Silent Hill Shattered Memories

blacksilenthill

In 2009 rumours of a Silent Hill 1 remake finally came true, with Climax once again at the helm and the Wii as the lead platform. Oddly, the game’s announcement came on April Fool’s Day, which led to some dithering about whether it was actually an elaborate joke.

It was fairly obvious right off the bat that Shattered Memories was going to be quite different from its predecessor- the screenshots showing a snow-covered town and a frozen Otherworld made that obvious enough- but I don’t think anyone was prepared for quite how sharply this game would diverge from the norm…..

HarryCar

The Story

Following a first-person meeting with a psychologist taking place an unspecified amount of time after the events of the game (the beginning of a framing narrative threaded throughout the story) Shattered Memories starts with the same basic set-up as the original game- once again Harry Mason arrives in Silent Hill with his daughter Cheryl in tow, crashes his car and wakes to find her missing. After that, all bets are off.

It quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong with Harry himself. He meets people who seem to vanish and reappear randomly, and who tell him things about himself and Cheryl that he has no recollection of. Strange visions haunt the empty streets of Silent Hill, some of which appear to show Harry events from his life that he doesn’t remember experiencing. What’s going on? Does he have amnesia? Is it an after-effect of the car crash?

Oh, and whenever he seems to be getting too close to the truth the entire world freezes over and pink humanoid monsters try to kill him. That’s a bit alarming.

So remember all of that complicated back story about the Order and cults and Alessa I went into in the very first post of this wild adventure? Yeah, forget all that. Shattered Memories takes place in a completely new continuity, one that’s populated by characters with the same names and broadly the same roles in the story as their predecessors, but apart from that tenuous connection the plot diverges wildly pretty early on. Characters, plot points and thematic concepts from the first game are deliberately altered, remixed or turned on their head in such a way as to intentionally mess with player’s preconceptions (this is apparently where the subtitle came from, the idea being that Silent Hill 1 fan’s memories of the game are being “shattered” do you see).

I’ve complained several times about later Silent Hill games shamelessly aping Silent Hill 2. Shattered Memories does that as well- so yes, there is a mysterious past and a big twist at the end- but I would argue it’s far more successful than previous or later attempts, as the game really seems to understand what made Silent Hill 2 so special and fairly cleverly puts its own spin on the same concepts instead of just regurgitating them.

Silent-Hill-Shattered-Memories-Impressions

Gameplay

Everything you know is a lie

Which is to say, Shattered memories more or less entirely throws out all Silent Hill preconceptions and begins again from scratch. Much like the plot, Shattered Memories maintains the same basic outline as the older Silent Hill games but diverges wildly from convention below the surface.

In the Wii version, which was developed as the lead platform, the Wii remote controls Harry’s flashlight and is used to solve puzzles by allowing the player to pick up objects and fiddle with things. The fog world/Otherworld dichotomy has been replaced with a snowy world/ice world mechanic, differing wildly from previous games in that enemies only exist in the latter- the player can’t be attacked or put in danger in the snow world, making the bulk of the game play out akin to an adventure game instead of survival horror. The old method of interacting with objects and reading on-screen text is gone- Harry now vocally comments on things you find in the game, and any posters/notes/signs etc you need to read are high enough resolution that you can just look at them and read them in the environment.

Odd, ghostly “glitches” can be found around the world that impart pieces of mini side-stories if examined with Harry’s trusty smartphone, used to take photos, receive spooky messages and call characters and phone numbers you find around the place.

Climax decided to solve the franchise’s long-running problems with combat by simply removing it completely- Harry can’t fight the monsters this time around, he has to run and hide to survive. The only way to slow them down is by grabbing flares found around the environment, which can be held to ward off the creatures or dropped on the ground at strategic locations to create impassable barriers.

An interesting new feature that was much ballyhooed prior to the game’s release is the “psyche profile”. Throughout the game your actions are tracked and a sort of personality profile is built, which determines the game’s ending, what locations you’ll visit at certain points, what the monsters look like, what clothes Harry will wear and how he responds to characters, how some areas look and so on. There are even several characters who come in multiple different flavours, with totally different appearances and personalities depending on what the psyche profile cooks up. Some of this is determined by the weird little tests the psychologist gives you in the framing story segments, but a lot of it is much more subtle, keeping track of things like what kind of objects you spend time looking at (stare too long at pin-ups of women in bikinis and the game will decide you’re a bit of a perv, for example), if you appear to be afraid or reluctant to go forward at certain points, if you run straight to your next goal or amble about exploring and so on. Essentially it’s a way of taking what by this point had come to be seen as the core idea of the franchise- a person’s inner demons and fears made manifest by the power’s of Silent Hill- and turning it into a game-play mechanic, with the player being psychologically trolled instead of the protagonist. Underneath the hood there are four play styles that a player is set on depending on their profile and corresponding to one of the four endings, but up to a certain point quite late in the game its possible to jump between tracks so to speak, and you can even end up with a mix-and-match of different elements.

That probably sounds too good to be true and to be honest it sort of is. The psyche profile is really just a gimmick, but it’s a fairly clever and entertaining one and I did often find that the game was in a sense tailoring itself to my personality. The versions of the characters I was supposed to like were all the ones I felt the most affinity for out of the available options, a character who you’re supposed to be a bit wary of was suitably off-putting and weird, I visited locations that I found interesting and Harry himself more or less always acted the way I would have chosen if I had been given dialogue options, which is pretty impressive considering  that his personality can vary quite widely right from the start of the game.

Shattered-Memories

The Horror

Our old friend the occult vs psychological scale returns with a vengeance, as Shattered Memories is by far the most heavily weighted toward the latter out of any of the games released thus far. I already mentioned that Alessa and the Order are out, but it goes a lot deeper than that- you could quite easily interpret the whole plot as being completely psychological in nature, with no paranormal occurrences present at all. Personally I think there are a few hints that something seemingly supernatural happens during the game, but the fact that this is a point of debate at all shows how far we’ve come from the early days.

One of the big differences between Nu Silent Hill and Silent Hill Classic is that the “snow world” you spend most of the game in is actually the real world- the streets are empty because there’s a huge blizzard and everyone is inside, not because you’re trapped in a parallel nightmare dimension created by a psychic girl suspended in a state of permanent waking death.

Well, okay. That’s a tad simplistic. There’s clearly something screwy going on with at least Harry’s perception of the world, so just saying “you’re in normalville this time around” isn’t quite accurate, but for all intents and purposes the streets you traipse about in are objectively real instead of being subjective parallel dimensions. I can’t go into any more detail without getting into spoilers, unfortunately.

The other big change is the Otherworld, which has shed its rust and blood look for an icy appearance. Initially the Otherworld sections are quite tame compared to what Silent Hill fans will be used to, but they get fairly wild later on with Climax pulling out all sorts of impossible geometries and bizarre landscapes that are a lot more expansive and grandiose than in previous games.

So is the whole snow and ice aesthetic actually scary? No, not really. That sounds like a flaw- and it was in Homecoming- but thing thing is Shattered Memories isn’t really trying to scare you in the same way that the older games were. Its priorities have shifted to a focus on psychological weirdness and mystery, akin to David Lynch’s less disturbing works. Whether or not this works for you will depend on how malleable your preconceptions of what a Silent Hill game should be are.

One area that Shattered memories really pushed the boat out on is symbolism. The monstes themselves tend toward either really obvious metaphors or designs that are abstract to the point of being meaningless, but a lot of the game’s visual design is quite subtly metaphorical in relation to the character’s minds, and there are a lot of odd or seemingly nonsensical things scattered around the game that only makes sense once you’ve seen the end of the story. The ice-covered Otherworld is a also a very cool concept once you work out what it actually is and what’s triggering its appearance.

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Development

I remember reading an interesting story about how this game got started in an interview with (I believe) our friend Tomm Hulett, in which he basically said that him and some Climax people were dicking around toward the end of development on Origins when one of them mentioned that the snow effects in the first game had been very impressive for the time, with flakes sticking to Harry and stuff. On a dare one of the 3D artists decided to try to make his own version with more modern technology and whipped up a cool snow effect in a few days. This sparked the idea for Shattered Memories.

I’m not entirely sure I actually believe that- the game is way too thematically complex and consistent to have such a flippant origin- but it’s as good an explanation as any. I’ve always been kind of baffled that a game intentionally based around throwing out every recognizable feature of a beloved franchise and screwing with fan’s expectations got greenlit, but I guess Konami was in the mood for something different.

Last time I expressed some displeasure with the decision to not hire Climax again to make Homecoming, but actually that was probably because they were working on this. So never mind, I guess.

Back in the Silent Hill 3 post I mentioned there was some evidence that another Silent Hill game starring a woman had been proposed at some point. After the release of Shattered Memories Climax ran a competition to give away some of the design documents they used to pitch the game, under the working title “Cold Heart”. I haven’t been able to find any information about what’s inside, but the cover is quite interesting in that it shows a woman in what in what is obviously the role Harry plays in the final game:

coldheart (1)

I’m fairly certain I know who that is, and all I’ll say is that casting her as the protagonist would alter the nature of the story pretty wildly so I’m very curious about what this prototype version of the game would have been like.

Down_i_go.

The Music

Take a bow, Mr. Yamaoka. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be his final Silent Hill game. Good thing it’s a pretty cool soundtrack.

Fittingly, the music this time around is very different from any of the previous games, less industrial and relying on more traditional instruments to create a somber, downbeat and at times depressing mood. Case in point this track, which plays in a broken down shopping mall:

We have four vocal tracks this time, including, for some reason, a cover of Elvis’ “Always On My Mind”. My favorite is probably this one:

There’s another good song that plays over the end credits called “Acceptance” that I won’t embed because the lyrics contain some fairly heavy spoilers.

Akira Yamaoka displayed a constant ability to tailor his soundtracks to the game in question, and it’s cool to see that that held true even for something that broke so heavily from the franchise’s roots.

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Review

I fucking love this game so much.

Yes, it’s so different from any of the earlier Silent Hill titles that an experienced series veteran could easily play through large chunks of it without realizing it was a Silent Hill game. Yes, it’s not really scary in the least. Yes, it has plenty of flaws.

But the core experience is such a creative, challenging, complex masterpiece that I have no reservations about putting it right up with 2 and 3 as the best of the series. Many indie games like Gone Home are being rightfully hailed as artistic achievements for the medium, but Shattered Memories proves that the AAA world can still put out similar experiences from time to time. Here we have a mainstream game released commercially on store shelves that features no villain, no enemy to defeat or sinister plot to overcome, that concerns itself solely with loss and the psychological toll of grief, and does so in a way that offers absolutely no concession to the player, that is an unabashedly weird and confusing mind trip from start to finish. It’s a far more sophisticated, human and moving story than Silent Hill has ever tackled before, or that mainstream games tend to go for.

Shattered Memories’ interaction with its predecessors is similarly complex and subtle, taking ideas and themes from the first three games and presenting them in new and creative ways sure to delight long-time fans. It’s a bold move that displays a singular conviction to deliver an interesting experience instead of pandering to the desires of the player. If only more developers could be that daring

On the gameplay front Shattered Memories takes one of the core ideas of the franchise- exploring an empty town- and absolutely nails it. A big part of this is down to the visuals, both in terms of raw technical prowess and art direction. This game looks absolutely phenomenal for a Wii title with crisp textures and some really stellar lighting effects (individual snowflakes actually cast shadows when illuminated by your flashlight, which I don’t think even next-gen games have done so far) and the environments have been crafted with a massive attention to detail. This version of Silent Hill is far more real and palpably alive than of its previous incarnations, a worn and broken down place that’s obviously seen better days languishing in the shadow of its past, and it’s an absolute joy to explore. The Wii remote is now mostly remembered as a failed experiment that never really lived up to its promise, but Shattered Memories is one of the few games to really use the hardware well, as I found that shining my flashlight around with the remote really did increase the game’s feeling of immersion.

There are flaws, to be sure. The puzzles aren’t going to be very challenging to most players and just like in Homecoming the attempt to alleviate the combat troubles results in a new system that’s often more frustrating than what it was intended to replace. You can theoretically hide and use stealth to evade monsters to create a sort of Amnesia-like experience, but in practice the enemy AI doesn’t seem to able to accommodate this, as hiding often just results in monsters wandering around in front of the closet you’ve stashed Harry in until you’re forced to get out and run away. Otherworld environments are dark and maze-like, so you often end up running around in circles away from enemies that, depending on the difficulty that the psyche profile has seemingly arbitrarily selected, may be able to easily outrun you. The idea of strategically dropping flares to create road blocks is cool but doesn’t really work all that well since the monsters have an apparently supernatural ability to detect Harry’s location (they can actually see your flashlight beam through walls) and will easily take a detour around your little flare to attack from a different direction.

This could have been fatal to the game’s quality, but as there are only a handful of chase sections in the entire game you can quite easily just power through them and treat them as a temporary annoyance. Most of your play-time will be spent exploring the town and uncovering more of the plot, and this is where Shattered memories excels. It’s an utterly unique and engrossing experience, and stands as easily the most daring and creative Silent Hill game to date.

Psychiatrist

Should you play it?

This is a bit tricky. Yes, anyone who likes video games should play Shattered Memories, but it’s so different from any of the other games in the series that your opinion on them will be absolutely no indication of whether you’ll enjoy it and if you go in expecting anything like the same kind of experience you’ll inevitably come away disappointed.

The plot of Shattered Memories can be understood just fine on its own, since it essentially just tells its own story with the same basic building blocks as the first game, but long-time series fans will get a lot more out of it. The more Silent Hill you’ve played and the more knowledgable you are about the franchise the more you’ll be able to say “ah yes, I see they’re using the concept of [spoiler] but in a different context, quite remarkable” and then you’ll adjust your monocle and take another sip of brandy.

My recommendation would be to play at least the first three games, then seek out Shattered Memories and give it a whirl.

Unfortunately you’ll need a Wii to get the most out of it, but Nintendo sold so many of those things there’s probably two in your immediate vicinity already. Check under the couch cushions if you can’t spot them right away (I believe the Wii U is backwards compatible as well). A PS2 and PSP version were also released, but as they have inferior graphics and lack the motion controls I’d save them as a last resort. This was one of those Wii games that came out and seemed to vanish off the face of the Earth within two weeks, but online copies should be plentiful.

Legacy

The Silent Hill fandom used to be somewhat notorious for obsessively complaining and nit-picking new games, particularly after the Team Silent breakup. Shattered Memories appears to be the game that broke them. After a lot of fretting and gnashing of teeth the fandom seems to be relatively accepting of the game, and there was a lot less angst over the eighth and so far final entry in the series once everyone managed to get used to the idea that not all Silent Hill games have to be clones of Silent Hill 2.

Shattered Memories didn’t make much of a lasting impact on the wider world, probably due the marginalized nature of the Wii by the time it came out, but it has a small core of followers and comes up often as an overlooked gem of this generation of gaming. As people look back on the last seven years I hope it builds a status as something of a cult classic.

Personally, I was fully prepared to declare Climax the One True Successor to Team Silent’s legacy and see them handle all future games in the franchise, but alas it was not to be. They went on to make a few apparently mediocre games like the Rocket Knight remake and are currently working on next-gen titles, one of which is a horror game that as far as anyone knows has no connection to Silent Hill.

No, for the next evolution of the franchise Konami turned to a relatively unknown Czech developer named Vatra, who decided to get the series back on track by simultaneously returning it to its roots and combining the various attempts at innovation from the last few games into one super-Silent Hill, the ultimate current gen Silent Hill game that everyone had been waiting for since Homecoming was announced. Let’s find out if they succeeded, shall we?

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