The past three nights gave me the opportunity to finally break open a game I’ve had in shrink wrap since my birthday back in March. I’m talking about Silent Hill : Shattered Memories (“SHSM” ). I have to admit, I’ve been avoiding playing a game claiming to “reimagine” one of my absolute favorite pieces of video game art, but in the end, though imperfect, I believe SHSM is an innovative, emmersive, and addictive piece of work that stands on its own.
When I first began playing, I have to admit I immediately considered putting the controller down and walking away when I realized just how “reimagined” this Silent Hill (“SH”) would be. From the very first gameplay moments, I knew this was not the SH I loved. Basic elements defining the previous Silent Hill were gone. I literally had to pause the game, step back, and have a conversation with myself that “you have to look at this game from a fresh perspective. This isn’t SH, this is something else with no history.” Once I did that, this game began unfurling its own lush, seedy, and human story that tapped into me in different ways than its predecessors.
Environment. SHSM takes place much closer to our reality. The game is set in upstate NY. There’s a sign in the first few minutes of gameplay at a car repair shop that reads something like “Rochester 40 miles, Buffalo 50 miles, Hornell 30 miles”. If you’ve been to upstate, you probably know these names. The setting tapped into me because I went to undergrad about 10 miles from Hornell, and I went to grad in Rochester. You tell me small town on a lake in upstate NY, and I’ve got ample memories. Instead of the gutted streets and mysterious abondoned aura of SH, this game relies on a blizzard shutting down the town. I could immediately identify. I don’t know if that device works for people who grew up in warmer climes, but it worked for me. Which leans on something about SHSM’s environment that is different than its predecessors: I’ve been there! I’ve been on the streets of a small town silenced by feet of snow. I used to go out late at night and take photographs at the height of storms because the look, the sound (of silence) is so surreal. The world of SHSM actually exists. If you want to experience it first hand, spend a snowy evening in New England. Whereas, if you wish to visit the inspiration of the original SH, Centralia, PA, you will only find a few smoking holes in the ground as most of the town has been leveled.
Where the previous games have always dealt with human emotions and experiences, SHSM really puts these elements into a universal context : highschool, late night parties, broken families, the thrill and heartache of young love.
- Story. SHSM is story driven: the hallmark of a great game. There were times during gameplay when I would’ve hit fastfoward if I could have just to advance the story because it was that compelling. I actually started and finished the game in less than 3 evenings just because it was that good. The plot relied on the unfurling of a mystery surrounded by a cast with very discernable spines and human desires including sex, love, and self-fulfillment while juxtaposed with fears of inadequacy, rejection, and failure. The character exemplifying this conflict the mos ended up being the Player’s character: Harry Mason. This leads to the second point
- Always being watched. This is the first game I played that actually began with a warning the game would build a psychological profile of me. . . . The game story and character elements morph depending on your interaction with characters. This sort of underlying feat has been attempted in the past (including previous SH games) but SHSM actually provides a framework. The game literally begins with the Player being interviewed by a psychiatrist. Throughout gameplay, this element is revisited, reminding us that someone is literally watching the decisions we make in gameplay. I think the effect was sometimes heavy-handed, but nonetheless novel in execution. Moreover, this element brought back something missing since Silent Hill 2 : a game world that reflects the conflict within the main character. As James, in SH2, delved deeper into SH, he was foremost diving deeper into his own past. In the case of SHSM, we are led along this same thread where every advancement in the plot is a step to the revelation : Why is Harry trapped in Silent Hill?
- The Phone. The game actually uses a mobile phone. At first, I was skeptical. I’m used to the high tech in a SH game being the static of a broken radio, but the phone paradigm actually worked as a map, inventory, camera and… phone! It was kinda cool to call other characters. Even getting their answering machine added tension. Static or broken calls during a heavy snowstorm heightened the realism. Getting txts, a bit hightech by SH standards, still brought the game into a contemporary context: this world is our world.
- Gameplay. When gameplay is about exploring this lush environment, as in every SH, it’s excellent. When gameplay segues to the nightmare segments, it can be painful. SHSM introduces a different take on SH’s “Otherworld”. Instead of the Player being transported to an industrial Hell, the Player is thrown into a frozen mirror of the real world (literally, ice-covered). The Player than has to find the exit from this world by navigating a maze at a hectic pace while being chased by the only monsters in the game. The creatures look like humanoid clay bodies bathed in Peptobismal. The end product’s frantic pace does drive our heartbeat, but the underpinning lack of development in the monsters is glaring. The real end-goal during the chase segements is to get the heck out of them to progress the story: what this game is all about.
- Puzzles. Again, this was a frustrating bit. There’s actually a sequence where you have to remember the colors on a toucan’s nose in a shopping mall. This is just too unsophisticated a puzzle for SH.
- Music. Akira Yamaoka. If you know the series, you know his work. His music comes straight from the town’s soul.
I actually wrote this review on Sept 6, 2010. I’m positing it now that I’ve recovered my database, four months later. I want to play the game again. There were frustrating bits in gameplay, and the ending was a major let down, but getting there is what this game is all about. If you are looking for an experience within which you can become lost, this is a great game. If you are looking for something dark, twisted, yet beautiful, this is a great game. If you’re a SH fan and can put aside your past SH experiences, do it! If you’re looking for Angry Birds, move along.