Using sound to create a constant state of terror
Last year I started a new tradition where around Halloween, I would break out my collection of Wii games and play what I consider to be the greatest horror game in my collection. While I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest horror fan — and maybe that’s why my favorite game in the genre is considered by most to be the least scary in the series — I do have a few horror titles tucked away in storage. There’s a couple of the Resident Evils, Eternal Darkness, ZombiU and a handful of others. They’re all great games, all scary in their own way, but none of them have stuck with me, have festered into the very fabric of my being, like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories has.
Released for the Wii back in 2009, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the second Silent Hill game from Climax Studios. The game went through a few different iterations before writer/director Sam Barlow landed on the concept found in the final package. Instead of trying to further expand the mythos of Silent Hill, Barlow would offer gamers an alternate take on the first game in the title, re-imagining how it plays, how it looks, and who the characters are. The story would still feature Harry Mason looking for his daughter Cheryl, but now his journey would be intercut with personality quizzes that give shape to the path at hand. Answers here, as well as interactions in the world, alter Mason’s search. Sometimes in little ways, like when you color a house in the therapy session and the next scene features a house painted in the colors you chose; other times in bigger ways, like when you jump through the necessary hoops to get access to the Good Ol’ Days Bar near the beginning of the game, instead of the Diner 52 restaurant.
All of this is well-known by now, as is the twist ending. I’ve played through Shattered Memories four times, and despite the Ice World segments and Raw Shocks never offering up the scares they should, I still find my body crawling with goosebumps every time I pop it in. How is it that a game where I know everything that’s going to happen and when it happens is able to still spook me out after nearly ten years? During this most recent trip to Silent Hill, I found the secret to its scares lies in its sound.
While the overall scariness of the horror elements found in Shattered Memories is up for debate, one thing even detractors can agree on is how high the production values are. For a Wii title from 2009, this game looks and sounds amazing. Its cutscenes are well animated, Silent Hill is ripe with details in every room or hallway you enter, and the sound and music constantly push Mason, and players, back and forth between the line that separates dream from nightmare. I can understand the complaints about the Ice World lacking actual frights, instead settling on a type of overwhelming panic that comes with being lost in a maze, but if you really want to feel terror in this title, just walk around in the “real” world for a while and take a listen to the sound pulsating out of your speakers.
Early in the game, Mason gets use of a smartphone that has a frighteningly small internal storage capacity. The earpiece to the phone is represented by the speaker on the Wii remote. When you place or take a call, the sound comes out of the speaker (obviously, this is different with the PSP and PS2 ports, but I don’t own those so I don’t care). There are phone numbers scattered throughout the linear path Mason walks and characters he meets along the way will message him from time to time. The phone also picks up on imprinted memories scattered about the land, and this is where Shattered Memories can chill you to the bone.
The imprinted memories give shape to the world of Silent Hill by detailing its residents and the terrible things they do. There’s the girl who is drugged and sometimes dies — depending on your choices — the security guard looking out for a troubled young teen, the creep who becomes irate when the high school student he’s sleeping with turns out to be an of-age prostitute, and many conversations that highlight Mason’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. While sometimes funny, these memories and the messages associated with them paint a grim picture of life in Silent Hill, one where its residents are cruel, its women are treated like whores, and its children are often the bane of their parents’ existence.
Players are notified of a nearby memory by a screech of Mason’s phone that grows louder the closer they get to it. Now, let me make one thing clear: none of these memories are scary. There’s nothing that’s going to jump out at you. The most frightening thing that’ll happen is a picture will fall or a ball will mysteriously bounce. I know that going into each subsequent playthrough, and yet that screech, that high-pitched howl from my Wii remote speaker, has my arm hair standing on edge and goosebumps covering my skin the longer it goes on.
This isn’t a reaction to annoyance. The only annoying part of Shattered Memories is the paparazzi portion of the school chapter. It’s actual fear. Even though I know the only time I will face off against Raw Shocks is in the Ice World, the screech of a nearing memory is almost unbearably petrifying, a noise that dominates everything else coming out of your speakers. There’s music, but it’s used sparsely. The sound effects do the heavy lifting here. The sound of Mason’s shoes in the snow, the chilling wind of this endless winter day, the howl of the Raw Shocks when they spot me, the cryptic interjections of Cheryl’s voice throughout the game; that is how Shattered Memories achieves scares. It’s not through monsters or combat or running away, it’s the moments of abrupt audial assault that curls the toes and brings on the heebie-jeebies.
Even on my fourth playthrough of the game, these instances still manage to shake my soul. Even if the fear I feel immediately subsides, in those moments of absolute terror, as I frantically search for the cause of this caterwauling, I feel an immense unease that pushes me to the point of tears. I’m not actually going to cry, but that mad hunt for the source of this sound is an excruciating tension that rattles me far more than any jump scare ever could.
There are many great examples of how effective this sound effect is, but two moments stand out to me most. The first happens early in the game. Mason is abandoned by Cybil after a car ride and sets off on his own. He comes across a ranger’s station and ventures into the woods out back. This section is a great example of all of the elements of production coming together to create something terrifying. The forest is dark and eerie, and the light of his flashlight doesn’t do much to dispel this overarching feeling of doom as he heads further into the trees. The sound of Mason’s feet stomping through the snow keeps Akira Yamaoka’s otherworldly soundtrack to a minimum. There is a path to follow, one that will lead him to a lake, but venture off the path and the screech of a nearby memory starts to emanate. Depending on which direction he starts from, the source of the sound may not be easy to find.
A good chunk of memories you’ll come across in Shattered Memories can be quickly identified. This is not one of them. It can be easy to walk right past it, and as you do, the howl of the Wii remote grows more high-pitched. It eases off as you move away from the target, but returns full throttle when you turn around and head back in the direction of this unknown entity. It is the strange gathering sticks that make a peculiar shadow when you shine your flashlight on them? Could it be this tree with the names of several girls carved into it?
You search — or I guess I search as this is me recounting my last playthrough — but you can’t find the source. Your skin starts to the crawl as the screech mocks you like Poe’s titular raven. The hair on the back of your neck stands erect and you start to fidget and panic, wondering, “Why? Why won’t this end?” You backtrack your steps again and again, nearly being driven mad by the sound of this hidden memory. It’s almost overwhelming you until suddenly, like the warm embrace of a mother’s hug, the fear exits your body as you stumble across a wreath tied to a tree. It flaps in the wind for a moment. The screeching stops and Mason’s phone gets a new message, dredging up a particularly dark memory. A young boy is planning to join his brother soon. About 100 yards from that wreath, you find out what happened to the boy’s younger sibling.
The second moment occurs later in the story. Mason is lost in Toluca Mall, wandering through the abandoned stores of this closed down shopping center. He calls a security number and the person on the other end of the line tells him there’s an exit in Cine-Real, a single screen theater located in the mall. Though the rest of the mall is draped in darkness, the neon lights of the marque are illuminated as Mason approaches it. Inside the lobby, there are busted Galaga, Contra, and Rush’n Attack arcade cabinets, as well as posters for the movie that changes depending on your answers for Dr. Kaufmann. Once he starts up the stairs to the screen, the screech of his phone beings to sound. It grows louder as he approaches the theater, drowning out the noise of everything else once he starts walking the aisles.
Unlike the instance in the woods, and most of the other imprinted memories, there is no drastic search for the source of this sound. It’s quite obvious it’s going to be the screen, and yet because this is so different from past occurrences, it’s able to generate the same level of trepidation as the hunt through the woods. Because when the noise finally breaks and the memory appears, it isn’t some small rustle of the wind or a paper falling off a wall. A shot of Mason or Cheryl is blasted across the screen, depending on your psych evaluation answers. Seeing a terrified or possibly drugged Cheryl is upsetting, but the image that absolutely gets under my skin is that of Mason, sporting a most unsettling grin for the camera. It’s the type of image that would look normal if zoomed out but is absolutely disturbing as a two-tone close-up.
These are just two but in reality Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is filled with moments like these, moments that don’t go for outright scares but rather build a tension that grows more terrifying the longer it lasts. It’s an absolutely awful sound, but the way it coaxes players into these little hunts for pieces of a puzzle that give shape to Mason and the town of Silent Hill is incredibly effective. It makes what are largely unimportant bits of backstory resoundingly urgent as this sound could surely drive a person mad the longer it goes on and louder it gets.
This essay really only scratches the surface on the brilliance of this game and I could easily write another 3000 words on the inspiring Ice World segment after finding the adult Dhalia, or chasing the young girl through the Tunnel of Love, but I may have to save those for next year’s playthrough. If you want more on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, check out Stephen Turner’s piece on it from his retrospective on the series.