When Silent Hill isn’t really about Silent Hill

A good character for a good game. But not the best.

As you might have been able to tell from my last post, I recently finished Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and it was fantastic. It was fantastic even though it features some of the must frustrating sequences ever in a Silent Hill game, namely the Otherworld chases. But the rest of the game works so well that I’m willing to forgive Shattered Memories and declare it one of the best Silent Hill games ever.

Reactions to this opinion ranged from enthusiastic consent to incredulity. I don’t want to write a full review of the game; my friend Casey has already provided a great review, which I am happy to endorse. I have, however, spent some time thinking about why Shattered Memories is such a good Silent Hill game. It’s certainly not an orthodox game from the series; if alignment to the precedent was the requirement for greatness, Climax’s earlier attempt, Silent Hill: 0rigins should have been a masterpiece (it’s not). Mechanically speaking, Shattered Memories is really different than anything else in the canon; if anything, the mechanics it has are closest to Silent Hill 4, which is clearly the biggest departure from the norms established by earlier games.

No, even though Shattered Memories is mechanically very different than its cousins, there has to be a reason that it feels more like a Silent Hill game than any other attempt in recent memory. In fact, it feels more like Silent Hill 2 than any other game in the series. I pondered this for a while. What makes a Silent Hill game feel like a Silent Hill game? Part of it is certainly visual cues, but all of the Silent Hill games share those (and in fact, Shattered Memories joins Silent Hill Homecoming in eschewing the camera system that defined the look of earlier games). It clearly doesn’t have anything to do with combat, or item collection, or the sometimes-relevant plot elements involving The Order and their cultist activities in the region–those things are all thrown out by Shattered Memories. There’s the town of Silent Hill itself, but that too differs from game to game; in Shattered Memories, it’s large snow drifts that block streets rather than the series’ signature roads that end in gaping abyss. So no, “Silent Hill-ness” isn’t necessarily structural, or visual, or mechanical; those are just the “parts” of Silent Hill games, and they revolve around a central core. Some sort of key DNA that identifies the experience.

They key, I think, is the focus of the narrative: what is each Silent Hill game about? Let’s consider the series (spoilers ahead, beware):

  • The original Silent Hill is about how Alessa, a girl with supernatural powers, is tortured by a cult in order to summon a demon to Earth. In the process, Alessa separates Silent Hill from the rest of the world. The protagonist, Harry, must make his way through this confused realm to find his daughter, who is actually part of Alessa herself.
  • In Silent Hill 2, James searches a similarly separated world to find his deceased wife. Along the way we realize that James’ experience in Silent Hill is a reflection of his own psyche, and his journey through the town is a journey through his own guilt related to his wife’s death. The town acts as a manifestation of his personal problems.
  • In Silent Hill 3, Heather (eventually revealed to be Cheryl from SH1) attempts to escape The Order and finds herself mired in the nightmare world. The properties of Silent Hill in this game seem to be erosive; to escape from its hellish pull, Heather rejects the cultist’s wishes and destroys the monster that they create.
  • In Silent Hill 4, Henry finds himself trapped in his apartment, able to leave only through a large hole that appears in his bathroom. Using the hole he visits various nether worlds and eventually learns that his apartment is some sort of maternal symbol for a crazy serial killer. His only hope for escape is to use the hole to delve deeper and deeper into the dead killer’s mind. Oh, and there’s some throw-away sub-plot about The Order and drugs.
  • In Silent Hill: 0rigins, we’re once again trapped in a version of Silent Hill that has been separated from reality. This time, the protagonist Travis follows breadcrumbs through the town to learn what happened to Alessa and also some nonsense involving his father or something.
  • In Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alex, a war veteran, returns from service to find his home town covered in gloom and full of missing people. His brother is one of the missing, so he sets out to find him, with fairly predictable results. Along


    the way we learn that there’s an evil cult involved, and as part of sealing the evil of all eternity or something, the founding families of Silent Hill have to keep killing their children. So each descent into the Otherworld is a visit to a little corner of hell controlled by a dead child. And, we finally learn, Alex’s brother being missing is a serious problem.

  • In Shattered Memories, Harry awakes from a car crash and can’t seem to fully recover. He can’t remember where he lives, can’t contact his family, and is worried that his daughter isn’t safe. He searches all over for her as an increasingly powerful snow storm threatens to completely immobilize the town. And eventually, we realize, his forays into the netherworld are prompted by his own amnesia; whenever he’s about to learn some crucial piece if information about himself, the world ices over and he’s back in hell, as if something is taking steps to prevent him from coming around. Escape, such as it is, eventually involves accepting the truth.

Of all of these games, Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories share a key trait: they are about their protagonists. The other games in the series are about Silent Hill itself–its history, its cults, various horrible things that have happened there. But Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories use the town as a backdrop for a character study. As In my article about the utility of the Otherworld, I suggested that we might interpret the town from the second game as a place that draws troubled people to it and manifests their problems physically. But even so, the point of that game is to show James’ progression through the town, not to teach us about what the town is or why it is the way it is. In Shattered Memories, there’s nothing particularly significant about Silent Hill itself, except that it’s being bombarded by a blizzard and most people have evacuated. The focus is on Harry, and his travel through his memory and the memories of his daughter. Shattered Memories and Silent Hill 2 stand apart from the rest of the series because they are primarily concerned with character.

On the other hand, the first Silent Hill game is about the town itself. We can see post-Silent Hill 2 games struggling to choose between focusing on a character or the town. Silent Hill 3 chooses the town, but still puts a huge emphasis on developing Heather’s character: not only does she comment on everything she sees, the plot tries to eventually loop her history back into the history of the town. Silent Hill 4 is all about the character of the serial killer, Walter Sullivan. But this is not a character we empathize with–in fact, he’s the main antagonist and generally a lunatic, which might be why this game feels so disjoint. Homecoming also tries to make the story personal by interweaving Alex’s family history with the history of the town, and giving him a little bit of amnesia, but the game is certainly about the town and its (remaining) inhabitants. Origins is the game to most obviously fail in this balance; it tries to tack some half-hearted plot about Travis on top of the main narrative about the town and Alessa, and it just doesn’t work (doesn’t help that Travis is about as stoic as they come).

In all of these games the characters are passive observers, or at best minor participants, in the events unfolding around them. But in Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories, the events are unfolding precisely because of the protagonist’s personalities, memories, and sins. This difference in focus is what sets these two games apart from the rest. Making the entire game intensely personal amplifies the other main theme of the Silent Hill games: isolation. It’s so much more scary to be alone in your life as well as physically alone; there’s really nobody who can help you. This is where many of the more recent games (and the movie, for that matter) have gone astray; Silent Hill is an interesting idea in-and-of-itself, but using it as a way to explore a single character is much more interesting.

I’m not claiming that the more traditional, town-focused Silent Hill games are bad. On the contrary, I think this series is probably the single best horror game series in existence. But I also think that, given that all of these games are pretty high caliber, Shattered Memories and (especially) Silent Hill 2 belong at the top of the pile because they execute their brand of personalized horror much better than the rest of the series. They feel like Silent Hill games in a way that most of the other games in the series can’t quite pull off; it’s that feeling of absolute isolation, even when not confined to one of the narrow halls of the Otherworld, that makes these games awesome. And that feeling, I think, is a direct result of their focus on the character of their protagonists rather than the history of their set pieces.

22 thoughts on “When Silent Hill isn’t really about Silent Hill

  1. Great article! This is actually what I meant to request when I asked for a “review” before; what you see that sets it apart from the rest of the series.

  2. Very good article. I wish the guy who’s making the new Silent Hill Movie would read this. So he focuses more on character instead of the town.

    Character is the reason why Silent Hill 3 is my favorite (I’d have to disagree with your caption and say Heather IS the best… for me at least). Heather’s character is so unique from all the other bland nondescript males who enter silent hill. She’s the only SH protagonist that I ever really cared about (although Harry in Shattered Memories did come close).

    The reason why I didn’t like SH2 (which was actually the first one I played) was cuz James was just not likeable or interesting for me. I found myself not caring at all whether he lived or died or ever found his wife or not. In fact, half way through playing SH2 for the first time, I just randomly decided to go get SH3 cuz I’d seen the girl on the cover and she looked so much more interesting than James. Don’t get me wrong, SH2 had a great story and it was masterfully executed, I loved many things about the game, but it’s just hard to care about the story or the game when you just don’t care about the protagonist. For that reason SH3 and Shattered Memories are my favorites, while SH2 is very low on the list.

    All that said, I do agree with you though. SH2 definitely focuses more on character. And SH3 focuses more on the town/cult. Focusing on character is always the better option in my book, and I wish SH3 had done it more.

  3. Awesome write up! I myself have been trying to figure out why something like Shattered Memories worked better than Homecoming. I thought it was most importantly the story but for the SH series (like you mentioned), the characters are the story. Its truly the physical vs. the psychological. Its not Pyramid head’s actual appearance alone that scares us, but his purpose and meaning.

  4. http://outsideyourheaven.blogspot.com/
    I wrote a fairly detailed blog post comparing Shattered Memories to Silent Hill 1, 2 and 3. It may be of interest to this discussion:


    I liked Shattered Memories a lot. It’s still a few notches below SH1/2 for me, but it’s more “successful” as a psychological horror story than any Silent Hill game has been post 2. 3 had its moments, but mostly what it did was demystify 1 in ways that diminished the Silent Hill mythology. Heather *was* a good protagonist, but she deserved a better story.

  5. http://outsideyourheaven.blogspot.com/
    I disagree that SH1 is about the town itself. It’s about Alessa, the same way SH2 is about James. The only difference is in SH2 the person whose psych the game is about happens to be playable.

    Even more contrary to your statement, I’d argue there is more content in SH2 that is about the town itself and its dark history than there is in SH1. There is virtually nothing in SH1 that isn’t directly related to Alessa. In SH2 it’s a bit unclear what the relationship is between the various happenings in the town and James.

    I always read them as contextualizing “evidence” that the town makes people’s traumatic nightmares real (for example, most of the patients in the mental hospital seem to be experiencing variations on what James is going through) which, in a sense, makes SH2 just as much “about” the town as James.

    I don’t agree that making someone playable necessarily makes their story more personal to the player. It depends on how it’s done. Alessa is a much more sympathetic and interesting character to me than James, and the fact that Harry is just a neutral witness has a lot to do with that. Maybe James is a character I’m supposed to empathize with, rather than sympathize, but Shattered Memories actually did a better job of achieving that for me than SH2 did. I don’t identify much with James at all in SH2, but I love how he is used as a vessel to explore the metaphysics of the town… which exist apart from him (unlike Alessa, who seems to be the only reason anything is happening at all).

  6. > Matthew

    I’d buy that SH1 is about Alessa. But since she’s not the protagonist, the effect is different. It’s still Harry combing through the wasteland that is Silent Hill to learn something (what happened to Alessa). SH4 is similar in that respect.

    Oh, and I probably should have been more careful with my English in the caption. I meant “not the best game.” Heather is probably the most developed character in the series, though we don’t really get to see how she thinks like we get with James or uh, other people in Memories.

  7. http://outsideyourheaven.blogspot.com/
    I agree that it’s different, and if one prefers the more protagonist-centric approach that’s fine. I don’t necessarily prefer one or the other, but exploring a character who isn’t the protagonist via a cypher character who only exists as a vessel is an established device in other forms of fiction. SH1 is about Alessa the same way Citizen Kane is about Charles Kane.

    I will say one thing though… as a device, the notion of an empty cypher protagonist serving as a vessel to explore another person’s psyche has certain advantages in the realm of video games. It removes all the dissonance that can occur because the player and the protagonist are, in fact, not the same person. When my psychology as a player and the character’s psychology match up that’s great, but when it doesn’t it diminishes the experience. (This is the big problem with Shattered Memories, IMO. The game’s only real misstep is its assumption that it can be the player’s nightmare and Cheryl’s at the same time.) Making the player a cypher avoids this problem, and simply accepts the fact that the player is, in some ways, ALWAYS a cypher, an outsider intruding on a world. Alessa’s mind is the game, and we are “discovering” her life by interacting with it. This metaphorically matches up with Harry’s journey into Silent Hill pretty cleanly.

  8. I guess I look for different things in video games than you do, but I feel that story is a secondary consideration to a game, gameplay is more important. As much as I love having a strong story in any game I play, it’s not a deal-breaker for me when a story falls flat. A game with great gameplay can prop up a weak storyline while the reverse isn’t true. Look at a game like Gears of War, it has a totally nonsensical storyline but a solid interactive experience. I felt that Shattered Memories, while certainly a strong story, ultimately fails to deliver a fun game. Mostly due to the terrible chase sequences, but also thanks to the complete failure to create anything resembling a creepy atmosphere. I don’t think the story can prop up the gameplay enough to create a good gaming experience. That said I felt pretty much the same way about Silent Hill 2. In all fairness, all of the games in the series are great games, but as you said, some are simply better than others.

  9. > Matthiew

    Have you read It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby? It’s a pretty great short story. Found an online version here:


    It’s not really directly related to this discussion, but Silent Hill 1 always reminded me most strongly of this story.

    > tesseracht

    I also value game play above all else, though I’m willing to trade game play complexity for good story. That’s why I can enjoy mechanically simple/flawed games like Resident Evil. I was unable to play through Rule of Rose, despite its interesting story, because the game is unplayable.

    I had no real problems with the game play in Shattered Memories, though. The chase sequences are poor and frustrating, but there are very few of them (only six in the entire game) and they end pretty quickly, so overall a minor blemish.

  10. Another thing to consider about Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories is that the scenarios in them are closer to real life. The rest of the series is populated with PIs, demonic cults, and magical serial killers. While on the other hand SH2 is filled with people who have real psychological problems. Shattered Memories (hard to really talk about without spoiler tags) is purely psychological and really doesn’t have any supernatural elements.

  11. Huh? thers only 6 chase scenes in the entire game?? How short Is the thing… 😛 I cant seem to find a ps2 copy in estonia and i aint about to buy a wii but im Defo getting Shattered memories when i see it… Ps2 is dying! :O

  12. http://outsideyourheaven.blogspot.com/

    Another thing to consider about Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories is that the scenarios in them are closer to real life. The rest of the series is populated with PIs, demonic cults, and magical serial killers. While on the other hand SH2 is filled with people who have real psychological problems. Shattered Memories (hard to really talk about without spoiler tags) is purely psychological and really doesn’t have any supernatural elements.

    The cult stuff in SH1 is a MacGuffin to me. The game’s about child abuse, even if the reason is fantastical. I find it easier to relate to that than murder, quite frankly, which is the source of everyone’s trauma in SH2. You are correct that Shattered Memories is the most “real world” of all of them, which is one of its better points. I liked seeing Alessa re-imaged as someone with more pedestrian problems, only to discover she’s still not happy. Shattered Memories is mostly interesting as a companion piece to SH1 to me, because it suggests we invent our own problems regardless of how normal or extraordinary our lives are.

  13. I find James relatable, or at least I understand why he did what he did. I think a lot of people might do the same thing in his situation. That’s what I find believable about his story, only a saint wouldn’t at least imagine taking his way out of that painful scenario. And James isn’t unlikable for what his done because he himself won’t let him escape his crime. You’ll notice Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have any collapsed roadways. James can leave Silent Hill, he chooses not to.

  14. Matthew, I think comparing SH1 to Citizen Kane is a flawed concept as films are a spectator’s art and games are an interactive art. Because films present everything to the viewer they can easily tell the story about the protagonist or have the story follow the protagonist. In games, as you have to control the character, it’s more natural to have that character be the protagonist instead of some side character.

    It’s true that if the star of the game isn’t the protagonist and more of a blank slate then the player is free to inject whatever emotions and motivations they want. But any emotional dissonance you feel towards a playable protagonist is more of a problem of writing or game play. With interactive art it’s the artist’s job to motivate and persuade the player to feel what the character feels.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is films can easily portray both Hamlet and Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. Where as, games can very easily portray Hamlet, but have a harder time portraying Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.

  15. Very nice article. I had a few thoughts while I was reading, though.

    I was never able to get past the fact that the town itself was completely irrelevant to the rest of the game. I have always seen “Silent Hill” itself as a character that we are delving in to the heart of; and I don’t mean what’s going on with the crazy cult, but rather the underlying influence of the area. If the town wasn’t meant to be relevant, they could have just cut SH2 off in to its own game entirely with a different title. But with how the game was written, taking James out of Silent Hill and sticking him in any other town wouldn’t have had the same effect, would it? When I played Shattered Memories I never once felt that the location mattered at all; there was nothing unsettling about the place itself. In SH2 I wondered what the deal with his dead wife was, but I wondered even more what the heck was going on with the town. James’ game was about how his (and others) psych was projected on to the town and it reflects his personal descent. Shattered Memories felt like it was trying to fit together two very different things: on the one hand, we are viewing the character of “the protagonsit”; on the other, the game is trying to make us in to “the protagonist”, and this is strange mesh ended up distancing me from them rather than engaging me, meanwhile neglecting any relevance to the town other than the fact Harry’s family lived there. Though I hate to use SH4 as an example, Henry’s lack of “personality” and back story (to me, anyways), made him a better “vessel” for the player to step in to than what was done in Shattered Memories.

    That being said, I do look forward to playing the game again. It just bugs me that the games’ namesake isn’t exactly important to the story.

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