By Caitlin Piper
Developed by Swedish indie game studio The Working Parts and originally released on the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace on Dec. 6, 2011, “They Breathe” is quite an interesting little game. It has game mechanics that should feel very familiar to fans of the 2D shoot ’em ups of the 90s, and yet it is presented in such a way that it is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a game.
There are no tutorials, there is no Heads Up Display, and the only bit of text to be found in the entire game is on the title screen.
There is no dialogue, there are no cutscenes, and until a recent update, you could not save your game.
But I suppose that’s not enough to make a game unique.
What sets “They Breathe” apart from so many other indie games on the market is its atmosphere and sense of mystery, its ability to tell a genuinely unsettling story without ever saying a word.
You play as a nameless, depressed little frog who has decided to dive into an underwater forest for reasons left unexplained. As he makes his way farther and farther down, weaving through submerged trees and floating branches and gathering air bubbles in order to breathe, he finds that he is not alone.
Bizarre, moose-like predators have taken up residence in these waters, and are intent on dragging our hero down to the forest floor for their own nefarious purposes. Like the frog, they drown after some time, but they will not go down without a chase.
There are other frogs beneath the surface, floating helplessly and in need of rescue. Without the player to guide them to the air bubbles, they will either drown or be devoured by the creatures.
Thus, the player is presented with a dilemma: Rescue the other frogs and sacrifice our air supply, or ignore our drowning friends and take the air for ourselves as we try to escape from the moose?
“They Breathe” does an excellent job building tension between encounters with the moose, mostly aided by some truly phenomenal sound design. This is definitely a game that should be played with the lights turned down and the sound up.
The only proper music to be found here plays at the beginning and end of the game. The rest of the time, we are accompanied by soft underwater splashing and gurgling, which, strangely enough, disappears once the moose are on-screen, and grows more noticeable as the frog approaches the forest floor.
The arrival of a moose is preceded by a muted explosion at the bottom of the ocean and a brief, haunting cry largely reminiscent of a whale song.
When the frog is near death, his heart will begin to pound, louder and louder and faster and faster, until a moose manages to drag his body offscreen and into the deep.
All of this leads up to a truly disturbing twist, that of which I dare not spoil here.
That’s not to say the game is perfect.
To begin with, it is incredibly short. You can beat the game in 15 minutes if you know what you’re doing — though I suppose stretching it out any more would feel forced.
It has almost no replay value, and while it doesn’t destroy the experience, “They Breathe” can be quite challenging at points, especially if you want to save all the frogs. Personally, I think the last point adds to the tension, but it is because of this that I cannot recommend “They Breathe” to everyone.
Regardless, if you’re a fan of beautiful, hand-drawn artwork and great storytelling, I cannot recommend “They Breathe” enough. It is clear that a lot of love and effort went into this game, and it breathes life into the otherwise dull Xbox Live Indie Game marketplace.
PC versions are also available for purchase at IndieCity and Desura.