I like point and click puzzle games. I think the genre as a whole gets a bad rap (too easy, too much like a spot the difference cartoon in the Sunday comics), but they have a certain soothing rhythm to them. Find a thing. Find another thing. Try to put thing a and thing b together. Try thing b against anything you can find. I’ve got a gun and a door. Well, let’s try to shoot the door. I’ve got an elastic and a flame thrower. Who KNOWS what could happen?
Way back in the day, probably around 2000, the band Polyphonic Spree had a website that was an enormous point and click adventure, playing the music of their most recent album behind it. The page still exists, and in searching for it I found that the same studio made another of my favorite games, Machinarium (fiendishly difficult but perfectly unsettling). This was my first real introduction to the idea — Myst passed me by. I remember spending hours clicking around, entertained and amused by it all — a step up from text based games (“I don’t understand the word USE”), but a different world altogether from the other games I was playing at the time. There’s no pressure. There’s no time limit, no big bad waiting over your shoulder. There’s just this tiny little world, and you inside of it, trying to make sense of everything. It might stretch to a cosmic metaphor, if you were feeling particularly ham-fisted.
The Silent Age could have been made for me. It’s an atmospheric, stylish game that made me feel real dread and uneasiness with a deceptively simple setup. You play a lanky just-a-stached janitor in an orange jumpsuit, doing your best to be good at your job. Everything is stark — rain lashed windows, shiny floors, a single bulb hanging in your “office” (glorified supply closet). I felt sad for him. He’s a vietnam vet, and I might be projecting here but there’s a certain heartbrokedness to him. Without ever saying much, I got the sense that this surely wasn’t how he expected his life to go.
Early in the game, you meet a very cranky (well, he is dying) time-traveller who peevishly gives you an object that lets you flip back and forth between the game’s present (mid 70s) and the future (todayish). When you go to the future, you find a broken down world. It starts to become clear that whatever happened to destroy civilization, it happened mere moments from your present — the people you interact with are skeletons standing in their place.
It’s not the most complicated puzzle game — things you do in the past change the future. Planting a seed in the 70s means there’s an apple tree in the future. But — and again, without a big bad breathing over my shoulder — I felt more and more uneasy as the game went on, scared of what might await me at the end.
That’s what made me like this game so much more than, say, The Room. I loved the Room. It was an amazing puzzle, the graphics were outstanding and the sheer physicality of the objects was unique. But I didn’t care about the story. I was just clicking through it to get to the next puzzle. Even in Machinarium, which had a pretty well told story, I was far more interested in the puzzle solving. Here, though, I wanted to know what was going to happen. And also I didn’t want to know what was going to happen. I wanted to leave my sad janitor at peace in the house he found, across the silent, glassy lake.