Quick critique: Silent Hill Shattered Memories

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an incredibly interesting and enjoyable... what is it, exactly? Well, it's Silent Hill. Which in this case means an immersive third-person/first-person psychological horror adventure. Bit of a mouthful. But the immediacy of navigating this new imagining of that town, Silent Hill, is wonderfully compelling. When not being chased by faceless ghouls, you spend most of your time quietly walking through snowbound streets and abandoned shops, your ever-present flashlight (aimed by the Wii remote) casting enormous shadows on walls and ceilings, searching for locks, drawers and cabinets to physically grab hold of and manipulate (by "pinching" with A+B and moving the remote,) or for numbers to punch into your smartphone, hoping to make contact with some other living person. Just exploring the town in this manner gave me one of the strongest senses of presence in a gameworld that I've felt in quite some time. It's the kind of stuff I find extremely compelling, and it kept me riveted to the game from start to finish, tearing through it ravenously in less than a day like some people do with a novel they just can't put down. The breadth of what you do in the game enhances the feeling of being a person in a place, not a limited bundle of verbs bouncing through a series of boxes: you'll be interviewed by a psychotherapist, driven around in cars (and given full ability to slide from seat to seat and mess with the locks and windows,) log into computers, mess with a fully functional smartphone, and occasionally perform the simple act of walking down the street and chatting with another character. It all gives your experience in Silent Hill the kind of fullness that is so often missing from games. It is an exceptional experience, and one I recommend very highly. I'll quibble a bit though. This is a critique after all.

The story and challenges wrapped up in the experience tend to be enjoyable, if not quite all there. Disappointingly, the key to every single locked door in the game will be somewhere in the adjacent room (aside from a couple isolated exceptions in the later Nightmare sequences.) It's missing what I so loved about Saira-- that sense of not just making logical connections but spatial connections. I remember past Silent Hills (okay, Silent Hill 2, my only other strong point of reference) having much more spatially-scattered puzzles, which is great! "Ah, right, this key must be for that locked door I saw in that other building. I should head over there." You feel smart for remembering various points in the gameworld and drawing lines between them. Each major location, such as the apartment complex or the abandoned hospital, was its own convoluted, self-contained untying knot. When the key and the lock are sitting right next to each other, there's not much satisfaction in the brief, perfunctory act of untying.

The game is schismatic in general, as there are two separate modes of play: exploration, and the Nightmare. This could be thematically interesting, and does work in the game's favor when the transition to the Nightmare coincides with a traumatic story event. But deciding there will be no combat in the game, and that being chased by phantoms will only ever occur in the Nightmare, removes all tension from the exploration half of the game. Which is a shame, because if ever a player should feel tense, it's when they're wandering through an abandoned high school/hospital/amusement park, alone in the dark with only a flashlight. It's a problem that's not new to Shattered Memories: a consistent complaint with F.E.A.R., for instance, was that the supernatural stuff was never a threat (until the end,) so why be scared of it? In the same way, why be scared in the creaking, empty children's restaurant when I know that monsters only come out during the Nightmare? Well, there is no reason. Removing combat from the game entirely was a bold decision, but cordoning off all threats to one separate context robs the experience of the tension and dread it should be built on. Capcom's Haunting Ground offers a more effective model, wherein the threats are constant and wandering, and the only combat is to momentarily fend off attackers, long enough to lure them to another part of the level and escape.

The story is also kind of meandering and squishy between cutscenes. All throughout the town you'll find tidbits of text and voice messages which describe... what? I guess isolated little side-stories that happened in these places which are just sort of supposed to be generally creepy (someone freezing to death in the woods, an implied date-rape, an anonymous highschooler asphyxiating himself with a belt,) but don't add up to much. They're reminiscent of the narrative bits found in the original Fatal Frame, but where those all added up to express the abandoned mansion's history of ritual sacrifice, these just sort of... are. Between these scattered tidbits and the dreamlike, shifting characterization of the people you meet, it's easy to assume that the story isn't really going anywhere. Until it does, at the very end. And it's a hell of a reveal. The striking convergence of multiple concepts in an unexpected way is top form, really. But you'd be forgiven up to this point for assuming the story's just going to peter out, since so much of it does end up being inconsequential filler. It's not the kind of narrative that grips you with surreal intrigue the way that Silent Hill 2 did, or the kind of ambient storytelling that conveys a cohesive picture of a place and the people that populated it as with Rapture in BioShock. It's halfway there in a way that makes everything between a few major anchor points feel meaningless, which seems a wasted opportunity.

The concept of the therapy sessions impacting the gameworld has a similar problem. Your answers to the therapist are supposed to change the game itself, creating a nightmare tailored just for you (as an opening "Psychology Warning" screen states.) I played through the game one-and-a-half times. On that second half-playthrough I chose the exact opposite responses as I'd given the first time to see what would be different. And the answer was... not very much. Why was the bear in the hunting lodge dead on the table the first time I played, and standing stuffed in the corner the second time? Because I said "I'd rather spend time with family than friends" in the therapy session? I don't know. Is going through the planetarium instead of the art room in the school actually a meaningful change? Why are the wording of the text and voice messages slightly different, but the meaning still the same? The implementation of this system seems to have too many vague points of input, with too subtle outcomes. Depending on your answers, some characters' appearances will change slightly, and some dialogue will change slightly. So what? It seems like the developers weren't truly committed to the concept: how about giving me big, binary choices in the therapy sessions ("Who do you think loved you more? Your mother, or your father?") and then have that present me with truly divergent content (I meet an entirely different character in the following chapter) if you're going to do it at all? The implementation in the game is a middleground that doesn't really accomplish much. If they couldn't afford to branch the game significantly based on your answers, I'd kind of rather the answers literally have no impact at all. The aesthetic power of being interviewed by the therapist would still be there, without teasing me into wanting to replay the game for no real difference in the experience.

I've spent a lot of time quibbling over elements of the game that are half- or mostly-there, because it's easier to pinpoint what was wrong than what was right. So to be clear, what's right does outweigh what's not-quite-right. The game gives you an exceptionally immersive sense of being there, conveyed by a strong presence in the world as expressed in your direct physical manipulation of doors and other objects, your constantly-roving flashlight, and your highly functional cell phone that allows you to call all sorts of numbers found in the world, as well as take photos, browse voice and text messages, and employ a working GPS map. The world is rendered convincingly, stuffed full of evidence of everyday life with that strange Silent Hill skew to it all. First-person perspective is used to great effect, often to make you feel claustrophobic and trapped, but also to better convey conversations with characters throughout the game. And the characters themselves are quite well-realized, both visually and in their dialogue and behavior: the creepy, overconfident psychologist, the no-nonsense cop, the friendly, playful prom queen all feel like truly different personalities that could nevertheless all coexist in the odd world of Silent Hill. Outstanding facial & character animations and believable dialogue give the sense of the presence of other actual humans, not cardboard "characters." The Nightmare sequences are legitimately frantic and terrifying; the closest analogue I can remember is fleeing desperately from Constantine's Manor in Thief: The Dark Project, which is the nearest I've ever been to experiencing an actual nightmare in a video game. High praise coming from me. And the ending packs a hell of a wallop, while leveling out into a touching and satisfying resolution (the ending I got, anyway.)

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does an enormous amount new and right, and masterfully uses the Wii's motion controls in ways that draw you deeper into the world. Its tone and content are worlds apart from most games you'll have played this year. Anyone who thinks that all that mainstream video games can do are adolescent power fantasies needs to play this game, to be reminded that there's a world of possibilities out there. It doesn't nail everything it attempts, or even everything that Silent Hill normally does well, but Shattered Memories is as exciting for what it does as for the potential that it implies. A reason to turn on your Wii again. Don't miss it.


Ben Alford said...

Addressing the point of choice in this game and having it be binary or making a large impact:

I think the illusion of choice (I say illusion because from what I know, the decisions don't change the game hugely) has somewhat of an interesting effect on the person playing. Like you said, it made you wonder, what made this happen? Did I do that? I think that is what it is trying to do rather than giving you a reason to play the game again or whatever. It seems to be designed to make you question your actions and question why the game is doing something, like with the changing monster and/or character designs. I think illusions like this can work if you don't see past them or they aren't glaringly obvious but that can vary greatly from player to player.

I guess what I am trying to say is there is always something unknown about Silent Hill games, that kind of intriguing mystery, and this seems to be another layer of that rather than a layer of branching paths and player choice.

Doug said...

I am going to add shattered memories to my gamefly queue. I have been itching for a good survival horror game and the last one I played was Siren: Blood curse for the PSN.

Esoteric Articles said...

To my mind, this is the best critique of the game I have yet come across.