In a platform game, you mostly look at the ground. You had better — it holds you up. In its absence, you tend to fall. Even so, many games are shy about the tiles and slopes that hold back the siege of gravity, leaving them plain and putting all the graphical holler and pep into the enemy characters. Bad guys have the advantage of movement and life, after all. One expects them to sparkle.
But the ground is the real star, and Silent Conversation, the new game from The Majesty of Colors creator Gregory Weir, acknowledges that fact in an unconventional way. The platforms are literally literature, made of words taken from poems and stories in the public domain. One of the first levels, for instance, has you actually walking across the descriptions of sandstorms and ancient tombs in H. P. Lovecraft's The Nameless City, with the phrase "sands of uncounted ages" filling in the body of the dunes underfoot.
Your goal, as a solipsistic walking letter "I", is to touch as many words in the text as you can, highlighting them one at a time. Press the [left] key and [right] key to walk, and any other key to jump. [Esc] gets you back to the main menu.
You earn a grade for each level, with an A+ only awarded for 100% completion. Some words are colored red, meaning they are "powerful" and have the ability to fire fading ghosts of letters at you. If you fail to dodge them, you'll lose some of your recent progress and possibly a grade ranking. The same penalty applies to falling off the bottom of the screen.
Some levels, like the haiku by Matsuo Bashou, are extremely short, while others (The Nameless City appears unabridged but split into three sections) can take over ten minutes of running and jumping. Once you complete a story or poem with an A+, you unlock a speed challenge for that level.
Analysis: The title comes from "What is reading, but silent conversation?", a quotation from Walter Savage Landor which neatly sums up the idea that writing is not just performance, but two-way contact. In this case, the author provides the words as your footing, and you respond by touching each of them. Silent Conversation invites you to read attentively, savoring every word.
If the game were just about walking around on text, it would be nothing but an interesting experiment. The real treat is in all the embellishments. A dozen copies of the phrase "a storm of sand" fly by on the wind. A description of a glass table appears in actual table-shape. A difficult gap is in exactly the spot where the words would naturally pause for breath. It's more like an interpretive reading than a game, a reminder that words are meant to be voiced. Weir just speaks in the language of game design.
As a platform game, Silent Conversation is basic to a fault. Your lonely "I" walks and jumps with barely any debt to physics or interactions of any kind. It even does that weird thing where you can curve around the lip of a ceiling because hitting it on the way up didn't stop your momentum. Simplifying the gameplay mechanics this much may keep focus on the strength of the writing, but since walking and jumping is all you do, it could have had more depth to it.
The penalty for getting hit or falling seems misplaced here, a regular at the hardcore platforming mosh scene that doesn't know why it's been invited to a wine-tasting. The period of flashing invulnerability, the tedious backtracking to re-highlight the penalty words — it's all awkward.
In fact, I don't see the need to have threats in a game like this. It's fascinating just sliding along, lighting up words, watching the ground, reading with significance, anticipating the next visual flourish. Which words does Weir consider "powerful"? When will the prose take representational form, like the table, and when will it follow the pure abstract rhythm of the sentences? What happens next? Even if you've already read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to death, you've never read it like this.
There could have been even more visual interpretation of the texts. This is just a taste of the possibilities, executed nice and subtle and fairly safe. Once you've seen all the surprises, it's a bit of a chore to replay levels, especially if you can read faster than you can walk across the words. But Silent Conversation still feels new and exciting, and it did something to me no other game ever has. It inspired me to put the computer to sleep and pick up a book, comfortably, as though games and literature were part of the same world.