I love Silent Hill 3, I really do, but I…uh, often find myself wishing it didn’t exist.
Silent Hill 2 brought with it a cacophony of fun new ideas that widened the scope of the series- most significantly it revealed that each individual slips into their very own Otherworld (essentially a nightmarish psycho-dramatic landscape) upon entering the town.
For a little while it looked like the series was setting itself up to last both financially and creatively for at least a bloody decade or two. You want to make a Silent Hill game? All you need to do is craft a strong protagonist (or antagonist, or side-character etc), then drop them into the town and watch Silent Hill ripple and morph around them. The style of gameplay, the art design, the music- everything would be symbolic, everything would be personal- everything would stem from one central person. And people are diverse.
The future looked salivatingly promising.
And then Silent Hill 3, in a panicked search for comfort and security, came crawling back, tail between its legs and ambition abandoned, to the plot of the original game. The story of Alessa and her mother’s exploitation of her had been wrapped up quite nicely (or at least as ‘nicely’ as such a harrowing tale can be wrapped up), with no real loose ends to speak of. Silent Hill 3 decided it needed a direct sequel.
I should point out that as far as direct sequels go, SH3 is really rather admirably restrained and remarkably tasteful in the way it goes about its business. Only a smattering of characters return, and almost two decades later in very different forms- this is not what Portal 2 was to Portal. That being said, while I’m grateful for it not retconning the past, I can’t show much enthusiasm for what it did for Silent Hill’s future.
During the otherworld portions of each game, the environments take on a mangled, fleshy appearance, burning with rust and dripping with blood.
You see, the character ‘generating’ Silent Hill 3’s otherworld is very similar to the character generating Silent Hill 1’s, and as such, both games share the same basic aesthetic. During the otherworld portions of each game, the environments take on a mangled, fleshy appearance, burning with rust and dripping with blood. Although it originally seemed set to be only one of many possible art styles relating to different people, this single look became (and continues to be) inseparable from the ‘Silent Hill’ name.
This is a problem. Silent Hill communicates its stories through imagery, and the way it makes the player feel during play; limiting the series to a single colour palette and tired set of tropes necessarily limits the range of stories that can be told.
Well actually, no. Silent Hill 4, 0rigins, Homecoming and Downpour all implement a very slight variation of the same look, and despite that their stories are pretty diverse. But the symbolism doesn’t match the diversity of the stories, and in each case it comes across as diluted. In this series, if you’re going to have an individual story, you need to have an individual art style to support it. I recently played through Silent Hill Downpour, and while it ties its theme of water wonderfully well to its characters, it still sometimes falls back on having the safe skeleton of rust and blood in the background. I mean I don’t know- maybe Vatra spent ages thinking through exactly how its being there served the plot, and what aspect of Murphy’s character it conveyed to the player. I think it’s more likely that it’s there to assure anybody with only a passing knowledge of the franchise that yes, they’re playing a Silent Hill game. The repetition of this aesthetic clogs up whatever Downpour was trying to say, obscures whatever the original game had to say, and makes the player doubt either had anything original or sophisticated to say at all.
Silent Hill 3 obviously doesn’t hold full responsibility for this stifling of creativity
Silent Hill 3 obviously doesn’t hold full responsibility for this stifling of creativity- I think the failure of Silent Hill 4 cemented the fallacy in player’s heads that there was a formula and it had to be followed. But the third game was the tipping point of the series. Its predecessor had opened up the mythos, allowed room for individual stories, big one-off ideas that would stand or fall on their own merits, and nothing else. When it came time to actually write those stories, and try out those ideas, Silent Hill 3 showed a moment of hesitation, and cautiously, cowardly, took a small step back. It decided what Silent Hill was. It wasn’t to be a Twilight Zone-esque workshop after all. Just another archaic, formulaic tank controlled remnant of late 90’s survival horror.
Then Shattered Memories came along, and had the guts to do what Silent Hill 3 didn’t.
Shattered Memories dropped everything. The rust, the fog, the combat- all the empty clichés, everything falsely given prominence as ‘core staples’- all thrown out the window. It dismissed the cosmetic and dug down, deeper and deeper, to the heart of what made ‘Silent Hill’ tick.
The developers crafted an interesting character, dropped them into the town, and watched Silent Hill ripple and morph around them. So, what happened? Well, the gameplay took on a slower pace, became more cerebral and less action-oriented. The art design was cold and lonely, as opposed to hot and oppressive. The music? Moody and subdued, rather than industrial and frantic. All blasphemous, all done in an effort to revert emphasis back to delivering a truly character driven story.
In my mind, SHSM is the first true successor to Silent Hill 2
In my mind, SHSM is the first true successor to Silent Hill 2. Fellow non-Team Silent games 0rigins and Homecoming may perhaps be more faithful to their past than SHSM- and their past was good. But Silent Hill 2 was primed to launch the series into the future. Shattered Memories remembers how the series almost became great, and carries on from where Silent Hill 2 left off.
All things considered, I shouldn’t have been surprised at seeing it taking as much flak as it did.
So, yeah. People don’t like it. It’s ironic isn’t it? The moment the series shows any sign of returning to its experimental roots is the moment gamers denounce it as a Silent Hill game. But I’ve talked about that enough.
It’s a shame that it was overlooked. But not to worry! I’m here to spread the news to a hundred or so bleary eyed readers that not only is Silent Hill Shattered Memories conceptually refreshing, but it’s marvelously executed as well! Hoorah!
Check back in a few days’ time for the second half of this retrospective, where I’ll explain why I think Shattered Memories is the quiet crown of the Silent Hill series.