I have wanted to write about the original Silent Hill (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo “Team Silent,” 1999) for a very long time. But it has been difficult to find a “way in.” Unlike its pseudo-remake, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax, 2009), which I have successfully gotten around to writing about, Silent Hill doesn’t have much in the way of interesting flaws to pick apart. It has flaws, to be sure. But its flaws are banal. It falls prey to the “let’s belatedly explain our incoherent story via some back-loaded cutscenes” problem so typical of games of the original PlayStation era, especially those produced in Japan that I have only ever experienced in English translation. Its successes, meanwhile, are numerous. But I’ve never found a way to approach them with intellectual rigor. My reaction to the game is a primal one, and I have struggled to conjure critical thoughts beyond, “my, it really is surprising how effectively scary this game still is, despite the limitations of its visual style.”
But, what the hell: I’m going to give it a shot, in the form of one of my “hodology of videogames” series of posts. Since it’s been awhile, here’s a quick refresher on the ground rules: “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology. Today, I’ll be thinking about the paths players take through the town of Silent Hill.
“Hodology” is, according to its Greek roots, the study of paths. These days, its primary associations seem to be with neuroscience. But I want to resurrect an older, more literal use of it: the study of how people move throughout a landscape, the ways in which they chart routes that are particular to the human body, human perception, and human culture.
This sense of the term “hodology” owes much to the psychologist Kurt Lewin. In his 1934 essay “Der Richtungsbegriff in der Psychologie. Der spezielle und allgemeine Hodologische Raum” (a mouthful, I know), Lewin coined the term hodological space to refer to the unique characteristics that landscapes take on when perceived by, and navigated by, human beings.[i] Lewin’s original essay remains untranslated into English after all these decades, but its influence was widespread. Jean-Paul Sartre took up Lewin’s term “hodological space” in Being and Nothingness, and from there it spread to a number of humanistic geographers interested in phenomenology, including Christian Norberg-Schulz and O.F. Bollnow. Norberg-Schulz offers a pithy English-language explanation of Lewin’s contribution:
Rather than straight lines, hodological space contains ‘preferred paths’ which represent a compromise between several domains such as ‘short distance,’ ‘security’, ‘minimal work’, ‘maximum experience’ etc. The demands are determined in relation to the topographical conditions.[ii]
I’ve often thought that preferred paths are an interesting lens through which to look at videogame space, and so I’m inaugurating a series of posts that deal with them. What better to do the honors than one of the most talked-about games of the moment, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017)?