There are a few moments from Playdead’s Inside that will live rent-free in my head forever, but my favourite involves a submarine. After you steal the underwater vessel from some unwitting researchers, you crash through a barricade, revealing an entire sunken realm of sky rises, office blocks, and yes, a creepy water troll that tries to drown you and I still shudder to think of. But it did get me thinking about the potential of setting a gloomy side-scroller underwater. Enter Silt.
Though it doesn’t reach anywhere near the same heights as Inside, in-part due to its snappy length and relatively simple puzzles, it’s hard not to get drawn into the overall mood of Silt. In Hollow Knight fashion, you play as a disembodied soul inhabiting a diving suit and trying to figure out your purpose among the ruins of a long-collapsed civilization. All you know is that you have to hunt four sea monsters and steal their eyes: a mission right out of a Victorian story book.
It fits with the game’s nautical Steampunk-style, though. The Goliaths, whose eyes you’re craving, are each an amalgamation of sea-monster and machine that are each creepier than the last: from a mechanical spider crab made of junk, to what kind of looks like an abyssal lighthouse. You steal their eye souls and feed them into an underwater god machine that seems to inhabit a different plane of reality. Silt does have a few trippy moments that can’t help but remind me of Ecco the Dolphin.
Even if it is lacking in substance, it's hard to fault Silt’s style: the ornate and intricate backdrops; the visual design of the Goliaths; or just the way it feels to hang in the abyss, shining a lonely torch beam into the darkness. Its central puzzle mechanic is also kind of cool. The concept of possession is nothing new in puzzle games, that’s for sure, but Silt’s creatures add another layer to it.
As a soul inhabiting a diving suit, the only thing you can do is transfer that soul to nearby animals. You have no powers, and you won’t gain any powers through the game, which is why you have to appropriate the creatures around you and use their particular adaptations to complete puzzles and make headway. Silt’s ecosystem is pretty darn hostile, and almost everything you meet will try to eat you, or in some cases, blow you up. But there’s something satisfying about turning the hostility of an ecosystem against itself.
The way you beat the Goliaths and many of the game’s predators is often by feeding them other creatures you’ve possessed, or by outsmarting them so that they eat each other. In the diving suit you’re just prey, but by using the ecosystem around you, it becomes possible to defeat even these massive sea monsters. It’s a fun concept that reminds me of the amazing 2017 game, Rain World. In that game, you play as a kind of rogue element in the food chain, surviving by your wits, using other creatures, and because of your ability to outwit the big, bad predators that stalk its overwhelmingly hostile world.
That said, I really wish Silt had pushed the idea anywhere near as far, especially since it’s the central mechanic. Sure, there are different creatures you encounter in the game and they can be fun to inhabit: one of the puzzles I enjoyed involves piloting a whole shoal of fish through a spiked tunnel as if playing one of those buzz wire games. The problem is that there are too few creatures, so you quickly work out what they can do, and how they can be used to overcome obstacles. In some cases it is literally about possessing the same few fish over and over, so the ecosystem ends up lacking vibrancy and the puzzles become stale.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see more of Silt, though. As with Rain World, a wide variety of creatures and creature interactions would make for a more interesting world and add puzzle variety. And yes, I do want to outsmart an escalating array of mechanical sea monsters like an underwater Shadow of the Colossus. In the meantime, though, if you enjoy different takes on the dark side-scrolling genre and want something you can wrap up in an afternoon, if nothing else, Silt throws around some fun ideas and looks great.