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Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of puzzling, December 6, 2020
The Copyright of Silence has what’s probably the most genius premise of all 103 games in the Comp. It’s an optimization puzzle where you need to manage pet allergies, kitchen mishaps, and social dynamics in order to maximize the amount of time you can stay quiet while sitting opposite mid-20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage. This works as an amazingly silly joke about Cage’s most famous piece, 4’33”, which is popularly though inaccurately summarized as “four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence”, but it also helps prove one of the deeper themes of the piece: turns out there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of silence!
The presentation is top-notch, with one niggle: the game is presented as a view of Cage’s four-room apartment, with always-on text blurbs listing which characters are in each room, and then longer text with dialogue, actions, and options in the location where your character is. The floor-plan art is clean and fits the mid-century aesthetic, and it’s helpful to always be able to monitor what’s happening everywhere in the apartment at a glance. The fly in the ointment is that to fit the whole apartment on one screen, each room’s sub-window is fairly small, meaning I had to do a little more squinting than I liked.
Gameplay-wise, TCoS appears to all be one big, heavily timing-based puzzle hinging on managing your conversation with Cage – there are various intervening events that might interrupt your silence, and being quiet too long in the wrong circumstances will anger him and dock your score. There are several more discrete puzzles to solve, like what to do about an irritating dog-and-parrot pair (shades of Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos!), and tasks to accomplish, but they all require specific steps to be taken at specific times, so they’re incorporated into the overall structure. And here’s where the game started to break down for me, as the steps required to make progress can feel pretty tedious.
Quick autobiographical side-note that will come back to TCoS, I promise: when I was doing math and physics problem sets in my college days, there was a particular point in many problems where you’d have figured out the overall approach to take, sussed out how to set up the relevant equations, determined the angle of attack by identifying any needed substitutions or assumptions, and now just needed to spend half an hour wrestling some god-awful, notebook-wide integral or 7 by 7 matrix multiplication into submission through theoretically simple, but fiddly and irritating, application of basic math. We called this “grunge”, and unfortunately once I got over the initial hump of figuring out the basics, I found TCoS pretty grungy.
This takes several forms. First off, a major gameplay element is a piano which somehow conceals helpful objects on particular notes, but you have to select the right octave and note to get what you’re looking for, rather than being able to see everything at once. In each playthrough, a postcard arrives during a brief window that might point you towards one of the useful notes to search, but it would require a lot of repetition to find them all, and I think intercepting the mail is fatal to your progress – or I suppose you could just try looking at each piano-note one by one, but either way you’re in for a lot of grunge.
Second, the conversation with Cage proceeds in a very scripted fashion, with some critical dialogue options available only at certain blink-and-you-missed-it opportunities. The conversation pauses when you’re not in the same room, but the game has a hard deadline at 7 pm, meaning that any fiddling around you do reduces your ability to experiment with the later stages of the conversation.
Exacerbating the previous two problems, there’s no quick way to reset or restart the loop that I could find, and since each playthrough steps through 7 minutes in 7 second intervals, that’s a lot of clicking to have to go through once you realize you’ve fluffed something up, or have an idea you want to try. As a result, while I was able to solve several of the puzzles and get a bit over halfway to the goal, after about 45 minutes of play my enthusiasm wore out. With that said, I’ll probably try to pick this one up again when there’s less time pressure, since there are fun hints of hidden bonus puzzles and alternate endings, and I do really love the setup – and I suppose it’s in keeping with the theme that TCoS isn’t over-concerned with player friendliness.