We’ve all battled through our childhood fears. I used to be afraid of clowns, but after spending some quality time learning about them and eventually becoming one, (and consequently spending several months in psychiatric rehabilitation) my coulrophobia was gone… only to be replaced by an inexplicable urge to juggle every time I see polka dots. I’ll admit, the clown thing was a bit of an exaggeration (or was it?), but overcoming irrational fears is a part of developing the “self.” Fears are the unconscious result of the traumas we have suffered. Sometimes they can be dealt with, other times you might need a little help. It’s reconciling with them and moving on with your life that’s important. This theme is something that the Silent Hill series has been tackling since its debut in 1999.
Silent Hill has always been a town in transformation, and each game has brought forth a new interpretation. As you enter into the town, either as a protagonist or an antagonist, you are entering into yourself. It’s a self-reflexive place riddled with physical manifestation of your deepest fears. From James Sunderland to Heather, you can look to any character and identify their inner conflicts. But you have to do a fair amount of analysis to find them. This is what made the original Silent Hill so terrifying. As Harry Mason, you look for your daughter, Cheryl, who has gone missing in Silent Hill. The crux of it was that the town is a psychological manifestation of Alyssa, a burn victim and pet project of The Order. You have to face her nightmares and personal demons in order to get your daughter back. The entire experience was out of your control and Harry was really in over his head.
The original Silent Hill revolutionized the mode and the cinematic nature of horror in videogames. I guess my fanboy status has kind of shone through here, but it’s a deep and disturbing title that demands a lot of attention. Right from the start of the game, we can gauge certain aspects of Harry’s personality. He’s the protagonist and he’s determined to find his daughter. As you play, Harry finds himself road blocked on both a physical and psychological level. He’s a strong guy and his identity as a protagonist becomes obscured when he’s unable to act as one. In the amusement park, he breaks down and has a moment of weakness that really lets his personality shine through. Thus, after being stopped so many times Harry’s character eventually projects a feeling of apathy towards his lost daughter. The town itself is preventing him from acting as a protagonist and its darkness is consuming him.
Harry Mason finds himself obscured from his purpose in the game. He physically and psychologically can’t be the protagonist the player needs him to be. We are unable to help him conquer his fears other than mashing buttons and killing monsters. His personal hell is his alone to suffer through. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a re-imagining of the little, foggy town.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories wears its psychology on its sleeve. The lack of control is still there, but the onus is on you to construct Harry Mason’s psychological profile. He becomes a kind of analogue for our values and fears. Games like Silent Hill affect us on an unconscious level. Characters are left undeveloped and their motivations cannot be explicitly explained. This allows us to imprint some of our identity onto them. When you look at a character like Eddie from Silent Hill 2, you can’t automatically distinguish what he’s thinking. He’s an animalistic character who’s being driven by instincts and emotions. There’s no guide towards his development as a character, there’s no exposition to explain his motivations and no reasons behind his actions. But as we learn more about James, we see how Eddie relates to his personality and his unconscious. Shattered Memories attempts this kind of explanation.
The way characters appear and act in Shattered Memories depends on how you answer the psychiatrist’s questions. Take Cybil for instance. There’s a nice Cybil, an overtly sexualized one and a threatening one. Each of these personalities is constructed around the player’s experience, and your interaction with them determines what reoccurring images start to emerge. For instance, I got the nice Cybil. Her sexuality is subdued and the images that appeared in the game were of an explicitly sexual nature. This all works to construct Silent Hill as one big representation of Harry’s psyche, which in turn is affected by mine. The only problem is that it’s done in such a blatant and obvious way that even observers could tell what was going on. This kind of psychological exposition doesn’t require an immense reading, and that’s something Silent Hill is notorious for.
I’ll admit that developer Climax Group has a firm grasp on the aesthetic and the atmosphere of Silent Hill. Areas are dark, monsters are grotesque and the characters look nice, but there’s something missing. The developers got a fresh start with this game, and their re-telling of the story is actually quite innovative and interesting. Everything is brand new and it’s a bold direction for series. The main problem is that the horror has taken on a Western undertone. There’s value in ambiguity, and Japanese psychological horror is always subtle.
In Shattered Memories, I automatically understood what the naked, flesh monsters were. They are the manifestations of Harry’s emotional luggage. He has to run away from them because as he delves deeper into his unconscious, he opens up his psyche to the monsters of his past, i.e. Silent Hill as the unconscious mind over which he no power to face You see, the game is almost too easy to read. The original Harry Mason is a hero who’s been put into harms way. He’s calm and shows almost no emotion throughout the game, but he slowly comes to a realization about the world around him. Through Dahlia Gillespie, he is able to get a grasp Silent Hill as a construction of someone else’s psyche. This is why he’s unable to find his way around, this is why he needs a map and this is why he keeps getting attacked by dogs and demons. This is what makes the original Harry Mason so interesting. He is constantly waking up in this unknown reality, and the darkness around him becomes a metaphor in his search for the self.
As protagonists, we see a stark contrast in both Harrys. In one, we see a portrayal of a masculine hero looking for his daughter. In the other, we see a man fighting off his memories and the mistakes of his past. These two things become an integral part of his character. I wonder what would happen if he killed one of those monsters? He’d probably lose a chunk of his memories. I wouldn’t go as far to say that those flesh-things are like Pyramid Head to James, but they are symbolic of his inner turmoil.
At least, this is was my initial reading.
The thing about reading into this new Harry Mason is that the player has to fill in the gaps. Without spoiling the game for everyone, I’ll say that there’s more to Harry than meets the eye. When I first played this game, I found Harry to be rather shallow and weak, but as I kept going his character began to fill itself in. He’s an inherently fragmented character, so are all Silent Hill protagonists, but in order to construct a character profile the games looks to you. Unlike the original Silent Hill, the onus is on the player to develop Harry. It’s an interesting element in the game’s design, but what does it say about the nature of videogame story telling and the role of the protagonist?
On my second play through, I answered the psychiatrist questions differently and received an entirely new experience. It was cool, but this doesn’t speak volumes about the game’s narrative. Western horror is always very clean cut. You always have to have an explanation for the horrors that you are seeing and the nightmares the protagonists are facing. Every time we look at the new Harry Mason and his surroundings, we see a world and a person who is so drenched in intentional meaning that it almost takes the mystery away from Silent Hill. I can respect that this game isn’t a remake, but a re-imagining of the series. Japanese horror films and games project our irrational fears in a subtle way. Psychological terror comes recollecting the symbols and references of your past, it comes from confronting those irrational fears. The way horror is presented in Shattered Memories is so blatant that there’s almost no mystery left. For once in my life, I found a Silent Hill game that was easy to read.
One suggestion that could have made Shattered Memories into a better game would have been to have called it something else. It sounds strange, but it’s true. “Silent Hill” comes with all kinds of expectations and stigmas. I can’t say that it was a bad experience or that it wasn’t deep; Shattered Memories just isn’t Silent Hill. It’s a Japanese series and unless it’s in the hands of Team Silent, we will never experience the kind of psychological horror we all know and love. This goes deeper than just a means of having a new team taking a look at the franchise, it’s a matter of the cultural differences between the East and the West and the nature of horror.
I will give Shattered Memories one thing- the ending blew my mind. I can honestly say that I did not expect it and someone very clever must have thought of that twist; however, the ending lends itself to the clear-cut nature of western horror. Something that’s been lost in most survival horror games nowadays is the ambiguity. Sometimes you shouldn’t provide an explanation to the player. We don’t need pandering too, and even though closure is a big part of the cathartic experience of gaming, a game should always make you think. The ending knocked the wind out of me like a sudden gust of cold air, but Harry Mason’s character left me under whelmed and disappointed. Maybe if I got to know him… wait, I do because he’s a representation of my unconscious. God, I’m a videogame character. I guess it’s back to psychiatric rehabilitation. How am I supposed to explain this one?
Check out Matthew’s personal blog at liftbot.blogspot.com.