Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 2

Episode 2 is up! In hindsight, I should have released the first one on October 1st, instead of October 31st. That way I could have produced a steady stream of them while people were in a spooky mood. At the rate things are going now, I’m going to be releasing subsequent episodes of this series on Christmas, maybe even Valentine’s Day. Whoops!

This one is on the Silent Hill series, so there’s aspects of this post and this post folded into it. There’s also plenty of new materials, though. Keep you eyes peeled for episode 3. Script, as usual, is below the fold.

Hello, and welcome to the second episode of “Let’s Study Horror Games.”

Okay, so, here’s the deal with these: they’re not constituent parts of a longer analysis. I’m going to try to make them as self-enclosed and stand-alone as possible. However, I reserve the right to refer back to points made in earlier ones as needed. So if you don’t want there to be any chance of confusion, you should begin from the beginning, and watch them in order.

Anyway, here we go. I began my previous video with the idea that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” Constraints can help focus an artist’s creative energy. In the case of the genre of horror in video games, the technological constraints of 1990s-era computing forced developers into creative maneuvers that ended up generating some really distinct visual styles. In the previous video, we looked at the fixed-camera visual style of Alone in the Dark and the first Resident Evil game. In this video, we’ll start by looking at Silent Hill.

The first Silent Hill game came out in 1999, rather late in the life cycle of the original PlayStation. Unlike Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil, it was fully 3D, building its visuals entirely through polygonal graphics in real-time. There were still pretty strict limitations around how many polygons the PS1 could thrown on the screen at once, but rather than dealing with this limitation through fixed framing, Silent Hill dealt with it by bathing its titular town in alternating combinations of fog, snow, and darkness.

Now, fog was ubiquitous in PS1-era games. Thanks to the hardware’s need to severely cull polygons, the draw distance in most games is quite short. Even the most colorful platformers on the console were engulfed in an eerie mist. Those games that eschewed gray fog used darkness as a substitute: there’s a reason the tombs that Lara Croft raids tend to be cloaked in thick blackness.

But Silent Hill was unusual in this era of games, in that it embraced fog and darkness for aesthetic effect. It relished in the trepidation involved when one isn’t quite sure what one’s seeing—is that monster!? Oh, it’s just a mailbox. Through the use of ambient audio cues—specifically, the static and feedback that nearby monsters produce on your radio—the game alerts you to the presence of enemies, while cannily hiding them from you. This allows a sense of dread and forbidding to set in, as your imagination momentarily fills in the gaps of your obscured vision. The end result makes the most of the game’s rather rudimentary 3D graphics, and the game continues to be scary to this day—at least, if you play it in the dead of night, and really allow yourself to be taken in by it.

And it doesn’t take all that much analysis to pinpoint why. H.P. Lovecraft was probably right when he claimed that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The creators of Silent Hill were far from the first people to work elegantly within the technical limitations they were handed, leaning hard on viewers’ imaginations and general fear of the unknown to do the hard work for them. Famously, when Stephen Spielberg was filming Jaws, his animatronic shark “Bruce” was chronically unreliable. Although this must have been horribly stressful to deal with on-set, in the end it proved to be a boon for the film, and for Spielberg, who proved to be very adept at creating tension through the mere suggestion of the presence of a shark. The limitations Spielberg was handed ended up being a stroke of luck, artistically speaking.

And there are examples of this principle at work in reverse, as well. When he made Night of the Demon, the horror master Jacques Tourneur quite smartly realized that the film would be more effective if you never saw its titular demon, instead leaving its form up to viewer’s imaginations, and even keeping it ambiguous as to whether the demon actually existed, or was a product of psychosomatic mass panic. It would have been a great decision … if Tourneur had been allowed to stick to his guns. But, unfortunately, the producer intervened, and forced him to include a puppet demon. It’s a great puppet, but it’s … not scary. Reviewers of the time found it silly, and certainly contemporary audiences would agree. And it’s too bad, because it weakens what is otherwise a very tense psychological thriller, blessed with a taught script and gorgeous cinematography.

Anyway: Silent Hill leveraged players’ fear of the unknown to wring aesthetic success out of technological limitations. Konami’s Team Silent, who developed the game, knew a good thing when they saw it. And so, two years later, when they were given a chance to develop a sequel on the more-powerful PlayStation 2 hardware, they stuck with foggy visuals. In so doing, they affirmed what had previously been a technological necessity as a deliberate aesthetic choice. And then, two years later, they did it yet again, offering up a town in Silent Hill 3 that is just as foggy, if not more so.

So there you have it! Silent Hill is a franchise that retained a deliberate visual aesthetic across different eras of hardware. Its developers wisely realized that the fear of the unknown that was leveraged via the technological limitations of the first game was not something that should be discarded as those limitations shifted. These games share a unified, consistent visual style that in many ways still holds up even today. All’s well that ends well! Oh … what’s that? Oh, it’s a high definition television! Oh, no! Whatever could I referring to with this belabored visual metaphor …

In the early 2010s, so-called “HD remakes” quickly became ubiquitous, especially targeting Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. The Xbox 360 was backwards-compatible, but most models of the PS3 weren’t. So publishers saw a great opportunity to get players to double-dip, offering them the ability to play cherished old games on their current HD console, hooked up to their current HDTV.

For the most part, this was … inoffensive. A lot of the ports were very competently done, especially those by Bluepoint Games, a studio that became a real master at this porting work. And I’m certainly not opposed to extending the life cycle of games, and keeping gaming history alive. The Silent Hill HD Collection that came out in 2012, however … had some problems. And people noticed these problems. A lot of HD remakes came and went, largely unremarked upon, but the Silent Hill HD Collection actively upset people.

The problems with the Silent Hill Collection can be clustered into four main areas: Framerate, Color, Fog, and Filters. There were apparently some pretty nasty sound bugs, as well, when it first released, but for this video I played the last patched version they released, and I didn’t encounter any of those.

Just to be clear from the outset: The studio that Konami farmed this collection out to, Hijinx, folded not too long afterwards. And just earlier this year, an anonymous member of the Hijinx dev team gave an interview to the website Rely on Horror, giving an insight into the very tough conditions they found themselves in after they were contracted by Konami. I don’t want this video to be an epic rant about a port that’s over six years old at this point, especially when it’s clear that the devs were in an unenviable position, and not too long after found themselves out of the job. That’s just not something the world needs. So I’ll just be offering a brief skim of the first two of these problems. In my opinion, it’s only when we get to the second two that we run into meaty questions of aesthetics and technology that are worth delving into in greater depth.

Framerate

The Collection suffers from an inconsistent framerate. This seems to especially be a problem in large outdoor areas with a lot of fog. When you’re running through a foggy environment, there are regular bouts of hitching and stuttering that just simply weren’t there in the original games.

Sometimes the hitching is so severe that the game freezes up for a truly worrisome amount of frames before proceeding again. This is obviously a demerit for the HD collection—but it’s not really an interesting one. The code was poorly optimized, but it’s not like there were aesthetic decisions being made here. Hijinx were just scrambling to work with what they were given.

Color

Some professional reviews and player reviews singled out poor color reproduction as a problem with the remakes. This can be a tricky issue to test by video capture, given all the intervening variables. So I did the only reasonable thing I could think of:

I borrowed a friend’s OG fat PS3, the only model that was backwards compatible with PS2 games. Then I took my PS2 copies of 2 and 3 and PS3 copy of the Collection and captured them all from the same machine. That means the video outputs from the games are going through the same output ports, through the same cable, into the same capture card, capturing everything with identical settings. Any transformations that have been applied to the footage during the capture process have at least been applied to all games, on both platforms, equally.

And what did I find?

Well, Hijinx did revamp the lighting system for Silent Hill 3. The flashlight casts less light, and some lighting sources have just straight-up disappeared. As you can imagine, this makes most scenes dimmer in the HD remake than they were in the original, even if you try to correct by cranking up the in-game brightness in the menu. There’s just no way you’re going to make up for missing light sources. As a result, some of the compositions in the original game are irrevocably damaged. There’s also slightly less color saturation. This is something that doesn’t detract too much, and is often difficult to detect unless you’re actually looking at the outputs side by side here—but there are some moments when some other factors involved that change the game’s visuals considerably … which we’ll get into later.

Credit where credit is due: these issues do not plague Silent Hill 2 nearly as much. Looking at the two versions side by side, I can see instances where the new textures don’t quite match the old, in ways that affect the overall color balance. But there are also moments where the match is extraordinarily good, maybe at the most having ever-so-slightly different lighting. I wouldn’t say that color, in and of itself, is a reason to stay away from Silent Hill 2 on the HD collection.

But don’t worry … there are other reasons.

Fog

The fog in Silent Hill 2 is a technological marvel. Team Silent kept it in for aesthetic reasons, and boy: it shows. It’s a deeply layered effect, with different sheets of fog with different transparencies all moving and swirling and generally doing a good job of keeping the player from knowing what’s right in front of them.

When you first boot up the HD remake, things look okay. The opening trip through the forest into the town looks … fine, at first.

But then you start to notice things. Specifically, you start to notice the individual constituent parts of the fog. Their transparency varies a lot—some are almost opaque white. And, as a result, it’s really noticeable when they pop in and out of existence—which they start to do with startling regularity. Any semblance of this being a dense, unified bank of fog in 3D space is lost.

And if you move the camera around rapidly, it becomes even more apparent. Everything moves around too fast, and you can see the separations between different layers.

It was possible to bring out the visual edges if you moved the camera quickly in the original, too. But, overall, the original does a much better job of making the constituent parts cohere into a unified visual scene.

And the problems with visual layers separating too much is present in the HD remake even when you keep the camera still. Right here the fog seems to be made of these little rectangular white clouds. They’re way too visually distinct. There’s no illusion of unified, thick fog.

The most obvious function of fog in these games is to obscure monsters, keep them in the realm of the unknown, just vague shadows that are only gradually given corporal shape as they approach you. And judged by that metric, the fog in the remakes gets the job done well enough.

But another important function of the fog is to eliminate the horizon. The philosopher O.F. Bollnow describes fog and whiteout snow conditions as causing things to “lose their tangibility, [to] glide into the incomprehensible and acquire by this very process a new and menacing character.” And that describes what the fog in Silent Hill does very well! But he also characterizes fog and snow as created “an entirely horizonless space … this means that the basis of human orientation, the distinction between vertical and horizontal is, no actually entirely removed … but made disturbingly uncertain.” And this also describes what the fog does in Silent Hill! Not only can you not predict what’s going to emerge in front of you, but also, because of the lost horizon, you can’t even really predict where it’s going to emerge. The horizon is really important for our vertical orientation, and the thick fog plays tricks on our abilities to gauge the relative height of things, to tell where ground level is. And it can be a visual shock when a craggy horizon suddenly presents itself.

The fog in the remakes doesn’t do this, at all. Thanks to some weird quirk of the rendering, we always have an extremely stable and visible horizon. This means that, although we still don’t know what will loom at us out of the fog, we always have an idea of where it’s going to appear. We just keep our eyes on that cleanly-delineated horizon. It removes a sense of visual mystery, and it introduces a sense of scale that rarely works to the game’s favor. The rowboat segment of the original game takes place in an almost abstract space, which only begins to make a little bit of sense when you work out that you should be heading toward the ghostly light. In the HD remake … it just kinda looks like you’re in a gray room, with visible walls. Which, technically speaking, you probably are, but the aesthetic is totally ruined.

Filters

Okay, this section is going to be a bit of a rant. Mainly because, in all of the complaining about the HD remakes I see online, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone talk about it. And it deserves to be talked about, damn it.

Silent Hill 2 and 3 applied a number of visual filters to achieve desired aesthetic effects. For instance, in this early moment in Silent Hill 2, Gaussian blur is applied, and then manipulated to give the impression of a gradual focus pull. The HD remake replicates this camera movement exactly, but the blur is gone. Depth of field is infinite; everything’s in sharp focus.

And you might say: “But, high definition! It’s great that everything’s sharp now! Why would I want blurriness in my image?” Well, let’s look at another example, from Silent Hill 3. In the otherworld version of the Brookhaven hospital, there’s a weird layering of Gaussian blur going on. When combined with the scene’s high color saturation, and a deliberately blown-out over-exposure, it creates this weird blur-bleed effect. It’s as if the red is oozing out of the environment to get Heather.

The HD remake keeps the crawly animated rains on the textures in this area. But without the Gaussian blur, or the blown-out exposure, it looks … safe. It doesn’t pulse in the same way. It’s just … dead, comparatively.

The slurpers in the Brookhaven hospital have an animated texture that dances around. But it’s so more striking in the original version, thanks to the selective application of that bleedy-blur effect. Even when they’re dead, the slurpers pulse threateningly. This one’s stuck in a loop, and is no danger to us at all. But its color looks like it’s going to rip its way through that chain-link fence, through sheer force of blurry saturation. Compare that to the same slurper in the HD version, which just … doesn’t even register.

But along with missing the originals’ Gaussian blur effects, the remakes are also missing the originals’ simulated film grain effect.

Silent Hill 2 and 3 are grubby-looking. And they’re not just grubby looking because every room is strewn with garbage and gunk, and every texture is rust-stained, and puzzles make you pull a human ear out of a drain with a fishhook tied to human hair or pull a rotten wallet out of a toilet drain. Those things help, to be sure. But these games are also grubby-looking at the level of resolution. If you look closely, you can always see the dance of grain in their images. Team Silent didn’t want an image that was clean. They wanted an image that was alive, that obscured its ragged edges with a flickering dance of simulated grain.

Some people might guess that the main problem with the fog in the HD remake is that it isn’t properly scaled: that Hijinx didn’t account for how an effect that looked good at 480 lines of resolution might not scale well to 720 lines of resolution. And that’s true, but even at 480 lines of resolution, the grain effects of Silent Hill 2 and 3 do serious work keeping the image cohering together as a whole. They introduce a layer of visual conformity that helps smooth over constituent elements into a complete, somewhat grubby-looking package. Between the fog, and the darkness, and the grain, these games don’t really want you to get a clear look at anything on the screen—least of all, the enemies. The HD remake completely ditches this grain filter, and the results look far too clean.

The loss of this grain filter is actually my biggest gripe about the HD collection. Now, I’m somewhat weird, in that if I had to watch something by a filmmaker at the top of their game shot in 70mm, and something by a filmmaker at the top of their game in 16mm, I’ll probably prefer the 16mm film, all things being equal. I just love the visual texture of film grain. And the best experimental independent filmmakers to work in small formats realize that grain can be an asset. They realize that film, rather than being a perfect window onto the world, can be a dance of shifting textures, not unlike a pointillist painting in motion. I can’t think of a better videogame match to my weird aesthetic preferences than Silent Hill 3. It has my favorite loading screens of any game, ever. They look like abstract films. Very close to the genre of chemical-manipulation films practiced by Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. And then the HD collection went and ruined them by stretching them, and totally messing up their composition. And yeah, they’re abstract, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ruin their composition by stretching them.

Ultimately, I just don’t think that Silent Hill 2 and 3 were good fits for the “HD remake” treatment. They did, and still do, deserve to be re-released. But they deserve to be re-released in the manner of Sony’s “PSOne Classics” and “PS2 Classics,” or their “PS2 on PS4” games: emulated in a way that respects their original 480 lines of resolution, with only some modest upscaling. These games have a concrete, unified aesthetic, and it’s one that cannot be easily up-rezzed. From all accounts, Hijinx weren’t given nearly enough time or materials to complete this project to their liking. But even if they had been provided everything, I’m skeptical that these games could ever be re-built for a higher resolution in a way that stays true to their original intent. Much like pixel art, these games have an aesthetic that perfectly matches their original resolution, and the more you mess with that, the more trouble you’re going to find yourself in.

I think there’s a greater lesson we can learn here: Don’t be too quick to dash past a previous generation’s limitations. Especially when you’re working within a genre like horror. If you see limitations purely as something that should be transcended, and welcome technology that allows you to do so, you might miss some of the very smart lessons prior creators learned when working under those limitations.

This applies to more than just graphics technology.

For instance, in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, released in 2009 for non-HD consoles, they brought back the grain filter. Thank God. Things look properly grubby again. Grubbier, in fact, because they added additional VHS noise-style distortion to the image when your body temperature gets too low. But then, as Tomm Hulett boasted in an E3 2009 interview, they went and created smarter, more adversarial AI.

Now, it turns out that this was not just idle E3 hype. The monsters in Shattered Memories are, in fact, good at catching you. You look behind you, and it seems like they’re all chasing you, but suddenly you go through a door and it turns out they’ve flanked you. But here’s the thing: this is one moment where I wish it really was just idle E3 hype. Because I don’t think the monster AI in Shattered Memories actually benefits the game.

Shattered Memories has very circuitous levels, where it’s very easy to accidentally double back on yourself , and end up going in the wrong direction. And these levels are packed pretty thick with fast enemies. Usually somewhere in the range of 3-5 are clustered around you at any given time. You can’t fight them—the best you can do is keep them at bay with road flares—so the levels become really harried chases through confusing environments. It’s stressful, but because the pace doesn’t let up, it gets kind of monotonous. Everything’s an onslaught, and there’s very few chances to allow lingering dread to accumulate. It would benefit the game to have more quiet moments, where you’re able to observe the monsters from afar, before drawing aggro, and actually have time to develop a fear of them.

In Silent Hill 2, it’s really easy to sneak up on the lying figure enemies if you just stay behind them as they’re on patrol. They don’t seem to be able to sense you when you’re behind them. Overall, their alertness to your presence is pretty low. Sometimes they’ll just seem to be on a loop, and completely will ignore you. Other times, they’ll definitely notice you, but they won’t do that acid spray attack, which is the only thing they can do to hurt you when they’re upright. Instead, they’ll just kind of bounce off of you, agitated.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think that better AI would make the lying figures scarier. Their erratic and repetitive behavior is part of their overall characterization. They don’t collaborate. They’re not particularly aggressive. Their behavior is alien and nonsensical. If anything, given their horribly mangled appearance, they seem to themselves be in pain, like they’re only hurting you inadvertently, as they writhe and scream. And I think that’s even more unsettling. They’re not predators—that would be too predictable. They’re wholly other. We can’t really comprehend their psychology.

The key function of the fog-plus-radio has always been that we hear an indication of monsters before we have a chance to see them, increasing our sense of dread. But a secondary effect is that there’s the possibility that we might get the drop on monsters. The fog blinds them, too, and if we spot them from far enough away, we can catch a sight of their behavior before they’re alerted to us.

Silent Hill 2 uses this to good effect with the Mannequins, which are always in a completely inert state before we get within a certain radius. It’s creepy to catch a glimpse of these completely still figures in the fog, and it’s creepy when they suddenly snap to life. Again, it increases their sense of alienness. Monsters don’t have to seem smart to be be scary. It’s often better if they seem strange.

So there you have it. Silent Hill: a series that, in its first few entries, navigated technological limitations deftly, keeping what worked even as the technology shifted beneath it. Then, in later years, these lessons were lost, and the desire to blow past previous limitations often failed to adequately remember what made those limitations so useful in the first place.

This episode has been laser-focused on some nitty gritty aspects of these games’ visual aesthetics. In the next video, I’ll take a more holistic look at Silent Hill 2. That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more—and thanks for watching!

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