Silent Hill's Sequel Nightmare

by Arthur B

Who'd have thought that coming up with followups worthy of Silent Hill 2, the best survival horror game possible in any possible universe, would be somehow difficult?
~
In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. Konami promised they'd take us there again some day, but they never did - at least, not in the company of Team Silent, the tour guides fans of the series had become accustomed to over the course of the first four games of the series. There's been four new additions to the main series (where I define main series as "games which have seen release on home consoles rather than being mobile gaming or handheld exclusives") since the demise of Team Silent in the muddled mess of The Room, and none of them have really won over the hearts and minds of fans. Is this a case of fandom being too hostile to the idea of new developers refreshing and putting a new spin on the series, or is this a genuine problem Konami are having with finding a safe pair of hands to bring the series forwards? Nothing for it but to ignore the warnings of others (because what sort of shitty horror protagonist would I be if I heeded warnings?) and head back to town.

Silent Hill: Origins


First up we have Climax Group's Silent Hill: Origins. Originally developed for the PSP (I played the PS2 version), the game casts you in the role of Travis Grady, a truck driver who's been suffering from insomnia. Whilst driving late at night near Silent Hill he almost runs over a mysterious figure, and as he steps down from his cab to investigate he encounters a spooky spirit child who leads him off into the mist. Soon enough he stumbles across a house on fire, from which he can hear the screams of a trapped child; diving into the burning building, he is just about able to get the kid out, though she is terribly, appallingly burned in the process.

Losing consciousness as he waits for the authorities to arrive, Grady awakes in the fog-shrouded streets of Silent Hill, and what should be a simple trip to the hospital to see if the child made it in time soon entangles Grady in a nightmarish quest through the curiously lifeless town. For Grady has interfered in the planned sacrifice of Alessa Gillespie by the town's cult in order to summon their God to Earth, setting in motion events which will ultimately culminate in the first Silent Hill game.

Also he is sad that his parents are dead and the town is kind of trolling him about that.

Let's get the major flaws of this release out of the way first. Silent Hill: Origins is a game that never needed to be made because it tells an origin story we already uncovered in the first Silent Hill. The only substantive embellishment it makes to the story is the existence of Grady, who really adds nothing to the whole process and whose personal story isn't interesting enough to justify his presence.

In addition to this, the game adds needless wrinkles to the story and cosmology that overcomplicate or render confusing things which might have been better off left alone. A particularly striking aspect of this is the way most of the NPCs you need are folks from the first game who behave exactly the same as they did in the first game - despite the fact that at least one of them (Lisa the nurse) was behaving strangely during that game because of certain factors which haven't actually come into play yet.

Even more irritating is the confusion the game adds to the cosmology. There's the usual foggy world/dark world dichotomy going on, with the foggy world more closely corresponding to reality, but in the previous games it had seemed that the foggy world was reality. That interpretation stops making sense here, since we know at this point in the timeline that Silent Hill is a functional town with a reasonable population and so on, and yet the foggy world here takes its aesthetic lead from the second and third games, where everything looks run down as though it has been abandoned for years. Perhaps because of the more modest graphical capabilities of the PS1, in the first game the foggy world had more of a Marie Celeste thing going on where it seemed that the town population had only recently disappeared, and that more or less worked with the assumption that the return of the lost half of Alessa's soul to the town prompted a massive eruption of paranormal activity. Here, though, the aesthetics of the foggy world and the apparent desertion of Silent Hill forces us to see the foggy world as a third additional dimension midway between the real world and the dark world, rather than merely being part of the real world influenced subtly by forces of the dark world, adding another layer of complexity to the cosmology to no real benefit.

Actually, the disused-for-decades aesthetic of the foggy world here would have worked quite nicely had the game taken a tangent it seemed to toy with partway through. At around the halfway point I began seriously toying with the idea that the game - which had carefully avoided specifying what year it took place in - wasn't actually a prequel at all, but actually takes place at some point after the first or third game, and that Grady hadn't so much stumbled across the real Alessa so much as he was running into the dark consciousness of the town in the process of reminiscing about the past, and that the town was progressively trying to learn about Grady to find his weaknesses and start addressing his own backstory directly.

This would be neat, but unfortunately it isn't really supported by the game as a whole. The reason I thought that is that there are long stretches of the game where the whole Alessa thing is more or less entirely forgotten in favour of teasing out Travis' backstory Silent Hill 2 style. Unfortunately, Climax haven't really devised a backstory for Travis which merits this sort of treatment; unlike James Sunderland, Travis shows no sign of being in denial about his past and doesn't actually have anything to feel guilty about in the first place, which makes the process of forcing him to confront stuff he already is kind of dealing with rather irrelevant. (It doesn't help that Travis is just not very interesting or responsive compared to previous Silent Hill protagonist - he keeps failing to react to seeing things he should really react to, like his mother's psychiatric case notes, and in a "we didn't even bother to consider how he'd react to this stuff" way rather than a "this guy's emotional faculties might be seriously impaired way" - except, that is, in the major cut scenes where suddenly he has a personality again.)

Maybe they just needed some padding to fill the game out, but the disconnect between the "hey, let's rehash the story of Alessa yet again" aspects of the game and the "let's do Silent Hill 2 part 2" aspects seem starker than that. It's almost as though Climax abjectly failed to reach any sort of internal consensus about which route to commit to, to the point where to avoid a long series of knock-down hair-pulling curb-stomping fights breaking out the development team separated out into a "let's do a prequel" faction and a "let's go all psychological" faction, and agreed to do alternate levels (doing so with little in the way of communication between the two factions) on the basis that they could just paste over the cracks with cut scenes. The reason I believe this is that the game has two hospital-based levels in a row, one focussed on Alessa plot and one focused on Grady family history, and I can't imagine this level of tedious redundancy happening in a team who were actually talking to each other and keeping each other appraised of their ideas.

Another mixed bag this time around is monster design. Good monster design is crucially important in Silent Hill games, not least because of the conceit that the monsters are in some fashioned spawned of some individual's traumas. (In this case, it seems to be a mixture of Alessa's issues and Grady's due to Alessa using Grady as a "conduit" for her power.) For the first half of the game I found the monster design infuriating because it was far too reliant on the previous games rather than coming up with something original in its own right; the first creature you miss is an update of the nurse design from 2, and the vomiting creature in a flesh straitjacket is also an iconic 2 creature, and they're both manifestations of issues James Sunderland has and Travis and Alessa don't so their presence makes no sense. (This was another thing which made me develop the "it's all the town reminiscing about its past" theory.)

Even more irksome is the Butcher, a monster which wears a big apron and a metal mask and carries around a knife and spends a lot of time torturing the other monsters. In other words, it's a massive Pyramid Head ripoff, except less scary than Pyramid Head because the mask is less surreal and alien and you kill the Butcher at one point. However, late in the day the designers hit on a monster aesthetic which actually works quite well and make a range of variations on it - a range of vaguely quadrupedal sorts who shamble and writhe about semi-helplessly as though even they don't know how their bodies are supposed to work.

That's the thing about Origins - it falls far short of the standards set by the first two games in the series but it has this occasional touch which suggests that perhaps given more time Climax UK might have made something special. (The US branch of Climax started work on the game and were aiming at some sort of high-action combat-focused mess which didn't really engage with the precedents set for the series' gameplay by previous instalments, but the production process was a disaster, Climax US were shitcanned, and Climax UK were tasked with knocking out an entirely new version of the game as soon as possible.) There's some areas of the game which work really nicely - a few of the tricks played with the camera angles are quite nice, particularly one I noted when descending some stairs in the dark world where it seemed as though the stairs' geometry might be some sort of Escher-like impossibility but the tilting of the camera made it very hard to judge. And some of the ideas they come up with here scream out for further development, particularly the world-switching mechanic this time around.

See, another point where the use of the Alessa narrative doesn't really make sense is the lack of sudden, jarring, uncontrolled transitions heralded by a siren, which were major features of the other Alessa-focused games in the series. Instead, Travis can elect to pass between the foggy world and the dark world simply by passing through mirrors. (One feature of his woefully underbaked backstory is that his mother believed that there was another, realer world, on the other side of mirrors which she could access.) At first this seems to pointlessly rob the world transitions of their horror, but Climax make clever use of this for some puzzles, and there's some suggestion that this mirror stuff was responsible for his mother's downward spiral. It would have been interesting if this point had been developed further, with increasingly prolonged trips to the dark world later in the game corresponding to an increasing fragility in Travis' mental state.

Also, Climax show a real understanding of the classic Silent Hill mode of gameplay and deliver the goods in that respect, at least. There's several points where stealth and avoidance make good sense, the expanded melee options in combat are fun but not unbalancing, and in general the gameplay feels like an authentic Silent Hill experience, if a flawed one; certainly, I don't see it as being very much worse than Silent Hill 3. Although the pointless tampering with backstory makes the plot feel more like Silent Hill fanfic than an authentic Silent Hill story, I do believe that given another chance Climax could have grown to become worthy successors to Team Silent.

Silent Hill: Homecoming


Silent Hill: Homecoming was developed by Double Helix Studios as the series' first entry in the XBox 360/PS3 generation. Centring around one Alex Shepherd, apparently some sort of war veteran coming home from combat adventures overseas, the game opens in the midst of a nightmare Alex has in which he is searching for his younger brother Josh in a decaying hospital. Waking up from his dream, we find Alex en route to his home town of Shepherd's Glen (having hitched a lift from Travis Grady).

Shepherd's Glen, though, has deteriorated since Alex left. The fog-shrouded streets of the town are almost deserted, and uncountable townspeople have gone missing. When he gets home, Alex not only finds his mother behaving strangely but also finds no sign of Josh or his father. Since the elder Shepherd is the town sheriff, he can presumably take care of himself, but Alex is intent on finding Josh before the accelerating disintegration of the town and the increasingly dangerous monster attacks claim both their lives. But why does Josh behave so strangely whenever Alex encounters him? And why does Alex keep finding himself transported to one of the other towns Shepherd's Glen shares the coast of Toluca Lake with - a certain Silent Hill?

Homecoming actually starts out quite strong, but falls down due to Double Helix not quite following through on some of their better ideas on the one hand and throwing in clumsy and thematically inappropriate references to previous games on the other hand. The atmosphere established in the early game plays on the really nice concept of a slow apocalypse; whilst previous games showed us nothing to suggest that the depopulation of Silent Hill was anything other than a sudden, violent outburst, the downfall of Shepherd's Glen is clearly a more gradual process. The local judge is still at her desk in the town hall, Alex's mum is still at home, the cops are still trying to maintain order, Alex's childhood friend Elle is campaigning to do something about the missing people. Even the level of decay depicted is carefully judged to make it look like the place has been neglected for weeks rather than months and years. I dig this a lot, to the extent that I think it'd be quite cool to have a game which extended this idea so early on you're strolling around in this bustling town and the place becomes deserted over the course of play.

Another thing which impressed me early on in the game included the addition of a multi-branch conversation system, which is new to Silent Hill games but which is handled nicely. (Appropriately, the conversations can't be repeated and are structured so that you can't hear absolutely everything a character has to say to you, so it feels that everything you say has some potential significance.)

On top of that, early sections of the game appeared to offer a fair degree of free roaming as you investigate what's happened to the town. However, this apparent shift to non-linearity was soon revealed to be an illusion. Indeed, individual levels feel a lot more linear than those in previous Silent Hill outings; whilst the series has never been brilliant at nonlinearity the better games were able to convince you that you were exploring a real place rather than following a railroad. On the plus side, there's a greater degree of physicality in the exploration sections of this game - lots of ducking under or hopping over obstacles, squeezing through gaps, prying places open or hacking down obstacles, and climbing up or dropping through holes, all of which helps the urban exploration feel of things. On the downside, sometimes this increased variety in the way you can explore places draws the player's attention to things which perhaps shouldn't have been highlighted, since they tend to break immersion and raise questions which hurt verisimilitude. (For instance: if I can use this fire axe to smash some boards blocking a doorway, why can't I use it to break down a door - something fire axes are specifically designed to do? Once you've established that your character is happy to smash shit open for the sake of getting somewhere it suddenly stops making sense that they're going to let anything as meek as a broken lock in a rotten door get in their way.)

Another issue is the tweaked gameplay. This time around there is a much greater focus on combat; the system for combat is completely overhauled and greatly expanded, and it's more or less unfeasible to sneak past most enemies. Unlike many fans of the series I don't think this is intrinsically fatal - a descent into increasingly unrestrained violence can itself be both scary and open up hidden psychological depths, see Spec Ops: The Line for a game which does precisely that - but it's coupled with a few factors which really killed the game for me. First off, save points in the game are incredibly sparse - it wouldn't be uncommon for me to play for 45 minutes to an hour before finding the next save point, and often it would be impossible to backtrack to the previous save point, creating a situation where if you need to stop playing (or hit a game over) after slogging through ages of the game without hitting a save you're faced with an awful lot of replaying through material you've already seen - which immediately prompts you to question whether it's really worth your time replaying that stuff.

Secondly, the game's survival horror economy seems ever-so-slightly off. The previous games in the series had all carefully maintained this balancing act where usually you weren't able to stockpile large amounts of health restorative and firearms ammunition and you were always at least mildly worried about running out of supplies, but in practice unless you played the game especially suboptimally you would usually be fine. (Travis tends to accumulate a silly number of melee weapons over the course of an Origins playthrough but otherwise this holds true for that). Here, that balance doesn't hold - in the early stages of the game I picked up a big surplus of healing items, later on they became very sparse, and due to the trial and error which is required to work out the optimal ways to kill the different monsters in this and the difficulty of pulling that off consistently enough to avoid injury I found myself using a lot of healing items. The game is utterly disinterested in opening itself up to, say, those players who played 2 on the lowest combat setting: if you're not here to master the combat you will not progress, which is jarring because previous Silent Hill games didn't demand that master.

Despite having the game on the lowest available difficulty setting, I hit a point where to viably continue the game I'd have to repeat a very long and tedious section, and do so without taking any appreciable injury whatsoever, and the game had become dull enough by that point that I just wasn't interested in doing that. The unravelling of the plot and the writing was part of the reason for this loss of interest. At first it appears that Double Helix are taking a thoroughly 2-based approach this time, at least to the extent that the story doesn't seem to have overt links to the original cult plot and seems to have psychological routes. Unfortunately, they don't stick to this; the tired old yarn about warring factions of cults soon predominates again, and indeed gains the upper hand just as the writers seem to give up trying and just start vomiting Z-grade cliches: the character who introduces us to the idea that the heads of Shepherd Glen's founding families are conspiring with each other is a black sheriff's deputy who is a downright cartoonish implementation of the Big Tough Black Cop stereotype, and apparently a bit later there's an honest-to-goodness cult-dominated underground facility like some sort of third-rate Resident Evil ripoff.

But this is not the only harbinger of the writers saying "fuck it, we'll just throw in a jumble of cult stuff and call it a plot". Earlier, Alex has an encounter with Pyramid Head which demonstrtes conclusively that Double Helix don't understand how to use (and when to not use) iconic features of the Silent Hill mythology. As bad as the Butcher was in Origins, Climax at least understood that you're not meant to directly repeat any monsters from one game to the next (with the exception of the mutant nurses, who've become kind of a shibboleth of the series). You can have a creature with a kind of similar concept in a somewhat similar niche if you really must, but you need to put the work in and change the design to suit the thematic aesthetic you are going for. Here, admittedly, Pyramid Head's major cameo appearance reveals him to have had a design change - but only to make him more closely resemble the Pyramid Head in the movie. In addition to this, he doesn't fit into the story at all, either as a thematic symbol of Alex's traumas or as part of the structure of the gameplay - in your interactions with him in 2 and in his behaviour during cut scenes there he was an ugly reminder of the nexus of anger, sexuality, and violence deep inside James, was a regular opponent in boss battles, and seemed to be doing stuff, whereas here he literally strolls down a corridor, considers interacting with Alex, decides he can't be bothered, and then leaves. (He shows up again and does some shit but there's no good thematic reason for Pyramid Head to do it.)

Then again, a good thematic aesthetic for the monsters is something the game distinctly lacks. Although the designers do show sufficient visual imagination to develop monsters that look weird, Silent Hill monsters have never been exclusively about that - they've usually been tied into demons of someone's psyche, particularly in those games which choose a story with a large psychological component - which Double Helix seem to be trying to do here, except when they don't. The monster designs, however, are all over the place, with absolutely no unifying theme. Part of this, to be fair, is due to the decision to include monsters from the movie - as well as Pyramid Head, the Lurker monster is based on a creature design from the film - but even if you take those out, the remaining monsters are still a heterogeneous bunch. This is actually what makes Pyramid Head's inclusion such a problem; although very hardcore fans might still squeal, I still feel that had Double Helix come up with a decent monster aesthetic and made Pyramid Head fit into that that they could have made it work.

At the end of the day, Double Helix don't seem to have had a very good handle on what they want to accomplish here. They litter the game with references to older games in the series, right down to the names of achievements, but at the same time completely change the gameplay and fix the camera in an over-the-shoulder perspective rather than allowing themselves the freedom to experiment with disturbing camera angles that the previous games enjoyed, and do all sorts of other things that suggest that they either don't understand the previous games or didn't like them or just ran after change for change's sake. They chase after a psychological plot half the time and a campy cult plot for the other half. They flirt with an open world approach before presenting the most linear series of levels a Silent Hill game has offered to date.

Double Helixes, last I checked, were supposed to spiral around each other gracefully, not constantly bump into each other and get in each other's way. Not impressed, guys.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories


When Shattered Memories bills itself as a reimagining of the first Silent Hill game, it really isn't kidding. Although it cherry-picks stylistic elements from the previous games and proudly bears its Akira Yamaoka soundtrack (it's the last game in the main series to feature one, since Yamaoka quit Konami after this), it is also utterly unafraid to slaughter the sacred cows of the series, whether they relate to gameplay, setting, aesthetic motifs or plot.

The game tells two parallel narratives; the main plot involves Harry Mason getting into a car crash at the edge of Silent Hill during a blizzard. As he scours the town for his missing daughter, Cheryl, he realises his memory has become decidedly unreliable; he doesn't recall that he actually lives in Silent Hill until local cop Cybil points it out on his ID, a mysterious Dahlia keeps insisting that she knows him and has a boink-based relationship with him, and he's having serious trouble remembering where he lives. On top of all that, he has occasional visions of the town spontaneously becoming encased in ice - ice from which grotesque monsters emerge and pursue him.

Alongside this narrative, we have Dr Kaufmann engaging a patient in a psychiatric evaluation. It is evident from Kaufmann's comments that his patient - who we play in the first person, rather than in the third person over-the-shoulder perspective used for the segments of Harry exploring Silent Hill - seems to be telling a story which, if it isn't about Harry's quest for his daughter, is clearly supposed to be analagous to it. In these sessions lies a central gimmick of the game, in the sense that your answers to the psychological tests Kaufmann gives you helps mould the story - both in terms of the ending you get and the specific things you encounter in Silent Hill.

At least, that's the theory. A lot of the time the differences seem to be purely aesthetic, though an aesthetic which is designed to at least attempt to get under your skin. (Even the appearance of NPCs changes based on your responses and your behaviour in the rest of the game.) Of course, the issue here is the psychological tests are by necessity (since a computer game can't actually bring to bear the grasp of nuance and complexity a real therapist is able to tackle) rather simplistic and reductive - the sort of thing which sometimes seems spookily accurate, but often generates the sort of assessments which could apply to more or less everyone. (I like having "alone time" on occasion, huh? Great job, Kaufmann, now tell me something which isn't true of most of humanity.) The premise of a horror game which observes the player in order to craft a superior nightmare which more directly pulls their levers is a good one, but I suspect before we get genuine artificial intelligence it's not really going to be achievable to a more than superficial extent outside of tabletop RPGs, where the advantage of having a human being running the game is that if the GM is a friend of yours they probably have a better shot of scaring you than a complete stranger ever will, and if they're a friend who's actually trustworthy (rare as hen's teeth, I know, but let's get speculative here) they'll keep in mind where the line between "fun scares" and "actually not OK, stop triggering me" is and steer things accordingly.

The major issue, of course, is that the game really only has a single plot to offer, and only one real threat to throw at the player. More or less all of the story of Harry's mad dash through the town is either set in stone or defined by choices accessible within the context of that story. Likewise, the game only ever threatens Harry's life with the same danger: the Raw Shocks (yes, that is the official name of the monsters, though thankfully it isn't actually used in the game), who chase and grab you during the iceworld segments and try to drag you down in a big pink cugglepile. You can't actually fight them, only outrun them and throw them off when they glomp onto you, and whilst aesthetically they do change a little depending on the game's assessment of you the fact is that they're the same basic jump scare every time.

The iceworld sections tend to devolve into desperate Benny Hill-style chases to the finish line, with the quirk being that often they are irritatingly mazelike. Nicely, if you die during one of them you get to retry it from the beginning, and in at least a few cases they get progressively easier if you screw up repeatedly, but it's still irritating when the game throws mazes at you but doesn't actually give you enough time to actually map it out . (It's even worse in the late game when you have labyrinths consisting of a series of identical rooms.)

At points it feels as though these segments are tossed into the game solely for the sake of having monsters involved; certainly, the designers this time around (Climax, back for another go after Origins) are absolutely disinterested in combat and seem to really be in it for the puzzles - the most fiendish puzzles in the game occur in safe rooms in the ice world, in fact. Although this robs the snow world exploration sections of a lot of fear and tension - since you know damn well nothing is going to hurt you until the ice world transition happens - that actually has some advantages. The abandonment of the snow world lacks the decline and the neglect and the gross infrastructure damage of the fog world in previous games in the series, with the result being that there's the same sort of Marie Celeste quality to the town - a sense that everyone has stepped out for a moment leaving you achingly alone - that the first game had, but this time it has its own sort of melancholy that the game plays on nicely.

In fact, the plotting and writing on this game is some of the best the series has enjoyed since 2. Noting the heavy predominance of female NPCs in the first game - Kaufmann is literally the only male NPC Harry meets in the original - Climax roll with that to regularly hint at Harry having dysfunctional or atrophied relationships with women. Cybil the cop distrusts him up to the very end, Lisa the nurse trusts him but can't be saved by him, Dahlia behaves downright bizarrely in his presence and so on. For the most part you have little control over this but there's one NPC, Michelle, where you end up witnessing over the course of the game the destruction of her relationship with her boyfriend and the game notes whether you bothered to call her when she sent a particular unhappy text, so you can have at least one friendship which isn't wrecked. (The game also tracks whether you spend a lot of time staring at the female characters' boobs when you talk to them, which pushes you towards the "horndog" ending.) And there's a plot twist relating to Cheryl at the end which worked far, far better than it really should, even if it does skate close to the old "if women have emotional problems or mental health issues it boils down to Daddy issues" myth.

Likewise, though the psychological tests at the end of the day are a bit of a charade, they're also quite fun. You get to play colouring-in at one point, and there's an exercise where you have to match pictures of people up into married couples where you can set up gay couples if you like (though the game loses many points for interpreting this as you not co-operating with the therapy process, which nudges you towards a bad ending). An additional nice touch is the range of supernatural voice mails and text messages you get as the game progresses, which tell little mini-stories associated with various locations around the town. In fact, Harry's cellphone is the game's best contribution to the series' overall gameplay - as well as substituting for the radio of previous installments when it comes to generating static, it also has a fun camera function, provides the in-game map via GPS, lets you save games and so on. It's a smooth and natural addition to the gameplay which eliminates a lot of the need for having inventory screens and the like which take you out of the action, which makes the experience more immersive.

Shattered Memories was originally developed for the Wii before being ported to the PSP and PS2. I played the PSP version, but the developers do an excellent job of translating gameplay features which were clearly originally meant to exploit the Wii's motion controls and making them feel natural on the PSP. This makes the process of exploration feel much more tactile, which like the cellphone feature also aids immersion. In fact, I would say that this sense of immersion is really the major contribution Shattered Memories has to offer the series. Although the plot feels a little sparse - as does the sad, empty town - and the psychological gimmick turned out to be just a gimmick, the game's dedication to immersion, its willingness to play with world concepts aside from the usual foggy world/dark world and its refusal to let its plot be bound by past precedent places it head and shoulders over the rather conservative and timid Origins and Homecoming in my estimation.

At the same time, I'm glad I got the PSP version rather than the PS2 one. As a AAA game for me to sit down in front of the couch and play I'd have probably not rated it very highly, but as a pocket curiosity to pull out and tinker with to see how the game changes if I take a different tack with the various psych tests and in-game decisions it's quite fun (it's certainly the only one of these games I intend to keep hold of). Part of the issue is that the game is such a radical departure from past precedent that its inclusion in the series feels arbitrary - as though it were developed as a standalone title before it had the Silent Hill name slapped on it when someone noticed the thematic similarities. It feels, in fact, more like Silent Hill fanfic than a major entry in the series - interesting, thought-provoking fanfic, mind, but still something which relies a lot on you having played the first three games, since you miss a lot of the undertones there if you don't catch the various plot references. (In particular, Dahlia's relationship to Cheryl, the implications of Cheryl's imagination, and Cheryl's look being based on Heather's look in Silent Hill 3.)

And ultimately, aren't experiences based around interesting but ultimately trite and unsatisfying gimmicks what indie games are for?

Silent Hill: Downpour


Downpour starts out, I have to say, really promisingly. You play Murphy Pendleton, a convict with a troubled past. (There's a maybe-dream sequence maybe-memory at the start where, with the help of a corrupt prison guard, he gets an opportunity to shank the sex offender who molested him as a child in the showers, which is a bit of a cheap way to present our protagonist as a man who murders people in prison showers but can still command our sympathy on some level but on balance the scene seems to conclude with the idea that this was a bestial act which had nothing to do with justice and doesn't really help Murphy in any meaningful way so I guess it could be worse.)

Murphy is being transferred to a maximum-security jail for reasons which are not explicitly spelled out in the intro but which I guess probably have something to do with that whole "shanking a dude in the shower" thing. As the bus transferring Murphy and the other prisoners is driving through a torrential rainstorm in the general vicinity of Silent Hill, the dark intelligence of the town thinks "Hmmm, bus full of very disturbed prisoners packed with traumas plus a corrections officer with her own history to deal with? Don't mind if I do!" and one slide down a hill later the bus is wrecked and the prisoners - including Murphy - are free. At first, Murphy's only concern is to put some distance between him and corrections officer Anne, who's trying to hunt down him and the other surviving prisoners, but soon enough Silent Hill gets up to its old tricks and there's fog and darkness and monsters and weirdness aplenty.

For the first hour or two of the game I thought that Vatra might be the ones to snag Team Silent's crown. The "escaped prisoner trying to get out of Silent Hill whilst avoiding the authorities" concept is a nice spin and also a good way to really amp up the claustrophobic nature of the town and the way it traps people, they hit a good compromise between using a third person over-the-shoulder perspective for most of the game whilst still having fun with fixed camera angles elsewhere (especially in the Otherworld), and the first Otherworld segment showcased some really nice visual imagination on their part.

Unfortunately, my early good impressions rapidly drained away. I first became concerned when I ran into the game's extremely heavy-handed approach to presenting major choices - the sort of ethical decisions which feed directly into which ending you get. Whilst I think it is usually important that a game convey that you are facing an important choice, there's typically better ways to do it than freezing all the action, zooming in on the protagonist's face, and asking the player to press A to make one choice and press B to make the other choice. Not only is this jarring as far as immersion goes, but it also weirdly makes me feel less engaged with the choice in question. For instance, when the corrections officer is hanging off the ledge, and you can choose to either try to save her or let her drop. If the game had you walk towards her and press the action button in order to try and save her or walk away from her in order to let her fall, then the choice would feel a lot more real because I would actually be doing stuff relating to the choice I had made rather than making the choice purely by picking an option from a list.

It's a particularly odd choice because there are several points in the early stages of the game where you can take different paths through an area, resulting in a different experience each time you play and upping replay value. However, the balance between giving the player freedom of choice and keeping them on the plot railroad (which you usually need to do to a certain extent in horror games because horror hinges a lot on pacing) goes completely out of what a little later; a literally railroaded trip through some natural caves which is a little too sparse on the scares and a little too heavy on the irritating, fiddly fights and long linear sections precedes a bit where the game opens up to an extent which is frankly confusing. Whilst it is nice that there are parts where you are blundering about in the streets of Silent Hill, if you don't make sure the player has a map and clear guidance on where to go it's just confusing and frustrating.

On top of that, it's this section where it becomes apparent that the monsters in this installment are mostly very unimaginative (they're mostly zombies, the only exception encountered up to that point is a fairly boring humanoid), and occasionally incredibly silly - I turned off the game once I realised that it seriously proposed to send zombie police cars after me, complete with sirens, which... don't seem to do very much when they find you except disappear (after the screen goes black) leaving behind a small mob of screamer zombies. This feels both incredibly incongruous and also feels kind of immersion-breaking, particularly in the way the game has to fade to black when the police car finds you because it has to make the car disappear and make a bunch of zombies appear in its place; it's a little too obvious that the game developers couldn't find a good way to implement you being attacked by a killer car (or didn't have time to implement zombie cops getting out of the car or something) and just had to fudge it with whatever monsters they had implemented, making the game feel less like an immersive horror experience and more like a Warhammer game where you have to imagine that some of the pieces count as different figures because the other party doesn't have the right miniatures to field the army they want to use.

Another thing which made this town segment irritating enough to make me quit is that I'd somehow got there without acquiring a radio, which the game doesn't make sure you pick up. (Though apparently this would not have been very helpful - the radio is apparently prone to false alarms indoors and almost inaudible in the rain outside, making it kind of useless for its intended purpose as a monster detector.) Arguably this was my own stupid fault, because you get something like three opportunities to pick up a radio before you get to that section, but on the other hand the game is not only very good at indicating what parts of the environment you can interact with but is also occasionally fussy about where you need to stand to interact with things, so it's very, very easy to get stuck because you didn't realise that a particular pile of trash was actually something you need to interact with to keep going. (Likewise, the game is incredibly inconsistent when it comes to what obstacles Murphy can climb over or squeeze past and which constitutes an impassable barrier - plus we've got the old paradox of being able to use a big chunky axe to break down boards covering a mouldly old door but somehow the same axe not being of much use on the door itself.)

Ultimately, the thing which annoys me most about Downpour is its waste of a good premise. The idea of playing out The Fugitive in Silent Hill is a sound one - it's just that Murphy and Anne aren't interesting enough characters to support it, and Vatra make too many rookie mistakes when it comes to the actual implementation. The story just isn't interesting enough to be worth the frustration involved in advancing it. (The soundtrack is rather cliched as well, except when it quotes from the Akira Yamaoka soundtracks of games past.)

Oh, and also there's a mysterious ghost mailman who is designed and talks like they really wanted Morgan Freeman for the role and come the fuck on, Morgan Freeman's time isn't a right, it's a privilege you have to earn.

Conclusions


Having taken two cracks at the series - Origins, which was rather conservative and a little simplistic but still recapturing its basic spirit, and Shattered Memories, which was very experimental but felt a little trite and gimmicky in places and also didn't really gain very much from being a Silent Hill game beyond shoutouts to the fans, I think Climax have the better track record; if they could combine their clear love for the series' classic gameplay and techniques as displayed in Origins with the level of innovation they showed in Shattered Memories, I think they could make something very special. Unfortunately, Climax made Shattered Memories the way they did specifically because the dev team felt that the original Silent Hill style had been tapped out in terms of fresh and interesting things to do with it; they may be right, or this may represent a failure of imagination on their part.

Certainly, neither they nor any of the other latter-day developers on the series have displayed the perverse and surreal imagination Team Silent displayed; the original four games, regardless of their merits, could always be counted on to throw in a twist or a turn which was both genuinely unexpected and really got under your skin. The delirious slips into and out of consciousness in 1; the Mary/Maria weirdness, Pyramid Head's interjections, and the absolutely bizarre Historical Society tangent in 2; Valtiel's stalking and the mirror room in 3; the utterly bizarre metaphysics of Walter Sullivan in 4; these are all devices which not only helped Team Silent cultivate their weird mashup of body horror and psychological horror, but also twisted things in unexpected directions.

And it's the unexpected which, for the most part, is absent in these followups; even Shattered Memories, which does a much better job on this front than most, ends up relying on taking ideas from the first game and inverting or deconstructing them rather than offering discomforting new ideas of its own. That, I suppose, is the real joy of Team Silent's work; for a brief, beautiful time, they were like the dev team equivalent of Thomas Ligotti, dreaming up ideas other survival horror developers would never even have inferred, let alone executed. In their inability to find a developer who can quite recapture that magic, Konami have left the fanbase clutching to the Team Silent games - even the less auspicious ones like 3 and 4 - because the better Team Silent games were so excellent. In particular, 2 is held up justifiably as the icon of what it means to be a Silent Hill game, which is accurate but probably also part of the problem - subsequent developers have been so intimidated by or intent on the prospect of matching 2 they haven't paid enough attention to developing their own ideas.

Meanwhile, the fans are left in the position of James at the start of Silent Hill 2 every time a new game in the series is announced: clutching the invitation and wondering whether it's worth the risk of revisiting the town only to have our heart broken yet again. Likewise, the new developers tend to be Marias to Team Silent's Mary: there are some superficial resemblances, but they clearly have such a different temperament that there's really no equivalency.

On that note, I'm going to go and double-check that I didn't kill Team Silent and then forget about it.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 12:18 on 2013-07-07
(please excuse the length of this, I rarely get the chance to geek out over Silent Hill with people who aren't crazy)

I see my long-held desire to write an exhaustively detailed retrospective on the Silent Hill series has been scooped.

My take on the series is somewhat different from the majority of the fan-base in that Silent Hill 3 is my favourite game rather than 2, but then I've always had a fondness for the hokey cult elements over the heady psychological stuff. I love and respect Silent Hill 2 as a quality game and an example of what the genre is capable of, but at the same time I kind of resent it for creating an interpretation of what the "core" idea of Silent Hill is that's led to the franchise becoming narratively stagnant. Specifically, that Silent Hill is all about a person's inner fears and demons being manifested on a physical level as monsters and wacky subjective mind-scapes. This has led to a lot of repetition as later games consistently stuck to the "protagonist with a dark past zomg big plot twist" formula, and also ignores the fact that the very first game in the series had Harry Mason traipsing through someone else's mental torment rather than his own, an idea that I actually find a lot more interesting. I know that concept was pretty much resolved at the end of SH3, but I would still like to see more games in which a normal person faces down a external threat, rather than being forced to once again battle symbolic representations of the protagonist's sexual hang-ups or whatever.

I've spent a lot of time talking to other fans about the direction the series has gone in since SH4; most attribute the uneven quality of the later entries to either an innate inability of US/European developers to understand the sophistication of Silent Hill, or they pile all of the blame onto Tomm Hulett, the producer for Shattered Memories, Downpour and part of Homecoming, who has become a sort of George Lucas figure among the more reactionary parts of the fandom.

Needless to say I think both of those explanations are trite and simplistic. Instead I attribute the series' confused identity and zig-zagging quality to the choice of developer for the games and the general industry environment. Climax managed to create a perfectly serviceable clone of the earlier games and an innovative experience in Shattered Memories, with the latter in particular achieving a very high degree of technical polish and quality that are utterly lacking in Homecoming and Downpour. Vatra and Double Helix just didn't seem to be up to the task of making games of that calibre, and they were operating in an industry environment where survival horror had all but died as a genre, and so ended up giving those games the pacing and mechanics of an action game. The latter stages of Downpour really drive this home, with respawning waves of enemies and what is essentially a turret section using a mounted flood-light.

To get into super-nerdy nerd mode, I found it interesting that you interpreted the fog world as being the "reality" of Silent Hill, as I had always viewed it as a completely separate plane of existence; rather than the town's population vanishing the player character has been transported to a different version of Silent Hill in which they're alone. In the first game Harry repeatedly seems to vanish from Cybil's perspective, and 2 and 3 made it pretty clear that different people are capable experiencing completely different versions of the fog world, which invites the idea that it, like the Otherworld, exists at least partially in the eye of the beholder rather than as an objective entity. But of course the games are deliberately vague and go out of their way to avoid ever explaining how all of this works, so I don't think there's any one "correct" way to view all of this.

Vis a vis Pyramid Head in Homecoming, there's a fascinating podcast with Tomm Hulett where he talks candidly about the development of Homecoming and the terrible ideas that Double Helix had when he came onto the project (the game was initially envisioned as a trilogy that would rope Heather, Henry and Laura back into the action and which would conclude with a "super-sayain battle" between Josh and Alessa over Toluca lake). Apparently Pyramid Head was initially thrown into the game just because the developers liked him, so Hulett rewrote some parts of the plot to give him a tenuous thematic link to the rest of the story. Specifically,
the sacrifice of the children of the town founders appears to create the game's bosses as avenging spirits of some kind after the final sacrifice was botched. Pyramid Head is the monster that Alex's sacrifice was going to create, which is why it didn't attack him in the hotel. It's role in the story is presumably intended as a punishment for Adam Shepherd, who it murders near the end of the game, for failing to kill Alex.


I should probably wrap this up. I really liked both of these SH pieces, it's rare to find in-depth commentary on the series that doesn't devolve into angry ranting and petulant fanboy-ism. Do you have any plans to tackle the movies and/or comics? They're pretty fascinating in that many of the same problems that caused the issues with the later games seem to have cropped up during their creation. The comics in particular demonstrate a stunning lack of understanding of what it is that people actually find appealing about the franchise.
Arthur B at 13:14 on 2013-07-07
Specifically, that Silent Hill is all about a person's inner fears and demons being manifested on a physical level as monsters and wacky subjective mind-scapes.

To be fair, this was completely true (to an extent where it was directly spelled out through character dialogue) in the first game, though you are right that there's absolutely no reason that the inner fears in question have to be the protagonist's. As much as I ended up disliking The Room it actually did a really neat job of playing on the horror of what happens when you're yanked into a very, very strange individual's worldview.

Proposal for a remake of Downpour: have the player play Anne, have the prisoner they are trying to chase down in Silent Hill be a Walter Sullivan-grade nutjob, have the manifestations play on the killer in question's particular weirdness.

Vis a vis Pyramid Head in Homecoming, there's a fascinating podcast with Tomm Hulett where he talks candidly about the development of Homecoming and the terrible ideas that Double Helix had when he came onto the project (the game was initially envisioned as a trilogy that would rope Heather, Henry and Laura back into the action and which would conclude with a "super-sayain battle" between Josh and Alessa over Toluca lake).

Sounds like the fanbase should be thanking Hulett for the damage limitation job.

Do you have any plans to tackle the movies and/or comics?

Not especially, but I'd be interested to see your thoughts on them.
http://ronanwills.wordpress.com/ at 14:15 on 2013-07-07
Proposal for a remake of Downpour: have the player play Anne, have the prisoner they are trying to chase down in Silent Hill be a Walter Sullivan-grade nutjob, have the manifestations play on the killer in question's particular weirdness.

I see I'm not the only one who felt she was more interesting than Murph. In that podcast I mentioned Hulett makes a few vague comments that seem to indicate they had wanted a female protagonist before being forced to switch to a dude by corporate types, so I have to wonder if that wasn't the plan initially.

Sounds like the fanbase should be thanking Hulett for the damage limitation job.

Seems like it. That guy gets a lot of flak among the more hardcore elements of the fanbase, which I think is unfair.

Not especially, but I'd be interested to see your thoughts on them.

I don't think a lot of people have read the comics, but with two exceptions they're pretty stunningly bad. And not just as Silent Hill adaptations either (although they fail utterly in that regard), they literally make no sense from panel to panel. Most of the comics were overseen and I believe written by one guy, who tried to turn them into a huge crossover project constituting a sort of Expanded Universe/ alternate continuity that ends up having almost nothing to do with the games.

To go briefly into a few of the more out-there elements: Silent Hill's supernatural power or whatever manifests itself as a villain character named "Whately", a guy in a trench-coat who explicitly states that his purpose is to spread the horror of Silent Hill beyond the town's borders and, I don't know, take over the world? Characters spend a lot of time throwing out cheesy one-liners and quips (including several Evil Dead references) and firing automatic weapons. One of the comics involves a squad of machine-gun wielding cheer-leaders driving around Silent Hill in a van shooting monsters.

Yeah, they're bad. As much as we might have problems with the direction the games went in, let's all be thankful the people responsible for the comics never got the chance to write for any of them.

There were two comics that were written by someone else (the same guy who wrote Downpour, incidentally) called Sinner's Reward and Past Life. I haven't read Sinner's Reward but I've heard it's a decent enough spin on the Silent Hill 2 formula. Past Life is a sort-of tie in to Downpour- the mailman shows up briefly- set in the 19th century. It doesn't really have all that much to do with Silent Hill apart from the location and the concept of people coming to the town to face their Dark Past, but it's an okay comic that gives a glimpse of the town's history that the games have only ever hinted at.
Arthur B at 14:29 on 2013-07-07
Seems like it. That guy gets a lot of flak among the more hardcore elements of the fanbase, which I think is unfair.

Yeah, based on those podcast comments in particular it sounds like he's got good ideas but gets overruled too much.

Of course, he could just be making excuses after the fact, like Joss Whedon blaming everything that goes wrong on his projects on The Network or The Studio even when it relates to stuff he constantly does over and over again in his work.
James D at 08:05 on 2013-07-08
Homecoming and Downpour basically have inverse problems - while Homecoming clearly has very high production values and a talented art team, it seriously misses the spirit of Silent Hill and has a story that totally unravels by the end. Downpour on the other hand clearly shows signs of being rushed and/or on a tight budget and had an art department that left a lot to be desired, but the developers had a much, much better handle on the spirit of Silent Hill.

Still, if you had trouble even completing Homecoming on the easiest difficulty, you'd probably have gotten destroyed by the last bit of Downpour, which infuriatingly strips you of all the items you've accumulated over the course of the game and forces you into some difficult fights with few resources and a terrible combat system.

However, if you are able to force your way through its flaws, Downpour's story actually ended up being quite good, and the final twist is actually relatively surprising and clever. Also, the little side areas especially provided some extremely haunting vignettes and clever puzzles. But its obvious and multifarious flaws make the game too frustrating for me to ever want to replay.
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