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Underwater Puzzler Silt Uncovers the Surreal Horrors of the Deep

Image courtesy of Spiral Circus

There's a degree of uneasiness that comes when pondering the ocean. Looking out over the seemingly infinite expanse of water, you worry about the perils of being isolated, of being lost adrift.  But below the surface lie fears even stronger: of the unknown and undiscovered hidden in the depths.

It's this fear of what's lurking in the watery shadows that Silt revels in, sending players down to explore the very abyss that inspires the nightmares of so many. But where some games might lean closer into hyperrealism with their ocean horror, Silt's striking visuals take players on a journey through the surreal and bizarre. Art Director Tom Mead gave us a look into Silt's origins and the inspiration behind its distinctive appearance.

"It's been a journey, to say the least," said Mead, during a recent interview at WASD Live. "I've gone from not being in the games industry in any way, like me and my business partner [Dom Clarke], he's a research scientist and I used to be a fine artist. And we met because our girlfriends are best friends."

"We went for a meeting and I was working on a watercolor series at the time for my own fine art stuff. It was a series of characters that I was drawing, like drowning and in a big abyss. And I showed him those watercolor paintings. That kind of became a proof of concept for this entire project."

It was from this meeting that their studio, Spiral Circus, was born. Silt, their first project, takes its name from Mead's art, with one of the pieces from his watercolor series sharing the game’s title.

There are commonalities between Silt and Playdead's landmark 2010 release Limbo, and it's clear that game was a great source of inspiration. Both use a 2D side-scrolling system, a nearly monochromatic color palette, and various puzzle mechanics to help guide the player from one area to the next.

"Limbo, for me, was the first time I'd ever seen this kind of art-based game," explained Mead. "It kind of showed me that an art style could work in this medium. I know everyone knows that title, but I played it about eight years after it came out. So for me it was totally fresh. I was like, 'Wow, this is the direction that we want to go.'"

The aesthetic similarities to Limbo are strong, but Silt distinguishes itself with the intricacy of its visuals. Each illustration bears an impressive amount of detail, building upon the game's dark atmosphere with a hand-crafted edge. While Mead picked out the likes of Tim Burton, Edward Gorey and Kōji Morimoto as influences for his art, Silt's graphics ultimately boil down to his own illustration style.

"There's a ton of other French illustrators that I'm obsessed with, and horror writers. I've always been a huge horror fan. So all of that combined is kind of what we ended up with. And yet, to be honest, it's just my style."

Image courtesy of Spiral Circus

Much of Silt's atmosphere comes from what you can't see, as the player moves through areas often enclosed in darkness with nothing but a lamp to lead them through. It's this confined disquiet the devs strive for, using every function available to achieve it.

"I think vignettes, artistically, work a hell of a lot with just creating that sense of not knowing what's around you," said Mead. "Just giving you a point of focus, making sure the diver was front and center. And having a lamp to use in the darkness was a huge thing to kind of lead [the player] through these weird little areas."

Possession is a core mechanic in Silt. The player, using a ghostly beam of light, takes control of a variety of unusual sea creatures, each with its own ability. Exploiting these creatures, along with the environment, is key to solving the game's puzzles. For example, an anglerfish can be used to cut ropes and wires, while a hammerhead-like creature can break through previously impassable walls.

Mead said these mechanics were born out of technical restraints on the project.

"We knew that we didn't have a big enough team to have the diver grab levers and things like that. So we had to figure out a way of using things without touching them. And I was doing a bunch of drawings, completely randomly for my own fun, of souls coming out of bodies, and physical manifestations of that. So you kind of fuse those two things together and that's how the main mechanic was born."

Using creatures within an environment to progress through a level isn't an unfamiliar feature, but in Silt, something about it feels almost heinous. Perhaps it's the way it's presented, with the player chasing down their target by extending their soul out of their own body. The possession feels invasive and manipulative. It makes you wonder about the protagonist — their origins, their motives — and where you'll both be at the journey's conclusion.

But it's through these questionable acts and dark details that Silt aims to leave a lasting impression on its audience. Sending those brave enough on a harrowing, yet beautiful, journey.

"I would just hope that people get the feeling of claustrophobia. And kind of weight on them when they're playing the game," said Mead. "They'll probably need a beer to be honest, or something afterwards just to kind of take the edge off."

"It's always been my way. I want to affect people like that with my art. Definitely. To make people feel a bit uncomfortable, and feel like they've gone through an ordeal."

Fireshine Games will publish Silt when it's released in Spring 2022.