For some fans, the drastic changes that the seventh title in the Silent Hill series introduced was a very big cause for concern. Silent Hill on the Wii console? A western-developed reimagining of a Japanese-made, genre-defining PS1 game? Psychiatrist sessions? No combat?!
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, developed by Climax Studios, in many ways feels like the Resident Evil 4 equivalent of the series. It overhauled many of the established mechanics of the franchise, taking it in a wildly different direction with a narrative that required barely any knowledge of the games that came before it. In it, you control Harry Mason. After crashing his car in the snowy town of Silent Hill, he wakes to find that his young daughter Cheryl is missing. As Harry’s journey progresses, he realises that in true Silent Hill fashion, all is not well with neither his own fractured state of mind nor the town he is exploring. He is soon forced to battle with both his own potential amnesia as well as the hideous monsters that appear whenever the world freezes over into its nightmarish alternate reality.
Interspersed between Harry’s attempts to find his daughter in the near-desolate town are psychiatry sessions with a therapist by the name of Dr. Kaufmann. These short, first person sequences act as a framing device to Harry’s experiences within the game. This is partly what makes up the intriguing “psyche profile” mechanic, whereby certain elements of the game are altered to create a personal experience for players based on their choices within the world as well as their answers in these sessions.
While Silent Hill 2 is rightly considered the jewell in the crown of the franchise and one of the best games of all time, it’s also worth looking back on just a few reasons why Silent Hill: Shattered Memories deserves to be seen as one of the best in the series.
EVADE YOUR NIGHTMARES
“You have to run, Daddy. You can’t fight them. Run!”
Unlike the majority of lead characters in Silent Hill’s market rival Resident Evil, the protagonists in Konami’s series aren’t combat specialists. Instead, players are put into the shoes of an everyman or woman with little to no experience of how to wield a gun. Relying on primitive melee weapons such as lead pipes and wooden planks to bring the grotesque enemies down is encouraged since it conserves ammo, adding a whole new layer of tension since you have to be closer to the monsters for your strikes to register. In order to reflect the main character’s lack of skill, gunplay is often unwieldy, with the animation times on aiming and reloading feeling like an age to complete. Some see this sticky and frantic combat as a downside of traditional survival horror mechanics and controls, but in retrospect, the sense of feeling underpowered in gameplay now seems like somewhat of a lost art in AAA gaming.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories went one step further in maintaining this feeling of helplessness established by the series by removing the combat completely. When Harry’s world freezes over, the defenceless father can only run away from the creatures (“Raw Shocks”) as they relentlessly chase him. Whilst you can delay their pursuit by pushing over cabinets or picking up bright flares to ward them off for a limited time, you have no way of directly attacking them. When you are grabbed and tackled, the game utilises the motion controls (more on that later), whereby Harry can push the enemies away. But should you become swarmed one too many times, that’s game over. When you are overwhelmed, there isn’t a violent Dead Space-esque death scene where the protagonist is devoured limb from limb — instead Harry is tackled to the ground. This seems unusual at first, but like almost every other facet of the game, it has been implemented to serve the story (more on that later too).
By embracing this feeling of evasion rather than direct confrontation, the nightmare sequences in Shattered Memories really do make you feel as if you’re trapped in a bad dream — like a child running away from the bogeyman. As lead designer and writer Sam Barlow explained in an IGN interview: “How many children wake up screaming because they had a dream where they beat up a zombie with a baseball bat? You wake up screaming because you ran and you got caught. So don’t get caught — run”.
The terror that comes from having no way of fighting back is exacerbated by the level design. At the same time as trying to outrun these monsters, players also have to navigate the twisted, cold environment they are trapped within. You’re given no easy solution to finding your way out of the frozen labyrinth, there is no overhead mini-map and no directional arrow — you’re as panicked and confused as Harry is and must persevere in order to survive and escape. Not only are you helpless to the monsters, you’re helpless to the town of Silent Hill itself.
JOURNEY INTO THE MIND
“A young girl… Her parents don’t get along. She blames herself, as all children do. Then Daddy dies. What’s a girl to do? Deny that he died. Your dad wasn’t a hero. He was a human being. You never knew him, and you never will. The dad walking around in your head isn’t even a ghost.”
The reason why (in my opinion) the older Silent Hill games have aged so well are the intricate storylines. While game mechanics and graphics might eventually become outdated, a good story can stand the test of time. Like Silent Hill 2, each play-through of Shattered Memories is rewarding due to the complex symbolism which reveals deeper meanings behind its narrative every time. Much of this might not be clear while playing, it may not even be clear after you’ve first completed it, but like the most memorable films, a second, third, fourth play-though reveals new depths to the way the story is presented and how it can be understood. The experience of playing Shattered Memories stays with you long after you’ve turned the console off, and after 10 years of replaying it nearly once a year I still notice new and interesting things when piecing together the plot. Game director Mark Simmons, in an interview with VideoGamer, made it clear how vital the team believed good storytelling to be with a game such as this: “It’s probably fair to say as a writer the story is really important to you in every game, whereas maybe some games don’t treat the story as seriously, but in this genre it’s critically important”.
Shattered Memories is its own self-contained story that requires no knowledge of the wider series canon. For good or bad (some love it, some hate it), there is no mention of the mysterious cult surrounding the town of Silent Hill. When you boot it up, players are greeted with fuzzy-looking VHS footage of our two protagonists: Harry and his young daughter Cheryl. She runs towards him and he lifts her up lovingly, both wave to the camera before getting into a car. Then they arrive at an amusement park where the two joyously run towards a photo stand in; Harry becomes a brave, sword-wielding knight and Cheryl is a princess about to be saved by her father from a dragon. This footage then repeats over and over again before the game starts for real and you witness the car crash before partaking in your first psychiatry session (it all makes sense later on, trust me).
When the killer twist ending reveals that the patient in the therapist’s office isn’t Harry, but instead his now teenage daughter Cheryl, the whole game is re-contextualised from being the story of a man looking for his daughter, to a girl trying to piece together the memories she has of a person who died when she was too young to remember him. Playing for the first time, the game makes you believe that Harry is recounting his experiences following the car crash to Dr. Kaufmann when in reality he died in that very same crash a few years after he was divorced from his wife. Unable to accept his death and blaming herself for her parent’s divorce, Cheryl created a fragmented, alternate reality in her head, where her father survived and went on a heroic journey to find her. We play as a Harry Mason that is a figment of Cheryl’s imagination, her perception of him influenced by the game’s psyche profile which determines what kind of characteristics he had.
The nightmare chase sequences act as a form of emotional repression on Cheryl’s part. This is why the monsters are trying to hold you back rather than kill you. Whenever Harry makes a breakthrough or the game establishes a new plot point, the world freezes over. Whenever NPCs are about to reveal the events behind the car wreck, their sentence is halted. Having these monsters exist to make Harry struggle to get to the truth is Cheryl’s way of denying that his death took place, to keep the concocted image that she has of him alive in her own delusions. Once you realise that the game has taken place inside the mind of Harry’s daughter, whose life was shattered and her home broken from that point on, the introductory VHS tape featuring Cheryl and her father is now retrospectively heartbreaking. The footage is likely the only tangible memory that she has of him, which explains why it was rewound three times as the intro credits rolled.
Whereas Silent Hill 2 was a story of a man reconciling with his immense, overwhelming guilt, Shattered Memories is a melancholy tale of psychological trauma and the ways in which people attempt to deal with it.
STEPPING INTO SILENT HILL
“I should know where I am. What is wrong with me?”
In an interview with Nintendo World Report, producer Tomm Hulett stated that he wanted the game to be the “most immersive Silent Hill ever”. Both the presentation as well as the controls in Shattered Memories go a very long way in making you feel engaged in the world that Climax has created. Not only is it one of the best-looking games on the Wii, it also took advantage of the unique benefit of the console being able to detect player gestures in order to make players feel invested in the experience.
Much of what makes it immersive to play is the way in which it utilises the mechanics of the Wii controls. The game is available on the PS2 and PSP, but it feels like the Wii version is the definitive way to play the game. Shining a torch to illuminate surroundings, shaking off the monsters from your back, and navigating the menu on Harry’s phone all feel intuitive and match the physicality of performing the actions for real (the phone sounds also come from the mic of the controller). Because of this, you are able to relate to the protagonist as he journeys through a recognisable, suburban reality since your actions often directly reflect those which are being performed by Harry.
It’s odd to think of a horror game as “nice looking”, but Shattered Memories is. Considering the limitations of the Wii, it’s remarkable to see how well the graphics hold up. Harry’s flashlight illuminates the surroundings beautifully, which are all extremely detailed to make the town feel truly lived-in. The interesting way the game is presented not only makes for a unique gameplay experience but serves to fit in with the underlying themes of its narrative. For example, the entire game has a distinctive VHS aesthetic both in its visuals and sound. Navigating the name entry and pause screen interfaces has a retro look to it, while the traditional radio noise which emitted static to warn players of nearby enemies in previous games has been replaced by the sound of a scratchy, damaged VHS tape. Grainy scan lines also become more prevalent on the screen as Harry’s health drops, which may feel like a questionable design decision when you’re playing for the first time, but since Cheryl’s only real memories of her father exist mainly in home videos, this all makes perfect sense.
While you have to suffer an occasional drop in frame rate while exploring, this is a small price to pay considering the lack of loading screens even when going in and out of buildings. Furthermore, the UI has been streamlined, a natural consequence of the lack of combat which negates the need to pause the action to change weapons. Even when the game switches over to its frosty nightmare world, it happens in a dynamic way right before your eyes. When using Harry’s trusty cell phone, the game doesn’t pause, instead, everything is done in real-time to really contribute to the atmosphere by never pulling players out of the experience.
A staple of previous games in the series was the voyeuristic way that the players found diary entries and letters scattered around the environment. They gave you a glimpse into the lives of characters, and the events surrounding the history of the town or provided clues for puzzles. In keeping with the modern setting, Shattered Memories instead uses phone calls, picture messages, and voicemails to the same effect. Using the phone, players can reveal transmissions from the world around them, these are eerie hauntings which emerge when players walk close enough to specific objects. It’s easy to interpret many of these happenings and mementos as short vignettes into Cheryl’s life as she was growing up. All of this maintains a precedent established in the very first Silent Hill: that the town is a character in itself, a malevolent and unseen force that toys with the subconscious of the protagonist.
The exact nature and content of the aforementioned picture messages you receive are likely to change from player to player…
MIND OVER MATTER
“I’ve read your notes. The other therapists didn’t work out for you. I want you to know this will be different. We take this at your pace. No notes. No drugs. No theories. We get back to the start — understand what happened. Try to answer truthfully. It’s easier that way.”
Silent Hill 2’s character designer/CGI director Takayoshi Sato defined psychological horror as something that needs to “shake the player’s heart”. While the frightening aspects in many games of the genre come from jump scares and gratuity, the Silent Hill series always felt like it was in a whole different league because of its commitment to being disturbing on a much deeper level. While it isn’t the scariest title in the series (that honour almost certainly goes to Silent Hill 2 or 3), Shattered Memories is the one game not developed by Team Silent (the original Japanese developers) that feels like it genuinely understood how the mind of the player could be exploited in order to create a frightening experience.
After Silent Hill: Homecoming, it seemed like the new string of western developers was more concerned with smoother playability and an action-oriented gameplay experience instead of the slow-building terror which characterised the titles developed by Team Silent. This notion is extinguished almost immediately with Shattered Memories when an information screen tells you that the game will be tracking your actions while you play, a mechanic that Silent Hill 2 also utilised in order to determine what ending you received. Games, where players have some kind of control over the outcome of the narrative, are nothing new, but they are often presented as having very clear and obvious consequences, which is why it’s refreshing to play a story where the ramifications of your decisions are subtle and often elusive enough to require multiple play-throughs in order to fully comprehend. In an interview with Nintendo Life, Sam Barlow explained the team’s approach to implementing the game’s psych profile, and how it differed to others that included similar features: “I’ve always been interested in using implicit, behind-the-scenes ways to track players, rather than the more obvious kind of ‘morality systems’ in most games”.
The aforementioned psychiatry sessions, which often require personal answers from the player on topics such as guilt, relationships, death, family, sex, divorce, alcoholism, and childhood contribute to how the game determines what kind of a person the player is, but Barlow explained that this accounts for only 25% of the data that the game actually collects on you. It’s easy to assume you’re going to get an ending associated with alcoholism if you answer questions pertaining to it in a certain way with Dr. Kaufmann, but the idea that the game itself is peering over your shoulder while Harry is interacting with the environments, characters, and objects within the game world is what makes the implementation of this mechanic unique. Rarely do any of your actions, no matter how mundane, go unnoticed by the game’s system.
Character, monster, cutscene, and building appearances as well as the dialogue and mannerisms of both Harry and the NPC are dependent on many different aspects of gameplay. If you play Harry as an easily distracted man who walks off the beaten path to engage with trivial items and activities, who displays inpatient and restless characteristics when talking to others (ignoring their requests, looking from side to side when they’re taking), the game perceives Harry as being an anti-social person before his death. If Harry acts like… well, a perv, as a man who is obsessed with sexual imagery, then it transpires that he was a serial adulterer (the monsters in this version of the game have much more feminine-like traits than the others too). Focussing on booze scattered around will result in you being chased by horribly decayed and diseased-looking creatures, with the game determining that Harry’s divorce was likely the result of his addiction. Like players who focus on finding Mary in Silent Hill 2, those who focus on Harry’s ultimate aim of finding Cheryl are likely to get the “good” ending, where it’s revealed that Harry and his wife divorced somewhat amicably. Even the way Cheryl reconciles with her dad’s death is tuned to your actions. A family-oriented play-through will have her finally accepting his demise which allows her to move on while showing disinterest in the therapy sessions will doom her to forever hold onto her delusions.
Even during the “combat” sequences, the game plays on the audience's deepest fears by doing its best to show rather than tell. A drawback to the way the game’s nightmare mechanic plays is that you are sure to be safe as long as the world isn’t frozen over. However, you never know when exactly the world will transform. Effective sound design creates a heightened feeling of dread when you’re fleeing from the monsters. Often you can hear them screeching from all around you before you actually see them, forcing your mind to wander and fill in the blanks. How far away from me are they? Should I look back? What do they look like? How many are there? Putting questions such as this into the mind of the player to make them anticipate what’s to come rather than outright showing them is one of the Hitchcockian traits that made the Team Silent games such a tense experience.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories relies on both the terror of the implied and the emotional vulnerability of its audience to make them feel doubt at every step. Playing something that slowly adapts to the type of person you are creates a personal experience specific to you and your traits — enabling the game to get under your skin much more than any jump scare can. Game director Mark Simmons gave some insight into how the team wanted to prioritise this over the combat: “It’s a psychological thriller. It never felt like this was a game where we needed to have monsters running around decapitating Harry and stuff. It just never occurred to us to put that in the game”. This is not to suggest Shattered Memories is the most frightening game ever (some consider it to be the tamest of the series), but its oppressive, unsettling atmosphere which tracks your behaviour makes it something that doesn’t need blood and violence to be disturbing.
It’s a shame the game isn’t longer, depending on how fastidious you are it can be completed in about 5 hours. But if your largest complaint about a video game is that you enjoy it so much that you wish there was more of it to play, that’s definitely a good sign. While the PS2 version demands absolutely extortionate prices on Amazon and eBay (at the time of writing there is a £499 listing for a new copy on Amazon), there are still affordable copies to be found for the Wii.
It’s easy to recommend this game to almost everyone. It has replay value regardless of how much it may or may not change depending on what choices you make. It simply has a thoughtful, well-told story that’s worth experiencing more than once and proves that narrative-driven, linear, single-player games can be just as re-playable as multiplayer modes or giant sandboxes.
Silent Hill 2 will remain the masterpiece, but Shattered Memories is the understated gem.
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