‘Silt’ preview: 2D indie plunges the horror puzzle genre into eerie new depths

Slow-paced possess ‘em up forces fish to be your friend in this intriguing and unsettling underwater adventure

As the barriers to entry for game development lower, a new generation of creators begin to mould their own exciting playable adventures. Where two decades ago the gaming landscape was dominated by multi-million-dollar AAA behemoths, thanks to free dev tools, we now have husband and wife teams making story-led tearjerkers, and tradesmen packing in their day jobs to make the quirky little strategy games they always dreamed of. With the unstoppable rise of the indies, it’s unsurprising that video games begin to ask players new questions. Indie puzzler Silt is no different, proposing a head-scratcher that certainly keeps me up at night: What if scuba divers could possess fish?

The brainchild of Bristolians Spiral Circus, Silt is a creepy puzzle adventure set tens of thousands of feet below sea level. Embracing the darkness both thematically and literally, Silt’s murky, monochromatic, hand-drawn world will feel immediately familiar to fans of PlayDead’s Limbo and Inside. The key difference? A wetsuit and flippers. Sharing the same genre as its aesthetic inspirations, Silt is an intriguing opus that sees players manipulating marine life in order to survive, while uncovering the many ancient mysteries that lurk beneath the ocean.

Light on narrative and completely devoid of dialogue, Silt instead lets its unsettling environments do the talking. Once an eerie intro segues into gameplay, we join a nameless diver chained to the ocean floor. With no way of freeing ourselves, a school of barracuda circles ominously around my periphery. Briefly bewildered, suddenly, a single command flashes across the screen “ press ‘b’ to possess”. Choosing the angriest looking barracuda, I use the analogue stick to navigate a luminous slither of ethereal energy towards my new vessel, commandeering the helpless fish and using it to bite through my chains. In one enthusiastic chomp, scuba Steve’s shackles break, collapsing into the sand below and leaving our silent avatar free to explore. I guess Mr. Attenborough forgot to mention the barracuda’s steel-breaking chomp.

Once your helpless quarry has completed their task, they are free to continue their life, sending me jolting back into my wet suit and my bitey friend back to his water-gulping ways. As the wise sages in Papa Roach once said, there are no possessions, only obsessions. Heeding the wise words of Jacoby Shaddix, I embrace my new-found freedom and kick my unchained flippers against the current and towards the next area. It’s in this new oceanic void that I discover my newest fishy-looking friend – what appears to be a hammerhead shark. Despite their angry reputation, Silt’s take on the hammerhead is surprisingly docile, with the big-headed behemoth floating around with a refreshingly zen spirit. Maybe we should all be a little more hammerhead.

Silt
Silt Image credit: Spiral Circus

Unfortunately for my enlightened-looking new friend, I need to borrow his cranium for er, less than chill purposes. Commandeering the brain of my new muscular mate, I steer the once peaceful creature headfirst into what appears to be a glass tube, shattering the obstacle and clearing my path. Sorry about that, mate…

It’s this loop of possession and puzzling that continues to define my time with Silt. As you kick and float your way through each new underwater enclosure, the player encounters new species of sea life, using their unique abilities to do everything from break cracked glass tubing to chew through wires. What tubing, you ask? Well, as my ascent to the surface continues, the foreground becomes filled with ominous, screen-filling structures, looking like an unholy mix of tube, metal and sinew. With one housing what appears to be a clay-esque heart, this alluring mix of anxiety-producing isolation and ancient underwater machinery certainly make Silt’s surreal ocean-based opus a memorable one.

After eventually emerging from the carcass of a very Phantom Menace-looking giant fish, my journey suddenly becomes more perilous. Where the fish I encountered before were all too happy to keep their distance, I now find myself relentlessly pursued by slithering, eel-like tendrils. Unfortunately I realise their intentions too late, and these skin-crawling fuckers ravenously consume me in one fell bite. It’s a genuinely harrowing moment, teaching me that Silt’s world is more dangerous than I’d been led to believe.

Silt
Silt. Credit: Spiral Circus.

There’s one more puzzle section before my demo ends, tasking me with tricking a screen-filling, fanged monstrosity into destroying the reef that blocks my path. It’s here where my intrigue turns to frustration. Thanks to Silt’s monochromatic art style, it can be hard to distinguish between background objects and key pieces of the environment that you’re supposed to interact with, resulting in complete bewilderment. Still, this is a game that’s still under development, and this unclear visual signposting seems like an issue that is fairly easily fixed.

I came away from my time with Silt impressed at its potential. Where Playdead’s approach to puzzle horror relied on sprinting and jumping away for your life, Silt instead opts for a slower-paced, more considered approach – and it works beautifully. As quickly as Super Mario Odyssey’s life-ruining Cappy brought possession mechanics back into the gaming consciousness, they sadly disappeared. It’s a shame, as possession is a perfect fit for video games, making Silt’s focus on the ability a welcome one.

Outside of the possession hook, it’s the secrets buried beneath the ocean that will make or break it. The wider mystery of who or what the intriguing mesh of organic and man-made structures were what left me most intrigued, and developer Play Circus has teased that there is a lot more to uncover on this front.

Yet, the question is, can Silt keep up the intrigue, tension…and a steady stream of new fish friends? That remains to be seen. I would love for the game’s anxiety-inducing atmosphere to lead me to encounter humans and other foes as I uncover it’s meaty mysteries – so I’m keeping my fins crossed that’s the case. Still, even if Silt remains largely like what was showcased, based on the two hours I spent with this aquatic puzzler, those looking for an atmospheric puzzler would do well to keep an eye on this one.

Silt is set to launch in early 2022 for PC.

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