Thursday, 18 July 2013

There was a game here. It's gone now.

I've written something about this for Gameranx, but it hasn't been published yet and I'm not entirely happy with it. So, I'm going to try and make this point again, but better this time.

Actually, it's not entirely like the Gameranx article. In that, I stack Silent Hill 2 up against Amnesia and argue that Konami's game is scarier because it fucks with players' heads more. Games are based on rules, I say, and Silent Hill 2, which its amorphous buildings breaks rules all the time. It gets rid of the safety of being in a videogame. Anyway, I'll save that for Gameranx. I want to talk here about some similar themes, but in the original Silent Hill.

In fact, I might just want to spunk a little. I just finished Silent Hill 1, see, and it's deffo one of the best I've played ever. Not even the second game made me so scared. In Silent Hill, every time I checked a door, I was quietly hoping to see the "the lock is jammed, you can't open this" message, because I was constantly frightened of seeing any more of the game. Every new area was a fresh nightmare. Every loading screen between a familiar and undiscovered room provided a tense few moments. What was coming? I didn't know. When you can step into a room on the first floor, then step back out of it and find yourself on the third floor, there's no telling what the fuck might happen. Compare that to Dead Space where you always know something will jump out of the vent.

That last hour. My God, that last hour. You wake up in a place the game calls "Nowhere", this disjointed building (?) filled with long corridors and lots of doors. Each one you step through warps you back to a place you visited earlier in the game. When you step back out again, enemies have appeared that weren't there seconds before. You have to find eight different keys. The puzzles make no sense. There is no map. It is a nightmare.

You die and wake up in a cafe. You fight your way across town, only to warp suddenly back to where you started. A creature from a fairytale Harry used to read  is the first boss. Silent Hill is a dream I had when I had the flu. It's one of those nightmares where you're trying to run away from something but the air itself is like treacle. It isn't fun. IT ISN'T FUN. That's what I like the most, you see - Silent Hill is a motherfucker of a game. It's not hard - I made it through only dying twice - but it's such a pain to navigate, so fumbly and unfair and opaque. There's no victory or accomplishment to grab on to. When a boss is defeated, it just quietly slithers away. When you complete a "sidequest" for a character called Kaufmann, Harry just shakes his head at the end and says "that was a waste of my time." The geography readjusts itself so often, it spits in the face of the idea that you're getting somewhere. You aren't. You're going in circles. Or down. Or up. I don't know where you go, but there are always more puzzles, more monsters and more moving parts.

It's a masterpiece of understatement. The scariest parts of Silent Hill are the things you glimpse, like the enormous metal windmills churning above the "hell" version of the town, and the transparent squeaking ghost creatures in the school. Lesser designers would have fabricated some big scary roar.mp3 to play when the town went from day to night - Konami just used an air raid siren.

I'm struggling to pick out a scary moment as such. Silent Hill is entirely scary. It's scary because it alludes to fears we all have, fears of being alone and lost. On the rare occasions you talk to another person in Silent Hill, they're uncommunicative and distant. When you check your map, it's covered in red ink, telling you this road is blocked and this road is blocked and this road is blocked. I don't want to labour the nightmare analogy, but it's really the best one I've got. Silent Hill functions with the same illogic as a bad dream. Things don't work right. No matter how hard you run, your legs don't seem to be taking you anywhere. It's so fucked up.

But playful, also. The supporting cast includes a cop, a nurse and a local doctor. These characters reek of Lynch. For all its surrealist absurdity, Silent Hill still ends with the cop and the doctor shooting the bad guys dead like an episode of Dragnet. Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and even Eraserhead smack of Lynch's knowledge of fifties television, and Silent Hill has taken those films as cues. The post-credits sequence, where characters wink and wave at the audience, is the typical Lynchian mix of wacky, twisted and sinister. The game uses locations like a motel, a diner, a bar. These American stalwarts are what Lynch is fucking with always. Silent Hill fucks with them also.

I think this is where I stop. I don't think I'm writing a good post anymore - I think I'm just drooling thoughts into Blogger as they come to me. If that is the case, then I love how Harry stops to catch his breath after running into a room. I love how terrible the combat is. I love it when you hear a banging on the window, and nothing actually breaks through. I love how I don't understand anything about the plot and how, I think, it's meant to be that way.


  1. Well said, well said. The things I remember most from my playthrough of 14 years ago (SPOILERS):

    - the incredible opening that ends with your apparent death;
    - your daughter calling you up on a disconnected telephone and later appearing on broken tv screens;
    - Lisa's awful death;
    - that horrifying first boss fight;
    - the fantastically weird soundtrack.

    Man, I need to play this game again.

  2. The first boss fight was so brilliant. And the more said about the soundtrack the better