One of the unfortunate byproducts of writing humor is that often times, I have a tendency to shout out scathing remarks which your average high school student would follow up with, “What? I’m just telling the truth.” However, there’s a limit for mean, a point where the fruit of ridicule hangs so low that it’s slowly cooked by the geothermal heat of the earth’s crust, the kind of mean-spirited taunting usually reserved for major GOP candidates who feel that those poverty-stricken, unemployed, single teen moms have it too good and ought to be taken down a peg. And such is my problem with Silent Hill. After glancing at my notes and realizing that I’ve just copied lines of dialogue verbatim, I can’t help but feel a bit sleazy for going after the video game version of that girl who wanders around a frat party in various stages of undress loudly repeating “I’m so hammered!” in hopes that someone will take her to bed to fix all her self-esteem and daddy issues. I know the game was popular when it came out, but Silent Hill has aged so poorly that it has a permanent spot in the back of the fridge because you’d rather let its primordial soup run its course than get near it to clean it out. But, damn it! I swear I’m going to keep writing these things until someone gives me a job writing comedy, so…on with the show!
Harry Mason is your standard survival horror everyman with a personality slightly less impressive than an avocado. He comes to Silent Hill for vacation-slash-finding-his-missing-daughter, but after getting lost in an alley designed by Pac Man, three sloth monsters try to stab him to death. He wakes up in a cafe with the NRA’s wet dream: a 22-year-old police girl who tosses Harry a gun without so much as a perfunctory “Are you a criminal?” She merely leaves him with the instructions, “Don’t shoot me” (indicating the near certainty that she’ll become a boss fight) and “Know what you’re shooting before you pull the trigger.” Three seconds later, an unidentifiable monster attacks and Harry blasts it without thinking, much less a scientific analysis of its genus and species. And thus begins a long and rambling plot full of unexplained events and vague motivations in which Harry spends more time chasing after a cult than looking for his daughter.
Let me get this out of the way; I liked the game. I enjoyed playing it in that way that you sometimes can’t stop fantasizing about girls your brain tells you are unattractive. And in the end, fun gameplay is what counts. But don’t get me wrong—my brain was telling me this game is very unattractive. Something about a fun game that has a character utter the phrase, “Rather than shifting from reality to nightmare, it feels like reality is becoming the nightmare,” creates a mental friction not unlike receiving a hand job from a belt sander. Half the time the game doesn’t trust players to have any sort of thought process running, forcing Harry to narrate out loud and shout out “What is that?” (or another favorite, “Cheryl?”) at so many obvious objects and events that turning it into a drinking game would prove fatal after thirty minutes of game play. I also noticed that the dialogue often spends copious amounts of time reiterating simple ideas. Here’s a line from the script:
This may sound really off the wall, but listen to me. You’ve got to believe me. I haven’t gone crazy and I’m not fooling around. At first, I thought I was losing my mind. But now I know I’m not. It’s not me.
I honestly can’t tell what’s more off-putting: when a character gets stuck in a loop and you have to give them a good whack to move on to the next thought, or listening to the voice actors say things like, “Devoured by darkness” and “My daughter is missing” with all the passion of a geometry lecture delivered by a narcoleptic. And the other half of the time, the writers rely on the fact that the player’s brain has a shorter draw distance than the town. Early on, Harry finds a scrap of paper with the words “to school” scrawled in Crayola, and like the junior Scooby Doo detective that he is, assumes that Cheryl has simply ditched him to hang out at the school in a strange town. I like to picture this guy in the same graduating class as Rick Grimes and the guy from Heavy Rain.
Game play is all right, I guess. Not exactly a stunning endorsement, I know,. But being one of the early balls to explode forth from the canon of survival horror, I can’t really fault them for abiding by things that weren’t tropes yet when the game came out. You wander through an environment full of obstructions, trying to find multiple keys for single doors which the owners have cleverly scattered halfway across town in some drunken fit of reverse-kleptomania. You solve puzzles. You dodge and fight monsters. The control scheme offers the greatest challenge though, as not only was “Push the direction you want to move” as terrifying, foreign and quite obviously much easier to use as the metric system, the tank controls would glitch out every so often, making it impossible for Harry to step around and avoid monsters. The one saving grace is that it was often rather fun to build up a head of steam and then ram Harry into immobile objects for the satisfying “thwack” it would make, even if I did do this accidentally while being chased, leading to several eviscerations.
I’ve always thought Silent Hill puzzles were a bit contrived. My first time playing Silent Hill 2, I had spent a good half hour whacking monsters with a stick with a nail in it, but then I came to a key that was just out of reach beyond a barred doorway. Oh, if only I had some long, hooked tool that might be able to extend my reach! Woe is me! In the original, I picked up an axe halfway through the game, but still needed keys to get through wooden doors for some reason.
One of the bigger annoyances are the sloth monsters encountered in the school level. Despite the fact that you’ll find more bullets than textbooks, there’s absolutely no reason to use them as the sloths are invincible. Personally, I find that this defeats the main decision that makes survival horror fun to play—do you want to eliminate monsters permanently, or conserve ammo and risk a mad dash around the enemy every time? Silent Hill’s school makes that decision for you. Shooting them incapacitates them briefly, but three bullets to the face don’t affect them any more than the recoil of the gun does to Harry, so while he stands there waiting for his pants to dry, the sloths grab on to your legs like murderous toddlers looking for a ride. Not surprisingly, the monsters are actually supposed to be children, but censors felt that in a game littered with corpses and stocked full of monsters, cultists and blood, the idea of killing a violent hell-spawned creature of evil and darkness crossed a line, so long as said demon was only a meter tall.
But the game is tolerable, if not good. I had originally planned some jokes about Harry breathing like an obscene phone call when he’s wounded, and how the fog filling the town made it seem like the design team based their whole concept on the game having a low draw-distance. However, not having a life meter is one of the things that contributes to the uncertainty of survival horror (challenging when you think your health items are best spent), and upon reading that the design team introduced the fog for exactly that reason, I started thinking of it as a rather clever solution to a problem. Furthermore, Silent Hill moved away from horror based on jump scares and other things that make people like Markiplier scream like a drunken frat boy overstimulated by a football game. Even considering the control issues and the fact that tutorial tips display when loading after a game over—you know, approximately ten seconds after they would have been useful—I thought the challenge was well-balanced.
Don’t ask me about the weird Animal House style dance video they play after the credits, though. That’s probably the scariest thing about the game.