Shattered Memories Scattered Thoughts, Pt 2

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Ian here—

Welcome to part 2 of a 2-part post on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009). I’ll admit to a bit of wordplay here. In my first post, “scattered thoughts” referred to my own train of thought, since I’ll be the first to admit that my thoughts in that post weren’t guided by a single, coherent thesis. This post, however, does have a coherent guiding line: it is about how Shattered Memories itself uses distraction and split attention to heighten anxiety. So, the “scattered thoughts” in question here are the player’s.

(Is that wordplay too dorky? Too much like “dad humor”? Well, Harry Mason is a dad. See, I’m being meta. Mic: dropped.)

Objectives and obstacles

In my previous post, I said that I thought Shattered Memories succeeds as an experimental game. Its use of psychological profiling, through a series of tests interspersed throughout the game, to alter things like character personality and monster design, is consistently interesting (if a bit too abstract and opaque).[i] It makes valiant attempts to use motion controls in innovative ways. Its use of the terrible Wii Remote speaker was surprisingly exemplary, creating a sense of “a layer of reality that cannot be seen with the naked eye” that actually followed up on the Wii’s lost promise of three-dimensional sound.

Where it fails, though, is as genre fare. Critics and players alike complained that it wasn’t scary enough. And I don’t think that they were entirely wrong.

The sections of the game where they player wanders the town of Silent Hill in the “fog world” especially drew ire here. Matt Casamassina of IGN likely spoke for many players when he complained that, “as soon as the ice disappears, so does any sense of danger.”

Now, I do think that there are commendable aspects of the fog world sections of the game. The small additional narrative threads presented to the player through “echo messages”—text messages and voicemails that pop up on Harry’s phone once, he’s followed a trail of parapsychological white noise, or taken a photograph of a visual disturbance—do show an admirable turn toward mature psychological horror.

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You can only read so many notes about eating people’s faces left on the dirty floors of abandoned hospitals before diminishing returns begin to set in. Sam Barlow seems to have recognized this, and doubled down on the most basic, elemental theme of the game’s plot: the fear of being unable to protect one’s child. The result is that, despite the game’s supernatural trappings, the game’s sense of horror revolves around grounded, decidedly “adult” fears—fears that one’s child will be sexually assaulted (or, conversely, will fail to understand consent), fears that one’s child will die in a freak accident, fears that a troubled home life will lead one’s child to petty crime. Here’s a short highlight reel of some of the small stories that get told through “echo messages” over the course of the game’s fog world sections (and you should consider my description of these scenes above as a content warning):

There are, though, undeniable problems with the echo messages. Sometimes, for instance, they pile up too quickly. In the Toluca Mall area, which you see at the end of the above clip, there were several times in which a voicemail message I was listening to would become completely inaudible, because I couldn’t find any way to traverse the space without running into more auditory interference. This is a problem both for spatial navigation, and for storytelling. It also risks trivializing the serious subject matter of the echo messages. (When stories about sexual assault become something your player gets annoyed with as they wade through a barrage of noises looking for the next puzzle, that’s a pretty good sign that the form of your game does not treat your choice of subject matter with the care it deserves.)

Of course, the single largest reason that the games non-otherworld sections were criticized was not their treatment of echo messages, but rather the fact that players quickly learn that monsters are never going to show up there. (The full quote from the Casamassina review is that “as soon as the ice disappears, so does any sense of danger because you know the monsters have temporarily retreated and any genuine threat with them.”) However, I actually consider this to be a related problem, rather than a separate one.

My basic claim is this: the horror genre thrives when players have something to do, rather than just running around scared. The best horror games give players some sort of task—a task that pulls us further into a terrible place (however much we might want to escape it), and that distracts us from the dangers around us (however much we might want to remain alert toward them). Slender: The Eight Pages (Parsec Productions, 2012), which still perhaps holds the mantle of the internet’s favorite horror game, stands as the Platonic ideal of this concept. The Eight Pages doesn’t just ask players to wander around the woods aimlessly, be creeped out by the pursuing Slender Man, and run away. It asks players to collect the eight pages, and then make it back to the forest’s entrance. It’s right there in the title. It’s not enough just to wander through a creepy place: the game asks us to do stuff, so that we will be nervously glancing over our shoulders as we do said stuff.

We can call this the “What the hell are you thinking!? Don’t go in the basement!!” problem. Yelling at the screen in horror movies most often stems from characters lacking adequate motivation. They hear one spooky sound, and decide to investigate by wandering deep into the basement of the boiler room of the haunted orphanage’s abandoned slaughterhouse. This doesn’t strike viewers as recognizable human behavior. Good horror films sidestep this trap by making it absolutely clear that the protagonist doesn’t want to venture into the terrible place, but that they unfortunately have to in order to ultimately escape. (Ash ventures into the basement at the climax of Evil Dead II, for instance, because he has to collect the lost pages of the Necronomicon Ex Mortis. Hey, collecting pages again! Whatever gets the job done, I suppose.)[ii]

Horror videogames work the same way. Ideally, rather than just instruct us to escape the place we’re in, they should give us some kind of more complicated objective, one that draws us deeper into the terrible place, and uses the monsters as obstacles to us achieving these objectives.

Most of the Otherworld sections of Shattered Memories don’t do this. When players enter the very first Otherworld sequence, the game flashes instructions on the screen: “Find the exit to Levin St. and escape the nightmare!” And that is it. That is all players have to worry about. There is nothing to collect, no puzzles to solve. And this is because the vast majority of the game’s collectables (for instance, the echo messages) and puzzles (normally of the “figure out how to unlock the door” variety) are separated out into the game’s fog world areas.

In other words, the problem isn’t just that there are no monsters in the fog world. The larger problem is that there is a division of labor that is far too clean. Yes, it is a problem that there are no monsters in the fog world areas, but it is also a problem that there are far too few objectives in the Otherworld areas. The game therefore forfeits the type of nervous split attention that other horror games often leverage—including other entries in the Silent Hill series, which often place puzzle items in areas with enemies, forcing players to venture into enemy territory to unlock a door. The result? Most Otherworld sections in Shattered Memories become simplistic harried chases, of the sort I showed in the YouTube clips populating my previous post. Player run through them not just because the monsters are too close on their tail for them to slow down (although they are, as I pointed out in my previous post), but also because there’s nothing else to do in these spaces.

Split attention done right in Shattered Memories

It is ironic that Shattered Memories would fumble the possibilities of distraction and split attention throughout so much of its running time, because when it actually makes an effort, it succeeds beautifully, in ways both small and large.

Let’s start with the small. The game took an unusual step in the Silent Hill series by replacing all of the functions usually housed within the games’ menu and inventory systems—looking at the map, going through collected texts, even saving the game—are handled by Harry’s in-game smartphone.

In the wake of games such as Dead Space (Visceral Games, 2008), diegetic game interfaces were increasing in popularity. (This historical moment is plumbed by Eric Fagerholt and Magnus Lorentzon in their work on the subject, which I go into more depth on in this post here.[iii]) So it may be fair to charge Climax Studios with just jumping on a bandwagon. But what they actually do with the phone is simple, and quite brilliant:

When you take out the phone, the game doesn’t pause.

This means that there’s no way to check your map, to read a note, or even to save your game without being in danger. And, in fact, being in greater danger than you would be if you weren’t doing those things, since your attention is drawn away from your surroundings and to a tiny screen, like some typical twenty-first century putz. Bringing up the map in a Silent Hill game used to be a moment of respite, where you could plot out your route in a leisurely manner. No more. The clip below illustrates this well:

I nearly jumped out of my chair when that Raw Shock loomed out of the edge of the frame while I was poking at my phone. It was a fantastic jump scare, in part because it wasn’t planned and telegraphed by Climax. I manufactured the jump scare myself, by stupidly having my face in my phone. The game just created the conditions for me to get my comeuppance.[iv]

Of course, players who receive this type of scare might come away with the lesson, “don’t check your map while in the Otherworld.” If that happens, then we’re back at square one. As a defense against this, the best Otherworld segments in the game actively force the player to have their phone out.

In my previous post, I isolated the two experimental sections of the game that I find to be the most satisfying. But if I were to judge Shattered Memories by the rubric of its genre successes as a horror game, I would single out the Otherworld version of Midwich High School as the game’s most successful sequence.

Once players have found the exit to this area, they find that it is blocked by three figures resembling ice sculptures. A voicemail message pops up on Harry’s phone after they’ve encountered this blocked exit, letting them know that they’ll have to take three photos to pass. A subsequent text message lists the locations players will have to go to to take the photos: the courtyard, the parking lot, and the locker rooms. Players have already been in a loop around the school’s grounds. They will traverse the same area to get these photos, in the reverse direction.

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However, upon exiting the hallway where the exit is, players discover that the school is not quite the same. The Raw Shocks that were in fast pursuit before are nowhere to be found. Instead, it is eerily quiet. They can grab the first photo, entirely undisturbed. Will any enemies show up at all?

Yes. After the first photo is saved, the phone’s static effect starts up, faintly. But there are still no enemies in sight. For once in the game, the static actually acts as a warning sign. If players keep moving, avoiding the areas it is coming from, it will dissipate. Players are actually able to successfully avoid enemies.

Part of this ability to avoid the Raw Shocks stems from there being an unusually small number of them on the map. The place isn’t swarming in them, as it so often is in Otherworld segments. However, balancing out the enemies’ low numbers is the fact that each one has effectively become much more of a threat. Using Harry’s phone to take a photograph leaves players highly vulnerable, and the process can easily be interrupted by an attacking monster.

The relative rarity of encounters, paired with them having actual consequences, means that players finally have an opportunity to feel a sense of tension, dread, and paranoia. We have a series of tasks we’re trying to complete, and we’re always on edge about being cruelly interrupted from those tasks. Will I get this picture? Or will the Raw Shock I just threw to the ground have time to get up again before it finishes its agonizingly long save process? Finally, an Otherworld area has a sense of stakes, beyond just escaping. Finally, players have to split their attention between the task of collecting key items and the matter of keeping safe.

A note: I can’t be absolutely certain of this, but I suspect that, in addition to there being fewer Raw Shocks, the aggressiveness of their AI has been “dialed down” a bit, to make the radius in which they are willing to pursue you smaller. I’m not sure if there’s any way I could empirically test this, with my access limited to the user-end experience of the game. But it does seem to me that, between the 2:39 mark and the 2:55 mark in the above clip, I lose the pursuing Raw Shock much quicker than I normally would. It doesn’t feel like I should have time to safely take out Harry’s phone and check the map … and yet I do. It is precisely this push-and-pull between safety and threat that allows this Otherworld sequence to actually build some tension.

Split attention on subsequent Nintendo hardware

In my previous post, I announced that some of the most successful generic aspects of Shattered Memories have been repeated in more recent console horror games. I do think that the no-pause phone menu of Shattered Memories on the Wii paved the way for some similar experiments on Nintendo’s subsequent console, the beleaguered Wii U.

At this point, the Wii U is already out of production, a mere four years after its launch date. There’s no reason to rehash all of the console’s myriad failures here. It is enough to say that whatever promise the idea of second-screen gaming had fizzled out quickly. Practically no developers knew how to effectively make use of it, including Nintendo.

The only games to effectively use the gimmick, to my mind, were horror games. The few horror games released on the Wii U were, for the most part, mediocre in overall quality, but they did at least take interesting chances with the console’s hardware.

The nub of it is this: Playing a game with two output screens can be difficult, because a human being can’t effectively look at both at once. Your attention is always necessarily split: either you’re neglecting one, or you’re neglecting the other. For most developers, this presented an insurmountable barrier, and so they gave up on the idea of using a second screen. The horror game developers I look at here, though, realized that they could use this sense of distraction to their advantage. Sometimes, having to avert your eyes away from important visual information is useful, because it can increase tension.

One of the best games to do this was a Wii U launch title: ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier, 2012). It is a terrible shame that the console did so poorly, and that Ubisoft eventually withdrew support from it, because ZombiU had some interesting ideas that deserved to be better-implemented in a sequel.

One of the best examples of the game’s harnessing of split attention is how it handles foraging any supplies that may be on the body of a zombie one has just killed. Normally, the main screen of the game displays a first-person view of the game’s environment, and the second screen on the Wii U Gamepad displays the map. For instance, if I approach a zombie I have just successfully beheaded, it will look like this:

If I want to search the zombie’s person, however, things are re-oriented. The main screen changes to a third-person view from the front of my character, while my attention shifts to the second screen, as I use the touchscreen to drag and drop items from the zombie’s possessions into my own bag:

This inventory screen is not some time-pausing menu. The player’s character remains vulnerable throughout this process. As they distractedly rifle through the possessions of the former member of the undead, another zombie might come up behind them. The game plays fair, too: if a zombie did come up from behind, they would be clearly visible right there on the main screen. Real-life spatial awareness of one’s surrounds gets translated as an awareness of what’s happening on two screens at once. (The shout of “look behind you!,” so fruitless when offered in a movie theater, might actually do some good if is offered by someone sitting on the couch and watching the main screen as their friend plays ZombiU.)

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water (Koei Tecmo, 2014) isn’t quite as overt in its use of distraction, but similarly sets up the Wii U Gamepad as something that stands between the player and a wider, more spatially-aware view of the game’s world.

The Fatal Frame franchise has consistently been based on the gimmick that characters must use a form of spirit photography to exorcize malevolent ghosts from the earthly realm, and Maiden of Black Water is no exception. The “Camera Obscura” device in Maiden of Black Water is controlled by the Wii U Gamepad. If a player spots a ghost in the environment on the game’s main screen, they must re-orient themselves to the Gamepad screen in order to actually defend themselves. The game’s main screen gives a much fuller view of the surrounding environment and possible other dangers, but players’ attention must remain on the smaller screen if they want to see  if they are successfully framing all of a ghosts’s weak spots …

… or framing the projectiles it’s sending their way, so that they can destroy them before they hit:

In a previous post, I described the problem horror games face when attempting to foster a feeling of suspense. Since the knowledge differential between player and player-character can never work in exactly the same way in a game the way that differential can between the viewer and protagonist of a film, certain emotional effects seem permanently unavailable to the medium of videogames. The emphasis on distraction and split attention across these recent horror games can be at least partly understood as an attempt to work around this: to create new modes of surprise that are unique to the medium of games, to make up for its struggles with suspense. Nintendo has had a heavy hand in pushing this experiment in design forward over the past couple of console cycles, and I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that the Switch seems to be doing away with the Wii U’s more interesting quirks. Perhaps, though, now that this particular avenue has been pursued, other developers will find ways to make it work on more conventional hardware.

[i]. Oddly enough, this seemingly very outré game design decision has proved to be influential to at least one subsequence console horror game, getting ripped off real good in Until Dawn (Supermassive Games, 2015).

[ii]. I must admit that this division is not as all-encompassing as I make it seem here. There are, in fact, many “good” horror movies that fail to provide their characters with adequate motivation. They just don’t tend to be American slashers (which perennially suffer the problem I describe above). In contrast to their American counterparts, Italian horror filmmakers have frequently succeeded in imbuing their films with enough of a sketched-out, irrational, dreamlike quality that it doesn’t really matter that the people seem to float through the plot without adequate motivation. I sure as hell can’t say why anyone does anything they do in Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980), for instance, but I wouldn’t argue that it’s an unsuccessful horror film. In fact, I would say that its opening sequence constitutes the best portrayal of incoherent nightmare logic ever put on film.

[iii]. Fagerholt, Eric, and Magnus Lorentzon. “Beyond the HUD: User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games.” MS Thesis. Göteborg, Sweden: Chalmers University of Technology, 2009. (For the parts most relevant to the issues raised here, see their case studies on pp 34–45.)

[iv]. Well, technically Climax did manipulate me here, a little bit, because as I point out in my other entry, at this exact moment they cheat, and spawn a monster right behind me in the door I just came through, even thought there was none out there before. Still, though, the general principle holds: most of the game’s jump scares are manufactured by players’ own negligence, rather than designer manipulation.

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