Saturday, November 16, 2013

Silent Hill 2, or, Shoofle Gets Too Scared To Play

I wrote about Silent Hill 2 today, which my roommate and I finally finished playing last night. I gave up on it previously, much to his annoyance, because it was just too stressful and scary for me to play. That hasn't happened before. He eventually took up the controller in my stead, but after trading it off to me for boss fights a few times, I picked it back up for the final few bits. After I got my thoughts down, I thought I'd collect some lasting thoughts or impressions; in retrospect, I think they're more interesting than the rest of the review. It's hiding behind the link - here's the TL;DR:

Okay, so, I want to try to get some kind of lasting something out of games more often, so I'm going to try to think about what I learned from each game I play. Silent Hill 2?

  1. The absence of enemies defines a horror game. This game got a hell of a lot of mileage out of giving you enemies to fight, and then not giving enemies for you to fight, so you're left with that floaty confused feeling - which intensifies the terror of actually seeing an enemy tenfold. 
  2. Leave the player weak and unable to affect their environment. I didn't often die in this game, but I got hit - it was scary, and I used my healing items a lot in contrast to my hoarder tendencies. I didn't down them reflexively, but it was a fairly regular thing. The disruption of getting hit once in every three battles aided my terror, and when I eventually figured out the combat, it became a lot less stressful.
  3. If the player character responds ambiguously or in a low-key way, the player responds directly instead. This supercharges things like fear and terror, but can easily bite you in the ass for confusing story and plot. If the player sees the character being scared, then the player just watches it all happen. If the character doesn't show terror, then the player will feel it themselves.
  4. Fourth, creepy shit is creepy as shit, but you've gotta play it quiet. Being startled is almost diametrically opposed from being unsettled. The threat of startling overpowers the actual effect of being startled by a million to one.

thanks, silent hill wiki

Silent Hill 2 is basically the world's favorite horror game, and its status is well-deserved. Here's the shortest summary I can provide - not particularly spoileriffic, but, if you're planning on playing the game without spoilers, you might not want to read this article at all:

You play as James Sunderland, who receives a letter from his dead wife, telling him that she's in the little town of Silent Hill - where they had previously spent a wonderful vacation three years ago, their last happy memory before she became sick - and that he should come and see her. He drives out to the town, which is completely empty of normal people, completely filled with unexplained monsters and blood-spattered walls, and generally haunted. In attempting to find your wife, you meet a handful of apparently unfazed people with their own issues, you must run away from a wide array of terrifying monsters, and you solve a bewildering list of sin- and torment-themed puzzles. The town's viscera-strewn history - along with its topology, as time goes on - makes less and less sense as you learn more about it. Eventually, you must come to terms with your grief and pain over your wife's death, confronting these feelings as they are externalized in the monsters you fight.

So. This game is a lot of things. For one, it's goddamn creepy. Abandoned town, bizarre monsters, just the right splattering of blood across the entire setting - it's basically perfect at what it's doing. The creepiness is hard to get across without playing the game, because it's a game. I recommend looking at gameplay videos if you're curious. Here's the thing, though: there are monsters. You know they're coming because your radio crackles with static when they're near. The game gets a ridiculous amount of mileage out of how clumsy the combat controls are! It's sluggish and painful and when I approached enemies, they'd hit me first half the time, and there didn't seem to be much I could do about it. On top of that, most enemies, when you knock them down, require an extra hit (delivered by kick) to kill, or they'll simply scurry around, hit you again, and stand up to attack. Practically speaking, this means that it's impossible to breeze through combat.

If this game had had fluid combat controls, then it wouldn't have been scary. Plus, it wouldn't even make sense - the shitty combat mechanics do a lot to reinforce the idea that you're a total fish-out-of-water here, in a situation you can't possibly understand. Which brings me to the problems with this game.

The voice acting is... questionable. And by that I mean bad. I hope it was better in Japanese. Everything just feels forced and wooden, and the real problem was that I had no idea how James was actually reacting to any of the situations. Maybe that enhanced the game - with him not reacting, all the emotional force was left to me to deal with - but it was jarring when a cutscene starts, we're shaking in our shoes, and James starts talking and he just sounds confused. Not scared confused. Just "how do I assemble this IKEA furniture" confused. Like "I don't understand the symbolism in this book" confused. I don't think I know how this could have been better, because if he were more emotional then it could really deflate the player's response to the game, but... Well, it was really jarring.

Tone confusion was this game's big weak point - maybe also a strong point, but what can I say? I had no idea what was going on for the whole game. Maybe I'm just not very good at grasping stories - especially intentionally confusing ones like Silent Hill 2. Unreliable narrators will do that for you. But I spent a lot of the game not sure if I was supposed to be treating this as a pure terror game or as a combat-heavy game or maybe as a puzzle game! I understand that the game was a merger of all three of them - I tended to settle on terror game - but the boss fights just felt extremely out of place. I spend all my time avoiding enemies whenever possible, and then suddenly I just get to fight one? It was a really jarring mood change. If the boss fights had felt a little less like boss fights, I think the game could have benefitted a lot.

But hey. This game was literally so scary that not only did I make significantly different decisions simply to avoid the prospect of being scared, I also flat-out gave up at one point. So, they were doing something right.

this is from the silent hill wiki's article on sexuality. this game totally isn't awesomely fucked up, nahhh
I feel bad for focusing so much on the gameplay; this game's plot is a fascinating exploration of the interaction between a man driven mad by grief and guilt with an extremely haunted town. But I didn't get the plot all that well from my playthrough - I mostly just felt scared. I do recommend reading about it on the Silent Hill wiki, or playing the game yourself.

This is one of those stories where when they started answering more questions and thoroughly fleshing it out additionally, it just sounds more and more silly and ridiculous. I guess that's what happens when your atmospheric horror ouvre gets turned into a magical doomsday cult story. Idk.
apparently from New International Track & Field

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