Contains light spoilers for Silent Hill 2 and heavy spoilers for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour!
Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the anime convention Saboten Con after hearing at the very last second that video game composer and producer Akira Yamaoka would be performing songs from his legendary Silent Hill soundtracks along with collaborators Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Joe Romersa, and Troy Baker as well as doing a Q&A. Not only is this an extremely rare occurrence in the States, it's extra rare for a place like Glendale, Arizona. Having followed the series since it's initial release, I showed up without hesitation.
The Q&A ended up being mostly about sound design but Yamaoka-san did answer one question in a way that I found fascinating: when asked about technical limitations that may have hampered previous games and what he'd do now, he responded instead that the lack of limitations were the problem. Given my hearing problems and the J-Rock show going on the next room, I'm pretty sure that he was trying to make a point about horror games that many have made about horror movies as well: with an unlimited budget and the ability to create anything, how do you find the scares? Horror is about being in some sense confined, inside the game and out. Without deliberate limitations, there's no fear. For a psychological horror series like Silent Hill, one that's been looking down the barrel of declining sales and quality for at least the last decade, I'm wondering if the series isn't in the best possible place for a resurgence.
Survival horror games filled a hole in my life I didn't know was empty. Back when my brother and I were renting Playstations from the grocery store for the weekend, Resident Evil was a constant. The atmosphere, the helplessness, the long odds of survival, it hit home for me in a primal way. I never did beat the game. I never felt like I had to. Silent Hill was the same for me, but moreso. With all the goodwill in the world, Resident Evil did had a level of cheesiness to it that was hard to dismiss. Silent Hill felt more grounded... just a normal guy looking for his daughter and dealing with all of this insanity that's just thrust upon him. I never beat that game either.
I did beat Silent Hill 2, though. Played it right through to completion without a second thought. Not only was I in a dark place in my life personally, it also tapped into that post-9/11 sense of doom that seemed to pervade everything. The story, a man returns to a haunted town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, worked in a way that very games had at the time. While it did have problems (the original voice acting was pretty flat) it represented everything that video game storytelling could be in a world that was, and still is, dominated by cookie cutter shooters. It was a psychological horror game in the truest sense of the word: the enemies were drawn straight from the lead character's subconscious fears and desires. Akira Yamaoka also turned in his best soundtrack of the series, with his usual range going from pants-wetting industrial clangs to sad and gorgeous guitar solos.
Silent Hill 3 was a return to the original game's rather convoluted mythology, which was fine, but it didn't resonate with me the way that the second game did. It was more notable to me for introducing Yamaoka to his musical muse, voice actress Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Her voice, alternately smoky or strident depending on the mood, matched perfectly with what Yamaoka had been trying to accomplish in his instrumentals.
A more experimental approach went into Silent Hill 4: The Room but not necessarily to it's benefit. I have a bit more fondness for it then other people I know. The first person sequences caused a bit of head-scratching but I liked it's return to telling a story independent from the earlier mythology. Yamaoka also turned in another brilliant soundtrack including a dark seven minute hymn about hating your mother, "Room Of Angel," that ranks up there with the best in the series. Sadly, this was Team Silent's last game in the series as they dissolved after the tepid response to the game.
I never played Silent Hill: Origins, largely because it was initially a PSP exclusive that was ported to PS2 after my system had gone kaput. I've tracked a copy of the PS2 version down but until I buy a replacement PS2 system, I'll hold off on talking about it.
Silent Hill: Homecoming represents one of the lowest points of the series, only eclipsed by the most recent iteration, Downpour. While Double Helix had a good grasp of atmosphere, spurred on by Yamaoka's (arguably weakest) soundtrack, the story was very, very flimsy. The Silent Hill series has used the "children in danger" trope quite a bit but Homecoming and Downpour hammer it right into the ground. There was a time you could use it for an easy bit of sympathy but it's since been overused to the point of being meaningless. It only works if we're given a reason to care about the child, something that Homecoming and Downpour forgot. Instead, we spend the game chasing the idea of a child, which just doesn't work. Unless you're going to take Telltale Games' approach to The Walking Dead games and actually let us spend time with and bond with the child that's in danger, I don't think you can get away with it anymore. Not easily, anyway.
But Homecoming has much bigger problems then just that. The lead character, Alex, is initially presented as a soldier returning from war looking for his missing little brother which leads him to a bigger mystery involving the children of all of the town's founding families. Alex is presented as a sure-footed fighter, both in melee and firearms, due to his "combat experience" but, in the game's bid for a twist, it's ultimately revealed that he's an escaped mental patient, not a soldier. So why was he so good at combat if he's spent his adult life doped up in a mental institution? Moreover, the game introduces actual human enemies for the first time, which Alex dispatches as easily as the monsters. These human enemies are representatives of The Order, a shady group of people who... y'know what? It doesn't matter. It boils down to Double Helix trying to explain something that no one wanted explained in the first place. If you know the basic rules of how the town of Silent Hill operates, that's all you need. Conspiracies and cover up's and convoluted explanations just complicate things and ultimately lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. (Ahem, "midichlorians.") It slipped, a couple years later, that Double Helix wanted to position Homecoming as the first in a trilogy of games and I think that Silent Hill fans really dodged a bullet there.
This is why I found Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to be such a breath of fresh air. A Wii exclusive, Shattered Memories, is the strongest entry into the series since the third game and very underrated. The biggest hit the game took from critics was completely removing combat in favor of occasionally annoying chase sequences and, while I see their point, it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the game at all. Shattered Memories turned out to be Akira Yamaoka's final soundtrack in the series and he went out on top. Despite how little blood there was in the game (to the point where actually seeing it became a little startling) the developer's use of snow and ice and Yamaoka's oppressive soundtrack lent it a lot of atmosphere.
The game reuses the premise of the original (Harry Mason searching an abandoned town for his missing daughter) and instead focuses on puzzles and exploration. It was the first time since the second game where I found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to open the next door. They present "psychological horror" as a literal thing, using a framing sequence of a visit to a psychiatrist, to bookend the chapters. Even more than that, the game is recording and cataloging how you play the game and offers you an ending (and occasionally costume changes) based on numerous, completely invisible, factors. Much like the second game did, just to a much smaller degree. Because you don't have the option of a binary choice, your ending feels more authentically yours, instead of just reloading a save to see what was behind door number two. And it works. Spend too much time in the brothel staring at pictures of scantly clad women? Spend too much time staring at the asses of the couple of women you meet in town? You'll get an ending that represents that. And so on. I got what I assume is the "good" ending and it actually made me misty eyed. That is a helluva success. During the credits, the game actually lists off an actual psychological profile based on your choices, which, while not entirely accurate, is a cool addition. (You could write a dissertation about Silent Hill and it's attitude towards mental health. Shattered Memories is the only example in the series of psychiatry not being presented as evil.)
One of the boldest sequences, which I won't spoil, follows the idea of making a player helpless to it's logical conclusion. An event happens and you are literally trapped. There is a longer-than-you-might-think period of time where you can't do anything. That initial panic of "what am I supposed to do!?" slowly gives into "shit, I'm fucked." Which is as close to an honest representation of what you'd actually feel in that situation as a video game could give you. The only downside is that, in an world of online walkthroughs, most people would probably see this as a puzzle and that they're just missing the right piece. Still, it takes balls to force a player to stop playing the game and my hats are off Climax Studios for it. While it wasn't a hit, hopefully it will eventually reach the cult status it deserves.
Which brings us to Silent Hill: Downpour, which I just finished yesterday and... it's pretty bad. Not broken, just bad. Much like Homecoming, the game has a strictly straight-to-video plot, paper thin characters, and a serious deficit of tension or scares. It's by no means a total loss... there were some aspects of the game that worked: the addition of a UV light to help with certain puzzles. The graphics look great. As your progress through the game, the loading screen starts adding phrases like "She's lying to you" or "They know what you did" in-between the tips and tricks. And there are a couple of good sequences here and there. Unfortunately, the game can't seem to capitalize on even the things they got right. The UV light is never used beyond a bit of puzzle solving. The graphics don't matter if they have the most boring representation of the Otherworld yet. And the best sequences in the game are optional side quests and easily missed. Not to mention "a couple good sequences" being not nearly enough for a 10 to 12 hour game. Much like the creepy loading screen phrases never build to anything, neither does the entire game. It's perpetually halfway there.
As the first game without Akira Yamaoka's score, Dexter composer Daniel Licht had really big shoes to fill and, in the end, was not equal to the task. He's fine for atmospherics but whenever the game needs your heart rate above normal, particularly in the Otherworld sequences, he's nowhere to be found. Part of the joy of Yamaoka's soundtracks were the effort that went into playing with sounds designed to make you uncomfortable. There's no sense of that in Licht's work. It's standard horror score paint-by-numbers. This pervades the entire game, including the endings which (in addition to the story problems already there) are almost silent. Worse, someone had the bright idea to waste good money hiring KoRn to do a song for the soundtrack. Putting aside that the song they turn in is really cringe-inducingly bad, if the idea was to attach a name to the game to get some attention, why on Earth would they use a band that hasn't been relevant for at least a decade? If they wanted an inappropriately emo band for the soundtrack, My Chemical Romance would have been a more timely choice and even their popularity is fading fast. Poor Mary Elizabeth McGlynn is reduced to a couple of tracks of humming.
The problems with Downpour are systemic. Nothing in the game is better than mediocre. The melee combat is perfunctory: block, wait for an opening, hit, repeat. All melee weapons are breakable and, apparently, breakable at exactly the same rate. Wooden sticks break exactly as often as lead pipes and metal axes. Gun combat is occasionally broken. I've missed enemies with a shotgun blast at ultra close range because my reticule wasn't just so.
The story is a mess. Everything about it is surface level. I was one step ahead of the story at every turn. Much like Homecoming, the protagonist is a sort of masculine ideal: a "soldier" or a prison inmate. Manly men. Not easily relatable and not as prone to being scared as you should be in a survival horror game. Nobody's reactions make logical sense. Murphy's first reaction to the Otherworld is practically non-plussed. The only time he shows any emotion is when he's being hurt during an Otherworld chase sequence (and his screams sound a lot like Homer Simpson) or when he does the groan-worthy "fall to his knees and scream at the sky" bit. The other characters fare even worse. The only female character in the game never gets to do anything other than screaming, threatening to kill you, or crying. The radio DJ is introduced and forgotten, never to be seen again. They even have a Magical Negro character. It's like reading a laundry list of every horror/suspense trope you can think of.
The game introduces side quests, all of which are easily missed but provide some of the game's best moments. There's a sequence where you play a gramophone backwards to see a murder scene in reverse that might be the best scene in the game. But unless you have a particular item and notice a second floor light on, you'd never see it. There's another cool sequence in a cinema that ends with you going into the screen to look for an item, complete with an old school survival horror control scheme. Other side quests are utterly pointless. They're provided with no context and no payoff. Maybe you get an item or two but for a game that should be trading in scares, what does an extra Medkit matter?
The Otherworld looks dull and the your time there is usually just puzzles or chase sequences. You're not even being chased by a creature but a translucent red ball... which is hardly the most threatening visual in the world. Other than a couple homages to that old silent movie Safety Last! there's nothing any real interest there. The "normal" world is appropriately dessicated but lacks the nuance to drum up anything other than the odd tense moment. The game allows you to peek into a room before opening it but then does nothing with the idea. Gone is the handheld radio that spits static whenever monsters approach despite really needing the extra level of tension not present in Licht's score.
Creature design? Again, completely surface level. Silent Hill 2 had all manner of weird monsters representing parts of James' subconscious, from the enormously phallic Pyramid Head to two pairs of women's legs connected at the hip. The man clearly had issues with women right down to the Mary/Maria thing. What does Murphy Pendleton have? Uh... prisoners? Which represent... umm... his time in prison? (Seriously, when the big prisoner guys put their arms out and do the "Come at me, bro!" move, you will laugh at loud.) The Screamers and the Weeping Bats are just generic designs. They have nothing to do with his dead son or the child molester or the prison guard he may/may not have killed. They're just sort of there.
Everything caps off with seriously lunkheaded endings that actively work to undo the character's journey. Both "good" endings shake out with the truth that Murphy wasn't responsible for killing the child molester that murdered his son OR the prison guard who tried to help him. In which case, what was the fucking point? Silent Hill exists to force you to come to terms with the things you try to hide from yourself and the people around you. Or else. It's about forcing you to take responsibility, in the most traumatic way possible. If you eliminate that, you've killed the character's entire arc and his reason for being there. You're then turned loose by the female character to... what? Spend your life on the run for a crime you didn't commit? Thematically, it doesn't fit. It would have made much more sense for Murphy to own up, go back to prison until he's cleared of assaulting the guard, and once he's out of prison, he can be truly free.
The "bad" ending has Murphy being put to death for the murder of the guard AND his son, even though the guy who raped and murdered his son had already been caught, charged, and imprisoned. He's injected, his eyes close... that's it. Cue credits. There's nothing to suggest that it's the town's influence at work. No hints of Otherworld influence. No stinger scene. Not even any music. It just sort of farts out there and that's that. Yet another wasted opportunity. I'm not even going to get into the special "surprise" ending which is neither as amusing or non-sensical at the previous ones. The only ending that works is the "Full Circle" ending where Murphy is caught in a loop and has to do the whole thing all over again or the ending you get if you fail the final scene where the female guard is forced to take your place. Those, at least, made sense.
The worst part is that all of these endings change through strictly binary choices. At a couple of points, the game stops and presents you with the option of trying to save someone or killing them/letting them die. Ultimately, your choice doesn't matter, (that would open a can of worms I don't think Vatra could handle) it just boils down to whether or not you're willing to try. The only other factor is whether or not you choose to kill the enemies you fight or simply leave them twitching and unconscious. This doesn't work for a couple of reasons. One, it flies in the face of ingrained gaming logic that says that enemies need to be killed or else they'll just get back up and keep attacking you. If it felt like the devs were trying to make a larger point about violence in gaming, that would be one thing but instead it just seems like an arbitrary choice. For another, not killing the creatures doesn't matter. They're not humans. They're not even alive. They're constructs that are (supposed to be) created from Murphy's subconscious. That means that there's no moral quandary about killing them which invalidates the idea that finishing them off is somehow "bad." Like everything else, it doesn't seem like a thought out decision but an easy way to tabulate what ending you get. Compare this to games like Silent Hill 2 or Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where your ending would change based on things as esoteric as not slowing down so a character could keep pace with you or letting your gaze linger too long on pictures of some scantily clad women. It's hard not to see it as step back or a lazy design decision.
Am I being hard the game? Yes. Does it deserve it? Also, yes. It's a game full of missed opportunities, unfulfilled potential and half-assed design. If you want an idea of exactly how luckless the Silent Hill franchise has gotten, note that Downpour was meant to be one part of an entire Silent Hill themed month this March along with a Silent Hill HD Collection and a PS Vita game called Book Of Memories. Well, as it turns out, Downpour was extremely mediocre and undersold. The XBox 360 version of the HD Collection was a buggy mess that Konami REFUSES to fix and Book Of Memories was delayed until next month, presumably to be in sync with the new movie (which looks Resident Evil movie level bad).
So, yeah, things are about as bad as they can be.
But they can get better.
Survival horror, as a genre, has faded into the background. The best work in the genre is being done by smaller indie developers, which I think validated Yamaoka's feelings that limitations, self-imposed or otherwise, are where the scares lay. Look at Slender, for instance. The last man standing for big budget console survival horror, Dead Space, has given up and gone action. Other than Frictional Games, the field is nearly empty. It's all about mainstream multiplayer games now. Silent Hill will, in all likelihood, never reach the heights it once had.
So stop trying.
You can do what the Silent Hill movies seem to want to do and throw a bunch of potentially scary images at you with no logic or context, hope people don't notice and just milk those diminishing returns as long as you can. Or you can lower the budgets, hire on passionate, talented fans looking to tell stories in that universe and let them loose to make the scariest, darkest things they can think of. Lower your expectations and focus on quality storytelling. Build up a reputation for pants-wetting scariness and make your money from your cultish audience willing to follow you anywhere and buy anything with the Silent Hill name on it. Even if it isn't the biggest selling series in the world, make it mean something. And, for Christ's sake, get Akira Yamaoka back.
That would be the smart play. Now for the realistic one:
Developers and publishers need money... and since there's nothing about the Silent Hill premise that lends itself to space marines, giant explosions, and cover-based gunplay, they're limited on how to exploit the franchise to their best ability. Multiplayer is, according to EA anyway, a mandatory component of gaming now. Find some kind of creative way to integrate it into the franchise. They seem to be attempting that with Silent Hill: Book Of Memories but, if Downpour is any indication, I'm not so much against the idea of a non-canonical four player action co-op multiplayer Silent Hill game as I am suspicious of their ability to pull it off. PS Vita's don't exactly have the largest install base right now so even if it does well, it's only doing well for a PS Vita game.
Don't make the mistake of going co-op. It's easy and fans see right through it. Look to how Dark Souls and Dragon's Dogma used multiplayer and work from there. Allow other players to invade a person's world and cause havoc or act as some kind of invisible director, setting traps and enemy spawns. Think outside the box. The name Silent Hill still means something, even if it doesn't have the same meaning to kids as it does to 30-somethings like me. That should be enough to at least get you the benefit of a doubt.
It's crunch time for the franchise. Downpour was disappointing enough that there's only enough room for maybe one more game before people like me, people who have been in since day one, give the franchise up for dead. Bad movies aren't helping. Handheld co-op games aren't helping. At this point, only a "reinvention" could get enough people talking for it to matter... but for that you'll need more creative people on board then you already have. Go big or get small, just don't settle for mediocre.