Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (PS2)

Shattered Memories is a different kind of Silent Hill experience. To start with, the only monsters in the game show up during the periodic "nightmare" sequences, and you can't fight them (there isn't a single weapon in the game), you have to run. Those sequences do get your adrenaline pumping, but overall the game is not as scary as previous installments in the series. However, it does have some unique qualities going for it.

When you start the game, you are treated to a "psychology warning", which informs you that the game will psychologically profile you as you play, catering its nightmares to your specific fears and personality flaws. It says that the game plays you, as much as you play it. This is certainly a fascinating (and terrifying) concept. Though I do question just how effective it is in practice.

The structure of the game is such: the backbone of the experience is your visit with a therapist (hence the profiling), who asks you various questions that I presume shape your gaming experience. Between these sections of the game, you have to live through what appear to be memory sequences, punctuated by nightmare scenarios in which the whole town freezes over and gets creepy (and populated by monsters). The memory sequences involve your character, Harry Mason, exploring Silent Hill after a car crash in which you lose track of your 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl.

Of course, there comes a point in every Silent Hill game (and I should really know better by now), when it slowly becomes clear that you didn't just crash your car and lose track of your daughter, but something far more serious is going on, except you're not quite sure what it is until the end. But nobody who finds their way to Silent Hill is innocent. At the risk of spoiling, I'll say that I really enjoyed the twist at the end. I probably should have seen it coming, but I was so distracted by my fear of the game figuring me out, that it caught me by surprise, and I loved it.

One of the unique aspects of this game is the cell phone. Your character, Harry, carries a cell phone on him, which has a number of functions (including allowing you to save your game). Everything you need is on your phone, except the flashlight which is separate. You can save your game, view the map, take pictures of your environment, and call people, or receive calls.

Throughout the game, you'll come across certain areas where an electronic disturbance will alert you to a lingering memory attached to an object. As you approach, you will receive a text or voicemail, seemingly lost in time, and not necessarily addressed to your character, explaining the significance of that object or location. It's like your phone is responding to the ghosts of lost memories. Many of these messages do not seem to be directly related to the plot, except insofar as they relate to the themes of the game and set the mood. Though I've spent a lot of time wondering if they might not carry more significance than that.

There are also certain areas in the game where a different kind of disturbance will indicate an actual ghost that you can only see through your camera phone. The camera is a very interesting addition to the game. When you take a picture, you can choose to save it to your gallery or discard it. I'm not sure if there's any use to saving the pictures you take (and there appears to be a limit on the amount you can save), other than being able to look at a scene later in the game. For example, you could take a picture of a poster with a phone number on it, and then have that phone number later in the game (though I have yet to find an instance where this practice is actually useful).

The phone is another interesting aspect to the game. There are phone numbers all over the town, and you can call each one. So, for example, if you see a phone number scribbled on the stall in the restroom, you can call it and hear the annoyed girl complain about the people always calling her. Some phone calls are more useful than others - a few are essential to the plot - but most of them either provide some information about the town, or help set the mood, like the text messages and voicemails you periodically receive.

One other interactive aspect of the game is that you can control where you look while you're conversing with the various people you encounter throughout the game. I'm not sure what effect staring at a character's boobs instead of her face while she talks to you might have, since I haven't had the nerve to try it, but I know there's at least one place where you can get into big trouble if you don't watch where you're looking.

But all of this helps add to the paranoia of playing - not knowing how the game is monitoring and judging you, and how it might affect play. For example, you could choose to look through somebody's purse while she's in the next room, or leave it alone. When you play video games, you're used to going through people's things and not being penalized for it - in fact, it's often necessary to advance the game. But here, you have to balance your curiosity and the possibility of finding something with the potential penalty the game may charge you with. And you just don't know how it will turn out one way or another.

There are mementos hidden throughout the game, that you can collect. They fit into the theme of "shattered memories", along with the ghost messages, but I'm not sure what direct significance they have. I feel that way about a lot of the game. I suppose it must all go into the psychological profile you get when you finish the game, but I wonder about the specific dynamics. It seems less transparent, and that's unsettling, because I like control. Ha, maybe the game really is profiling me after all! The game does have replay value, what with all the choices you can make, and indeed, the first time I beat it, it directly encouraged me to try again, and to apply all the information I had learned to a second play-through.

Addendum: After playing through the game several more times, two thoughts come to mind. One is that, the way in which the game profiles you and changes accordingly is fascinating, but the system is unsurprisingly limited. Of course, the more choices you have, the more work has to go into the game, but a more freedom-rich environment could create vastly different gaming experiences catered to individual players' personalities (although this game is already something of a nightmare for completionists). Also, the added ways you can interact with the environment almost make the game like one of those old text adventures, except with extremely limited options - limited, in fact, to only those items whose interactions bear specific fruit in the course of the game. Also, keys are, without exception, located in the same room with the locked door, and require very little creativity (if any at all) to find. Although mixing that up would ramp the challenge up considerably, it would be a much more interesting (and thorough) gaming experience to change that up a bit.

The other thing I think of is how much I miss the old Silent Hill experience. This one is certainly a fun and interesting experiment, but it's rather linear, and the lack of combat totally changes the playing dynamic (and, of course, reduces the scare factor considerably). There's no real time spent getting to know each environment, and working out how to go from A to B (usually involving passing between real world and demon world repeatedly), while avoiding and/or fighting demons along the way (and generally getting your pants scared off) - you just kinda plow through each section, completely devoid of threat (excepting the Nightmare sequences, which require even more of a plow-through mentality).

So anyway, what I'm getting at is that this is a very unique Silent Hill, recommended for the merits it certainly has, but I'm not about to rate it as one of the best titles in the franchise, nor would I use it as an example of what classic Silent Hill is like - the type of Silent Hill that makes the series the scariest name in horror gaming. (For that, you'll have to look to the first two titles in the series).

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