhat small-scale in scope, but its intense focus allows it to explore themes of childhood and imagination with a deftness that they haven’t achieved before. Treat yourself to a creepy little page-turner.
You can buy Children of Silentown from the Xbox Store