If you watched the most recent Indie World showcase for Nintendo Switch games, you may have spotted a rather sombre and intriguing-looking horror title called Silt. A 2D, hand-drawn horror title set entirely underwater, Silt mixes platforming, puzzles, and plenty of unsettling moments to create a unique atmosphere. Developed by Bristol and Cardiff-based studio Spiral Circus, it marks the very first game from the developer and one that presented a lot of learning experiences for the fledgling staff.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, as you can read about in my full Silt review, so I sat down with art director Tom Mead, and technical director Dominic Clarke to discuss just how difficult it is to make your very first video game, and what sets Silt apart from the rest.
A hand-drawn horror game focused on diving, Silt features a striking black and white art style and a wordless narrative that rewards exploration and experimentation in the face of several different underwater monstrosities. Players possess sea creatures and take on their abilities to solve puzzles and to better explore this mysterious world. So, join us in exploring just how this moody and monochromatic world came to life.
A few seconds with Silt reveals the bleak and brooding black and white world, as light gently pierces against the darkness, eeking through the layers of tendrils, sharp branches, and the flotsam and jetsam of the ocean floor. The angular lines and concentric circles bring to mind the works of Junji Ito, while the monolithic structures and ominous anthropomorphic statues laced around the area bring to mind the architecture and character design of H.R. Giger.
According to Tom Mead, these aren’t the only horror influences though. “Giger would be more of a direct visual influence, and Junji more mood-wise and just general weirdness? Edward Gorey is a massive one for me stylistically. But the left-field side of that is that I’ve always drawn my fears. I’ve always been obsessed with drawing my fears as a cathartic means to get over them. And that’s how this project started because I’m terrified of the deep sea, so I would say that a very big influence is my fear of deep water.”
However, the statues and animal masks of Silt’s world also have a surprising influence many might miss. “That was all influenced by the fact that I was terrified by Beatrix Potter’s ballet, which was a video that my mom showed me when I was a kid. And it’s not supposed to be scary at all, but it just broke me as a child. And for some reason, ever since I’ve just been kind of drawing, animalistic, anthropomorphic characters” explains Tom.
The real inspiration behind the concept of Silt is a bit more ephemeral though, drawing on the real fears of both the ocean and the unknown that the team has, as Dominic Clarke brings to light. “We did a lot of the pre-production on this game in a place in Sweden that was next to a huge lake. You could swim out a little bit there and the waters are real brown, and there’s a little warm layer right at the top.” Dominic explains, “But, as soon as your foot accidentally cuts in a metre below the surface it gets real cold and real creepy and you get touched by little vines and things like that. So it really influenced it all definitely, going in every day and then coming back into the office and trying to programme.” Then as Tom adds “Yeah, we had loads of ideas just hanging out in the middle of the lake just treading water and chatting about random ideas. The leeches in the game directly come from that.”
Filled with weird fish and different creatures to possess, in tandem with a hand-drawn animation style, Silt was a labour of love to complete. Tom and Dom explained that a lot of the creature designs and movements are influenced by biological illustrator Ernst Haeckel before being handed off to an animator called Anton who brought it all to life. But the huge workload of translating every detailed illustration and creature design from Tom’s mind and into the game was something the team at Spiral Circus constantly had to balance.
Dominic spoke about this process, saying “A big part of the early hurdles was just trying to create a pipeline where we could get tonnes of pen and paper stuff into the game in a way that made sense for full-scale production. Because we started by scanning everything, literally just starting on pen and paper and scanning and bringing stuff in like that. And then we ended up building libraries of assets, but a big goal for me as a programmer was to generate a toolset for Tom to use, so that he could just act as an artist and not be fighting against Unity or against any of the kind of more techie tools. That Tom could essentially just paint and then see the paintings come to life in the game.
Tom laughed a bit nervously and added “I do feel permanently guilty about the number of difficulties I gave you over the years from the way that I do stuff just naturally. Because I think now, as and when we do the next game, I definitely think I’d be a bit more of a game artist. Instead of coming at it from a bullish kind of fine artist angle. I only draw things really big in watercolour.”
Dom then went on to explain the process further, and filled me in on the complexities of bringing this particular style to life. “a lot of it was things like ‘how many limbs can something have’, right? We just keep adding tentacles, adding limbs. There are plenty of moments in the game where we’ve just literally been arguing over how many tentacles Tom is allowed to put on a model. And, you know, we’ll give the model another little art pass later on, and it’ll come back with more tentacles again. It’s like, I thought we decided this, we can’t have any more!”
Despite conflict over the number of tentacles a beast may have, Tom and Dom managed to reach an agreement, “That kind of clash happened because Tom previously got to draw whatever was in his imagination. And then the only technical limitation was getting it on a 2D piece of paper, right? But all of a sudden you’ve got to animate it, you’ve got to have a computer and something like a Switch to be able to process it. So we start to run into technical issues, and I think that was probably the biggest learning curve for us was just trying to marry this kind of complete wild imagination to the limitations of actually having to ship a game on consoles.”
As you float ever deeper into the world of Silt, you won’t be met with any HUD, any UI, or any text instructions. This world is hauntingly and intentionally wordless, allowing you to feel truly lost in this foreboding little universe, while also bringing to mind a sense of submersion often found in films. Dom reveals that “we were really quite committed to not having a UI heavy game. If we were to have any kind of indication to the player then it had to be in the world. For example, when you possess creatures, the things that you can possess get a highlight around them. That shows you what you can interact with. We were always making compromises between being able to read the game, and the game just looking like a drawing. In some games, you might just literally draw a big box around it and say, go here.”
Tom elaborates further on what Dom has to say, and adds, “I think both of us are very into films, especially horror films. So, we both always wanted a filmic-style game. Anyway, that was always a route we were going down. I always felt that UI takes you out of that. Not always, but a little bit.”
The game wasn’t always without a UI though, Dom let me know that “There were some early drafts that had UI such as gauges for things, health and oxygen, and things like that. We quickly redesigned the game to get rid of all of that. Then to anything that we felt looked like it needed to have UI attached to it, the question was, “does it really? Or do we really need this feature?” Because it became really, really important to try to get all gamey UI out of the game and try to keep it as pure to Tom’s drawing style as possible”
While the ‘goliaths’ of Silt (the larger and more monstrous creatures you face on your journey) have some otherworldly and unnerving elements, it seems the Spiral Circus team never set out to create a horror game. The focus was on creepiness, a sense of unease, and crafting an environment and creatures within it that feel hostile towards the player without ever being outwardly violent towards them. This led to some influences that are a little outside the box for Dom.
“Not to say that we come close to his sort of brilliance – but David Lynch is a huge, huge influence on us both. I think that something that David Lynch always manages to achieve is this sense of real unsettling, uncomfortable viewing. So it might be a little pretentious to say, but I don’t think it draws upon common horror movie tropes to achieve that. I think it achieves it in a different way.” He continues to say, “there aren’t demons and ghosts and like things that haunt you. There are just preachers. A lot of the way we think of them is that they’re just kind of sad, lonely creatures that don’t really want to be messed with. You’ve disturbed its slumber, but it was never out and out meant to be super threatening. In fact, most of them can’t hurt you”
Tom echoes Dom’s sentiment by saying, “I mean, you’re the questionable one. And yeah, there’s definitely an element of manipulation in there. I will always love that kind of theme with my characters. When we got it into the game, it just felt like the right type of mood for a player character to have. is this okay? Is what he’s doing alright?”
Many of you will have first seen Silt in an Indie World Showcase earlier this year. While the game was revealed before this, the sort of platform this affords smaller developers is invaluable. For such a small team, this boost was a very important one for Spiral Circus, and was clearly an incredible moment after working so hard on Silt for so long. As Tom explains “It was very surreal to see Nintendo tweet about us. But things like that, it’s something that as developers we couldn’t have got done. It’s all in the hard work of [our publisher] Fireshine, that’s for sure.”
Dom then adds, “I’m at my happiest when I’m coding away on something and no one’s bothering me. But the outside help, helped a lot for us. It just lets us focus on making the game, which is hard enough, right? We just don’t have a big enough team to have somebody whose whole job it is to try to find good places to show the game, so that’s where we rely on the publishers. And it’s what publishers are really, really useful for, as an indie studio.”
It seems that as a fledgling studio, and with Silt as their first game, the team will look back at this process not only as a learning experience but also with a product they will still be immensely proud of. Biting off more than you can chew might be putting it mildly, as the team’s ambition regularly bumped up against the limitations of both the human workload, and the processing power of the Switch, but both Tom and Dominic seem incredibly proud to finally have their work out for people to enjoy.
For Tom Mead as an artist especially, seeing his work realised was a special experience. “I’ve been working solo for so many years that, to have a team basically bring my drawings to life is just a life goal achieved for me. So I would say having a whole team is one of my biggest highlights for sure. And not just our internal team. Having that and the publisher side and their whole team has been just absolutely phenomenal, to have that kind of backing.” While moving from an art studio to a game studio is something that Tom won’t forget. “[Previously] it was me in dark rooms drawing on my own, and then giving it to a gallerist and hoping that it would sell. So, you know, it’s been a massive life-changing thing, really? This whole project, that’s for sure.”
When asked what aspect of the game they were most proud of, Dominic spoke about the chance to simply collaborate and create something on this scale is something to be proud of. Especially the journey from two relatively junior game developers, to Silt, finally being real and published. As Dom puts it “Neither of us had any experience in the games industry at all. When Tom and I started this friendship, we didn’t even really know each other, right? We’d met a month before once, and I kind of cornered Tom and asked him to make a game with me. And then a couple of weeks later, we were in the pub throwing around ideas, and it just hasn’t stopped until now.”
He goes on to say “That was four years ago! So just going from so little experience to getting a game out will always be… you know, whether it hits or misses its goals, whether it succeeds or fails, getting to this point is huge for me. And, I think I have a lot more respect for anyone else that ships games as well. It’s a hard thing to do. And I’m really happy we got to the end of it.” Tom with a (slightly tired) smile on his face added “Yeah, I agree. It’s been a hell of a journey. So we’re proud basically, very proud.”
Once again, be sure to check out our Silt review for our full thoughts on this intriguing underwater horror title. If you’re desperate for more spooky shenanigans next, why not check out our guide to the best games like Little Nightmares on Switch and mobile.