This article will spoil the game in full
CW: anorexia, abuse, addiction, depression, a fucking long and disjointed read tbh with you lads
In Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, you play as Harry Mason: amnesiac, questionably conscious, car-crash drunk. You start the game dead, seemingly – but then you blink back to life, laid out in a junkyard that is buried in snow. Scouring the wreckage of your car, there is no sign of your young daughter, Cheryl. She must have wondered off from the crash.
You push on through Silent Hill, finding its phone lines dead and sidewalks empty. A blizzard has swept the town, and evacuated of people its office blocks, flyovers, tacky shopping malls. This world lays out dead before you – frozen, as though suspended in time.
Four hours later at the game’s climax, our psychologist – who, in flashbacks, we have talked to throughout, from a limited first-person perspective – explains to us the nature of the plot. All the dreamy, fragmented confusion we have undergone – characters introduced and disappeared at random, rebirths and sudden deaths, stops and starts, seeming non-sequiturs – is unravelled and unpacked in a single gut-punch scene. We are not playing as Harry Mason looking for his daughter; we are that daughter, twenty years on, alone and fantasizing desperately, dreaming of being rescued from a drop-out, dead-end life by a father she never knew, a father who has long been dead, a father built out of imaginings and scraps.
Cheryl’s fantasy life can’t hold. Undergoing therapy, it collapses and corrodes before her eyes.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this scene’s explanatory power is total. It reaches and reconfigures every corner of Shattered Memories’ plot, from its central beats to its side-story fragments. Every odd and inexplicable moment finds meaning, unlocked in a single stroke. One feels the effects of this physically: it is a rush of euphoric understanding, and of sudden and terrible grief, all at once. Ten years on, Cheryl’s collapse into mourning remains a deeply powerful scene.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a game I have tried, unsuccessfully, to write about for the past ten years. For reasons that are sound, and others that are accidental – the right frame of mind, the right time in my life – it came to mean more to me than almost anything else I’ve played. As such, I’m faced with two contradictory impulses. The first is to try and produce a definitive write-up, something that will capture and validate my love for the game. The second impulse is to recognise the impossibility of that task: to assert that I turned Shattered Memories into a bizarre fetish object, that I ascribed it a symbolic weight over and above anything intrinsic to it; that I played through the game – blindly and blearily and from start to finish – over sixty times in the year of its release. It filled a sudden vacuum, coincided with my depression first turning nuclear, and my life falling decisively apart. The game became dear to me not simply because of any exceptional qualities it held in itself.
I transformed the game into an idol, through a brutal and compulsive repetition. Dropping out of school, sequestering myself in my bedroom, the whole of the decade that 2010 inaugurated: Shattered Memories dramatized how it felt to fall into a very bad dream. Sitting in the dark I clung to the game fiercely, willing its story to merge with my own. It became, for me, an all-encompassing expression of my flat-lining life.
Even the slightest of Yamaoka’s compositions seems to me suffused with meaning. Every texture, billboard, the patterns in the snow. I can’t capture what the game means to me, because it means too much. I put far too much onto it. It means everything and nothing, at the very same time.
I’m not blind to the irony of this.
Despite knowing this game better than any other, I am in a very weak position to write about it. I have absolutely no idea what value Shattered Memories can hold for anyone who isn’t myself. I can’t see its weaknesses easily. And I can’t capture what the game meant to me – what it seemed to capture about my time and place – without wildly deviating from any reasonable or measured reading of it. I can’t seem to write about myself without talking past the game itself – flattening the game, warping the game, converting it into fuel for solipsistic wank. But that's maybe right and proper – merely reflects the way that I played (and replayed) it.
I’m going to reserve the right to come back to this game in a later blogpost. This post will not be about Shattered Memories. Not really.
I think if I’m going to be able to write about the game, I will need to make peace with this writing being partial, provisional. I can’t achieve what Cheryl's therapist does. I can't find an overview that is panoramic, conclusive or whole.
I have written before about the perverse comfort I found in those early Silent Hill titles. They were defined by an expressionistic excess: barbed wire and blood, mildew and rot; pain externalised, suffering made flesh. The extremity of its imagery spoke to my teenage angst. It made visible and vivid our worlds of private, inner suffering.
Shattered Memories was commissioned, developed, and released to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the first Silent Hill. One would expect, in this context, a kind of nostalgic celebration, a heightened caricature of its bloodied and Boschian past: a hodgepodge best-of clip-show special. Instead, one is struck immediately by how this game breaks with its history.
Up until this point, the series had always benefitted from a strong and consistent in-house style. The broad brushstrokes of fog, damp, and peeling paint ensured that even at the series’ weakest, its decay could draw you in. The town of Shattered Memories, by contrast, is borderline pristine. Clean, modern, perfectly functional: Silent Hill is here less decrepit than tacky, washed out, mildly worn. It is a sad place still – but only quietly so.
It is no longer a remote and forgotten backwater; though still a small town, it has all the appearance of a well-connected city. But the cityscape has none of the joyful, vibrant seediness of, say, Max Payne or Grand Theft Auto 3. Its streets are what Owen Hatherley has called (in reference to contemporary British architecture) ‘a new kind of bleak’: a suburban sprawl, cheap and cheerless, caught blandly between the sheen of the truly modern, and the romantic decay of the old.
Exploring the town, the stories you uncover will be similarly muted. Occasionally they are disturbing – a child drowning, a teenager’s suicide – but you will find nothing truly deranged, little that is wretched. Shattered Memories has no equivalent to the wild, orgiastic ramblings of Silent Hill 3’s Stanley Coleman or 4’s Walter Sullivan. Stories of sudden break-ups, family tensions, private disappointments: this is the stock-in-trade of Shattered Memories. In Shattered Memories – developed in Britain, and the only game to feature an unambiguously contemporary setting – we are confronted with a more mundane, everyday kind of suffering. We find a pain that is ordinary, unnoticed – swallowed up by the earth.
In Shattered Memories, there is no heavy dread or gloom. As you walk the town, the tone is crisp, mild. In this game, Silent Hill has been purged of the monstrous, the immoderation of the supernatural. There are monsters (in places) but they are locked away carefully. They emerge only at scripted moments, segregated in the game’s psycho-dramatic ‘nightmare’ sequences.
While exploring you will come across ‘echoes’ – juddering silhouettes that hang in the air like VHS static. And in a conversation with Cybil, the town’s on-duty cop, you remark that the freak weather feels ‘like the whole town is being punished’. But these suggestive anomalies are safely rationalised away; the game’s ending confirms this as a strictly psychological tale. There are no monsters here, not really. Just unresolved trauma.
This ethos underlay the story of Silent Hill 2, but only in part. That game was wedded to its predecessor’s story of demons and cults – of an occult force that lay below and beyond the town. Devils and traumas were bound up together: the effect was that the two could not be separated cleanly. For all the power of James Sunderland’s guilt, it was made clear that he co-existed with forces that were bigger than himself.
Shattered Memories’ story is flattened to a single, simple explanation. It is determinedly sensible. With the absence of the supernatural, and through the therapy-session framing, we are made to understand that there is no external obstacle to Cheryl’s happiness and peace. The only monster to overcome is that of Cheryl’s own self.
Shattered Memories divests itself of a central feature of the series. In every game but this one, Silent Hill is fascinated with the failure of the institution.
Schools, hospitals, sanitariums, asylums, orphanages, prisons: each game has at least one. These places evoke the claustrophobia of conformity – people corralled, made uniform, moulded to serve the purposes of the architects who house them.
This preoccupation is reflected in the map design. Like much else in Silent Hill (the fog, the darkness), artistry and developer limitations go hand in hand. The maps of the older games are made up of repeated, cookie-cutter rooms. These rooms were copied and pasted, littered across the map – and then carefully re-dressed to hide their underlying homogeneity.
In these images – of classrooms in darkness, school-desks symmetrical and stretching out forever; hospital beds spoiled and damp – there seems to be a latent criticism of the uniformity and failures of the state. Silent Hill’s imagery alludes to the many, many real-world stories of corrupted duties of care. But there is also – exploring these public spaces, hollowed out and long abandoned – a deep sense of loss. One cannot but be struck by their ruin. How would we cope if we lost our communal spaces? What if we lost all hope for a just and public-spirited society?
Shattered Memories is explicitly modelled after the structure of the first game; as such, you journey dutifully from Midwich School to Alchemilla Hospital. But these locations bear almost zero resemblance to their forebears. The game does not linger, is disinterested in its old preoccupation with the institution. The new Alchemilla you visit for all of five minutes. You see only a single ward (clean, modern – and private, built for one).
In Silent Hill 1 the hospital’s nurse, Lisa Garland, was an archetypal Florence Nightingale. She was smiling, sweet, inwardly devastated by the suffering of her charges. In Shattered Memories she is jaded, aggressively cynical. Lucky to get five hours sleep a night, she is underpaid and overworked. A bedside manner will cost you extra.
Midwich High School feels similarly modern. With its open-plan art studios, wide and airy hallways, each room unique, there is none of Silent Hill 1’s dreadful sense of conformity or confinement.
Shattered Memories is the only entry that isn’t haunted by the spectre of crumbing state bureaucracies. The disappearance of these places – strict, patrician, disciplinarian – is no longer a hypothetical prospect, no longer an object of horrified fascination. These institutions have long since gone. Their gutted, denuded remnants are just another banal feature of the landscape.
The institutions of Shattered Memories seemed true to my own experiences. My school was underfunded, but (on the surface) it held itself together. By necessity, it had an extreme laxness of discipline. This should have made me feel free – and it did, superficially. But it also made me feel abandoned. I felt like there was nobody who would care if I was tempted away from study by “the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV (p.23)”. The absence of discipline, the institutional apathy, meant there was nobody looking out for your best interests but yourself.
The institutions of the original games were openly and obviously gutted. In Shattered Memories, the loss is subtler.
I was aware, on the year of the game’s release, that Shattered Memories had been developed down in Portsmouth, England, only hours from my home. I was also aware – dimly, submerged at the very back of my mind – that in Britain in 2010, we were living through a strange and stagnant time.
Britain’s public services would become starved over the coming decade. In 2010, when the Conservatives took power, the financial crisis was blamed on the previous government's social spending. We had spent too much money on the poor: on the disabled, on the unemployed, on the migrants, on the battered women’s shelters. The UK had collectively ‘maxed-out its credit card’. We had to cut back. We were told to feel (and did feel) guilty.
To reiterate: the impact of the global financial crisis was blamed on the social spending of the UK government. This was an absurdity: a dizzying, astonishing, brazen work of fiction. But even Labour, the opposition 'party of the left', went along with this story. They promised only that if they were to take power, they would cut social spending a little less quickly. All mainstream political opinion – and all folk common-sense – was thus united in adhering to the penny-pinching logic of the market. I grew up with the principle (omnipresent, obvious, self-evident) that nobody was responsible for anybody but oneself. You can only succeed if you want to. If you want to succeed, you will.
Though Britain's welfare state and the NHS remained in place, the logic that had built them – social democratic and public-spirited – had been evacuated from public consciousness. The problems of unemployment, poverty, mental illness, ill health: these were no longer framed as institutional failures, or as universal and inevitable features of human life. These were now framed as symptoms of an individual's failure. They became shameful. One worked to hide them.
The ruling affect of British daily life, in the newspapers and in your head, was a queasy, paranoid, isolating mixture of guilt and spite.
You want help from the state?
Justify yourself. Account for yourself.
Scrounger. Skiver. Get a job like the rest of us.
I cannot emphasise enough how widely and deeply this worldview ran.
It got inside your bones.
Silent Hill may no longer be a ghost town, but it feels like one. Excepting a few scattered individuals, you will never lay eyes on another human being.
It is only a snow day, we are told. The town’s inhabitants are all still here. They are, presumably, hunkered down in their homes.
This framing makes Shattered Memories very affectively different from its forebears. You know that the townsfolk have not been mysteriously disappeared; that there are no monsters or hauntings lurking in their place. There are no threats; you are not on your own. In the town centre, adjusting the camera, you can squint up at the towering rows upon rows of identical and darkened windows.
You imagine that you can hear voices, distant laughter, the soft rumbling of cars. You expect that at any moment now, turning the next corner, you will stumble upon other people.
But you won’t.
The sense is of existing in a strangely sequestered world. Any noises that you hear will never materialize before you. Other people exist alongside you, but only hypothetically. Out of shot, out of sight. You are one step out of sync with every other living person.
As the game stretches on and the day becomes night, rather than feeling afraid of any physical threat, what you feel instead is a sense of thwarted expectation. You feel a gentle panging, a creeping loneliness. This develops (slowly, then quickly) into a feeling of abandonment – of a sudden, all-consuming, suffocating isolation.
In 2010 I fell ill. Not critically ill; not life-threateningly ill. But ill. Ill enough that, after an uncomplicatedly happy childhood, I suddenly left school. I became a shut-in, and made repeated attempts at suicide.
My suicidality was partly self-destructive, but it also felt pragmatic. It felt principled. I was genuinely unable to see how, with my condition, I would be able to survive financially. Not with any dignity intact.
My illness was not diagnosed for another four years. It ran in the family, and should have been easy to spot. My cousins had similar symptoms, and were cared for regularly in a specialist children’s hospital. My doctor knew about my cousins. She needed permission from the local health board to arrange for me to go down to London, take the diagnostic tests.
It cost money. They were hesitant. There were other possibilities to explore.
Therapy, for example.
I lived on state benefits, and shut myself away in my bedroom. I believed sincerely – repeated like a mantra – that I had to die before I became a legal adult. I would not and could not become a burden on the state.
In hindsight, it is clear to me that without diagnosis or treatment, there really was no way I could have managed school. I felt this at the time. But I also felt, fiercely and sincerely and in the absence of a diagnosis, that my ‘illness’ was somehow only in my head.
You are not ill. This is an embarrassing fantasy. You are spoiled, coddled, and you want an easy life. You will have to grow up: adjust yourself to the strains of the real world.
I came to believe that my aches and pains – what marked me out as ‘ill’ – were in fact pains felt by everyone. What truly distinguished me from everyone else, I thought, was that I was too weak to push through them. These pains beset everybody – but other people have so toughened themselves to this, work so hard to stay positive, that the pain no longer even register as pain on their consciousness.
In a country as defeated as Britain – as spiteful and penny-pinching and utterly fucking miserable – this is a quite logical conclusion to reach. You feel pain only because you pay attention to your pain. Your pain is evidence only of a slack-minded weakness. There is nothing that can hurt you that is outside of yourself.
You are telling yourself a negative story, cheating yourself and cheating the world.
If you are suffering, you are not.
In 2010, unlike in earlier times of national austerity – with bombed-out cities and an abandoned empire – it was not immediately obvious that Britain had lost anything. Foodbank use multiplied by a factor of twenty; wages stagnated throughout the whole decade. But what stayed in place were the iPhones, televisions, all those cheap and guilty pleasures. The smooth and shining surface of the consumer society stayed intact. What we underwent was hidden underneath that surface.
My mother, a full-time parent and full-time employee, burned out. Unable to support herself (let alone her children) she thought herself pathetic, resigned herself to staying with her physically abusive husband.
My brother, shuttling dutifully between short-term, far-flung jobs, had long periods of unemployment. He worked for a friend of a friend – living on an island, in a caravan, in his employer’s back garden. He worked eighty hour weeks, went months without only two or three scattered afternoons off. He was exhausted, and was told regularly (by both the customers and boss) how lucky he was to work his job. He fell into addiction, and later psychosis, hating himself bitterly for his failings.
My then-partner fell back into a panicked anorexia. Pushed into customer-service work, she overdosed every other month. She could not stand to be seen by others.
At least two days out of the week, her mother or myself would sit all night with her on suicide watch. The clinic which had once institutionalised her had had its funding cut. Run on a budget, admitting only the most dire of cases, the state was unwittingly reinforcing the self-loathing logic of the anorexic. To be cared for, one has to be stick-thin.
The political responses to the financial crisis – the Scottish independence referendum, Corbyn, even Brexit – would, in 2010, not emerge for another five years. There was no conceivable political explanation – nothing in the near past, nothing on the horizon – that would account for or politicise the hidden masses of private, individualised suffering. You had three options. You could blame your pain on one another. You could blame it on yourself. Or you could doubt the extent to which you or anyone was suffering anything at all.
Cheryl is fighting hard to hold on to her make-believe father. Locking down into a terrible stasis, her fantasies freeze wilfully over: the town twists and warps and shatters spectacularly. These ‘nightmare’ segments are Shattered Memories’ analogues to the psycho-dramatic hellscapes of the original series.
But unlike in the original series, this dreamscape is visible only to yourself. In every game preceding this one, you would either stumble upon others (trapped in the same delirium) or would occasionally walk with a companion. When the town of this game freezes, its inhabitants freeze with it. Walking along, mid-conversation, you will turn to find yourself abandoned. Your friend is dead-eyed, and the streets are a wasteland. The effect is dramatic. You feel as though cast adrift on some far-off, satellite star – lit only by the embers of a distant, long-dead sun.
When the town eventually thaws out, it does so all at once. It recoils back to life in a jagged, shuddering gasp. Its people seem to do likewise: they blink, swallow, exhale the hours-old air they held frozen in their lungs. They carry on unaware – blind and oblivious to the tormented spectacle that has passed on before them.
The series has always felt lonely. This is the only entry in which, at your lowest moments, staring out into the black, you are wholly and literally alone.
In its original incarnations, the horror of Silent Hill held two secret promises. The first was that it would expose to you the extent of your own suffering. In the severity of the town’s ruin – its faded Victoriana, its sumptuous rot, its rust and fire and brimstone – the extremity of your pain is expressed. It could not be made clearer.
The second promise it made was perhaps more shameful. Seizing upon your suffering, the town will extend it beyond your self. It will assert itself, reach out, contaminate everything and everyone, force itself upon the world. It will be shared. It will make itself seen.
Are the town’s inhabitants suffering? Are their lives hard? Are they suffering real, meaningful pain? In Shattered Memories – with its clean and modern setting, newly subdued tone – it is hard for us to tell.
Is Cheryl suffering? Yes, unquestionably. She’s suffering hell. But walking along through Silent Hill – shop-fronts modern, streetlights warm, snow falling gently, encountering not one other soul – you feel you inhabit a world that does not register this pain at all.