I had to pull myself away from Fade to Silence to write this review, which is frustrating because I think I might actually make it through this time. Despite the fact that the game does very little to help you understand the world or rules, I've finally hit my stride. And I’m worried that I’ll lose my rhythm if I walk away. Then I'll just end up dead. Again.
At the beginning of the game, your character has come back from the dead. Again. As you pull yourself to your feet, you're circled by a grim, Lovecraftian specter who tells you the effort is pointless. Anything that isn't infected with necrotic rot is frozen. The world is dead. You're just going to die too.
And you will.
But a big part of the draw Fade to Silence has is in trying to fight against that inevitable conclusion. The game drops you in medias res into what could just as easily be another player's save file. There's no tutorial (beyond one very basic screen that shows the combat mapping). No explanation of your character's goals or desires. No indication about where you should go or what you should do. Just stay alive for as long as you can. Then die. Then, try to stay alive again.
This method of storytelling in videogames has become more popular recently. Open-world gaming has evolved beyond just having a very big map. It's become an entire genre. One wherein the characters are free to pursue whatever flight of fancy may take them. Like in real life, players in these open-world games are allowed to go anywhere and do anything.
Which is strange, because I never thought of real life as a particularly fun video game.
To combat the risk of tediousness that can accompany yet another wide-open world, Black Forest Games has deployed some next level world building. As the game's protagonist, you explore a frozen tundra searching for the essentials needed to survive. As you discover crafting materials, you bring them back to your camp and use them to recover from your trip into the frozen wastes. If you're lucky, you'll have a few extras to prep your next expedition. Then it's back into the cold for another mission.
Overlayed on top of the frozen arctic setting is the Lovecraftian horror aesthetic the game is drawing most of its attention for. The map is riddled with all kinds of disgusting ghouls and demons that are much better equipped to deal with you than you are with them. And because preparing to fight them off consumes valuable crafting supplies — supplies which could otherwise keep you alive — you'll likely find yourself fleeing monsters as often as fighting them.
The paranormal element to the game is a lot of fun, and certainly a selling point for fans who felt let down by Call of Cthulhu late last year. But it can be a little heavy-handed at times. That specter who haunts your resurrection at the beginning of the game is a constant presence in your ears. He mocks every effort you make to survive and mourns every success you achieve. And when your character inevitably dies and comes back to life, you can guarantee he’ll be there haunting your resurrection. It reinforces the game’s drive towards futility. But at a certain point you just want to yell back ”Okay, I get it! We're all just dust in the wind! Now let me cut down this oak tree in peace!”
But while the necrotic plague is busy stealing center stage, the real MVP of Fade to Silence is the environment. There are three none-combat related ways your character can die. Each has its own progress bar to manage. And the systems that govern the world makes it near impossible to keep all three in check at once. The creatures that live in this world may provide sudden bursts of danger. But the constant pounding you take from cold and hunger is unrelenting.
Throughout the game, you also have the opportunity to build up your camp. Your character meets other survivors in the world and can invite them to become a part of your tribe. Those followers will hunt anywhere that you've hunted, and forage anywhere you've foraged. They depend on you to set an example and give them direction. But once you help them out, they dramatically add to your material stores.
With enough materials, your followers can build improvements to the camp that will give you in-game perks. Those kinds of rewards can make adventuring to a new part of the map worth the risk. But new resources and gameplay bonuses might still not be a big enough draw because Fade to Silence has one other feature that sets it apart: permadeath.
While Fade to Silence is centered around resurrection, everything fades. Your character in Fade to Silence only has six lives before its game over. When you start back up, you will find yourself back at the beginning of the game without any of your game progress or items saved. All that carries over is your in-game upgrades and your knowledge of how to play. Each reset acts as it's own version of the ever-popular New Game +. But it also forces the player to consider that the only way out of this hellscape may be to eventually die once and for all.
I enjoyed playing Fade to Silence a lot more than I thought I would. I'm at a point with video games where I find most gaming tropes to be grating. And this game seemed like a real buckshot approach to game design. Like someone at Black Forest said ”Let’s just do a bunch of stuff that nerds like and see what works. Open-world, survival-horror, crafting system, Eldrich mythos. What else you got?” But in reality, the game is a finely tuned machine, with each piece designed to ask one specific question:
”What if I actually make it through this time?”