Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Opinion on the Silent Hill Games [Spoilers]

Okay so this was an ask I got on my tumblr about a month or so after Silent Hills got cancelled, and it's the inspiration for an upcoming post about the survival horror genre in general, so I figured I'd reprint it here.

Jameshoppy asks:  "Have you played Silent Hill? if you have which one and what did you think of it?"

I have most of the Silent Hill games, and I’m pretty sure I have all the ones that got console releases in America. I know I have 1, 2, 3, The Room, Shattered Memories, Homecoming, Origins, and Downpour. Of those I’ve played 1, 2, 3, The Room, and Downpour. Of those, the only one I haven’t beaten is The Room, because…well, I’ll get to that later.

I’m a huge fan of the series, mostly because it’s one of the few game series that actually does survival horror right the majority of the time after Resident Evil started fucking up with number 4. Don’t get me wrong, 4 is a good game, and a lot of fun, but I think it qualifies more as action horror than survival horror. But Resident Evil is a whole other post so back to the point here. I, back when I had money, went on a sort of quest to gather together all the Silent Hill games and play through them all at least once. So, thanks to my somehow still functioning PS2 and a combination of Amazon and Gamestop I was able to do this relatively quickly. I also wanted to play them mostly in order. The first one I actually beat was Downpour, but that’s nothing special since Downpour isn’t exactly the hardest SH game out there.

But let’s go in order here for at least the ones I played.

Right quick, though. The reason I haven’t played them all is mostly that after…3? I wanna say it was 3, the original team wasn’t making the games anymore, and the rest are American interpretations of Japanese horror to continue the series and make a buck off it, so pretty much everything after 3 is widely regarded by fans of the series as some ol bullshit, at least compared to the original trilogy, and some even say 3 was where the series started to go downhill, though I disagree. But because after 3 it was different teams doing different games, lots of things like control schemes and interpretations of the lore vary pretty wildly, so if you’re playing them all straight through marathon style not only do you have to adjust to varying control schemes which can make gameplay itself fairly confusing and frustrating, you also have to deal with the overall quality of the games themselves going sharply down as soon as The Room hits the lineup. At least until Downpour, in my opinion.

So I was able to play 1-The Room with virtually no problems, but then I went to…Homecoming, I think (it was either that or Origins) and everything was so fucking ridiculously different and so obviously cribbed from RE4 that I just took a break and kinda never picked them back up for whatever reason. Probably needed a palate cleanser and forgot to return to the main course. It was kind of like watching a really good horror movie series, finding the other movies, really enjoying the initial three or so, and then steadily getting bored and frustrated because the movies after the third just aren’t good. So you figure you’ll go and watch, like, I dunno, The Secret of Nymh to get a taste of something else, and then you go on a Don Bluth movie binge and forget you were doing a horror marathon. But I do have the other games, and I’ll eventually play them, and probably do a live tumblr/twitter thing of them like I did with the others. Though none of that’s tagged, so you’d have to dig through my blog for goddamned ages to find any of them.

So, on with the thing, here.

The original Silent Hill is a fucking masterpiece, and still holds up to this day. Everything from the music to the story to the atmosphere to the…well, not the gameplay necessarily but it was like 1998 so allowances must be made, but apart from that everything about that game still holds up really well. Well, the voice acting wasn’t really all that, but this was back when they were basically just starting to actually fully VA games, and if you’ve ever played the original RE you know how bad it could get. But even so, if there are any game devs out there thinking about making a survival horror game, my first bit of advice would be to go play SH1 and take serious fucking notes.

And this isn’t just nostalgia talking. I’ve played my fair share of recent games that purport to be ‘survival horror’ and the only one that really got me justifiably freaked out was probably Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Either that or Outlast. Most horror games now go for the action horror route, which can be fun, but not as pants-shittingly terrifying as actual survival horror. And there’s even a case to be made that Amnesia: TDD and Outlast aren’t really survival horror, as there’s not really any way to fight back in those games. Your only options are to run and/or hide.

Meanwhile in Survival Horror Land you CAN fight back, but you have a limited amount of hurty-things to do it with, and more often than not it’s better to just run than stand and fight unless you’ve got the mechanics down and your timing is near to god-tier. Usually a real survival horror game will give you a few guns (or other means of fighting back from a distance), an extremely limited ammo supply that you’ll probably want to save for boss battles, and some kind of shitty hand-to-hand weapon that doesn’t do a whole lot of damage but will kill standard enemies if you’re willing to sit there and wail on them for a bit while praying no other enemies show up to gang-rape you a new asshole because these guys have no respect for a one-on-one fight.

 Meanwhile in games like RE5 you get a basquillion weapons and plenty of ammo, so really the only thing making it kinda unnerving is the fact that you usually can’t run and shoot at the same time. So it’s more like an action game with horror elements rather than survival horror. Games like Amnesia:TDD or Outlast are more what I’d call psychological horror, because you are literally unable to fight back period. There is no ‘defend yourself’ mechanic. Your only option is to hide in a closet and piss yourself while praying to whatever god is listening that these guys don’t open the right door or look under the right bed and fist you so hard you don’t even remember the days before your current role as their new fleshy sock-puppet. So in survival horror you can fight back in a limited capacity, in action horror you can wipe out hordes upon hordes of enemies so long as you don’t let them get too close, and in psychological horror you’re basically a lamb walking into a slaughterhouse with only your wits, legs, and strategically placed closets and lockers to save you.

Silent Hill 1 captures and distills survival horror to such a pure degree that it basically set the standard for every survival horror game to come after it. The atmosphere was mostly what did it, along with the very limited ammunition supplies for your two to four guns. Add into this that the enemies usually appeared in groups and attacked in groups (especially on the street), along with the fact that your melee weapon would take five to eight attacks plus a finisher to kill just one of them, and the prospect of seeing an enemy coming out of the fog was so fucking scary that you were actually relieved when one did, just so you finally knew where the fuck they were and which direction you should run in.

This was made worse when you went indoors. In the street, fighting was never mandatory. You see an enemy/group of enemies, you get your dodge on, run around them while pissing yourself only a little when they jumped at your face, and get on to the next building and the next part of the puzzle. Indoors, however, room to move is very limited, and unless you’re a master of the controls and the dodge, you’re very often forced into combat. This is especially true if the room has something like a puzzle piece or health item in it. And, unless you’re reading a guide, you don’t know which rooms have what in them.

Personally I wouldn’t give you shit for reading a guide for the early SH games. The puzzles are not simple, it’s stupid easy to miss stuff, the maps can be confusing, and there are things that effect the ending when you do or don’t do them. So in my humble opinion, reading a guide while playing these is perfectly acceptable, especially if you didn’t grow up in this particular era of video games and don’t know what you’re getting into. These games will not coddle you, they don’t spell much of anything out directly, and will punish you severely for fucking up. Though I’d argue that it’s more fun playing without the guide unless you just get stuck or want to make sure that you got every single bit of ammunition/health item before you leave an area. But ultimately that’s the individual gamer’s call.

But back to the indoor combat. So yeah, there’s items in these rooms, but there also might be enemies. And depending on which ending you’re going for, you’ve got a limited amount of time to get through the game as a whole (because survival horror games back then used to grade your performance and time would factor into which ending you got). You’ve also got your limited ammo and shit-tier hand-to-hand weapon, so running into a group of enemies in a room can be pretty stressful. And if you don’t really know what you’re doing in combat in general, any single building you have to go into (like the school or hospital) could very well mean the severe dwindling of your health items.

For the time the game came out, SH1 was basically the epitome of ‘git gud or git ded.’ So not only is it stressful outside because god only knows how many enemies could be stalking out of the fog at this very second to rip your fucking guts out, inside is arguably more stressful because you’re forced into conflict with these enemies and have to judiciously parse out your ammunition or just go full hand-to-hand. Which is only a good idea if you can get the enemies coming at you in a conga line style formation, or if they run around the room like chickens with their heads cut off and you can get them one at a time.

And this isn’t even counting the otherworld.

It’s a big mechanic in the SH games that the character is brought into this demonic hell-realm version of Silent Hill every so often, and this is probably the scariest thing about the games. The enemies get tougher, the map changes around, instead of the usual dead-silence of the fog-shrouded town there’s clanging and scraping and screaming happening in the background, and it’s overall a very fucking scary experience. (Oh, side note: Pretty much all the first 3 games used these same mechanics, so I’m not gonna go over them again for each game).

Although, in the hell-realm, the map is usually more direct and tends to funnel you to a specific point, although there are generally a bunch of dead ends to trip you up and give the enemies a chance to come get you if you don’t know where you’re going, which makes them insanely stress-inducing for the first playthrough. But basically the point of the hell-realm is to take everything the basic stages of the town gives you and ramp it up to 11.

And maybe this is just me, but the shit graphics in the first game (comparatively speaking) make the whole experience that much scarier. That, along with increasing the atmosphere, was the whole point of the fog. The original Playstation could only generate so far, so a lot of games like Silent Hill and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver used fog not only for the atmospheric quality it brings to a setting, but also to disguise the fact that the graphics were kind of shitty and to keep the game from extending into limbo. So it was a pretty clever way of killing two birds with one stone.

But the severely pixellated graphics seemed to make the whole game that much dingier, abandoned-seeming, and left a lot of the detail of the monsters to be filled in by the gamer’s imagination. And usually people can come up with much scarier things on their own than game designers can put on the screen. So leaving some stuff to the imagination or giving a general outline while the individual fills in the blanks is often more effective than what horror games do now by throwing gore everywhere and basically using shock tactics to get a rise out of people.

The story for the first game is pretty phenomenal as well. Harry’s looking for his adopted daughter, gets trapped in this town because the roads are all torn up, and gradually gets sucked into this town’s history of demon-cults and all kinds of other fucked up shit. And it starts out pretty weird but then gets severely more and more fucked the farther into the game you get. And, depending on which ending you get, it can go even worse.

There’s the ending where everybody dies; the ending where his friend dies and he loses his daughter; the ending where his friend dies and he saves his daughter; and the happy ending where he, his friend, and his daughter all make it out. This game wasn’t afraid to take its story in some really fucking disturbing places, and that’s part of what made it so great.

The second game did all of this, but better. Pretty much every fan of the series agrees that 2 is the best. It had the best story, the best music, cool enemies, tough bosses, etc. My only real beef with it is that there are some points where it seems like you’re walking for fucking hours, and if you missed something you are going to be doing a lot of backtracking. But the story of James looking for his dead wife and dealing with all his repressed bullshit is very heart-wrenching, and leads to some really frightening moments. Also, the voice acting got a helluva lot better this time around. It also has the bonus points of not being a direct sequel, and kinda set the standard for the series (which continues on into the other games, the movies, and the comics) that the town isn’t tied to Harry Mason, or anyone in particular. Any person can be drawn to Silent Hill because reasons, and the town is basically supposed to be a personalized metaphor for their own inner turmoil, which SHOULD make every game a unique experience dependent on the main character’s psychological baggage. This doesn’t always work out well, but they can’t all get everything right. But 2 was where the town became it’s own entity that was itself working against the player.

In 1 the town was just kinda there. You could replace it with any small town and it would work just fine. It was more Harry was discovering the history and fucked upedness of the people in the town rather than the town was this demonic entity all to itself. We didn’t really know anything about Harry, he was a total everyman, so there wasn’t really a whole lot of psychological shit for them to play on there.

Dude comes to town looking for his daughter, discovers fucked up demon cult, vanquishes demon and rescues daughter and pretty cop lady. That’s if you get the good ending, which is the one this game’s sequel is predicated on, so we’re going with that as the official story. The malevolent entity that took over the town was the demon the cult worshiped, and it was pretty much what was making all the skinned dogs and flying devils and whatnot that Harry had to fight.

In 2 the town came into its own as a force to be reckoned with itself. There wasn’t really any demon at the end. I mean, there was a big boss fight, but it was James’ tormented vision of his wife and guilt over her death, not any kind of outside force that was brought into the town a la the demon the cult worshiped in 1. The town itself was playing on his insecurities and emotional problems, so the nurses with the fucked up faces and *ahem* ‘sexy’ outfits were his sexuality tormenting him, and the other enemies and various bosses all had some kind of ties to James himself, rather than just being average monsters you’d find in a town controlled by a demon. Though some monsters were just your average enemy fare, like the things with no arms that spat bile or acid or what the fuck ever at you.

But because James was his own character instead of a (more or less) blank slate, the devs really had a lot more to work with in making the game more personal to his inner struggle with the death of his wife. This basically continued into all the other games in the series, as well as the other media centered around Silent Hill in general. So 2 was not only better than 1, it also set the standard for the entire series period, no matter what form of media the story was told in.

3 is a direct continuation of 1, and centers around Harry’s daughter coming back to the town to deal with her origins. As in 2, they keep up the theme of places that would mean something to her personally, like the Mall and the Hospital. The enemies are a little tougher to tie into personal trauma, and some of them (like the nurses) are direct cut and pastes from the second game. But this is kind of the plateau for the series. It’s not quite as good as two, but it continues a lot of themes 2 explored and finished up the story from 1, Heather actually does grow as a character over the course of the game, and pretty much everything so far as the music, VA’ing, atmosphere, and other mechanics the game uses were just as good (definitely not better) than 2.

So the first three games in the series are all you really NEED to play if you want a good, satisfying, creepy Silent Hill experience. There’s an arc with 1 and 3, with a nice big meaty condiment-filled second course to round things out. After that the series gets…pretty bad, I’m not gonna lie. But 1-3 are basically gold, and I highly recommend them to anyone who likes survival horror in general or has played new Silent Hill games and wants to get a taste for where they came from. This would include the Playable Trailer, which I haven’t played because I don’t have a PS4, but from what I hear they WERE getting back to roots and making it a good ol terrifying experience like the original trilogy before Konami and Kojima had their tiff. So if you can find the console versions or an emulator or something like that, I would say definitely play them. They’re classics for a reason.

As to 4, or The Room…I’ll be perfectly honest, the game’s shit and I have no idea why it’s even in the Silent Hill franchise.

Well, I’m being a bit unkind.The game actually has a cool premise, and the way The Room you’re trapped in steadily gets more and more fucked up is really interesting and very 1408, which is a good thing. But honestly, 1408 (the movie or the short story) did it better, so if you want a really good ‘guy trapped in a demonic room’ story, go read or watch that.

The game doesn’t even take place in Silent Hill. The Silent Hill title was basically tacked on to a completely other game that originally had nothing to do whatsoever with the Silent Hill franchise, and to be honest if they’d gone and done it as its own game instead of making it a Silent Hill game, it would’ve been pretty damn good.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It would’ve been less shit, put it like that.

But the game has little to nothing to do with Silent Hill. It’s just that the main villain was born there and lived in the apartment the main character is currently living in, so it’s only related to SH in the most tangential sense possible. And, checking the wiki article for it, it was actually developed by Team Silent, which is disappointing.

I can’t even begin to describe the drop-off in quality going from 3 to The Room (hereby referred to as 4). The main character is basically a big chunk of tofu, he’s a creeper (seriously the only real reason he gets involved with the woman in the story is because she lives next to him, he saw her in the coughcoughcough ‘silent hill world’ that he originally thought was a dream, and he spies on her through a hole in his wall), and overall he’s just completely boring and has no backstory. He’s just the guy who happened to rent this apartment. Which is hugely disappointing considering the past 3 game's main characters at least had some kind of connection to the town itself. Harry Mason adopted his daughter there, James & his wife used to vacation there, and Heather was born there. Henry just kind of gets thrown into this for no real reason other than he just kinda happened to stumble upon this whole thing.

The game is repetitive as fuck. And not in a fun way. You have to run through every environment in the game multiple times, backwards and forwards. It’s a bit like how Halo 3 would pad out its run time by starting you in one area, having you go to a certain point, then backtrack to the intro area, and then go to some kind of off-point to exit the level. It’s repetitive and boring. There’s still the idea of limited ammo, but most enemies can be taken out with your melee weapons no real problem, so there’s not much call to use guns except on the monsters that pop out of the wall on the escalator or creatures like them. The puzzles are pretty easy, the music is forgettable, and overall the whole game is just a sharp decline from the first three.

It does play with the ‘entering the wall-holes to shift dimensions’ thing a little, but not enough to make it interesting. Really, it gets more tedious since there is at least one part in the game where you get an item and can’t leave the area with it, so you use the hole to go back to the apartment, then re-enter the stage from another point and have to do a lot of backtracking to get where you need to be with that particular item.

Like I said, tedious.

The main villain is actually just a guy. No demon, no otherworldly force, not even a special background. He was abused as a kid, an orphan, and looked at the room a fair portion of the game takes place in as his mother. He also fiddled with black magic a bit, but more often than not he comes off as the edgy angsty villain guy rather than someone with proper motivation for anything he does.

Then there’s certain monsters in this game you just cannot kill period. They don’t communicate this in any way, they’re just there. OH, and they hurt you just by being in proximity. They don’t even have to touch you to kill you. There are ways for dealing with them that mostly involve pinning them to the ground with holy swords, but eventually they get out of it. Which means most of the time it’s more efficient to just fucking run away. I suppose this was done to make them scary, but they weren’t. They’d just follow you around and moan all ghost-like, while you take hits to your health for not running away fast enough. It was retarded, and I don’t know what they were thinking. So like I said, this gets boring and/or frustrating really fucking quickly. Not scary, just tedious.

This is pretty much where the gap in my knowledge comes in. I don’t know anything much about the games in between The Room and Downpour, but from what I’ve heard they kept basically the same level of quality The Room brought to the table. I won’t talk about them because I don’t know, so I’ll save that for when I play through them.

As to Downpour. I actually enjoyed this game a lot. It was pretty challenging, and it was the first SH game I had really played, so I didn’t have much to compare it to Silent Hill-wise. But compared to certain other horror games I’d played recently, it was better than a fair number of them. It’s been a while, so I’ll keep this brief.

DP kept the fog, the limited ammo, and it actually takes place in Silent Hill, so that’s three points in its favor. One thing I didn’t really like was that it had destructible melee weapons. So your pipe/rake/stick/fucking battle-axe (yeah they did that)/whatever would degrade, not hit as hard, and eventually leave you in a fight with nothing but your fists, which means you’re good as dead. It added an interesting tension to the fights in the games, but it was pretty frustrating to be fighting three enemies, break my melee weapon, not have enough/any bullets to take them down, and have to run off down alleys and into backyards (potentially getting into more fights) just to find a weapon that would work.

So really this is a matter of personal taste. I didn’t dig it, but some people might.

There was also this weird thing they’d do where there would be police cars patrolling, and if they caught you they’d spawn enemies you’d have to fight off. This is interesting since it kinda hearkens back to the ‘playing on the character’s psychological trauma,’ because the main character is a convicted felon who ‘escapes’ captivity into Silent Hill. I don’t remember if he had anything to do with the town prior to his incarceration, but not everyone who goes to Silent Hill has history with the place. But back to the cop cars.

This was kind of a silly thing to do because you can turn it off literally as soon as you get to the town. It’s kind of an open-world environment. I say kind of because there are certain areas you can’t access until you get to certain parts of the story, but the majority of the map is open to you as soon as you get into the game. Which means the police station. So literally all you have to do is get to the police station and solve a puzzle to turn off the radio scanner and that shuts down the cop cars so then you only have to worry about the occasional random enemy. So while it’s an interesting thing to do and makes the game kind of stressful and puts across the feel of ‘I’m an escaped criminal’, it’s kind of pointless unless you make it a thing you can’t turn off till a certain point in the story. You can literally make that your first errand when you get to the town and negate the whole thing.

Another problem I had with DP was the number of boss fights. There are exactly two in the entire game. Which is lame. You fight a boss in the middle of the game, and the final boss. That’s it. And they’re both pretty easy if you know what you’re doing, though the mid-point boss is harder than the final boss, which is bad game design and there’s really no excuse for it. So that’s disappointing, but the bosses do have something to do with his inner turmoil, so they kept that motif going, at least.

As to the otherworld in DP, it wasn’t as well done as the others. There aren’t really any enemies that I remember, except for this one thing that keeps following him. It’s like a glowing orb that dissolves everything it touches, and you have to play keep away with it until you either get to a certain point in the level or solve a puzzle. It can be pretty nerve-wracking (I’m not very good with chase scenes, and never have been) but I have no idea what this thing is supposed to be or represent. It only barely works as a game mechanic, and fails as a boss fight. It’s more like the giant polar bear that would chase you while you rode the little polar bear in Crash Bandicoot 2 than a proper boss fight. It just keeps coming and you have to keep running, that’s about it. But the otherworld environments are cool and creepy and the entire game is pretty scenic, really.

Whether or not you’ll enjoy DP depends on what kind of Silent Hill/horror fan you are. I know of many Silent Hill fans who hated it, but I think it’s a step back in the right direction for the series after so many departures and failures. Is it scary? Yeah, parts of it are. Is it worth playing? I think so. Though if you’re not sure maybe try it on an emulator or get a used copy from Gamestop or something like that first.

And that’s pretty much where I run out of steam talking about the games. Maybe I’ll refine this into a script or series of scripts for a video/some videos, but I dunno. I won’t get into the comics or movies because you said ‘played’ so I’m gonna keep it to interactive media. Besides this shit is long enough as it is. This is like three straight hours of writing, so I’ll leave it here. But I hope this wasn’t a total waste of everyone’s time!

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