Previously, truck driver Travis Grady had gotten out of his rig and wandered into the town of Silent Hill for reasons that have never been adequately explained. He rescued a girl from a fire, went to the hospital, fought some monsters, found out she was dead, and then headed for the sanitarium.
We now rejoin him on his quest to find the most agonizing and pointless way to die alone, in a haunted town, for no damn good reason.
Once Travis escapes the clutches of the pseudo-hot nurse at the hospital, he begins working his way through the rat-maze of Silent Hill’s transportation system. About nine out of every ten roads has an inconvenient chasm cutting across it, and getting from A to B requires either a bit of climbing, or taking the longest and most twisted route possible through the monster-infested streets. Guess which one Travis chooses.
The game continues to spare you from things like suspense, dread, or basic curiosity by endlessly harassing you with foes. The streets are filled with these faceless, armless freaks that wrap their legs around Travis’ waist and squeeze really hard in a way that Travis is probably used to paying for. The first one is a little unnerving, but somewhere around the sixth one you’ve pretty much gotten the idea, and by the two-dozen mark they’re about as frightening as hobos begging for change. I remember being lost in the streets of Silent Hill in previous games and jumping at barely perceived shadows in the distant fog. Oh no! Is that a monster? There’s no time for that sort of subtlety here. The foes are posted at regular intervals and it’s pretty much impossible to go anywhere without being accosted by one or two at a time. These monsters do not haunt, they pester.
There’s no point in fighting the monsters so I just give them an over-the-shoulder middle finger as I cruise by. It sort of nerfs the fear factor of an enemy when you’ve got three or four jogging along behind you like you’re the pied piper of the otherworld. They lope along, armless, bobbing their heads. Suddenly that fragile line between strange and ridiculous is broken, and I begin to giggle. Once again bungling game design makes a mess of the experience. What could have been a chance to toy with the player and spook them with hints and threats becomes a lowbrow farce because of designer overkill.
I enjoy a merry chase through the streets of Silent Hill with my pet freaks, but eventually I get bored and ditch them. I should probably get around to finding out what’s up at the Sanitarium anyway.
Now, Travis has no reason to come to the Sanitarium except that the plot is making him do so. At the outset the game proposed an uninteresting and irrelevant question (what happened to the little girl?) and then answered it (she died, duh) and then left me to meander through the town, rudderless. I'm on the threshold of a madhouse – an excellent locale to visit in this sort of game – and at the front door I have no questions deeper than “where is the next save point?” By now I should have been presented with a genuine mystery, and then had that mystery become deeper and more personal over the last couple of hours of gameplay. But here there is no burning question, no drive, no justification. This is just another item on the checklist of stuff to do between the opening cutscene and the closing credits.
But luckily, this seems to be the point where they fired the old game designer and hired someone who had played Silent Hill at some point in the past. Get ready to shift gears…
An old-time sanitarium is a fairly creepy place. The care of the mentally ill does not have a pleasant history, and many of the treatments of the past were more disturbing than the illnesses they were supposed to correct.
Inside it is dark and tense. The building has the feel of an aging and dreary institutional facility. It’s littered with old metal filing cabinets, ancient pay phones, and busted cigarette machines. There are soda machines and sofas in a style I haven’t seen in a quarter century. The walls are a cream and green stripe of the sort that was all the rage in these sorts of places years ago, but the colors are now faded and muddied by time. If I had to pick a word for this place it would be “authentic”.
It reminds me of the Veteran’s Administration Hospital I used to visit as a boy, which seemed old and decrepit even in the 1970’s and would doubtless look a lot worse today if it’d languished the way this place has. I remember the stench of decay as I stood in the hallway and watched the listless patients wither in their wheelchairs. These men – some of them soldiers from the first World War, men of stern make to be sure – were reduced to pale, drooling husks. I felt very small as I realized I was watching heroes die. This sanitarium has all the loathsomeness of that wretched hospital, with the added curse of a couple more decades of decay.
Oh, and the lights are out.
Where did all the monsters go? What's the deal here? This place is empty. Except I know it can't be. The stillness is ramping up the tension for the first time since Travis ambled out of his truck and began making an ass of himself all over town. This place is starting to remind me of the Shalebridge Cradle. (A little.)
Travis eventually bumps into Dahlia Gillespie, who was the woman who lunged in front of his truck and set this whole mess in motion. The conversation is cryptic and convoluted, and for the first time the game makes me question my perception of what has come before. Dhalia is the mother of the girl who died. She seems angry at Travis, and warns him that he doesn't really understand what's going on. What she doesn’t understand is that while she’s technically right, that’s pretty normal for Travis.
I wander around in the dark, probing the shadows while I ponder questions about the things Dahlia said. It's amazing. It's like I'm suddenly playing a Silent Hill game. It took three hours to get here, but we're finally having some fun. And by “fun” I mean a tense knot in my stomach each time I enter a new room.
The nasties do pop up, and much to my surprise they aren’t all recycled versions of monsters from the earlier, better games. Origins is actually going to try its hand at monster design.
One of the most compelling features of Silent Hill is the way the town changes. The place starts off spooky, but at plot points will transform into the super-extra evil version. In some cases there have actually been three tiers of increasing decay. It’s a wonderful device for ramping up the percieved threat level. The game likes to wait until you’re deep down in the heart of some shabby haunted place, show you some really freaky cutscene, and then suddenly the building looks like you just played Trading Spaces with Satan.
I best get to it then. No sense in standin' on ceremony.
In Origins the shift to the Otherworld version of Silent Hill is controlled by the player. When you look through a mirror you see the other version (Original Spooky Flavor or Extra-Zesty Nightmare) and if you use the mirror you’ll shift to the other side. Yahtzee dinged the game for this because it put the game’s most potent fear-generating device in the hands of the player. It’s like giving them a button so they can choose when to be ambushed by a monster. I actually liked it at first. It took some nerve to jump through for the first time. What kills it is that you can jump back through, and in fact you have to. In previous games the world-shift made things scarier, but it also gave you a clean slate as far as puzzles go. Once it happened, you knew you didn’t have to worry that you missed picking up some a plot-critical item when you raided some closet 15 minutes ago. The only thing you needed to proceed was simple courage.
But here the puzzles are designed around this shifting mechanic. When you change sides, some paths that were opened are closed, and vice-versa. Each side has its own set of monsters. And key items only appear on one side or the other. That’s a cool idea, but here I think the game is just too dang open, too vague on clues, and (eventually) too thick with monsters. I end up meandering around with no real clue as to where I’m supposed to go next, and the space I have to search is fairly huge. (The sanitarium is really big to begin with, and the mirror effectively doubles it.)
Feeling around for the next clue gets to be fairly time consuming. I don’t know how skilled players do it, but I end up running around blindly looking for whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing while monsters rip me apart on the way through. Eventually they kill me, but then I can reload and use my foreknowledge to optimize my route and avoid pointless battles. This practice-and-perfect approach to things is completely at odds with the point of the game, which is mystery and suspense. This game could be about ten times more frightening if there were less monsters.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
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