Thursday, 8 August 2013

PSX: Silent Hill

Killed your wife? Taking a drive down a long country out-back American road at night? Adopted someone a few years back? On the run with a father who won’t tell you why you’re running? Moved into an apartment stalked by a creepy kid? Come back from wars to a family with dubious history and a dead brother? Get yourself put in prison to avenge the death of your son?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” then you’re a prime candidate for my favourite holiday vacation spot. Silent Hill.

Yes I am unbalanced.  Yes I probably deserve to spend eternity there, yes I’ll enjoy it.

For every fan of Silent Hill, they will have their own favourite game, their one game they prefer over the others and likely will use it as beacon of might against the comments, praises and criticism of other games and their own. Using it to bat away reason and logic with the fan attitude of “it’s good so shut up you’re dumb” and we’re once again sat back in the playground fighting over which console will kick which other console’s ass, despite them being inanimate objects. But oh well.

Silent Hill, is my preferred game of the series. I’m already hearing some people saying “no... it’s (insert game here)” but then this is all about preference and while I do prefer this game I’m going to be fair to this game and harsh. However, given the number of times I’ve played it, the times I’ve seen each ending, the times I’ve looked in every nook and cranny, I could write a thesis on the plot of the game alone before I even touch upon the rest of the series.

Which is why this game is so good.

Silent Hill, follows a simple premise initially. You’re a father character, driving along the road at night in the outback of Someplace, USA, with your daughter asleep in the car. A cop over takes you while you’re driving along, a little while further you see the cop’s bike with no rider, then you see someone on the road and you crash your car avoiding them.  You awaken a short time later, step out of the car and see your kid running off through the fog and mist of the local town. Following her and shouting, she runs off and leads you down an alleyway, you start to see gurney’s, wheelchairs still spinning their wheels and then something attacks you, running back the route is blocked and you’re butchered by things with claws (and depending on your nationality, it may or may not have a head).

Waking up in a cafe with the cop that over took you earlier, you set out to be attacked by more monsters, find the series eponymous radio that shouts static whenever monsters are near (as if the grunting and footsteps didn’t give it away while signalling to monsters that walking food is near) and go looking for your daughter lost in the town.

Play it long enough and you’ll find a cult trying to bring about the birth of a God/Demon, references to various religious mythologies of angels and demons, a behind the scenes battle between a mother and daughter using otherworldly powers and trinkets, other inhabitants fighting the effects of the Silent Hill as it switches from various states of being from dark to light and back to normal, leaving the player to guess as to who is controlling what, why the town has separate states of being. Whose side is who really on and how best to for the main char to bumble their way through the game.  Eventually you can work out the metaphysical chess game going on between two of the main characters, the player character being a random (seemingly) element in all this for the moment.

You will be hand fed some snippets of the game through the scripted CGI scenes (admittedly from a time where CGI always looked better than the main game and people pondered “I wonder if games will look as good as these scenes”, incidentally, games look BETTER nowadays), you’ll find the underlying plot, vague references of why you should to co-ordinate (X, Y) and on the way hopefully grab the guns you need to blow away the baddies, solve the puzzles (and some are real mind benders) and save the day or condemn it. Yep, it’s multiple ending time and in this game, it depends all on what you actually do and with what. Finding an obscure item and using it on a boss will determine the + or – of either the good or bad ending, the finding of a character, saving them and solving THEIR mission will determine the overall good or bad ending.

Most people will get the bad ending on their first run through. I did, and that encouraged me into the next game to do better and see more.

What makes this game so enjoyable though, is not the acting of the characters, while are decidedly B-Movie in delivery but it does add to the atmosphere. It is not the awkward sidestep controls or the poor aiming (deliberate given that the main char is NOT an accurate sharpshooter, and most people in THIS kind of circumstance would be, admittedly, shit), it’s the overall atmosphere and discovery the player makes that is beyond the main character. Seeing and understanding are two different things, logically working out the tumblers behind the plot and rationalising it is a step beyond and the most rewarding for any player.

The game is not without faults however, while today’s games are above and beyond what Silent Hill can do graphically, it can be fired up a little with various emulators that boost the original graphics (and interestingly lets you seem them more clearly than the original game permitted), the layouts of various “dungeons” and “mazes” can be frustrating when you have to check EVERY door of a place, and every room to find the one item you might need to progress and you know that if you miss a door, you’re screwed and WILL have to go back. On top of that, failing to find the maps can be worthy of a restart, especially if you somehow miss the hospital map. Though town maps (the later and last area of the town especially) can be missed and yet you can still progress, barely. It does add a new sensation to actually be running blindly through a town with no clue where you’re headed.

Puzzles, like in a lot of games of this genre, can be frustrating when first encountered and though they’re not always use Item A on Thingy B to get Item C, some have cryptic clues with cryptic answers such as the silent piano puzzle with the clue about black and white birds, requiring a knowledge of birds and their predominant physical appearances (missing a chance to use the “common shag” and “great tit” while we’re at it). Solving the puzzles like this are highly rewarding but once it’s done, it’s over. Solving the puzzle of “get the 3 keys” is a fetch quest and no more a puzzle than finding jam, butter and bread and resulting in a sandwich. Tasty, but not rewarding, unless you’re hungry.

The game itself doesn’t go for the later editions use of jump scares (except that one with the cat... in the locker... in the dark world... have fun!) but uses audio and a distinct lack of what you can see to build suspense before delivery, usually hearing a monster LONG before you can see it and then the camera shifts slightly as it gets closer before gradually materialising out of the darkness/fog/snow/poor-render-distance and becoming the threat it always was to you. New fights and monsters are usually introduced with some very atmospheric ambient music akin to thrash music comprising of sound effects rather than actual instruments used in a conventional sense (see the track “die” for one of the more pulse inducing ones) though more sombre moments are brought with a slow accompaniment and actual instrumental scoring for the track “Not Tomorrow” used to bring a truly depressing moment into outright despair.

Admittedly, entering one large room that was difficult to see within, with a loud ambient music in the background, caused me to turn around and just go “nope”, forcing me to explore the map twice just in case I’d missed something before going back into that room to find there was NOTHING in there. No enemies, no monsters, no items. Just a room with a few set pieces of obstruction and another doorway leading out. I’d been played for an idiot and loved every second of it.

As I said though, it’s the subtle things that work best. Going into the hospital in the light version of the town, going to the lift and seeing the 3 buttons and checking each floor and the door leading out to find them all locked is nothing compared to getting back in and seeing a 4th floor button somehow just “there”. No magic noise, no dinging in the background to signal to you “HEY WE DID SOMETHING!” it’s just there and looks like it always has been to the point that you wonder if you actually did miss seeing that there in the first place. THAT is the subtlety involved and once going to that 4th floor and stepping out, realising you’re now outside the map, becomes a dreaded exploration before you realise you’re being drawn over into the dark version of the town and the fun is going to begin again.

In closing, I love this game as one of the few games that genuinely scared the shit out of me and left me thinking I was hearing voices in the darkness of my bedroom. I long for the days a game will do that again to me.