A Lullaby To Close Your Eyes

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Silent Hill 4: The Room is the best game I will never play.
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This article is not a review. Well, technically it is; after all, a review is nothing more than a critical evaluation of a particular topic, and there is more than enough criticism and evaluation to go around in this piece. However, while this article maintains the letter of the law, I must confess that it is a violation of the spirit. When you read a review, it is assumed that the writer has actually interacted with the subject in question; read the book, watched the movie, whatever. With Silent Hill 4, the problem is that...well...I haven't actually played it. I thumbed through the strategy guide when it was new. I've watched playthroughs on YouTube. I've read about it on the Silent Hill wiki. I've even bought it. But I have never completed a single playthrough.

And the perverse thing is that, while I've never played it, and will probably never play it, Silent Hill 4 is one of the best games I've ever seen.

Perhaps I should explain.

Silent Hill 4: The Room is, of course, the fourth installment in the Silent Hill survival-horror franchise. Released in 2004, it was the final Silent Hill game created by Team Silent, the developers behind the first three games. There has been some dispute concerning the exact origins of this game; the departures from the classic mechanics of the series have led to speculation that Team Silent originally wanted to develop The Room as a game independent of the Silent Hill universe, but were later ordered by publisher Konami to integrate the game's story into the Silent Hill mythos. I have no idea if this story is true (or when in the game's development such an order would have been given), but it has always seemed to me that The Room was the product of serious reflection by Team Silent over the future of the franchise. At some point, the team sat down and asked themselves the hard question: how often can you go back to the same town, walk down the same foggy streets and rusted corridors, and hit the same hypermammaratic nurse-creatures in the bitehole with a pipe? Their answer, which appears to have come as a surprise to Konami, was to decide that the setting of Silent Hill had run its course for the moment, and that the best way forward would be to create a game that would keep some of the aesthetics of the first three games, but radically change the setting and the gameplay.

Silent Hill 4: The Room takes leave of Silent Hill for the sunnier climes of South Ashfield, a small metropolis briefly visited in Silent Hill 3. The player assumes the role of Henry Townshend, who lives in Room 302 of the South Ashfield Heights apartment complex. An unassuming gent, Henry's placid routine is rudely interrupted one day when, after a night of painful nightmares, he awakes to find himself locked in his apartment. However, this is no ordinary college prank: the windows are sealed shut and have become impervious to breakage, the telephone and television no longer work, sound fails to travel outside the walls of the apartment, and most memorably, the front door of the apartment is chained shut from the inside, with the cryptic message "Don't go out! -Walter" scrawled across it. Henry himself also becomes the victim of several small biological changes: after his apartment is sealed, he loses both the need and desires to eat, drink, or defecate. The game proper begins on the fifth day of Henry's incarceration, when a hole opens up in his bathroom wall. Seeing little else in the way of prospects, Henry takes the plunge.

After a brief crawl through a mildly uterine concrete tunnel, Henry finds himself descending a great escalator into a deserted half-finished version of the subway station outside his apartment. It is here, barely an hour into the game, that Team Silent makes a rather impressive attempt to throw veteran fans off their game. After a brief jog, Henry encounters the first NPC of the game, Cynthia Velasquez, a woman who, in terms of appearance and personality, appears to have been designed to make Maria from Silent Hill 2 look like a Quaker. However, before the player can finish rolling their eyes and mutter something about Team Silent going to the sexual hang-up well again, she disappears. After learning the ropes of the game, you meet up with her again in a subway car, only for her to disappear again shortly thereafter. After working your way to the end of the level, you meet her for the last time, hacked apart in a ticket booth, breathing her last. For people familiar with the mechanics of Silent Hill, this is a shock. The previous games were always elliptical in telling you how to get the best ending, but they never tossed you a failure condition this early in the story.

But of course you haven't failed yet, because Silent Hill 4 does not work the way the previous games did. The game can best be thought of as a series of expeditions to the alternate worlds that connect to the hole in your apartment, which itself serves as your base. In Room 302, you switch to a first-person perspective, and you can have your health regenerated, save your game, or check on the world outside through your windows and peephole. You also manage your inventory in your apartment: unlike in previous games, the player's inventory is not bottomless. Only ten items of any type can be carried, and if you want to get rid of something, you need to take a portal back to the apartment and drop it in your storage chest. It's a change of pace, but it's not particularly arduous to get used to. The voyages to the other worlds are more familiar ground for players: a search for any sort of exit from the realm, occasioned by monster fights, mild puzzle-solving, and document gathering. Combat is predominately melée-based in this game: while you do get a pistol and a revolver, the relative paucity of ammunition makes in far wiser to keep them in storage until the end of the game. There's a plethora of weapons to scavenge, but there's really no point in using any of them other than the pipe and the rusty axe, as they are the only two weapons in the game that don't suffer from degradation.

Of course, the real selling point of the Silent Hill series has always been the aesthetic. The dilapidated rust-belt setting, the infernal underworld with metal grating and whirring fans, and the menagerie of monsters from the back catalogue of Francis Bacon have become part and parcel of the image of Silent Hill, along with the reputation for slow-building unease and uncanny grotesquerie. The Room, to its credit, both respects its ancestors and explores in directions of its own, producing some of the best effects of any of the games. It's no surprise that there's more visual experimentation in the level design than in the earlier games; for all intents and purposes, the majority of The Room takes place in some variant of the Otherworld, so realism is more of an suggestion than a necessity. The only world that sticks close to reality is the Forest World (ironically, a replica of a location found in Silent Hill); all the others have great fun with exaggerated verticals, pipes that stretch up into the infinite darkness, and great vermiform shapes that burrow through walls and drop from the ceiling. A few of the worlds stick with the old Silent Hill aesthetic of rust and flesh, but the prevailing imagery of The Room is of decay, corruption, and what, for lack of a better word, could be described as human automatism. All of the indoor environments seem to be either falling apart or hastily constructed, and many of them call attention to their artificiality with improbable dimensions. Most of the worlds are filled with gurgling water, pools and pipes, creating a subtler fusion of biological and mechanical processes than the series has traditionally attempted, while mildew, toadstools, and slugs thrive in abandoned rooms. There are dolls and mannequin figures, but even they are given more of a biological cast, being reimagined as autonomic meat machines in the shape of men and as ghosts. The monsters do not quite have the same concentration and unity of vision as they did in Silent Hill 2 and 3, but they do well nonetheless.

The Room also manages to go beyond the standard tropes of the franchise by experimenting with elements of the paranoia, often to great effect. By nature of his predicament, Henry is reduced to the role of voyeur in his apartment, spending much of his time watching the other residents of South Ashfield Heights through his window, his peephole, as well as keeping an eye on his next-door neighbor Eileen through a hole hacked into his wall. Of course, Henry's voyeurism is not from a position of power; there is always a edge of desperation to it, casting it as an activity done in order to survey one's surroundings and gather valuable information than to luxuriate in power over others. Indeed, it's fairly obvious that while Henry spies on the world, another is spying on him, a point driven home during Henry's sojourn to the Water Prison World, a realm centered around a skyscraping panopticon.

Additionally, while this is outside my area of expertise, the sound design for The Room is, without a doubt, the best for the entire series. Akira Yamaoka's work on the series has always been stellar, of course, but his work on The Room is far more varied than in any other game. The soundtrack includes the traditional industrial noises and electronic distortions of the previous games, but also branches out with the drips of water and moaning pipes, ominous winds, and even animal noises ranging from the oversaturated buzz of night creatures to the screeching cacophany of an abandoned pet shop. Honestly, I would recommend searching for "Silent Hill 4 - The Complete Soundtrack" (or just listen to it here), because it is golden. For myself, I think the most disturbing track in the game is the one that plays whenever you are in your bathroom with the hole, a mixture of ambient noise, the garbled speech of children, and the noises of tongues slapping against cheeks, an eerie sound that grows increasingly repulsive the longer you listen to it.

Great aesthetics, great ability to generate and manipulate fear and unease in the player, incredible alien worlds to explore, beautiful soundtrack...I should have loved this.

But there are problems.

The first problem concerns the story. The first half of the game is, for the most part, a mystery disguised as an escape plan. Henry makes his way through several worlds, each time encountering one other person who is eventually killed, all while gathering information. In due course, the details and the nature of the worlds sketch out the life story of a serial killer named Walter Sullivan, a slightly retconed background figure from Silent Hill 2. After being abandoned by his parents and raised in one of Silent Hill's many cult-run orphanages, Walter came to believe that Apartment 302 in South Ashfield Heights was his "birth mother", and used his position in the cult to learn a purifying ritual to reunite him with his estranged parent. (Now, some of you may be questioning the biological implausibilities of Walter's theory, but I am of a more traditionalist bent, and I believe that if a man has the ability to create pocket universes into which he can cast and murder people he doesn't like, his mother can be whoever the hell he wants it to be.) In order for the ritual to be completed, 21 people need to be murdered, and naturally that includes Henry and Eileen. By the midpoint of the game Eileen finally ends up in one of Walter's realms, and the game shifts from solo exploration to a multi-level escort mission where you help the wounded Eileen through all the levels to Walter's cosmos, all while dodging ghosts and the gun-wielding shade of Walter. Thematically speaking it's actually a rather gripping way to construct the last half of the game, but in practice there is no disguising the fact that it is a multi-hour escort mission through levels you've already run through. Even so, there are some nice touches. After meeting Eileen, your apartment ceases to automatically heal you and is subjected to attack by various hauntings, requiring you to constantly hold mini-séances to keep your room from actively hurting you. Additionally, while all the levels are just clones of earlier ones, there are nice interstitial levels that depict all of Walter's artificial worlds as being connected by a giant spiral ramp that leads all the way down to the core of his paracosm, which is, of course, another copy of Room 302.

Another problems lies in the characterization of Henry; there just isn't that much of it. While his initial nonplussed reaction to his situation at the beginning of the game is explainable, his reactions to the rest of the game are far less justifiable. To everything that happens to him, from meeting a strange woman who wants dream sex with him, to watching people be immolated, electrocuted, or butchered, to witnessing all manner of biological and architectural impossibilities, Henry reacts with nothing more than mild shock and a groggy "what...the hell?" Part of the problem is the voice acting, always a crap-shoot in the Silent Hill series, but the bigger problem is that Henry, oddly enough, doesn't have that much to do. It isn't a question of the story not revolving around Henry; back in the first game, the story was more about Harry Mason's search for his daughter than about Harry itself, and the game didn't suffer for it. However, while Harry was more of a featureless player avatar than James Sunderland or Heather Mason, he still had an emotional hook, namely the desire to find his daughter, that was enough to compel the player to keep playing the game. Henry does not have that hook; while he has a general desire to escape his apartment, he doesn't seem terribly distressed by his predicament. I've seen suggestions online that Henry was supposed to be a borderline shut-in/hikikomori personality, which would explain his overall depressed emotional state, but it would not explain why the developers wanted to strip anything that would make the player want to empathize with him. Even developing some details about him, such as an interest of photography that he mentions a few times when comments on items in his apartment, would have gone far in building sympathy between the player and the character.

However, these are not the reasons why I have not played the game, and why all my attempts to play The Room have ended in failure. The reason for that is much simpler, and has nothing to do with the game's artistic and thematic merits.

My problem is that I can't control the damn thing.

Silent Hill games have always been a bitch to control, the legacy of older technology and the conventions of Japanese horror games. The camera always has three minds of its own, and actually fighting anything is more often than not an exercise in desperate flailing. Silent Hill 4 suffers from these problems, but they are hardly unique to the franchise, and I fully expected them going into the game. My problem was that, when I bought the game, I made the mistake of getting the version of the game that was ported to the PC, the only gaming platform I own. And there has never, ever been a decent port of a Silent Hill game to the PC. Every time I tried to play the game I fought with the camera to make it look where I want it to look, and with my keyboard and mouse to make Henry do what I wanted. I still don't know how to make Henry equip and unequip weapons except by playing with my mouse wheel and hoping for the best.

And yet I was willing (I was willing!) to struggle on through the interface and play the game if not for one thing: the ghosts. This is the first time a monster like them have appeared in a Silent Hill game, and they are the biggest misstep Team Silent took when making The Room. In the context of the game, they are the souls of Walter's victims trapped in his various worlds, and their job is to torment people. They generate a natural field around themselves that makes Henry suffer from migraines, and they can drain his health quickly with their attacks. They can bleed through the walls and chase Henry through an entire world. And they are unkillable. That's right, the only way you can fight back is with an enchanted weapon, or you can stun then and pin them to the floor with a special sword you can only pick up a third of the way through the game. None of the other games had these ghosts. They didn't need them. They were perfectly happy to let you move at your own pace and not have to worry about being shoved around by spectral busybodies. While I was willing to work through my control problems with regular monsters, I had no desire to weave my way between immortal assholes when I can't even see what's in front of my face.

And that, in the end, is why I consider Silent Hill 4: The Room a noble failure. It expanded the premise of the franchise and grew in some very positive directions, and because it was the first Silent Hill game I ever heard about, I will always look upon with warmth.

But I will never play it.
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Comments (go to latest)
James D at 14:28 on 2012-03-27
Haha, I feel almost exactly the same way about the game, except that I've already played it. The controls and combat are just so frustrating, what with the Ghosts and shoddy camerawork and dearth of ammo...the first three games all had either better camerawork, more ammo, and/or easier enemies. I honestly think the whole idea of the Ghosts chasing you throughout a level could've been an awesome idea, had you been able to control Henry more effectively, and had the Silent Hill franchise not been so much based around pixel-hunting. There is nothing more frustrating than pixel-hunting while you're getting attacked by something there's no way to really kill. Then there's the multi-hour escort mission...I've read that if you don't give Eileen any sort of weapon, she just sticks to you like glue instead of trying to defend herself and it works out better, but I don't really want to find out. Also the whole haunting/cleansing mechanic is buggy as hell, it's very easy to exorcise the wrong haunting by accident and waste one of your precious holy candles.

The setting and story though are definitely some of Silent Hill's best. The water prison is one of my favorites; very original and disturbing, almost Myst-like in its dependence on your manipulating large, bizarre structures to get from point A to point B. A good departure from the traditional Silent Hill hospitals & rusty houses. The idea of Walter turning the apartment into some sort of living being while you're trapped inside it is rather creepy too, to say the least. If only the gameplay weren't such a frustrating, broken mess.
Arthur B at 14:47 on 2012-03-27
I love the camera angles in the first three Silent Hill games, mainly because not being able to choose the camera angles helps to amp up the sense of helplessness. (Likewise, I've never felt the flaily combat was such a bad thing because you're it makes avoiding combat a legitimate and desirable thing.) But it sounds like they were really hamfisted about their implementation of it this time around.

FWIW, Silent Hill 2 has one of the only escort missions I like, because unless you are playing on a very high difficulty level you have to be almost deliberately incompetent for the person in question to get killed, and
when Pyramid Head shows up behind you in the hospital basement, it's completely legitimate to peg it and not even attempt to stick close to her, as I did the first time I played it. Best scare evar.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 22:17 on 2012-03-28
@Arthur: I probably could have got used to the camera angles if the controls were better implemented. I'm not sure how exactly it was done, but on the PC it feels like a quick fix was made to make the keyboard and mouse use the same basic inputs a PS2 controller would have used, rather than designing a system that would be more comfortable to a PC user. I could deal with the fixed camera angles by themselves, but with the controls I felt like I would fight with the game to do what I want, and I'm past the age where I'm willing to do that with a game anymore. The controls also make dodging a difficult proposition, which becomes an exercise in frustration when there are enemies you NEED to dodge.

I will say that one of the good aspects of fixed camera angles is that they can be used for jump scares that are actually good. Rather than making a loud noise or showing a quick frame of something scary, you're just walking along, the camera angle changes, and OHGODWHATISTHATINTHECORNER. There are two in particular that stuck in my mind: one early on in Subway World involving a mannequin, and another in Hospital World involving...that. If you've ever played through that part or watched it, you know exactly what I mean.

*womaninhalestwitchyeyetwitchyeyetwitchyeyewomanexhalestwitchyeyetwitchyeyetwitchyeye*
Arthur B at 22:28 on 2012-03-28
I'm replaying SH1 right now and I forgot how mobile the camera is in that. The use of the camera in that bit in the opening segments where Harry goes down the alleyway and finds the thing that's been hung up there is brillant.
Wardog at 11:50 on 2012-04-01
I just wanted to say how damn impressed I am that you reviewed a game you haven't played.

That's ... so ... Ferretbrain.
Arthur B at 10:44 on 2016-10-28
He Is A Good Boy is a great webcomic in general because it's by K.C. Green, but the latest plot arc - starting here - is a really dead-on Silent Hill 4 parody.
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