Just a few minutes in, I was absolutely sure that Moment of Silence was a European game. It opens with a stunning cutscene that depicts a group of stormtroopers raiding a journalist's apartment and kidnapping him while his family looks on in horror. How does the main character react to this? Run out into the hallway, guns blazing? Climb out the window and work his way down a series of drainpipes and trellises to steal the SWAT team van so he can infiltrate their base? No, he watches the scene through a peep-hole and then, when the commotion has died down, he goes into the hallway and retrieves a teddy bear tossed aside during the struggle, then returns it to the crying child of the kidnapped reporter. So, yeah, right as the game begins, I'm fairly sure no North American developer was responsible for this.
Moment of Silence is a point and click graphic adventure in the classic style. The player controls a character by using the mouse to move him around, interact with the environment, and talk with various characters. It's set in a dystopian near-future where the government has made it illegal for anyone to have any kind of secret. Children aren't taught to write by hand any more, and all computers are hooked up to a central database. The main character, Peter Wright, is a copy writer whose company is working on the government's ad campaign for the upcoming law which will make it illegal to encode Messengers (a combination of telephone and E-Mail that everyone uses as their primary form of communication). He's also a borderline alcoholic whose wife and son were recently killed in a plane crash.
If that's a longer synopsis of the game's premise than reviews generally contain, it's because the game contains a hefty amount of story. At a time when a plot twist in a video game consists of a single character turning out to be evil, here's a game that actually asks players to spend a good portion of the game completely in the dark about what's going on. Even the characters in the game can't agree on what the game is about. One character thinks that the government is completely corrupt, while another believes that aliens are controlling everything. It's only by listening to what all the characters have to say that the player can puzzle together the overall story of the game.
While the game doesn't feature many characters, there are expansive dialogue trees and long enough conversations that I really felt like I got to know a number of them. This identification led to some genuinely compelling and dramatic moments, such as the tragic fate of a man whose only crime was being able to read lips. The voiceover is largely competent, although the translation has enough quirks here and there that the original French syntax is visible through the translation. The only real problem with the voice acting is the fact that all of the main character's lines have a strangely resonant quality, as if they were recorded in a large, empty room. Unfortunately, this is the universal voice-over code for "internal thoughts," which gave a continuing subliminal sense that Peter was always talking to himself.
It's a good thing that the story is as compelling as it is, because for far too much of the game it seemed like the game itself was actively trying to keep me from getting any farther. This isn't just the fault of obscure puzzles (although there were a few of those), but situations where I knew where I had to go next, but had no idea what to do within the logic of the game world to make that happen. In these situations, I had no choice but to wander around the game world, looking for a new character to talk to. Fortunately (or is that unfortunately?) the hub section of the game, New York City, has an extremely small number of possible locations, and each one of these confusing trips where I tried to figure out what to do next would last half an hour, tops. To the game's credit, once the problem was solved, I would generally feel like an idiot; all of the puzzles and solutions make sense in retrospect, which is by no means a given in the genre.
The game's bigger problem, though, is its camera setups and player movement. All of the locations are created with pre-rendered, partially animated backdrops that the characters walk around in. This is a standard for the genre, but what's less standard is the arbitrary way that the camera will change angles within a location. Sometimes these camera changes are effectively used to give players a closer look at a certain part of an area. All too often, though, it's not clear where Peter can walk, or when a camera change will occur. This caused some severe headaches in a number of areas, where I would have to walk right to the edge of the screen, but could only accomplish this by clicking on the exact pixel at the bottom of the screen. This wouldn't have been such a chore if the inventory didn't pop up when the mouse moved too low on the screen, giving me a one or two pixel margin of error. And all I was trying to do was walk down a hallway.
Oddly, a solution to this problem exists within the game. In a few of the mid-sized locations, whenever Peter walks from one sub-area to the next, an animation is cued up to provide a bridge between the two static location shots. This fake "camera move" is a wonderful technique that makes navigation much easier by removing the sometimes jarring "cuts" between angles, and I wish it had been used more extensively in the game.
It's so nice when a videogame is about something, isn't it? As games trudge down the long path towards artistic relevance, finding their place somewhere between skee-ball and movies, too often they forget that one of the biggest keys to being taken seriously is to have something to say. Moment of Silence has a message. It wants to make a point through its story in any way it can. At times the techniques it uses can be a bit on the heavy-handed side (for example, at one point, while attempting to capture the main character, agents of the evil government actually blow up the Statue of Liberty, which seems just as over the top here as it did in Deus Ex). Still, it's a game with symbolism, which is a nicely surprising thing to see in and of itself.
As refreshing it is to see a game with an opinion, a balance between advocacy and gameplay has to be struck. Moment of Silence tells a story enthralling enough that I wanted to see it all the way through until the end, which made it all the more frustrating that the game aspects kept getting in my way. With a little more thought put into the interface, Moment of Silence could have been a graphic adventure classic, but as it stands now, it's a really good story, cleverly locked away inside a series of rooms that need to be clicked through.