Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Remembering the Lost Souls of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
With all of the advancements in video game technology over the years, I'm still surprised over the lack of diversity in the area of horror gaming. Sure, I enjoy intense survival horror games, but the offerings of quality horror games outside of this particular format are pretty thin. In other words, compelling horror games that do NOT involve shooting hordes of monsters and instead focus on eerie settings, a creepy plot, and a mood of steadily building dread are far and few in between.
One of the shining examples of non-weapons-based horror gaming for the current generation of consoles is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Even though this game was released for the Wii in December 2009, I finally got around to finishing it. Even though I'm late in the game (no pun intended) when it comes to writing about this title, Shattered Memories impressed me in ways that few games do that I couldn't let this go by without posting a few observations about it (particularly from my background as a horror movie buff) and my recommendation for adding it to your game collection if you haven't already. Read on ...
I haven't played any of the other Silent Hill games, so I have no other examples from this franchise to which I can compare Shattered Memories. On the other hand, I've noticed that certain horror movie plots, such as those that involve zombies, vampires, werewolves, and alien invaders, are well suited for conversion into video games. Thus, what makes Shattered Memories so remarkable is that it has taken the plot structure common to a subgenre of horror movies I call "Lost Soul" movies--namely, a subgenre that includes Carnival of Souls, Jacob's Ladder, Head Trauma, and The Abandoned--and turned it into a satisfying video game, something that I didn't think was possible for this subgenre.
Lost Soul movies usually revolve around a protagonist who has experienced some kind of forgotten trauma. The trauma is forgotten either because it happened so long ago or that it was so intense and violent that it caused the protagonist to experience memory loss. The protagonist is also haunted as the result of the trauma. The hauntings may be the result of hallucinations induced by the trauma, or they may be caused by a supernatural presence; depending on the movie, the difference between the hallucinatory and the supernatural is never made clear and they remain indistinguishable. The hauntings prompt the protagonist to try to understand the trauma, which results in the revelation of an existential truth so shocking that the protagonist is never the same again. The Lost Soul narratives are apt metaphors for what trauma survivors experience in the real world, which is why they make for effectively chilling horror stories.
In Shattered Memories, you play as the character of Harry Mason. The game alternates between Harry's experiences in the town of Silent Hill as he searches for his 7-year-old daughter Cheryl after a car crash during a seemingly endless snow storm, and his therapy session with Dr. Michael Kaufmann that focuses on the car crash. Harry doesn't remember what happened after the car crash that would have resulted in Cheryl's disappearance, and it initially appears that the therapy session with Dr. Kaufmann is intended to help Harry cope with the aftermath of the crash. Yet as the game progresses, the relationship between these two events becomes less obvious, and the solution to the mystery behind it all can only be revealed by Silent Hill itself.
Complicating Harry's quest to find his daughter amidst snow drifts large enough to block entire streets are the sudden appearances of Nightmares. (No, I'm not making this up--it's what they are called in the instruction manual.) Nightmares are when all of Silent Hill suddenly freezes under a glacial layer of ice and Harry is stalked by faceless, fleshy, screeching creatures called Raw Shocks. (It's a play on psychology terms--"Raw Shock", as in the Rorschach ink blot test.) The Nightmare scenes are very similar to the scenes in Carnival of Souls where Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is relentlessly stalked by ghoulish figures while the residents of Salt Lake City appear oblivious to what is happening to her. Another nod by the game to Carnival of Souls is a scene where Harry is trapped in a car that falls off of a bridge and into the water. (Then again, the therapist's last name, Kaufmann, might also be a reference to the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which also featured a similar character with the same last name.)
As game designs go, Shattered Memories earns its place as an award-winning horror game in its creation of the detailed, interactive environment that is Silent Hill. Throughout the game, Silent Hill shifts randomly from a town that's shut down due to a snow storm, to a town that feels all but abandoned, to a town completely covered by ice during the Nightmare scenes. These changes sometimes happen within minutes of each other, thus adding to the game's disorienting mood. The town itself also feels like it's communicating with Harry in a jumbled, disorderly way: Shadows appear that move on their own, buildings reveal parts of the town's hidden--and sometimes brutal--history, and detailed figures of ice form in rooms to represent fleeting moments between people that are forever frozen in time.
Another highlight of the game is its creative usage of Wii's motion controls. You most frequently use the Wiimote as if it were a flashlight, and it also serves are your means of interface with Harry's cell phone. The cell phone plays a key part in solving the mystery behind Cheryl's disappearance and the background of Silent Hill. You'll use the phone to take pictures of various usual phenomenon (such as shadows that are frozen in place) and receive mysterious messages from other times and places. The messages can be either in the form of text or voice recordings, and each give small hints about Silent Hill's past and where Cheryl may be. You'll also use the phone to call other places and characters to get clues to advance the story, although the game allows you to call just about every phone number you see, whether it is listed on a poster or billboard or scratched on a wall as part of graffiti.
Shattered Memories does have its problems, most of them stemming from the Nightmare scenes. During the Nightmares, the ice that suddenly appears also breaks the surrounding streets and buildings into labyrinths that you need to solve before continuing the game. You don't have much time to figure out where to go next, because these mazes are hardly intuitive and the Raw Shocks that stalk you will catch up to you that much faster for every dead end you find. To make matters worse, you can't kill the Raw Shocks; you can only push them off of you, and sometimes the motion controls aren't as responsive as you want them to be when you're struggling to get out from underneath a horde of Raw Shocks. To make it past these parts of the game, I copied and pasted sections about the Nightmare scenes from a Shattered Memories walkthrough guide I found online into a Word document for reference. Doing it that way gave me the information I needed to know how to make it past the Nightmares without spoiling the game's ending.
One of selling points for Shattered Memories when it was first released is that the game alters itself as you play it, adding elements to the story depending on what you do and how you answer the questions asked by Dr. Kaufmann during the therapy session. I couldn't tell how this feature was working as I was playing the game and from what I've read, the only things that change in the game are certain details--such as the appearance of the Raw Shocks and some of the characters, the selection of puzzles Harry needs to solve, and certain parts of the game's ending--but not the game's overall story itself. Judging from the ending I saw, the answers and actions I provided in the game resulted in the "Love Lost" ending, probably the most poignant of the game's four possible endings.
Of course, Shattered Memories isn't for everyone. If you prefer your horror games to be explosive, guns-blazing splatter fests, then this game will disappoint you. However, if you prefer an immersive, psychological horror experience that gets under your skin, Shattered Memories is something you shouldn't miss. I found myself staring slack-jawed at my TV when I saw the game's stunning ending, which is equal parts shock and heartbreak. To say anything more about Shattered Memories at this point would give too much away, so go get your copy now and see it for yourself. From Dr. Kaufmann's first words to the mementos Harry collects throughout his journey to find Cheryl to the final door through which Harry passes, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a video game experience you won't forget.