I don’t quite recall when I first started dealing with depression. I’ve lived with it so long it feels like it’s been there from day one. Having dealt with it for so long means I’ve mostly got things under control now, but there are times when it’s really overbearing, when it feels like everything is hopeless, that I’m worthless, that I’ll never happy or even just okay again. I remember those times vividly; they always resurface to forefront of my mind whenever the subject of depression comes up.
Playing The Thin Silence, then, was… difficult, at times. Developed by Two PM, The Thin Silence seeks to explore mental health — something it’s very up front about. The game opens with a message warning players that it has “strong themes of depression, suicide, and negative mental health,” asking that players be aware of their own mental state while playing.
The Thin Silence follows Ezra Westmark. Ezra’s in a bad place. Due to a series of events that slowly become clear over the course of the game, Ezra’s put himself in a self-imposed exile, wallowing in despair and darkness. The game opens with him sitting in a cave, images of what appear to be riots flashing by. Ezra is a former minister of a country embroiled in a civil war, for which he holds himself responsible. The specifics remain mostly vague throughout (notes you find along the way provide some heavy hints, though), but they aren’t the crux of the story: Ezra’s personal struggles are.
What precisely happened to him is slowly revealed over the course of the game through flashbacks and monologues, his encounters with friends and family further filling in the blanks. Without spoiling anything, however, it all comes down to relatable experiences: loss, grief, and how to process it all and move forward. The backdrop conflict engulfing the country acts more as means to further compound Ezra’s current predicament than the source of his anguish.
As Ezra, you make your way through a few different environments, overcoming obstacles using a variety of makeshift tools. Ezra finds various items, which can be used as is or combined into something more. A boot and some hooks become climbing shoes, for example, or a rope and a sign combine into a weighted grapple. These items are used to get around and manipulate the environment, their uses becoming clear relatively quickly as you craft them. The puzzles you encounter aren’t anything especially difficult — often revolving around moving blocks or making bridges to move forward — but they provide enough challenge to be engaging.
The puzzle aspect seemed odd at first. I was worried The Thin Silence would end up being another of those games that lightly peppers its themes on top of an otherwise standard fare videogame, never exploring them beyond the most surface level, nor incorporating them directly into the play itself. But as I played, the intent behind it all became clear.
The choice of locales, the nature of the puzzles: all of it matches Ezra’s current mental state. The Thin Silence uses the environment to mimic Ezra’s struggle to climb out of the pit of his current depressive spell. When he’s at his worst, he’s moving through dark and gloomy spaces. As he starts to confront things and gain some shred of hope, the environments become brighter and lush. The emptiness accentuates the sense of isolation, the rare instance of civilization always a reminder of the harsh conditions everyone’s currently living under. But the people still hold on to some semblance of hope. Things are rough, but they’re holding on. Puzzles then feel like a result of those conditions. The caves Ezra starts in are abandoned and in disrepair, the other locales exhibiting similar signs of ruin.
One small touch I appreciated: Occasionally you’ll come across benches that Ezra can use to take a breather. Other than one early instance where sitting down makes the camera move around the room to provide an overview of the puzzles, they serve no mechanical purpose. They’re merely a chance to rest. I always appreciate it when games allow you to sit and bask in their spaces. Games are always so concerned about constant forward progress that they don’t often think about the value of standing still for a moment and taking a break, however brief. More to the point, though, they feel consistent with Ezra’s character. Given his predilection to stop and reflect on things, it feels natural that he would stop and rest when given the opportunity. Sometimes you just need a moment to think, you know?
While The Thin Silence deals with some heavy material, it is a hopeful work in the end. It wallows in the dark early on, but it moves toward a more optimistic message. A gentle notice that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that help is always within reach. In the back our minds, we always know this, but it’s good to be reminded every now and then.