The Silent Hill series has always been at its best when it’s been at its most innovative. Its experiments (e.g. Silent Hill 2, The Room, Shattered Memories) are trusted to be, at their very least, conceptually interesting, and thus refreshing and exciting. All three remained loyal to their past- each took a core fragment of what had come before- but the developers would use it to spark a wave of bold new ideas that they were invested in. Each team was uniquely responsible for their title, while fitting it into the philosophy of the series as a whole.
Titles constrained by fan expectations on the other hand (0rigins, Homecoming, Downpour) could be very well executed, but are all ultimately uninspired and unoriginal, and seem bland when compared to their predecessors.
The Western development teams behind these games were told to strictly adhere to a set of ideas and ideals that they had had no part in crafting, while still somehow retaining the original gleeful crackle of imagination that birthed them. This is impossible, even for the most passionate of Silent Hill devotees.
The recent ‘Downpour’ is perfect at illustrating this impossibility. Vatra Games aimed to recapture the dreadful (in the best sense of the word), playfully tempting ‘risk/reward’ style of exploration that is remembered of Silent Hill 1 and 2. I felt they did so relatively poorly, and while it was pleasantly nostalgic to return to a non-linear style of gameplay, it only worked as nostalgia; a cruelly tantalizing, bitter-sweet reminder of what once was.
What if it had been well done, even exceeded its original implementation? Well then it would have been a well-executed replica of another man’s vision. That it wasn’t particularly well developed only served to bring out memories of the past that further highlighted its failings. Downpour’s attempt to implement an open-world style of gameplay was doomed from the get-go- whether it succeeded or failed, nobody will ever remember it on its own terms.
However, exploration in Downpour didn’t just yield health drinks and steel pipes as before. The player could unearth side-quests; a brand new, very welcome addition to the series that I predict will be Downpour’s legacy.
These thirteen missions together comprise an anthology of short, self-contained, interactive horror stories. Scattered around and hidden away from the rather more predictable main plot, Vatra created small spaces where they could take risks and try out their own unconventional ideas. Like a sketch comedy they are hit and miss; but the rewards of interesting one-off game mechanics and gloomy, truly disturbing tales easily outweigh the duds.
The puzzle ideas that are kicked around are delightful fun in themselves, but it’s the stories that are the richest, and are clearly fuelled by a personal passion- many were inspired by real life experiences of the designers.
In play, you instinctively feel that passion- you can feel the developers pulling the strings and cackling with unrestrained glee as they see you unnerved and unsettled and genuinely affected by stories they wanted to tell.
Book of Memories
Wayforward Technology, under the guidance of series producer Tomm Hulett, are about to release Silent Hill’s PS Vita debut- a top-down, co-operative dungeon crawler with customizable characters; a “macabre celebration of the best the series has to offer” that revisits beloved locations, creatures, and even music from past stories. The conceit is that you receive an odd book in the post, delivered by Silent Hill’s resident postmaster Howard Blackwood (as seen in Downpour and graphic novel Silent Hill: Past Life). Inside you discover your life story laid bare, your ability to alter it, and soon enough, the consequences of your alterations.
We know very little about it, other than the above, and its self-professed departure from psychological horror. It has been met with almost universal disdain.
I’m trying to understand why. It is an understated little spin-off title on a handheld, with some cool new ideas, and a team behind it that clearly revels in their work.
…What’s the problem?
I’m not being obtuse here. What’s the problem? Does it stay true to the traditional model? No, and thank God for that. Why is there a model in the first place? We’ve seen what happens when the developers are allowed to make their own damn game, have their own take on the series heard.
I mean, this is clearly something Konami and Wayforward really wanted to do, given how big a risk it is to go against fan consensus like this. Starting production on a game for a console not yet released is a dangerous venture in and of itself. Its plot, written by Hulett, seems to be pretty fundamental to the game and how it plays, not just something tacked on as an afterthought. Daniel Licht is returning for an even larger soundtrack than Downpour, with series regular Mary Elizabeth Mcglynn returning for vocal tracks.
It’s almost as if…the developers are…passionate about what they’re doing?!
By demanding the glories of the past, fans are ensuring they’ll never see that level of excellence again. Creativity and originality born out of unrestrained passion is what birthed the original games, not an innate understanding of storytelling and game-design somehow exclusive to Japan.
Fans need to stop acting as armchair designers and let the developers follow their passions- because as the very games you want to see made over and over again have proven to you, this inventiveness almost always brings stellar results. You can see this with Climax UK (of the painfully mediocre Silent Hill 0rigins), who found freedom in the development of a non-canonical Wii title. This extra legroom allowed Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a game that abandoned core series staples like combat and a gritty blood-and-rust aesthetic, and delivered what I believe to be one of the finest examples of an interactive narrative there is.
Silent Hill 25 could be a ‘hip-hopera’ directed by R Kelly
We need to stop lamenting the loss of our past, because the beauty of this series is its lack of a continuing storyline and returning characters. As long as Konami keeps its past artistic achievements protected from direct sequels and prequels, Silent Hill should be whatever the hell it wants to be, as long as it is good at being whatever the hell it wants to be. There is nothing to lose! An eighth Harry Potter book set in an American High School is something to fear as a Harry Potter fan, but Silent Hill 25 could be a ‘hip-hopera’ directed by R Kelly, and it wouldn’t touch your beloved memories of Silent Hill 2. I honestly cannot understand why fans are so ardent against the very process that brought them the games they love.
Imagine this utopia: Konami could even go so far as to have the ‘Silent Hill’ name could act as an umbrella for a number of experimental pseudo-indie games, guaranteeing each a base level of financial success, and thus a safe space for devs to experiment. I’d rather take that than continually trying slightly different variations of an old formula that was already growing stale by its retrospectively beloved third iteration.
You know what Book of Memories means for the series? Nothing! Absolutely nothing. At worst, it’s a chance for the developers to let their hair down and toy around with some fun new concepts, while ensuring they have no impact whatsoever on the series as a whole. At best, it might spark a liberalism that would allow developers to again put a piece of themselves in their craft- and while that may bring problems, we know from experience that a game made by passionate hard-working people is inherently rewarding. It may go against a lot the series has stood for up to this point, but Book of Memories is finally, finally a game that its developers hold full responsibility for, a game they truly want to make. That love and ingenuity is really what’s at the heart of Silent Hill.
Since they left the series, Team Silent has morphed into that insufferable “Ideas Guy”- the guy who gives a project its vision, and lets his drones give all the blood, sweat and tears. The drones need to take the reins- wherever they may take us, it’ll be a damn sight more interesting than playing Silent Hill 2 clones for the fiftieth time.