Review : Silent Hill : Shattered Memories


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
  • Innovation.
    • 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.

Best Concert Ever

I’ve been to a lot of concerts, but tonight’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was my favorite.  I’ve seen rock bands, jazz and blues, country, choral, and lots of orchestral…  This was my favorite.  I have never seen a group so tight.  Yeah, I know, maybe I just haven’t seen the right groups, but among concerts by the BBC Orchestra, NY Orchestra, and some of my favorite Jazz artists, this was just tight.  It’s not too often  I’m enthralled throughout a concert.  Usually, when I go to a jazz performance, I’ll be on for most of the set but off for a few parts, but this: I was there, in the groove throughout.

 

I read an article a while ago from the New York Times saying that Kimmell Hall still doesn’t compare to Carnegie.  Maybe it was something about seat E 110, but it was perfect.  I felt and heard everything.  The Philadelphia Orchestra was the best concert ever.  It was all that I love in music : programmatic imagery coupled with that primal drive that universally connects us all.  Hearing that performance was like listening to all these melodic performers go back to the basic root instrument : percussion.  I found myself smiling ear to ear with this madness as the stacked chords pounded.

 

I could hear one of my favorite composers, Jerry Goldsmith, in there, and all the other voices which followed Stravinsky.  Such an innovator.  Such a visionary.  Such a man following the progression of man and bringing light to where the path may yet travel.  All this and more was revealed by the confident hands, hearts, and mouths of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

Day of the Mac #2 – 3 (aka “The Other Woman” )

It’ a Saturday night.  Cold outside.  I’m indoors.  Fireplace is lit.  Made a nice dinner.  Now I’m relaxing in a comfy chair : me and my Mac.  Oo yeah.

 

WHAT?!?!  No no no no no no.

 

<ahem>.  Yeah, it’s true.  Albeit, my girlfriend is making cookies, and dinner was for us… not the MacBook sitting in my lap, but still, I think my Mac would’ve enjoyed it.

This is not meant to be a pitch for Apple in any way, but development the past two days has been incredible!  A huge part of that is the new software I’m running, the other part, though, is working on this laptop is just simple.  When I logged into my network, it actually found my NAS and mounted it!  It mounts my NTFS USB drive : no problem.  Haven’t had to tweak any settings, load any drivers, add any plugins.

Ok, but don’t take that as “Seth’s given up PC”.  NOT IN A LONGSHOT!  I’ve just come to acknowledge some of the benefits of Mac.  :)  (for now).  Haven’t had to mess with a Windows -> Mac workflow yet (as my copy of Adobe CS4 Production is Windows licensed), but I’ll bridge that sometime soon.

“… have some tacos to cool off.”

So, today, I took a bus from Philly to Scranton, to meet up with my dad.  We are preparing for our trip to Louisiana. Today is also my dad’s birthday. In continuing efforts to entertain my father, I thought, for fun, we’d go to a late lunch at this place called “Quaker Steak and Lube”. Ok, before you get to thinking this is the cheesiest lunch plan on the planet, especially for so important a day: hear me out. Quaker Steak and Lube was featured recently on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs Food” (excellent show). The host, Adam, had to eat their most insane hot wings. I thought : this is great idea! What better way to celebrate with my dad then to try climbing Everest! (seriously, though, my other thought was “Dad’s going to get a great laugh”).

I can’t tell you how nervous I actually felt, leading up to the arrival of the basket. Dad had “hot” (3k Scoville Units — measure of hotness). Atomic = 150k units. I ate the first three with zeal and they were delicious!! Then came the pain, chased by lots of milk. As I ate, and Dad gave me the play by play on the sweat pouring off my forehead, I reflected that the worst part was the dual concentration of ignoring the pain, and abating the nausea building in my stomach of the 2 massive glasses of whole milk swirling amid hot sauce (and the pudding I had for breakfast – not a good way to start the day).

Pain upon pain. The heat was only in my lips, tongue and throat, but it was so intense, that the rest of my body actually shivered with cold! Beth, our waitress, was incredible, sympathetic. She had to try all of the sauces, as part of her hiring, so she understood. At the end, she brought me a small cup of chocolate sauce which she said would take down the edge. I wasn’t crying. (maybe tearing). I was tough. Still a man. Still had my deep voice going. She was right about the chocolate helping.

Then Dad said the phrase which locked in my mind. “Well, for dinner, you can have some tacos to cool off.” Probably any third party will think my dad crazy with a line like that. No, Mom just had dinner planned, and Dad was just reminding me, but the delivery made me laugh so much the resulting afterglow in my stomach was slightly frightening. It subsided, as did the pain. “Boy,” my father said, as he does when imparting wisdom, or when he is too embarassed to pronounce my name, ” eating that was a really stupid idea.”

The Grand Canyon #1

This past weekend, Kathryn, our friends Adam, Emily, and I drove out to a town called Williams in Arizona.  From there we took a train to the south ridge of the Grand Canyon.

Since I have ca 80 photos I want to post, I’ll have to do this in segments.

 

 

We began by driving out into the desert.  In my mind, the Mojave has always been a myth, yet there it was.  I imagined the setting of The Gunslinger (my favorite book) and this man trying to cross something of this scale with only his waterbags and his revolvers.

The tourguide on our train was named Morgan.  There should be a book about her.  Just before we got off at the park she said “Keep in mind that life is not about the number of breaths we take, but rather the moments that take our breath away.”

When we walked up to the rim, a little boy next to me said “It looks like a large photograph.”

A few moments later, Kathryn said it looks like a painting.

 

 

 

FLCL

FLCLI spent a good chunk of the day day glued to my laptop, working.  In the background, I pulled up a few clips of FLCL.  Then I ended up loading up all the episodes.  I forgot just how incredible this series is. 

This isn’t so much a review, just a : wow, FLCL is a piece of art.:)

Random Mishmash: The LA Move, Air France, ActionScript 3

It’s past 11 pm on the west coast.  Windows open.  I can hear the waves of the Pacific very easily, less than a block away.  … I can’t believe I’m saying that: the Pacific is less than a block away. 

I’ve relocated to Los Angeles.  I’ve been nervous about it, but the more I get into it, the more it feels right to be here.

It’s been a while since I made an entry, and so much has been happening in my world and the world at large.  I’ve been a bit preoccupied with Air France 447.  I don’t know why.  I’ve just found myself trying to put together what happened.  Actually, every morning I check the news wishing there would be some miracle with the passengers found on life rafts or some desert island scenario.  I can’t fathom that kind of tragedy, that kind of loss.

I’m learning ActionScript 3.  Maybe I’ll have something to show for it soon:)

Session 9

A disappointment but worth the experience.

I came across Session 9 when I was researching the inspirations of Team Silent (the group who created the original Silent Hill games at Konami). Session 9 is a USA Films production written and directed by Brad Anderson. The film is set in the former Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, MA. The plot revolves around a small hasmat team hired to remove asbestos for the institution’s renovation as a community center.

Session 9 has got some great ideas, the most important one being the usage of the actual, real life Danvers Hospital. The complex itself is the central character and its natural allure, mystery, and disfigurement permeate the film so effectively, I could just watch a film touring the structures. Unfortunately, the setting is really where the virtues of the production stop. Session 9 could have been so much more, but really, what it comes down to is a lack of craft.

Directing. It’s obvious, from the first 5 minutes of the film, something is lacking in the character relationships. They just don’t feel connected. Some may say this is intentional, to show their familial dysfunction. If that was the case, it was too soon. My feeling is that so much more could have been brought out if the director focused on building the relationships before the first scene, like The Shining, and then letting the plot unravel the connections.  From the very beginning, I just don’t believe in the characters’ histories with each other. They feel stilted. If you can’t believe in the characters, you can’t believe in the film.

Cinematography. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous the set is, if the cameras don’t see properly, all that production value is lost. In the first few minutes of the film, I became skeptical. Two characters, Phil and Gordon are sitting in a van in daylight. The outside is blownout so badly it detracts from the van interior where dialogue is happening. Very often, depth of field is overlooked. There are many shots where it would have lent much more dramatic effect to focus on the foreground character elements and leave the background blurred and then rack focus to elements of interest as they enter the character’s attention. This would have better placed the audience in the film, allowing them to see things only when the characters themselves see them. Finally, a more realistic image would have been captured with a different selection of lenses. There were many close up shots (and I’m going back to the opening scenes in the van) where the lens was too wide and the shot was suffering from optic distortion.

Preproduction and Post. However the script was written, it felt too simple in the end. The resolution and meaning of “Session 9” just didn’t fulfill me as a viewer. I didn’t feel a build up in rising action or a real climax in the plot. There were disjointed events that should have been better brought together.  In watching the “alternative ending” and other deleted scenes on the DVD, I get the idea there were other possibilities as far as the film’s protagonist and climax. In a plot, these elements are the real cornerstones. If there were other possibilities being shot then I wonder if the script was really fully baked. I understand if there are elements left to improv and inspiration (David Lynch is my favorite director), but this film is really a ghost story, and as such you can’t afford to go in without a well defined map. Maybe these decisions were made in the edit room. In any respect, I was let down by the simplicity of the resolution. The significance of “Session 9” was little more than a voice over, which is a last ditch device to tell the audience the film’s meaning, as opposed to really allowing them to experience it.

Though I’m pointing out areas to improve, I’m glad I watched this film. There were moments when I was pulled in to the set, the lighting, and mood and my heart got moving. However, these moments of trance would be broken again by lack of attention to craft. Visually, there are some gems well worth seeing, but I think they are much more to the credit of the hospital than to the production. If you are a student of the genre, do watch this. It’s worth the experience and analysis. If you are looking for a good ghost story, though, Tale of Two Sisters is still in the top of my list.

Afro Samurai

I’ve been meaning to see this film for a long time, and finally, my friend Andrew came along with a copy and we just watched it on my projector.  Daaaaamn.  If you want to read up in detail on the origins and plot of Afro Samurai, check out Wikipedia’s article here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afro_Samurai)

First off, the story.  It’s the traditional “boy avenging father” plot.  On the road to vengeance, our hero has had to sacrifice feelings and friends:  universal concepts which make for good drama.  However, it’s what’s built upon this simple construct that really makes the film stand out. 

Our samurai/hero is not the traditional “Yojimbo”-looking character.  He’s a silent hero sporting a loud afro.  It’s never explained what he’s doing in Japan.  He just is (in the same mythic sense I love in Kurosawa and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone).  The hero has an “imaginary friend” embodying his repressed feelings and desire for family.  Both the hero and the imaginary friend are played by Samuel L. Jackson with the flare that just is the man.  The script is full of jive and Americanisms that are funny and just cool set against a quasi-feudal Japan.

Imagery.  The visual style is fairly unique in my experience with japanimation.  The frames are very detailed with a literal edge/contrast in the color pallette that feels like a mix between ink and watercolor.  Obviously, the “inks” tend to lend themselves towards red.  Poses of figures are very exagerated.  The film actually looks more like a graphic novel in its attention to detail and style.

Music.  The soundtrack was assembled by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.  The hiphop rhythms go beyond Samurai Champloo‘s lauded beats into a sound that fits tightly with the visual world and character stylings.  

All in all, if you are into japanimation, this is a film to see.  If you’re like me, and just into japanimation if it’s “really something special” (along the Ghost in the Shell, Paranoia Agent, Big-O strain)… then you too will find some serious enjoyment in this 5 episode film.

Washington, DC

I just got home from 5 days in DC for the Satellite 2009 show.  Obviously, most people don’t know what the Satellite show is.  “Satellite” is a gathering of vendors and professionals in the satellite communications world.  Hands down, it was one of the best shows in my career with KenCast, which is a bit counter intuitive considering the economy, nevertheless, I’m told attendance was actually up from last year’s exhibition.  We had some incredible traffic at the booth and everything just clicked together.  But I don’t want to talk about work…

I want to talk about Washington.  DC is another unreal city.  Of all the places I’ve driven, DC is the most unique.  It’s the only place I can think of where you can expect to find a succession of 3 traffic lights within one intersection.  It’s also the only town I’ve driven where I really need a GPS to make sense. 

Reach out and make a friend