Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
Early August saw a double whammy of news: we began with the unfortunate report of Robin Williams’ death, a sad piece of news for longtime fans like myself who grew up either laughing at Robin’s live action antics or enjoying his cartoon voiceovers.
But then the following day treated gamers to one of the single greatest PR stunts ever conceived by none other than the master director of deception, Hideo Kojima; after much speculation and hope, Kojima finally revealed that he will be working on the next Silent Hill game alongside Guillermo Del Toro and starring Norman Reedus as the protagonist. For longtime fans of the Silent Hill series that have lamented the last few years of misguided and mediocre entries, this is the single greatest news for the franchise in a long while.
The one-two punch of surprising news brought up a polarizing display of emotions that could be summed up nicely with this tired old meme:
This is also the most attention that Silent Hill has gotten in quite some time, if not all time; almost instantly, P.T. (aka the “playable teaser” disguised as….a playable teaser) became the newest streaming sensation, with people all over recording their screams over streams to the hilarity of audiences everywhere. I too got in on the P.T. bandwagon, eager to include even family and friends to the fun.
If this teaser was anything to go by, then I can safely say that Silent Hill is in good hands; not only did P.T. deliver a legitimately terrifying experience and a fantastic presentation, it brought back that dreadfully familiar atmosphere that the series had been missing for years. Simply put, P.T. was the single greatest Silent Hill experience I’ve had since the third game.
But that doesn’t mean we can relax yet. After all, Horror is and always will be a tricky thing to pull off. Even if Silent Hills (as it is currently titled) accomplishes the kindergarten feat of being much better than its recent predecessors, Kojima and Del Toro have their work cut out for them if they hope to match the quality of Team Silent’s original efforts. Creating a brief jump-scare experience may lead to some momentary enjoyment, but to masterfully conceive a long-lasting horror experience that people will dream about for decades requires a bit more of an expert touch.
As someone who still “fondly” recalls the first moment I went down the dark and narrow path of the Silent Hill series, I’ve spent a lot of time observing what does and doesn’t work when creating a new entry. Here are my personal do’s and dont’s that I’m hoping Kojima and his team have already kept in mind while designing Silent Hills.
Pretty self-explanatory, but out of all the Team Silent members, legendary composer Akira Yamaoka ranks among the most requested to return to the series. His last contribution was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which wasn’t his most stellar work in the franchise, but still cemented that no one can ever hope to match his fantastically unique soundtracks.
The ambient noise making up P.T.’s soundtrack is a good effort…far more faithful to the original games’ otherworldly audio than Silent Hill: Downpour. Perhaps Yamaoka is already involved in the project, his name ready to be dropped during the next major media showing of the game. If not, there’s little reason not to include him, as he is still serving as a freelance composer.
This one stings a little, as Pyramid Head remains one of my all-time favorite monster designs in any medium. Like with most monsters, however, the more you utilize the creature, the less scary it becomes. Lacking any sense of restraint or even understanding of what made PH such a popular horror icon to begin with, the lumbering Buster Sword-wielding demon has been clumsily inserted into too many SH games to ever take seriously again. Even putting him in as a brief cameo in Silent Hills would only be met with disappointment, not excitement, as he has been pandered far too much at this point.
The original point of Pyramid Head was that he was meant to exclusively serve as James’ personal demon, both figuratively and literally. P.T. seems to get the point of this, as the ghostly spirit of Lisa serves as a specter selectively chosen to haunt the player’s character (who may or may not have been responsible for her death). Imagine how silly it would be if Lisa went on to haunt other characters in later SH games. There are plenty of other creatures to conceptualize that can torment our nightmares beyond Pyramid Head.
Speaking of creature concepts, the one thing that all of the Silent Hills after the fourth game have commonly screwed up is the monster designs. The original terrors from Team Silent were scary because there was no clear way to describe them by appearance; when creating the creatures of Silent Hill 2, Masahiro Ito took care not to give any of them faces. By taking away such a familiar process to identify something, nearly every enemy in the first four games were indescribable and incomprehensible…precisely the kind of horrors that haunt you in your deepest nightmares.
Admittedly, the ghostly aberration in P.T. doesn’t quite fall into this category, though it does serve its purpose as a first-person spook bred from the brief story you are given. The misshapen fetus in the bathroom sink is a closer fit, but is more of a tribute to Eraserhead than anything else. It’s unclear if both of these creatures are an indication of the direction Kojima and Del Toro plan to take Silent Hills in, but hopefully the final game will have a healthy variety of horrors that can be appreciated from a design standpoint, instead of just being a sad rehash of an existing SH design or something utterly laughable.
This one is a bit tricky to decide, which is why I’ll be looking at both sides of the argument. No one in their right mind will ever claim that Silent Hill has ever had decent combat, but the clunky controls and lack of stopping power did help to establish early on that you weren’t meant to fight every fiendish creature you come across; SH 1 in particular proved that players would be better off running away than standing their ground, which created a nice balance between making enemies theoretically beatable but ultimately proving too risky to bother. As far as the original game goes, fighting was always a last resort when no other option presented itself.
But over time, the games just kept getting easier and easier. Silent Hill 3 tried to balance things out by offering stronger weapons (including a Pulp Fiction-inspired katana and machineguns) while also flooding you with more enemies, but it still lacked that feeling of helplessness from the original. From then on, Konami would continue to reinvent the combat with subsequent games only to make it worse each and every time. Homecoming in particular made it a requirement to fight enemies while utilizing a lock-on system that was more clumsy than creepy, sucking the horror right out of every encounter. There was even a Vita game that built itself entirely around Diablo-style combat and loot rewards, serving as the final nail in the coffin for the PS3/360 generation of Silent Hill games.
Personally speaking, if you can kill it, it stops being scary. Games like Amnesia and Outlast have embraced the concept of withholding combat in favor of evading or hiding from an unstoppable enemy rather than face it head on. However, the reverse could also prove clunky and repetitive, as evidenced in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (the only game in the series where the only option when facing monsters was to evade and escape to the nearest exit). It can go south either way, but perhaps emulating the original game’s optional-yet-risky approach to combat may work best. Ironically, a game where you must stealthily avoid detection by enemies should be right up Kojima’s alley, but in order to make it work and still be scary, it requires quite a bit of design drafting.
There is a YouTube channel of devout Silent Hill critics who offer up detailed analysis and opinions regarding the SH series, including heavily criticizing the last few entries…which is highly deserved. Their eye-opening look into what went wrong with the Silent Hill HD Collection is especially interesting to watch.
But one sentiment I highly disagree with is their insistence that the cult (which has gone by several name changes, their most common title being The Order) is a necessary part of Silent Hill’s mythology. Or rather, they are not necessary to the point that they need to be referenced in every game.
Just as how showing too much of a monster detracts from the fear you feel in a horror story, so too does explaining too much ruins the mystery. In Silent Hill 1 and 3, the cult worked as a way to bridge the two stories together, though most fans can agree that by the third game much of the suspense and dread of the town itself was affected by the extended exposition regarding its history. Regardless, the final confrontation between SH3’s protagonist Heather and the surviving cult leader Claudia served as a nice way to wrap up that particular story arc, if not the entire SH series as we knew it.
Yet by the time Silent Hill Homecoming reared itself, the cult continued to inexplicably exist, with a whole new host of members never seen nor mentioned before. Unlike Claudia, these cult members were not pagan sorcerers able to manipulate the violent entity that formed Silent Hill and its monstrous minions, but regular humans in masks wielding guns, blades and chainsaws. In a series known for featuring indescribable and disturbingly phallic creatures, you can see what a downgrade it was to suddenly toss in the cast of Saw.
The cult worked best as an entity that had long ceased to exist, with the first three games featuring only a couple of the last living members of its order. This sentiment gives Silent Hill an appropriately post-apocalyptic feel: a group of madmen and women tried to summon a satanic entity only to have their town and all the people who lived in it fall into an eternal limbo of pain and torment. Whenever players make a return to Silent Hill, it should feel like visiting Chernobyl: a dilapidated lived-in city that was struck by a cataclysmic event where only nightmares (figuratively and literally) remained. The notion that there would still be people in robes performing voodoo and witch-burning rituals is too silly and cliche by comparison.
In fact, let’s be sure to keep the amount of human characters small altogether. Recent SH games have added far too many characters into their story, which has negatively affected the franchise in several ways; for one, it ruins the feeling of isolation that players have felt in earlier games. Even though each protagonist would typically have one companion and one antagonist, respectively, very seldom would the playable characters interact with other people, causing an uncomfortable tension of loneliness, like wandering around a dark house during a blackout. The most infamous and terrifying areas in the original games were places that people would generally be afraid to be left alone in, including a school, a hospital, a hotel and a shopping mall.
But in the last few SH games, there would be people actually living within the town, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the nightmarish presence that surrounds them. Worse yet, these additional characters were far too uninteresting and often comical in execution, a far cry from the tortured cast of Silent Hill 2 (which were kept to less than a half dozen).
Let’s also hope they keep the main character mostly alone without any companions. As fans have bemoaned since Resident Evil 5, having another character by your side takes away much of the fear and tension. As brilliant as The Last of Us was, having Joel constantly surrounded by companions, Ellie or otherwise, gave the game a great narrative at the cost of the fear and tension if he were alone.
In many ways, Silent Hill 2 served as a high watermark for the series that has resulted in future entries desperately trying to replicate its greatness….emphasis on “desperately”. Specifically, the attempt to emulate the game’s twist ending that introduced the notion that every SH protagonist should harbor a dark secret about their past, thus creating a sort of karmic link between the horrors they’ve committed and the horrors they are being subjected to, turning the town of Silent Hill into a metaphorical hell for those it seeks to take in.
To date, only Silent Hill: Shattered Memories has succeeded in delivering a climactic twist that felt innovative and reasonable. Other games, such as Homecoming, would suffer from last minute revelations that were uninspiring and often nonsensical. The biggest offender is Downpour, which completely rewrites the character’s motivations and history with each of the multiple endings.
Does a Silent Hill game really require a big twist? Second game aside, the rest of the original four titles got by just fine just by inserting their protagonists into a supernatural situation with mysteries that did not necessarily pertain to them. If P.T. is anything to go by, Kojima and Del Toro seem set on setting up Norman Reedus’ character with a tragic backstory filled with cryptic key terms like number stations and doppelgangers. On the other hand, this premise could still work if they choose not to delve too deep into the explanations: what made P.T.’s short scenario interesting was that it never spelled out what the story was with Reedus and his wife (or the crying/talking fetus bleeding out in the bathroom sink); it provided enough clues through dialog and radio broadcasts to allow players to form their own interpretations.
Whatever direction they decide to go, the important thing is that the story is done well. It doesn’t need a shocking revelation or even a thorough explanation, which are two things Kojima tends to be quite guilty of in his stories.
You’ve likely heard some of the criticisms surrounding Hideo Kojima as a game director: his cutscenes drag on with pointless exposition, his stories tend to be filled with incomprehensible twists, his frequently fourth-wall humor can also veer into creepy territory….all of these claims are perfectly valid, but that doesn’t stop myself and others who feel that he is the perfect candidate to direct a Silent Hill game.
The reasons are plentiful: his unpredictability works well in a series most renowned for its random acts of insanity. His fourth-wall breaking thought process can result in some mind-bendingly innovative situations to solve (which would be a far cry from the poorly-written poetry puzzles of the original games). His admittance to being afraid of horror is also a blessing, as those who tend to be the most easily startled know how to create the most legitimately terrifying nightmares (after all, the Metal Gear series has had its fair share of spooky moments).
To be fair, the same practice applied to Metal Gear’s infamous cutscenes would not entirely translate well on a Silent Hill game. Hopefully he’ll realize this himself, or have Del Toro do the legwork on creating an eerie-yet-comprehensible narrative. In all other regards, though, Kojima should be given free reign to do whatever he wants in the game.
Admittedly, I don’t know of Norman Reedus’ acting career beyond his recurring role in The Walking Dead. Regardless, it is undoubtedly the role he is best known for, and probably where Kojima scouted him in the first place.
But because Reedus is synonymous with Daryl, there’s always the chance that Konami will just have him reenact the character under a different name. It is my hope that whatever character they plan for the actor to portray as, it will be unique enough that we won’t just be looking at Daryl visiting the town of Silent Hill (the real shocker here is that nobody bothered to make a fanfiction out of this crossover until now). That said, it would be pretty neat to have Daryl’s trademark jacket and/or crossbow included as unlockable bonuses in the game.
There has been a lot of discussion over the added pluralization of the new Silent Hill game’s title. Many think it is simply an in-joke that references the game as “Silent Hill 5”, since no game has received a number in its title since Silent Hill 4: The Room (though that was the initial plan for Homecoming, as evidenced by this early teaser). I for one am expecting (and hoping) that the title refers to something bigger…namely, the size of the town itself.
As Kojima has shown, he is well aware of Twin Peaks, the classic quirky horror series that has inspired a number of similar works, both games and movies. “Silent Hills” could very much be a direct homage to Twin Peaks (it wouldn’t be the first game to reference David Lynch’s work), perhaps suggesting that the new game will delve deeper into the town’s history before its collapse. Other games have tried the prequel route before, but have never actually shown Silent Hill during a state of normalcy. It would be an interesting thing to see, despite my earlier comment that the game’s cast list should be kept to a minimum.
But perhaps “Hills” possesses a simpler meaning: that the town will be much larger than any iteration seen yet, giving players the chance to really explore a massive mid-western landscape filled with buildings they can enter and streets they can explore. Silent Hill: Downpour attempted this concept…and failed miserably. But it was still an appreciated concept that could make for a really unique experience if done right.
Think of games like Fallout and STALKER, which featured massive dilapidated cities that players could explore. The sheer scope and scale of those games meant that not every player would have the same experience; imagine entering a random house in Silent Hills that may or may not contain a deadly monster; with enough care to detail, just simply wandering inside someone’s home could create a tense atmosphere without relying on a specific gimmick (this was, in fact, the best part about Shattered Memories…imagine that game but with some actual threatening monsters added to the mix). So long as traveling off the beaten path is both convenient and incentive, it could go a long way in creating a truly next-gen Silent Hill experience…one that fans have been clamoring for since the PS2 quadralogy.