The relatively low cost of entry for developers into the modern mobile gaming market has led to the release of a lot of games that would never have seen the light of day before the app stores of Google and Apple. And undoubtedly, the world was better off without a lot of those games. But every so often, there’s also a gem that makes scaling the mountain of clones seem worthwhile. The Silent Age: Episode One is such a gem.
The year is 1972, and main character Joe is pretty happy with his job as a janitor. The opening scene hints that he’s a Vietnam vet, so mopping floors is certainly preferable to his previous employment. But one day, his world (and maybe everyone else’s as well) is blown apart when a man comes back from the future and, just before dying, gives Joe a pocket watch-sized time travel device. The visitor has enough life in him to tell Joe that he came back to save the world from a devastating event that starts that very day, but that he knows he won’t fulfill his mission. The visitor says that the pre-time travel version of him needs to be warned about the way he’s going to die (presumably so that he can prevent it), and since Joe’s the only one around to hear the story, Joe’s the only one who can take care of the problem.
Of course, as required by the laws of dramatic tension, Joe does not stay alone for long: a policeman shows up to find him with the dying man as soon as the tale is told. This turning point in Joe’s life takes place only a few minutes into the game, and it’s essentially the last time Joe talks with anyone. After that point, he’s a murder suspect on the run, trying to stay hidden while he discovers enough about the visitor to locate him in time to give the warning.
The obvious question, of course, is why Joe would even attempt to escape. He walked into a room for the first time ever, only to find a dying man he doesn’t know, and he didn’t touch anything, so a police investigation would likely rule him out as a suspect pretty quickly. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll simply say that the time machine really does work and that it plays a big part in Joe’s decision.
In fact, the time machine is Joe’s primary tool in solving the puzzles that stand in the way of his escape from the police. It jumps between that day in 1972 and one point in the future, but always leaves him in the same place he left. A room that’s locked in 1972 may be open in the future, and an obstacle that blocks Joe’s progress in the future may be removable with an item he can pick up in 1972. The puzzles are clever but solvable, even if you have to make several trips through time before you realize what you’re supposed to do.
Fortunately, the puzzles are your only obstacles to progress, since the act of playing The Silent Age is accessible even to those unfamiliar with graphic adventures. Tapping on a location makes Joe walk there, tapping on an item makes him interact with it. His inventory is always on screen and never includes more than a few items, and, to the best of my memory, the objects in the environment you need to use are always clearly visible, meaning that there aren’t any frustrating pixel hunts. In fact, the first few items in the game clearly stand out from their backgrounds albeit in a natural way that serves as a subtle tutorial for anyone in need, yet won’t annoy those who already know how the genre works.
Through all of this time traveling and solving puzzles, The Silent Age does a great job of maintaining a sense of isolation. Joe is truly alone in his mission, and you can feel it. When you open the app, it advises you to wear headphones, and I really think that it’s strictly to enhance that sense of being alone in the world. There’s no real music in the game, just some background noise and the sounds of whatever you’re doing (such as opening a rusty old door), but given the way the game feels, I think that background music would actually detract from what the developers were trying to convey.
Even the visuals are consistent with the game’s theme. Although the environments are nicely detailed, they are not cluttered, and what you see in them makes it clear in a number of ways that Joe really needs to succeed in what he’s attempting. Joe is animated simply, but not in a shabby way, and his almost featureless face just feels right. In other words, the game has a certain level of information that it wants to convey, and the developers seem to have found just the right presentation to give you that level of information; not any less or any more.
Clearly, I enjoyed The Silent Age: Episode One, and I think there’s a lot to admire here. It’s free, and there are no in-app purchases, although you can donate to the developers’ efforts to fund and finish Episode Two (of two, if I understand their blog correctly). I’d love to see Joe deliver that message and learn the answers to the mysteries raised in this episode, and I think that if you play it, you’ll feel the same way.