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.