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.

Silent Hill Origins (PS2)

A few weeks ago, I completed Silent Hill Origins. For those of you that haven’t read some of my earlier entries, the Silent Hill game series from Konami has been among my favorite series. “Origins” was originally written for the PSP and then ported to the PS2.

 

Story

 

There was an interview I watched a few times several years ago with Rafael Chandler of Red Storm Entertainment, creators of the Rainbow 6 games. Basically, his point was: story is where it starts and the rest follows. I’m a believer. Of course, there are genres where this is less true (arcade action for example), but in the Adventure / Survival Horror arena, I think this is crucial. Even in first person shooter, as Chandler discussed, where the gamer is focused on a mission structure, a story is crucial to carry the player through the game.

 

Silent Hill Origins has the story. It works pretty decently as a precursor to Silent Hills 1 – 4, depicting the origins of certain persons, events, and plot lines. I feel there were times when the more horrific elements were a little too intrusive versus the more subtle treatment of Silent Hill 2 which is often characterized as the epitome of psychological thriller.  However, this may be a characteristic nuance of the transition of the series from the original, Japan-based, “Team Silent” to US developer Climax.  

 

Gameplay

 

Gameplay was rough. Admittedly, it took me a lot longer to get through this game than its predecessors. Usually, I’d get through a title in a few days at most. This game, I frankly put down in frustration for weeks at a time. There were two elements that irked me. The first is, as we all know in any horror flick, you don’t walk away from the monster when he’s down because once you turn your back he’s back up and chasing you. It’s the same philosophy in most games: just because you knock someone down, doesn’t mean they are out. This is the case in all the Silent Hills, including Origins. However, unlike the earlier titles, Origins requires you to wait until the monster is back on his feet before you attack again. Honestly, it might sound trivial, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, your heart’s pumpin’ and you’re surrounded by zombie-creatures, you don’t want to break that tension by having to wait, in place, for precious seconds while the creatures writhe around on the floor rejuvenating. You want to take them out and not be like all those stupid teenagers in every horror film you ever saw.

 

Second issue, which is kinda the generic bane of many action-based games and which does not always get thefull attention it deserves: fighting has to be fair. What I mean is that there has to be a very clearly defined ruleset as far as : “if monster does ‘x’ than player must do ‘y’ else some negative outcome will occur”. This is the central issue I had with a game called Rule of Rose which I never bothered to review (but should). Oftentimes, you just couldn’t do anything to counter the baddies attacks. Often times in Origins, you can see one of those straight-jacket monsters coming at you, but before you know it, they’re magically on top of you spewing acid in your face. Between the moment when you saw the character, and the moment the negative outcome occurred, you as the player never have that opportunity to really counter their attack, you just have to kinda put up with it and after a while, it gets really frustrating.  Stuff like that, I’m guessing, happens when a development schedule gets crunched and certain parts of QA are, unfortunately, neglected.

 

In-Game Graphics and Sound.

 

I’ll lump these together for space. For the most part, I thought these were executed well and up to par with the series.

Cutscenes / Presentation

 

I was happy, except for the scenes involving duo-tone flashbacks which felt like blown up images from a low res source. The details felt flat compared to other, usually present-day shots.

 

Overall, I think the game was fulfilling in the end; however it wasn’t consistently enjoyable.  The gameplay got in the way too much.  I had to have a roommate egg me into finishing after I gave up in frustration, which is a first in the Silent Hill series for me.  I felt treatment of many psychological / character elements was heavy-handed.  I’m a  strong believer in “show don’t tell”.  Let the audience figure it out. 

 

Obviously, I haven’t given Silent Hill 5 a go yet, but I’ll let you know when that happens.

A Brief Summary of the Best Movies List

Alright, after last night’s post, panning The  Brown Bunny, I thought I better post something a bit more positive so that I don’t just come across as arrogant.

This is a brief summary of what I consider my favorite movies.  I’ll try and break them up in what I’ll call “Arthouse” and “Mainstream”.

Arthouse

  • Mulholland Drive by David Lynch – I’m not one for chosing favorites in any category (places, food, music), but I will say Mulholland Drive is my favorite movie.  It’s haunting, lyric, and beautiful.  It’s a mystery that digs into my imagination for weeks after the experience in the theatre.
  • Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai – hands down, these are the most visually beautiful, dreamlike pieces I’ve seen.  Kar-Wai’s style just carries the audience like the movements of water.
  • Old Boy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance by Park Chan-Wook – you have to see to understand
  • Branded to Kill  by Seijun Suzuki – if you listen to interviews with Suzuki, he was only out to entertain and make money; if you watch his work, it’s just art
  • Brazil by Terry Gilliam – take it or leave it, Terry Gilliam’s vision is very unique – also see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn by Sam Raimi – you have to see this one, as well as it’s predecessor films and its sequel.  In the Woods, Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness chronicle the evolution of Sam Raimi’s career into the man who directed Spider-ManEvil Dead 2 is hilarious (at least, I think so… and my brother agrees)
  • Dark City by Alex Proyas – On the DVD, Roger Ebert gives the best commentary ever discussing Dark City’s position in film noir history.  After you watch Dark City, check out Proyas’ short films “Groping” and “Strange Residues”
  • Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick – This film scared me when I first saw it at 18.  I seriously felt if my girlfriend said something akin to “I fantasized about someone else”, that would be enough to drive me into a downward spiral of obsessive thinking.
  • Dr Strangelove : Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb by Stanley Kubrick – probably the darkest “dark comedy” out there.  (btw, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odeyssey, and Full Metal Jacket are also well worth a watch)
  • Blade Runner by Ridley Scott – Noir is definitely my favorite style and Blade Runner is the modern embodiment with a unique twist.  The neon lighting is incredible.
  • Ghost in the Shell

Mainstream

  • Chinatown by Roman Polanski – Robert Towne’s script is one of the best.  The music, photography, scenery just makes me wish I could step back into that lost LA.
  • Platoon by Oliver Stone – a character you latch on to, an absolutely believable fall from grace and spiritual redemption
  • Back to the Future by Robert Zemekis – I imagine you agree
  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – the best of the Indiana Jones films (though I haven’t seen the fourth, yet)
  • Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola – a journey into the hell of a war, the hell of duty, and the hell of an insane mind
  • Meet the Robinsons and The Incredibles – story, story, story
  • The Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson – I can’t tell you how many times I watched The Fellowship of the Ring projected on my dorm room wall while I worked on my senior project in undergrad.
  • Harry Potter and the (fill in the blank) – I only finished the Harry Potter books a month or so ago.  Up until then, I’ve very much enjoyed the movies, obviously, they pale to the novels, however, they certainly can stand on their own as great entertainment.
  • Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, The Jerk

Other Great Films

    The Darjeeling Limited, The Red Violin, Awakenings, Taxi Driver, Last Tango in Paris, Dead Poet Society, The Mummy (the first one only), The Shawshank Redemption, Arsenic and Old Lace, North by Northwest, The Maltese Falcon, Psycho , Le Samourai, Amelie, L’ Accompagnatrice, 

Review: The Brown Bunny

I like to consider myself an appreciator of film.  I watch all kinds, not just for enjoyment but because I want to broaden my mind and my creativity.  To this end, I’ve become a customer of NetFlix (woo).  This week’s selection?  The Brown Bunny  by Vincent Gallo.

Ok, if you’ve seen this film, or heard of it, you know the controversy surrounding it.  If you have no clue what I’m talking about… well, good.  I’ll get to that in a second.

I started my brief Vincent Gallo kick by watching his previous film, Buffalo 66.  It was incredible!  I really went into that film with no expectations and walked away with a feeling that I’d just experienced something truly unique.  Gallo has a style that’s his.  It certainly draws on great influences (Goddard would be a likely candidate), while at the same time, Buffalo 66 had those elements that make a great film: characters that you believe in, a story that carries you through, and a progression of events that bring about a real change in the characters.  Buffalo 66 had those elements in spades.  The Brown Bunny does not!

The story is basically encapsulated in : Despondent motorcycle racer drives van across country while pining for lost love.

1.5 hours could easily have been condensed into 10 minutes.

The majority of the film has no dialogue (not necessarily bad : a matter of style), no plot progression (bad), and is more or less non-stop portraits of Gallo himself (who, by the way is writer, director, lead actor, editor, and cinematographer).  It’s like watching someone preen them self in the mirror over and over and over.  Not to mention the final minutes which finally show some progression in the story, but only through the device of a very graphic sex scene and a (I’m sorry to say) rape scene.  It goes beyond over-the-top.  It was just revolting.  Rape, as an idea, as a word, in and of itself is horrible enough and conjures things that scare and upset the audience in ways that make the point; there was no reason to depict it on film.  I’m not being some kind of censor here.  I’m not out to say what’s decent or indecent.  I am out to say that moments in a film are like words in a book : they need to serve a purpose.  Showing a rape scene served no purpose.

But wait…  I’m not going to be negative about the whole experience.    As I told my brother, who watched the film with me, I’m glad I watched it just for the education (I mean, even when I eat something I end up disliking, I at least feel good that I tried it).  The Brown Bunny is not anything I would recommend to anyone.  Buffalo 66, yes, but not this film.  I am glad I saw the cinematography (it was beautiful at many moments).  The editing created a definite unease which was very masterfully handled : however that unease, like the movie as a whole became redundant and self-serving.  That’s really what it comes down to in my mind: this movie was self-serving and not, in any balanced way, designed to serve the audience.  However, I don’t want to overlook the fact that a man got in a van and made a movie.  Vincent Gallo put together a guerilla project that he believed in, and I think that’s an accomplishment in-and-of itself.

 

Videogame Design

Well, most people who know me post undergrad believe my time for videogames is non-existent: it is, except when it comes to something that’s really good.  There are some games out there many of us will just play for fun or as part of the social atmosphere, but there are a handful of games that I play just because I really really need to see them through: beginning to end like a good book.  What makes the Best Video Game in my mind?  Well, graphics, gameplay, music, sound all have to be well crafted, but before any of this stuff can come to fruition, what I want first is story.  What kind of stories grab me?  Anything involving zombies, mystery, and adventure.  It’s got to have solid characters and a plot that pulls you.

What fits that criteria?

The Silent Hill Series (Playstation 1 – 2)

Hands down one of the best pieces of video game “art” out there.  

I’ve got a screenshot to the left from Silent Hill 2 and one of its famous cinematics.  This game has it all : characters you believe in, a plot that grabs your attention, antongonists who make you jump (not laugh).  Moreover, the crafting of this game was just as finely and completely executed as some of the best movie directors yielding a complete, unbroken dream in which the player can lose his or herself for hours.

 

The Fear Effect Series (Playstation 1)

I was upset when this series was discontinued.  It had those classic elements of story, and moreover, it had some flairs that just made Fear Effect something unto itself.  The creators drew on chinese mythology and aesthetics in their settings.  Kronos coupled this with their own brand of technology for creating immersive environments called Motion FX.  The results were gorgeous.  The distinct feel merged so tightly with the plot, music and overall experience that one can look at a screeshot and easily identify, just from the cell shading and colors, that it’s a Fear Effect screenshot.

 

 

Resident Evil Series (Playstation 1 – 2)

 Everyone who plays video games knows the “Resident Evil” name, and even those who don’t play know the Resident Evil movies.  I was in highschool when my little brother and I saw the cover of this game with the crazed charicature of some guy, a gun, and a spider.  It just looked nuts!  For all intents and purposes, at the time, the first Resident Evil was nuts!  It was something new and, as most authorities tend to agree : the real beginning of a genre (alongside Silent Hill) of what’s become known as “Survival Horror”.  

Resident Evil has that plot which just latches on.  As time has progressed the environments, graphics and gameplay (Resident Evil 4) have evolved immensley, and underneath all that is still the continuation of plots that I, as a player, really want to see unraveled.

 


Haunting Ground (Playstation 2)

 My brother got me this game for Christmas.  I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t even heard of it until I played for the first time.  Reviews on this game  are fairly polarized.  I’m among the group that considers this an incredible play and a great piece of work.  The story has a similar element to Silent Hill 2 in that it revolves around revealing the forgotten history of the main character.  Sometimes selective amnesia can be a cliche, but in this case, it just works well.  The quantity of antagonists is significantly less than Silent Hill or Resident Evil, so the focus is more on the quality of the individual characters and the dramatics inherent.  

 

 

 

 

 

 Phantasmagoria (PC)

This was the game in my library for a long time.  I had a 486SX, upgraded it to a DX4-100 and tacked on a whole 8 Megs of RAM to run this!  7 CDs!!  It was amazing.  Live actors in a gorgeously rendered 3D setting.  The story was incredible.  In retrospect, the acting might’ve been “B” but it WORKED!  It scared the heck out of me!  I just couldn’t stop playing.  I think I flew through this in two days or so of nonstop enjoyment.  That’s how I often like a game : being sucked in and not being let go until I’ve seen it through, saved the day, turned the last page.  This game is a classic and Roberta Williams is one of my favorite game designers.  By the way, she is also known for her King’s Quest Series which was another jewel of the adventure games genre.  

What Makes the Best Video Game

All right.  Well, most people who know me post undergrad believe my time for videogames is non-existent.  It is, except when it comes to something that’s really good.  There are some games out there that many of us will just play for fun or as part of the social atmosphere, but there are a handful of games that I play just because I really really need to see them through: beginning to end like a good book.  What makes the Best Video Game in my mind?  Story.  What kind of stories grab me?  Anything involving zombies, mystery, and adventure.

What fits that criteria?

#1 The Silent Hill Series

 

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