This Kafkaesque Steam Next Fest demo visits a towering walled city
Dear Esther meets Amnesia in The Silent Swan, an open-world walk-o-story set inside a mysterious walled land with two towering empty cities. It has a demo in the Steam Next Fest and I think I want more? I was drawn in by screenshots of vast Gothic architecture, put off by frustrating slowness, then kept interested by the mysteries of our fella adrift in his former home. It does, at the very least, have pleasingly giant buildings rising from fog.
The Silent Swan is set around two cities within a vast wall. It’s a mighty impressive look, and and absolutely the reason I tried the demo. Our fella is returning home after 17 years on the trail of his missing wife. Something happened, and the cities now stand empty, forbidden, forgotten, fabled. No, I don’t think it’s Attack On Titan, though I would be delighted by that twist. It does feel a bit like a Kafka or Borges story to me, with our man increasingly lost and confused in a surreal city he no longer recognises, tormented by strangers who either know everything about him or don’t even recognise his presence, and caught in events he doesn’t understand. I’ve little interest in the whole ‘I love my missing wife’ thing but I like the mood.
Exploration is slow. Very slow. You walk slowly, you jump lowly, and the distances are farly. Even the ‘quike’ four-wheeled bicycles you can ride around some places are slow. (Speaking of: I was curious about how slowly the pedals turn, so I ran the numbers and our man pedals full-pelt at a knee-annhilating 24rpm.) But you can, if you want, scale 34 floors of a spiral staircase up a spire rather than take the lift. You can also run into the woods towards distant vast buildings where grow mere pixels taller as you hold W for minutes. At this point, I’ve seen no suggestion that the game rewards this in any way beyond the satisfaction of doing it. As a fan of walking simulators, I do find that freedom quite satisfying. But the pace and distance can get frustrating in a game that needs you to complete objectives to advance the plot.
The only ‘puzzle’ in the demo is finding fuses to fix a lift. At one point I missed an item I needed, and had to turn back, then return. And while returning, I made a mistake. Rather than again struggle with finnicky movement to scale a bumpy ramp leading to the other side of a broken raised walkway, I figured I could likely just walk on the grass and find another way into the tower where my goal lay. Nope. Though the fence looked to have enough space for a person to squeeze through, I had to loop all the way back round. This misguided moment of exploration took several whole minutes while I muttered about how ridiculous this was. Also the floaty camera movement is weird. And the aggressive level-of-detail pop-in is unfortunate in a game that’s so much about slowly approaching giant things. And yet, I kept playing.
While I assume our man is dead or dying or it’s a dream, I am still curious about what’s going on in the world he perceives—whatever that world is, whatever he is. I like the look of the world, somewhere between Bloodborne’s Yharnham, Dishonored’s Dunwall, and Warhammer 40K’s whole deal. I want to reach actual cities, not just the outskirts available in the demo. I like that objectives are quietly contained within letters we find, with no quest list or makers. And with the demo ending at unlocking airships, maybe travel will get friendlier in the full game? (I ache for supernatural powers of leaping and gliding.) Halfway through the demo, I didn’t think I’d be looking forward to the full game, but I am.
I am mostly fascinated that the developers made this, made a vast shell of a world—and not as a walking simulator. To explore these empty buildings! Scale these stairs! Gaze down from these balconies! Run these empty woods! Then go find three fuses to restore electricity to turn on a lift to reach an airship so you can find more letters to hopefully find your wife. What a fascinating nightmare.
Download The Silent Swan’s demo from Steam.
The Silent Swan is due to launch in full towards the end of this year, sometime from October onwards. It’s made by Studio Circenses and published by Gammera Nest.