Posted on Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 at 9:00 AM by Joseph Butler-Hartley
The Silent Hill series has long been an exemplar of subtle, psychological horror that is as intelligent as it is frightening. The fairly shared view of recent, Western-developed Silent Hill games is that they’ve lost what made the earlier games great. However, I don’t think that applies to the underappreciated gem that is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. You play in first-person as a patient receiving therapy from the world’s worst therapist, or you play in third-person as Harry Mason, an oblivious writer who is unfortunate enough to crash on the road leading into Silent Hill leading to the disappearance of his seven-year old daughter.
The game was released on PS2, PSP and Wii, and as you slip the disc into the console of your choice (mine was the Wii), you’ll be greeted first by a garish red warning that will inform you that the game will psychologically profile you as you play – “the game plays you as much as you play it”. This profiling takes place in the therapy sections in which you answer deeply personal questions such as ‘have you ever enjoyed role-play during sex?’ and in which you take part in simple, psychological tasks. The game also monitors your behaviour as you play through the game as Harry Mason as well, and the finale is a psychological profile of you, the player. As the credits crawl down the screen at the end of the game, you are given an extremely generalised profile of your personality. Some points made in the psychological profile were absolutely correct, and others were as wrong as could be. It’s true that I take relationships seriously, but I’m not sure my hundreds of non-existent chummies would agree that I try to befriend people a lot. Perhaps the game isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. However, by informing the player that the game will be profiling them as they play, I think it induces the placebo effect in which the player thinks it is working just because they expect it to. Constantly worrying about the psychological consequences of my behaviour after I accidentally looked in Michelle’s underwear drawer made the experience even more unnerving.
Harry is searching for his seven-year old daughter Cheryl, who disappeared after a car-crash. Being a resident of Silent Hill, he has to search for her through the streets that he should know so well, but for some reason seem unfamiliar and sinister. Instead of Silent Hill’s trademark fog, the town in Shattered Memories is in the midst of a freak, snow storm which has forced most of the residents to take refuge in their cosy little homes. As is expected in Silent Hill games, the story is a fantastic but unreasonably grim tale of the fragility and vulnerability of the human psyche, and the psychological damage of bereavement. On the first play through, the game is eerie and faintly sad, but nothing too emotionally draining. After the confusing revelations of the conclusion, the second play through becomes an absolutely heart-breaking and at times, even nauseating journey. The imagery and symbolism through-out the game is overtly sexual, which is unsettling at first considering Harry is searching for his seven-year old daughter, but on the second, omniscient play through, the symbolism tells a tragic story involving the loss of innocence.
I suppose the depth of the experience you’ll have with Shattered Memories is up to you. You could breeze through the game in five hours, taking in the minimum amount of exposition possible, but if you slow down and take in the incredibly well-realised environments, there’s so much attention to detail, and there is so much more to be found than just the core story. If the game is given the amount of attention it deserves, there’s elucidation enough for a fortnight here. The game includes a very well-implemented mechanic in which Harry uses a mobile phone to take photos, receive texts, call people and all the other things people do with mobile phones. Alas, having a fairly clunky mobile, you can’t play Fruit Ninja as you stumble blindly through the streets of Silent Hill. The story is expanded upon vastly through texts and voice messages Harry receives when he uncovers a memory. In the first play through, the memories which trigger text and voice messages serve as nothing more than a device to chill the player and occasionally aid them with puzzles, but again, on the second play through they all knit-together to form a big, sad duvet for you to cry into.
As I stated earlier, I played the Wii version and I was surprised by the smooth and intuitive nature of the controls. Harry has a fairly ineffectual flashlight that you control by pointing the Wii-mote at the screen whilst you stumble around. It’s true that my wrist ached from all the twisting of screws or opening of door handles the game made me do, but overall it’s probably one of the best controlling Wii games I’ve played, apart from the nightmare sections of course.
I’m 800 words into a review of a horror game and I haven’t yet mentioned what is scary about it. The thing about Shattered Memories is, it isn’t really that scary, not compared to the other horror games included in this feature. The only time the game tries to be an out-an-out horror game is during the poorly done ‘nightmare’ sections, in which the town freezes over and Harry is chased through confusing mazes of doors and fences by naked, sexually ambiguous, screaming humanoid creatures. Trust me when I say it is not as scary as it sounds. There is no combat at all in Shattered Memories, so consequently Harry just has to leg it when enemies are in sight. At first, it was panicky and adrenaline arousing, but when the enemies catch up to Harry, all they do is jump on his back. To throw them off, the game tells the player to fling their arms wildly in the direction of the creature, but whether the game decides to throw the creature off or not seems to be completely random. During several of the chases, I’d have two or three of the annoying gits trying to snuggle me to death, and the Wii would not accept my flailing as enough to knock them off. Other times, I’d shrug my shoulders nonchalantly, and it would send the creatures flying other the nearest fence. The dodgy controls and unthreatening enemies mean that the nightmare sections are just frustrating rather than frightening. It feels like they were included as an obligation rather than as an interesting addition to game play. It’s like the developer thought ‘Oh no, they might be getting bored of all the well-paced, unnerving exploration. Let’s throw in another screaming mutant chase to completely break the flow of the story’. The game is also incredibly easy, and doesn’t pose even the merest semblance of a challenge.
Although the game has an extremely effective atmosphere, the fact that you know that Harry is safe as long as the surroundings don’t look like the inside of a fridge-freezer means that there is no threat. It makes it even more impressive then that the game still manages to be extremely unsettling and discomforting without having the protagonist chop up zombies. It’s not the kind of scare that makes you spit out your tea, or even the kind of scare that makes you gasp; it’s the kind of scare that invokes a deep, unquantifiable feeling of dread and confusion in the pit of your stomach. It manages this intangible feat by being so completely immersive. Harry is lost in a town that seems to be doing everything it can to muddy his mind, filled with people who seem to know more about everything than he does but who are un-forthcoming and fragmented.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors in terms of out-and-out horror, I’d say Shattered Memories is my favourite Silent Hill game thus far. It immerses you in an interesting but disturbing town with a protagonist who is as clueless as you are and lets you get lost in its fantastic story and extremely dense atmosphere. It has excellent replay value, pretty much demanding a second play through, and it’s an experience that lingers long in the memory, even if it does occasionally call you a pervert.
I’m a huge horror fan and I want to cover as many terrifying games as possible. If you have any recommendations for games that I could include in my Horror Show feature, please get in touch. Either leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter (@thisisajoe) or message me on Tumblr (http://whatsjoebuildinginthere.tumblr.com) or drop me an email at email@example.com