It is 2016. Sam Barlow is widely appreciated today for revitalizing the full-motion video adventure game with HER STORY (2015). Why, then, return to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009), which Barlow served as writer and lead designer of, which released seven years ago today? Am I prepared to claim that it is a lost masterpiece, a testament to Barlow’s skill at expanding the narrative possibilities of the videogame medium? No, I am not. Shattered Memories is certainly interesting. But it’s also flawed in too many ways to be considered a masterpiece.
Why these critical musings, then? Well, a bit of biographical detail: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the reason I bought a Wii. I had no prior interest in the console until word of this title started leaking out in mid-2009. I had played the first three Silent Hill games (all earlier that year, in fact) and loved them, but skipped the most recent iterations due to a seeming consensus that the series had subsequently lagged, especially following the departure of the original Team Silent. But here was something new: a game that actually seemed as if the designers were using the Wii remote in interesting ways, a game that seemed like it had a shot at leveraging the bodily engagement of the Wii platform in the service of horror, a game that was promising to rescue the survival horror genre from its seemingly inexorable slide into the action genre. In 2009, all three of these things seemed like breaths of fresh air.
So I have a personal attachment to this game, even if my feelings on it are complicated. What follows, as the title of this post suggests, are somewhat messy thoughts—although I’m planning to post a more organized follow-up soon.
Credit where credit is due
Today, I think the critical consensus seems to be that Shattered Memories is a game that tried interesting things but generally failed. I’ll get into that more below. But, for now, I want to take a moment to praise the game. If someone today asked me if they should play Shattered Memories, I would still say “yes,” and a lot of it has to do with my great appreciation for specific moments in the game that have stuck with me. Here are two of those moments. The first:
Since 2012, we’ve had an explosion of small-scale personal games that have attempted to communicate to players just a small sliver of what it means to navigate the world while possessing a body or identity that is infrequently represented in videogames. But when I first played this game in December of 2009, all of that was still to come. And this moment in the Alchemilla Hospital, in which Harry Mason is temporarily confined to a wheelchair, and the entire control scheme changes to reflect this new mode of mobility, struck me as radical. I had hoped that the game would do interesting things with motion controls, but I had never expected that it might use said motion controls to re-jigger players’ expectations about the movement possibilities that a videogame player-character might have. I had never played a game as a character in a wheelchair before. I had never controlled a character by imitating the movement of turning a wheelchair’s wheels. I had never before played as a character for whom stairs were an unsettling obstacle. The moment is brief, and not particularly mechanically robust (player’s aren’t really controlling Harry’s direction—they just power the movement forward, and everything else is on-rails), but it nonetheless struck me. This was a mainstream game, with the full weight of Konami behind it, experimenting with the hardware possibilities of a massively popular Nintendo console. And even if subsequent games have come out that can more richly pursue such experiences, at the time I encountered this it was utterly unexpected. I think that counts for something.
The next moment will require some verbal explanation, since what you actually see on the screen in the YouTube video below is tremendously unclear (and that’s sort of the point). The final proper “Otherworld” sequence of the game pays homage to prior Silent Hill games in several ways. It boasts the non-Euclidean geometry of the “Nowhere” section of the original Silent Hill. Its constant downward motion—including long flights of stairs, as well as dead-ends where Harry must jump into a dark abyss—is reminiscent of Toluca Prison in Silent Hill 2. But there is one memorable moment that is wholly unique. Upon hitting the bottom of one of Harry’s aforementioned jumps, players find themselves in a room. Aside from a few hanging lamps, and a single chair sitting right in the area the player lands in, the room is bereft of landmarks, and its oppressive darkness makes it feel utterly featureless.
As players wander away from the chair, they find that the room is astoundingly large: larger than even the garden in Silent Hill 2‘s Brookhaven Hospital, one of the other times the series had presented players with a large, dark, nearly featureless room. From the chair, it will take players about a full, real-time minute of walking in the inky darkness before they arrive at a wall. Upon arriving at that wall, if they make their way around the perimeter of the room (a process that will take about 2 and a half minutes, if the player runs the entire time), they will discover something unsettling: the room has no exit. It consists of four unbroken walls, with a nearly-featureless expanse of black in between.
How do you get out of this room? The trick is to stop looking for a way out (by following along the room’s walls), and to start listening for a way out. The only way to find the exit is to completely ignore the game’s visual rendering of the room, and to be unafraid to step into the featureless blackness. In here, players will be greeted by the series’ trademark static (which in Shattered Memories is explained to be cell phone interference). It is a clue that, by this point in the game, players have used to gather “echo messages,” stray texts and voicemail messages that often give clues on how to get past a puzzle. Following the sonic trail of static in this dark room, however, leads to something else: it leads to the exit, which takes the form of Harry suddenly teleporting out of the room:
By the time I played Shattered Memories, I had already been fascinated by experiments such as Eddo Stern’s Darkgame, which allows players to swap out their visual experience of the game in favor of having better sonic and tactile information about the positioning of enemies. Again, I was surprised that something so seemingly experimental had found its way into a quite mainstream game. The fact that players had to discover how to navigate this room by non-visual means seemed like a very exciting twist on the game’s general theme of layers of reality unobservable to the naked eye. (In the clip above, I’ve changed the game’s setting so that the staticky interference is audible on the game’s standard soundtrack. The default setting, however, is for the static to only emanate from the Wii Remote’s speaker, rather than the player’s standard television speakers. The Wii Remote speaker was, in general, astonishingly terrible, but this game made good use of it. The fact that you had to navigate this room not just by sound, but by sound emanating from an unusual position, right in the palm of your hand, was especially alien.)
Anything you can do I can do better
If I find the successes of Shattered Memories to be its most experimental moments, I have to agree with the general critical consensus that its failures are failures of generic expectation. The game might have fascinating moments, but taken as a horror game, it suffers from a debilitating problem: it is just not that scary.
One could perhaps lay the blame for the game’s lack of scariness at its willingness to experiment. Perhaps the game deviated too much from prior games in the series. Its changes were radical, and weren’t a good fit for the horror genre. Perhaps players didn’t like the game’s gesture-based control system, which forced them to use a point-and-click style interface to manipulate environmental objects and solve puzzles. Perhaps it was a mistake to use visual distortions to communicate to the player their character’s degrading health and/or alertness. Perhaps the game shouldn’t have altogether removed combat in failure of enemy avoidance, running, hiding, and barricading. Perhaps these mechanics just weren’t welcome in the horror genre.
There’s one problem with this assessment—all of those mechanics were shared by another game, released nine months later: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010). And The Dark Descent is generally considered to be a masterpiece of the horror genre, one that singlehandedly rewrote the rules and expectations of the genre.
Why then, if these games are so close on paper, has one been the subject of thousands of YouTube reaction videos, and the other remembered mostly as a mediocre experiment? That’s something I’d like to tease out over the rest of this entry.
When it comes to the successes of The Dark Descent, there’s not much I need to say as a critic. The folks at Frictional obviously know what they’re doing, and are eager to articulate their design philosophies. For those who are interested, I would highly recommend taking a peek at this talk by Frictional’s Thomas Grip at the Independent Games Summit of GDC Europe ’11. Rather than spill more pixels on the reasons for The Dark Descent‘s successes as a horror game here, I instead want to prod at the ways in which Shattered Memories fails to reach its generic heights, occasionally using Grip’s self-analysis as a guide.
The consequences of death
At this point in gaming history, it seem unlikely that we’ll scrap frequent autosave checkpoints and regenerating health and go back to the days of hoarding health kits and ink ribbons throughout the course of an entire game. The genre of horror suffers some from this. Regenerating health means that the player no longer must balance the relative value of healing items and ammo when making decisions about whether to try and skirt by enemies in a tight hallway, or take them out. Once frequent checkpoints are commonplace, gone forever is that moment when your heart leaps into your throat as a monster grabs you just as you were nearing a room with a save point in it. (This reaction is as much a response to having to redo everything you’ve accomplished in the last twenty minutes of gameplay as it is to the startle scare onscreen—an interesting note on how the “horror” of the horror genre can extend to the practical matters of play, as well as the diegetic content onscreen.)
Still, there are definitely benefits which come with autosaving. Familiarity can destroy atmosphere, especially if the atmosphere you’re going for is creepiness. The more one replays a given segment, the more deliberate and calculating one’s play style becomes.
This is one area where Amnesia: The Dark Descent excels. In his talk, Grip explains Frictional’s philosophy of throwing out trial and error in order to keep the “machinery opaque,” to “revitalize” the sections of the game that were repeated by the player by changing things, injecting the “fear of the unknown” into the proceedings rather than allowing the player to be “forced to repeat things over and over again.” Anyone who’s played The Dark Descent and died in it knows how successful this philosophy turned out to be. Repeatedly, upon dying, I would find upon “awaking” that the creature that last killed me was no longer patrolling the same area. At first, this is a relief … until paranoia began to set in about where it might pop up this time.
Shattered Memories employed a similar strategy to that of The Dark Descent, but slight differences render it less effective. As in The Dark Descent, upon dying in Shattered Memories players quickly respawn in a portion of the map free of enemies. But in Shattered Memories, these respawn points are too few and far between. Far too often, death will always result in the player respawning at the same spot, forced to traverse the same area, with the monsters showing up at roughly the same times in roughly the same places. Here, for instance, are two successive respawns when I died in the Midwich High School Otherword:
On display here is exactly the sort of repetition that Frictional sought to avoid. Why aren’t there more checkpoints, allowing players the momentary disorientation of not waking up where they thought they would? Why not mix things up in terms of where the monsters are placed, to prevent players from “practicing” the area too much? On top of all of this, having the monsters take longer before they eventually showed up again might have drawn out some tension.
AI and otherness
Although I was generally excited by everything I heard about Shattered Memories before its release (so excited that I impulse bought a Wii), there was one announcement about the game that tempered my enthusiasm with some wariness. Tomm Hulett, one of the game’s producers, apparently thought that the following made a good selling point for the game when he announced it in a G4 interview during E3 2009 (quote starts at the 1 min 39 sec mark):
You’re in a hostile environment … there’s these creatures tracking you. They’re pretty intelligent; they’re gonna flank you, they’re gonna communicate with each other. So if there’s three chasing you … you might look back, now there’s only two … and then one guy darts out in front of you; he’s coming right for you. So, we’ve spent a lot of time developing the AI for these creatures, and making sure they’re going to track you. They’re going to be interesting and smart, so that you’re encouraged to outsmart them.
This immediately struck me as a mistake. The behavior of the creatures in the best entries in the Silent Hill series could be described as “interesting,” but not as particularly “intelligent.” This wasn’t a liability, though: it always felt like part of the games’ unsettling brilliance.
As an example, check out a typical moment from Silent Hill 2 (Konami Team Silent, 2002), widely regarded as the series’ high-water mark. There is no display of smart tracking and flanking here. These creatures are slow and lumbering, their movements erratic and repetitive. Not only is there not communication and collaboration between them, but they don’t even seem to hold attacking the player as a particularly high priority. Their behavior is alien and nonsensical. And that’s unsettling, because rather than come across as predictable predators, they come across as wholly other.[i]
Now, some of these behaviors may very well be artifacts of the limited AI routines available to programmers at the time. If so, the monsters’ personalities in the early Silent Hill games can should rightfully join the games’ oppressive use of fog and darkness as another parable of how working within constraints produces inspired art.
Once I played Shattered Memories, I realized that Hulett wasn’t lying: its monsters do indeed break this trend. For once in the series, they feel as if they harbor actual enmity toward you. They’re not hurting you inadvertently as they lash about in their own pain. They collaborate and actively pursue you, and they are indeed good at keeping up with you.
Although I can’t speak to other players’ experiences, I in fact consistently found them to be too good at keeping up with me. For reference, here are the first two and a half minutes of the game’s second “Otherworld” sequence, in the Caldecotte Woods:
We have about 23 seconds of calm until the series’ trademark monster-warning static kicks in. From there on, things proceed as a constant, unvaried chase. The entire time, I am pursued by at least one of the creatures (the internet tells me they are officially called “Raw Shocks”), often with another in view intercepting me from the front. Between the 1:45 mark and the 1:52 mark, two of them jump at me from in front in a mere 6 seconds. They are fast. They are numerous. They are in constant pursuit. All I can do is run, and hope to temporarily slow them down.
One question worth considering here: What is the purpose of the static, carried over from previous games in the series? Is it a warning system? Not really. The game is set in such close-quarters, and the enemies are so fast, that there’s no point in being warned of their approach ahead of time. And, to top this off, the game cheats. Take another look at the 0:26 mark on the above clip: after my slow and methodical exploration of the area outside the cabin, a Raw Shock opens the door behind me immediately after I enter it—a fairly good sign that it has just been spawned, meaning that the static works even less well as an early-warning sign.
So, we could say: the static is a legacy feature, included here for the sake of nostalgia, but mechanically broken. What of it? Actually, I think that it points to a quite severe problem in pacing. The game affords far too few moments in which a player can just simply see an enemy before drawing their aggression and initiating a chase. There are too few moments spent watching the monsters’ odd movement patterns as they lumber around, at a safe distance. Here’s my attempt to catch one such moment in the same Otherworld sequence:
We get a new sort of look at the Raw Shocks’ behavior in the first few seconds of that clip, coupled with a new kind of behavior that I, as a player, could engage in: backing up, and using the level geometry as cover. But it’s over far too quickly. And what follows it? Another high-speed, breathless chase, with sometimes as many as four Raw Shocks close on my tail (with probably another two waiting to intercept me). And I had to try really hard to set up that moment, too! The Raw Shocks’ cone of vision is enormous, and it is quite difficult to see them before they see you, and alert their friends.
I ask another question: When does the player have time to feel scared in all of this? Sure, there is the constant thrill of the terror of flight. But that’s not actually that wide of an emotional palette. A greater palette requires better pacing. The chase needs to let up every now and then, because it is only once we can momentarily catch our breath that we can again feel a creeping sense of dread and paranoia. It can’t all be running. The most terrible heights of tension require some slowness.
As a point of stark contrast, let’s turn to The Dark Descent. Again and again, The Dark Descent makes something clear: it wants its players to see its monsters when they are not yet alerted to your presence, to allow the initial shock of glimpsing them to segue into a diffuse feeling of dread, as you’re not quite sure where they went, or if they’ll spot you in the future. Most often, this takes the form of the player being alerted to the presence of a monster by a groan or growl on the soundtrack, followed by the monster making its first appearance in a distinct pool of light, calling visual attention to them. There’s a strong effort here to make sure that the player doesn’t miss seeing the monster, so they know enough to be paranoid as they search for their next key item. Here are two moments, one early on in the game in the wine cellar area, and one much later, in the sewer area:
But we don’t even have to see the monster for their presence to be effective to us. Hiding in the game works extraordinarily well, with the result that during many monster encounters players may be cowering in a corner or behind a door somewhere, only able to hear the monster’s nearby presence, without seeing them. It’s the absolute opposite of Shattered Memories‘ constant chase-based approach, and it is pleasantly terrifying:
When the monsters do finally make an appearance in which they actively search for you, they’re still rather slow and ineffective. (Grip admits that the AI in Amnesia was specifically programmed to emphasize “near misses”: Even when hostile NPCs actually “know” where the player is, they will poke around their location before slowly leaving.) But being able to actively evade enemies some of the time only makes their sudden appearance and quick pursuit at other times more effective. Here’s a segment where I’m trying to avoid two separate monsters in the storage area, which, over the course of 3 and a half minutes, gives you a good sense of the way the game modulates its pacing, allowing for a combination of avoidance, hiding, and startle effects:
In heavy contrast to the amount of hiding we have seen in the Dark Descent clips above, hiding is broken in Shattered Memories. Here, I don’t mean that it doesn’t work as an enemy-avoidance tactic. It can, at times. Rather, it is because a) it breaks the game’s verisimilitude, and b) it is pointless. Just as an example check out the following clip of me hiding:
On the verisimilitude front: As the glance I initiate over Harry’s shoulder just before I dive into the cabinet shows, the pursuing Raw Shock is clearly in the same room with me when I hide. Why, then, when it’s pursuing me so closely, does hiding actually work? After a few seconds, the two pursuing Raw Shocks lose interest in searching the room, and leave. Huh?
But even though I get them to leave the room, the action was still pointless. They’re still patrolling the area so closely that as soon as I exit the cabinet, one of them opens up a door and immediately gives chase. Within seconds, I have three close on my tail. The game’s preferred register is obviously “harried flight,” and departures from this norm are brief and tangential.
Clearly, the Raw Shocks in Shattered Memories are good at pursuing and flanking the player. Here’s a question: does this make them seem smart, and therefore scary? Are the monsters in The Dark Descent therefore dumb, and not scary? I don’t think this is the case at all. Such an objective ranking of AI IQ means little to the player. If anything, it can even be a hinderance, because it can dampen that effect of otherness that I mentioned above.
Take, for instance, the following moment in The Dark Descent, in the choir area of Brennenburg Castle. The area is chock full with monsters. These monsters, however, can be avoided with relative ease if the player is patient enough to internalize their patrol routes. The brute being observed here, for instance, regularly marches in a distinct L-shaped path (sorry for the video glitches—for some reason Handbrake wasn’t playing well with FRAPS on these clips):
This brute’s actions are completely rote. There’s nothing about the AI mechanism operating here that is complex enough to hide its underlying loop. But, the first time I played this particular segment, I still found myself having a very engaging stealth-horror experience. The obvious lack of sophisticated AI routines at work did not impede my emotional engagement. I was, after all, watching some sort of mechanically-enhanced zombie/revenant creature. Why wouldn’t such an inhuman abomination behave in this way?
And this is the lesson that Shattered Memories should perhaps have held onto from the early iterations of Silent Hill. AI doesn’t have to be intelligent to be scary. Sometimes, it is enough for it to be weird.
That’s all for today. In my follow-up post, I will write on what I consider to be the game’s generic successes, and make a case for them being a harbinger for more recent experiments in horror game design, particularly in the console space.
[i]. In this day and age, I loathe to link to The Escapist, given its current pro-Gamergate editorial leanings. However, I think that Yahtzee got it right when he stated in his video review of Silent Hill 2 that “the monsters feel more like wind-up toys than living things.”