The Guilt and the Shadow is more of a tone poem than a puzzle game.
The Guilt and the ShadowPublisher: Frederico Machuca
Developer: Frederico Machuca
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Release Date: 2015-02-02
The Guilt and the Shadow is all style over substance.
The art is amazing -- dark and disturbing without ever coming close to being remotely violent. It's evocative, a world that looks crafted from paper and filled in with Sharpies, delicate and oppressive all at the same time. The ambient music and sound effects are perfect, filling the world with an echoing soundscape that emphasizes emptiness, hollowness.
Sadly, every other aspect of the game fails to live up to the standard set by the art and music. The puzzles are okay at best. You're usually just pushing a block into a crevice in order to cross a gap. At its most complex, you're given a weird little musical instrument and must play the right note in front of a statue in order to change the environment. There's a foundation here for some complex dungeon crawling, but The Guilt and the Shadow is more of a tone poem than a puzzle game. Its obstacles exist to further the story, not the other way around.
As a result, the puzzles are easy but also strangely obtuse. I spent a lot of time walking around with no clear goal or objective, interacting with the first noticeable thing I saw. The fact that this strategy worked is a testament to the level design. I always felt lost, but the game was secretly guiding me through what felt like a maze. Overall, the puzzles are easy enough that they're never frustrating, and the level design makes up for the poor presentation and lack of explanation.
All could be forgiven if the story was good, but while The Guilt and the Shadow occasionally teases some interesting thoughts, it's too coy about important information.
The Guilt and the Shadow is about a man wracked by guilt, that much is clear from the beginning, but we never come to understand the nature of his guilt and that's a problem. The "why" of his guilt is drip fed to us too slowly to keep our attention. We do get a vague "how" of things: There was a woman, a beach, a boat, a fall, and then the overwhelming guilt.
The man hears voices in his head, but it’s not clear if he suffered from these delusions before or after the tragedy. At one point, the man argues with his voices about whether the woman jumped or fell, and the game almost becomes an interesting exploration of how we interpret the actions of others, and how that affects our sense of guilt. Is he grieving because he couldn't save her or because he pushed her to suicide? What was his role in her death, or more importantly, how does he see his role in her death?
These are intriguing questions of perception, but in order for the game to fully explore these questions, it has to give us more information about the tragedy. We have to know what happened or what he thinks happened, yet all we get are hints and vagaries so open to interpretation that they become meaningless.
Since we never understand the tragedy, we can never understand the man's guilt. Since we never understand the man's guilt, the game can't come to any sort of thematic conclusion. The central problem with The Guilt and the Shadow is that it ultimately doesn't have anything thoughtful to say about guilt. It doesn't come to any conclusion about how or why we suffer or who are the agents of our suffering. Without that conclusion, the game is just two hours of watching of a man wallow in grief. It's dark stuff, sure, but without the substance of a theme, it's all just dark fluff.