note: There are well marked spoilers later in this post. No pertinent details of Shattered Memories are otherwise discussed.
Silent Hill, you've gone soft. That's how I feel after playing through Silent Hill: Shattered Memories four times in the last week. I know we want games to "grow up" so we can take ourselves more seriously, but Shattered Memories isn't one of those games. In trying to be a game about the horrors of the human mind it gave up crucial elements that kept the series clunky, but never-the-less alive. That element was people killing other people/monsters/pixels and vice versa.
Shattered Memories gets some originality points for trying to create a non-combat survival horror game. But Climax seems to have misunderstood the role of combat in the series in the first place. Combat wasn't about being a Kratos, a Marcus Fenix, or even a Leon Kennedy; attempting to make you feel awesome as you bathe in the blood of your enemies and/or the innocent. It was about leaving you with a tire iron and a building full of horrific creatures; then telling you that if you want to see your child, wife, or dad again you would have to make your way through that building. The tire iron is there to provide you with a false sense of security. You know it is almost useless, but for the sake of the protagonist's loved one, you go on anyway. Harry Mason and James Sunderland were more or less portrayed as doofuses that have never even held a gun in their lives. Clearing a path through Midwich Elementary and Alchemilla Hospital was a truly frightening task. That is what made Silent Hill scary: running around as a mentally unstable person with a plank of wood and a handful of bullets through the very depths of hell itself.
Shattered Memories goes beyond eschewing combat in game play: nothing terrible can be inflicted on any character, even Harry. Running from the game's one type of monster loses any scare-potential when you take the time to notice that they are just trying to tire you out. They will even softly stroke your hair as you go off to naptime-land. There isn't a "game over" screen suggesting you've met a cruel fate after falling asleep either. Instead you wake up at the beginning of the icy level realizing that your enemies have gently moved you back there. The nightmares can be tense, but never more scary than a game of pac-man. Outside of the ice nightmares you will never have to worry about being scared. Jumpy moments are always prefaced by the whine of your phone. You will even be told outright if you photograph a swing set the game will try to scare you. Sure, your radio warned you of monsters in previous games, but you had no idea what was waiting for you, where it was, or how things would turn out. The Shattered Memories cell phone represents a simple game of hot & cold.
Silent Hill 2 is probably regarded as the series' most atmospheric and psychologically disturbing entry. It definitely serves as an inspiration for Shattered Memories. Silent Hill 2 is also a game about people killing other people. Aside from killing monsters, you are always left wondering about the people you run across in the game. They are people whose demeanor suggests that they are guilty of something. These aren't people who are depressed that life isn't fair: they are murderers. Getting to know them is a very uncomfortable experience since you're pretty sure that at some point they will snap. Silent Hill 2 goes to great lengths to say that killing is bad and by the end of the game the player becomes complicit in murder themselves. Silent Hill 2 really did manipulate you the way that Shattered Memories would have liked to but violence and brutality were never glorified, and fighting was completely futile in confrontations with the Pyramid Head.
Shattered Memories ignores this formula for fear and doesn't substitute it with much of anything. We don't have conversations with people who would perform ritual sacrifice or would kill you if you looked at them the wrong way. Instead, we are treated to other people's break-up speeches and a lot of stuff about how real life sucks. Thanks game, I didn't need to go to the shrink to figure that out. At it's best, Shattered Memories can be a sad game. That feeling is short-lived though, and disappears when the game is turned off.
Around the second or third time I played through the game, my gaming accomplice made a striking suggestion for an alternative ending:
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS AVERT YOUR VIRGIN EYES
KEEP GOING, DON'T LOOK YOU IDIOT
Pretend Harry walks into Dr. Kaufman's office he hears him talking to his patient. He then turns to the patient (revealed to be Cheryl) and simply says "Kill him." The screen fades to black, and the credits roll. It wouldn't have been anymore out of character for "Harry" to do this than having videos of him preparing to have a threesome, or acting like David Hasselhoff (minus the wendy's hamburger.)
The events and ideas of the game would have been more meaningful if Cheryl were willing to kill for them. It would have been a moment that might have even rivaled James' realization that he killed his wife. Most of the "scary" events of the game had been restricted to flashbacks and this event would provide an immediate sense of dread that was absent from the rest of the game. I would definitely prefer that over the idea that Cheryl is a mopey 20-something that's sad about her parents divorce and her dad's death. It's a poignant moment in the original ending, but Cheryl was never more than a generic little girl up to that point. The feelings for the moment are short-lived. Kaufman was a better developed character than Cheryl and he may have even been the best developed character in the game. Killing him would have meant more than having Cheryl say goodbye to her make believe Tidus Dad.
Cheryl completely fabricated Harry and an elaborate story about how he didn't die in an effort to trick herself into believing he actually was still alive. Kaufman was clearly her enemy and killing him would be a logical thing to do after she had already gone to such lengths to create this alternative world for herself.
And while we're talking about spoilers: seeing Harry's face as you send him down a flight of stairs in a wheelchair (even though he was capable of walking and running) was one of the highlights of the game for me. Seeing him make an idiot of himself is hilarious every time I play.
OK IT'S SAFE NOW
Eliminating murder wasn't enough for Shattered Memories. Climax also toned down the puzzles and exploration as well. The game isn't short because it's 4 hours of gaming glory like Portal (which similarly eschewed violence,) it's short because there aren't many ideas fueling this game in the first place. Locked door puzzles will involve you simply going to the place in the room with the white arrow and either wrestling with the wiimote to grab a key, or just opening a cabinet that stores the key code required to open the door. Nothing can slow you down once you know the locations of the keys or answers to the puzzles, and nothing particularly notable happens between the car crash and the ending of the game. The therapy sessions of the game really only changes character skins and provides an obscure interface for branching dialogue.
The exploration component of the game is also disappointing. You are never allowed to veer off the rails of the particular level you're traveling through. You will always be in the process of going from point A to point B and there's never a point where you can just wander around the town and take in the atmosphere. You have a very strict itinerary and snow banks make it too inconvenient (read impossible) to explore. Dale North points out that there are a lot of meaningful symbols along the way. I'm sorry Dale, but I could make a game with many things that are symbolic of a grilled cheese sandwich and their symbolism wouldn't make that cheese sandwich anymore significant. Maybe more tasty, but not more significant. There is a total absence of game play and the only compelling aspect of the story is to find out how Climax changed or rearranged the events of the original game. But even Harry doesn't seem to be that concerned about finding Cheryl after so long.
Finally, if you're going to call a game "Silent Hill" then you can't just "re-imagine" away the evil of the town. In Shattered Memories, Silent Hill is just a place that has bad weather. The game could have just as well been called "Minnesota: Shattered Memories" and wouldn't have been any worse for wear. There's nothing that ever ties it back into the series in any serious way. It feels like a cheap way to boost sales. Silent Hill fans love Silent Hill more than anything in the history of forever. If the ideas of Shattered Memories were really that substantial then it's a shame that it didn't get its own IP. Climax also doesn't seem to understand what exactly made Silent Hill notable in the first place. Hell, who knows if Konami does either. Would anyone really care about what happens in the game if they hadn't already played the original Silent Hill?
Silent Hill was starting to get pretty stale, but the smoke and mirrors that Shattered Memories brings to the series will become stale even more quickly. Brutality matters, and can exist alongside subtlety and complex emotions. Shattered Memories needlessly discarded this concept in its entirety. We can tell ourselves how mature this game is, but no one is ever going to take note of it outside of Silent Hill fans. I even wonder if Shattered Memories had something to do with Akira Yamaoka leaving Konami. Maybe I'm wrong, but as a fan of this series for the past 10 years, I'm not convinced that this re-imagining of Silent Hill is in any way superior to what the series has previously accomplished. I think it even casually discards the most important elements that compose the series' identity.
Silent Hill, you're no longer the monster I fell in love with. It's been a long time coming, but..but if this is how it's going to be, then this is goodbye.
It's game over Harry, please stay dead and/or abducted by aliens.
(Not a reference to anything that happens in Shattered Memories)