The Escapist Show: Silent Hill Homecoming

By Shamus Posted Thursday Feb 19, 2009

Filed under: Movies 26 comments

The Escapist interviewed the guys from Double Helix games, the team behind Silent Hill Homecoming. (The movie begins with a skit. And some game footage. If you’re in a hurry, the interview proper starts at about the 2:20 mark.)

If you’ll remember, I actually quit Silent Hill: Homecoming without finishing it. This was partly due to frustration, partly due to the botched controls. I’ve since gone out and read the plot spoilers, and I really like what they did with the main character. I was worried that his background as a soldier and a war veteran would change the tone of the game by making the main character too much of a badass. That actually didn’t turn out to be the case. In fact:

(This is the biggest spoiler in the game, don’t read it unless you’re ready for that sort of forbidden knowledge.)

He’s not really a veteran at all, he just THINKS he is. He’s not coming home from the military, he’s come home from the mental hospital where he’s lived since his early teens. His dogtags belong to his father. He finds this out in the final act.

Once I read that, I re-played some of the in-game conversations in my mind and saw that they’d actually very cleverly telegraphed this on several occasions. This information crops up in most conversations, but our expectations lead us away from the truth. Nicely done.

Jason Allen pretty much nails the central ideas behind Silent Hill: The game is usually deeply personal for the main character in that they work through internal issues as they fight through the gameworld. The developers then go on to talk about the controversy surrounding the the addition of the dodge move for the main character. But the real magic happens at the 4:40 mark when Eric Greenleaf talks about how you could spot reviewers who were already fans of Silent Hill and who (eyeroll) “Just wanted the same old Silent Hill.”

Me, out loud to the computer: You mean your former fans?!?

In case Double Helix ever reads this, let’s get down to why these changes didn’t work. It has nothing to do with people never wanting the game to change. It has to do with people wanting to preserve the key elements of the series. They might fear change because they don’t understand what makes the game so good for them, but if your new features preserve or enhance the experience, they will be embraced by fans. (And they will forever after insist it’s not a Silent Hill game without those features.) If Silent Hill veterans are rejecting gameplay elements, it’s because the game was no longer giving them what they wanted.

1) Quick time events have no place in a Silent Hill game. One of the conventions of the series is to have little or no interface elements on screen. You don’t get a health bar, a stamina meter, a bullet counter, or a mini-map. The lack of data is not to make the game harder (although it does add a modest level of challenge) but to make the game more immersive and less mechanical. But it does no good to remove all of that out-of-character data and all of those overlays if you’re going to spam the screen with colorful flashy “PRESS THIS BUTTON” popups. I’ve had my say on quick time events, but aside from their failings as a gameplay device, they really serve to remind you that you’re playing a videogame. This is detrimental to the atmosphere of many games, but uniquely damaging to Silent Hill.

2) The dodge move wasn’t heresy to me. My only problem with it was that I couldn’t seem to get a feel for it. There aren’t a lot of fights in a game like this, and there are very few low-risk fights where the player has time for training. I went out of my way to try to learn to use the dodge move, and it only got me injured in combat. It’s not like the monsters can coach you, “Nope. Too early, wait until your foe begins to swing. No, too late this time. Little faster.” I’d get nailed over and over without being able to tell what I was doing wrong amid the chaos of combat. Do I need to hold the button? Can I dodge while using this weapon? What did I do wrong there, why didn’t Alex dodge? Does dodge even work on this foe? Do I need to be able to use this dodge stuff, or is this just a “fun” thing that I’m wasting my time and resources on?

The dodge move made the game incredibly volatile. A player that can use them well can sail through a fight without taking a scratch. (I watched some YouTube walkthoughs after I gave up on the game.) A player that can’t will slowly run out of health and hit a wall. The game becomes either too easy or too hard. As implemented, it’s an unbalancing mechanic that pushes everyone out of the “just right” zone. The feature should have been easier to learn, more obvious in its proper use, and easier to execute. Greenleaf talks about how the old games were “hack, hack, hack.” That’s true, and he’s right that it wasn’t very interesting. It’s sensible to want to give the player some more choices in combat. But here it isn’t a choice, it’s a new skill to master, during combat, with inadequate feedback.

3) Difficulty levels exist for a reason. Once I’d reached the hotel, I’d consumed too much health trying to learn to dodge. I’d wasted all my bullets trying to shoot when down was up. I could have muddled through by bumping the difficulty down to easy until I recovered, but there was no easy mode. My only choice was was to go back to an hours-old save and hope that I could do a cleaner run at the hotel, or give up. I gave up.

4) Go easy on the monster counts. In a deeply immersive game, you don’t need crowds of foes to scare the player. You need one, and the uncertainty of the unknown. The three-nurse fight killed me twice, and that was miles from a save point. That much challenge after that much un-savable progress was a major mistake. Remember that it is not your job to kill the player, only to make them THINK you are trying to do so. The three-nurse fight was not frightening, it was frustrating. In the comments I’ve noticed I’m not the only person to give up on the game at that exact point.

5) Leaving out the ability to invert the up / down on the camera controls was madness. What were you thinking?

From reading the synopsis, I think they nailed the story. The main character was just right. His arc was fairly compelling. But the combat and controls created a perfect storm of failures. In the end, the dodge move made combat more frustrating than the previous games where the protagonist handled like a forklift in a broom closet. The lack of difficulty adjustment and the punishing three-nurse fight stopped my forward progress. And the lack of suitable controls convinced me to give up and move on to other games rather than return to an old save.

The good news is that combat is historically the easier problem to fix. Double Helix has someone in their employ who can write a solid Silent Hill game. That’s like finding out one of the busboys you hired is a Jedi. The game was not the “Masterchief goes to Zombietown” train wreck that I feared, and I’m happy to eat my words for suggesting that Double Helix was going to follow Resident Evil into idiocy and nonsense. Silent Hill requires a higher level of writing than almost any other game out there. It requires subtlety, imagery, foreshadowing, and carefully constructed dialog. And I actually think the dialog here is better than in any of the previous games. It relies less on cheap non-sequitur answers to direct questions in order to keep its secrets.

But the attitude in this interview has me worried that they’re going to dismiss these combat complaints as the ravings of mere fans (fans? who needs those?) instead of looking into what went wrong with the mechanics. Fans just might know what was loveable about the game in the first place.

Besides, it’s not a Silent Hill game unless the graphics suck! And bring back loading screens on every door! And the Engrish interface! And the old door opening sound! And bring back James Sunderland! And the two-by-four! And make a PsOne version!

I am a fan, listen to meeeeeeeeeeee!


From The Archives:

26 thoughts on “The Escapist Show: Silent Hill Homecoming

  1. You nailed the attitude some people have towards fans.

  2. Yonder says:

    I really love the busboy-Jedi line.

  3. In the last two paragraphs, True Shamus revealed himself. We had to hire a team of seven highly trained Tranq-ninjas to reassert his Personality We All Know and Love and put him back into his pen at the blog-farm. True story.


  4. B.J. says:

    You’re right. I’ve played every Silent Hill game, and I was all for more complex and interesting combat. But Silent Hill Homecoming just doesn’t work. It’s more clunky and frustrating than ever.

    I liked how in the old games you could usually use your ammo to blow enemies away with ease, or try to master the tricky melee combat to save ammo. Not so in Homecoming, you can only hold very limited ammo, and some enemies are either very resistant to bullets or require guns to defeat. Guess what happens when you run into one of those with no ammo? Bah, what a crappy game.

  5. Dustin says:

    Silly Shamus, their names are available, revealed at 2:31.

    Guy on the Left: Eric Greenleaf
    Guy in the Middle: Jason Allen
    Guy on the Right: Graeme Murray

    Or is my sarcasm detector broken? Crap, you really need a working one to navigate the internets.

  6. krellen says:

    I will never understand the disdain developers seem to have for “fans”. Maybe we need rebranding. Instead of calling us “fans”, let’s try “loyal customers”, and see how that works out.

  7. Yonder says:

    Call them whatever you want, the good developers will see them as “loyal customers”, the bad ones will see them as “yesterday’s customers.”

  8. Shamus says:

    Dustin: The truly insane thing is that I watched this segment THREE TIMES and had those names pop up in BIG BLOCK LETTERS and somehow… never saw them? How did I even do that?

    The original post edited to reflect the proper names.

  9. Shamus says:

    Looking back, I guess I must have tuned out the visuals and absorbed the interview poscast-style. But still! Three times! Big letters!

    At least I haved everything spelled rigjht this time.

  10. Abnaxis says:

    Hahaha, ‘rigjht’?

    Sorry, I really don’t care about spelling but the irony was killing me…

  11. Robyrt says:

    Making an intuitive dodge is very difficult. There are the “just moves you around”, “startup invincibility” and “invincible while rolling” schools of dodging, and you have to figure out which one it is, without the luxury of lots of fights in which to do it.

    For example, the new Prince of Persia features a side roll with startup invincibility, as well as a backdash that just moves you around. Most “counter attacks” are invincible during the actual counter part, but not on startup.

  12. Anonymous Coward says:

    Abnaxis, that was clearly intentional -.-

  13. Dev Null says:

    Maybe we need rebranding. Instead of calling us “fans”, let's try “loyal customers”, and see how that works out.

    No, the _loyal_ customers will buy your next one regardless – no point in marketing to them. I think what you’re looking for is something that says “potential customer of the sequel”, but isn’t such a mouthful to say…

  14. Zel says:

    I picked up Silent Hill Homecoming recently and almost gave up because of the combat.

    Contrary to you, I wasn’t blocked by Nurses at any point since turning off your flashlight and walking (i.e. turn on combat mode) around makes them freeze after a few seconds. Closing in, unleashing a charged strong attack, then slowly walking out of range and wait for them to freeze again (repeat until all dead) worked flawlessly.

    For other enemies, the dodge button is the key of the whole system and it’s hard to tell when you need to push or not. In the beginning, I think the timing is wider so I could dodge the stunning moves that usually require that the foe step back or prepare for a bit. However, later on (about 1/2 way through), those same monsters seem to “power up” and timing the dodge becomes almost impossible.

    At this point, I fired up a trainer and used the “unlimited ammunition” cheat. I was too frustrated by the combat to keep bothering with it, yet still intrigued by the mysterious story. One may argue it made the game less scary, but to be honest even without cheating the only fear I had in this game was that I would have to go back to a 1hour old save if I screwed up a few fights… I don’t regret cheating this horror of a combat system one bit.

  15. Zolthanite says:

    I like it when “fans” are looked at as people who understand what they are playing (Valve, R.I.P. Flagship, Capcom as of late) and not as a maddening group of psychos who just hate change.

    I personally want my isometric, turn-based, washed out colors in every game ever, regardless of personality or setting. And multiplayer deathmatch. For Hello Kitty Online.

    Edit: My Wavatar changed….I pine for your loss, old diamond-shaped friend. *Moment of silence*

  16. Blake says:

    How about ‘Potential re-customers’ or ‘possible continuing purchasers’?
    Actually both of those sound stupid forget I said anything >_>

    Edit: My wavatar is crazy!

  17. Miral says:

    I think what you're looking for is something that says “potential customer of the sequel”, but isn't such a mouthful to say…

    How about “existing customer”? Your existing customers are always your potential future customers, and they’re not necessarily a “former customer” (which implies non-currency). (And “future customer” includes first-timers.)

  18. Yar Kramer says:

    I think that it would behoove developers to at least pay attention to the fans — particularly the more intelligent and polite ones like Shamus, who can identify and deconstruct exactly what it is that fans like and dislike about a game on a technical level (i.e. more than just “I like elements X, Y, and Z, they rock”/”I dislike A, B, and C, they just suck”).

    You should still listen to the fans in general, though, since guys like Shamus are few and far between. Mind you, you shouldn’t try to do everything they tell you to do, but an attitude of “Okay, the consensus among fans seems to be that X, Y, and Z are positive elements, whereas A, B, and C are negative; what should we do about that?” and stuff like that is infinitely better than Eric Greenleaf’s attitude of “Fans just want more of the same, so we should completely ignore them when they have anything negative to say about changes we’ve made to the formula.”

  19. elda says:

    I’ve never played the game, so I have a question. Why is PH there? He was in SH2 because of story reasons, so is (I want to call him John Sheppard, but he’s from Stargate Atlantis.)’s story the same? Or is he just there because PH is a badass?

  20. SatansBestBuddy says:

    I find it oddly funny that the parts of the game that matter most stay the same (good), yet the parts the matter least underwent “improvements” that broke the game.

    Of course, I haven’t played a Silent Hill game (tried a demo of 4 once), so I don’t know everything that’s going on here, but that’s the gist of what I picked up.

  21. Abnaxis says:

    Y’know, I think the friction between developers and fans would go well in that last “Prejudice is Good” post. Developers see fans as rabid maniacs who will scream at the slightest bit of creativity, while fans see developers as a bunch of wackos with gauze in their ears who ruin good chemistry…

    I think someone already mentioned it, but you can REALLY see it at work in that interview…

  22. DaveMc says:

    “Double Helix has someone in their employ who can write a solid Silent Hill game. That's like finding out one of the busboys you hired is a Jedi.” That, sir, is some comedy gold, right there.

  23. Slycne says:

    Shamus: Normally I try to put up names and titles when there is a pause in the conversation, but with all three of them there at once one would pause and the next one would start talking. So I can see how they would be easily missed if you were keying in on the dialogue.

  24. KingTut says:

    Aside from a clunky dodge mechanic and one game-neutering bug, that was deftly avoided by me (do the clock puzzle first when you are in alex’s house you will know when that is) Silent Hill Homecoming was a good game in my opinion. The twist was hinted at but never revealed until the right time, the voice acting was good, the graphics bar the water were good and the combat was fine if tough. I did find myself often running through badguys rather then fighting them at times as I have in previous SH games so that might have something to do with it. Overall it was a good game, not a great game but I don’t feel cheated out of the $60 I spent on it for the xbox 360. It did not provide great immersion, but I was genuinely interested in the game. The bosses made sense, most of the monsters had some backstory or could have been forgiven (bar the split head monster) so I wasn’t worried about the addition of monsters for the sake of monsters. After going back and playing SH2 after SH H, I’m glad they did what they did with the combat. Combat in SH2 was simply getting a weapon and then holding down the attack button until the monster was dead. Ammunition was not a problem either. The fact that they limited ammo was a bit silly considering the low amount of damage weapons such as the pistol did. What SH2 did was make me miss the cutscenes that really mattered, the cliff hangers that frustrate people now just added to the games mysteriousness. Spoiler:for instance when Angela ascends the stairs that are on fire: end spoiler. Scenes like that really add to the mysteriousness of Silent Hill. Puzzles in Homecoming were a bit weak as well.
    All in all Silent Hill homecoming was a hit in bringing the series to the current generation of gaming in that it checked all the boxes for a good game. It had a awkward (but excusable) dodge system, PH’s appearance is explained towards the end so they didn’t “murder” or “tack on” any aspects for the sake of things, they recycled a bit but it was in good taste, some visuals were taken from the film and that was the best thing about the film. To end the rant I’m asking all the haters to go back and give it a second chance.

    Shamus use the knife’s quick attack on the nurses or the (on xbox) fast fast heavy (combo) don’t hold the heavy attack as you do so. Repeat ad nauseum per nurse (try to get them on their own or switch off flashlight and get them to stack up) and you shouldn’t have a problem. The spider things though are a different story all together. If you have trouble with those either run past them (if the end is in sight) or dodge twice to get to their side and attack. Its clumsy but do able. whatever you do don’t try to shoot the head straight on, their claws block bullets (dumb but its in the game).
    I wish you the best of luck if you try to attempt the game again.

  25. Tomarlo says:

    Never mind their concerns that the game works on its own merits, if I were them I’d be more concerned about the fact that it doesn’t work at all. I have the pc version and it freezes at the very first video scene, allowing me to play no further. My system is well able to handle many other modern games (Fallout 3, Crysis etc…) so I am not at fault.

    It would appear from a quick scout around a few forums that I am but one of many, many people who have this problem. It is also apparent that this is not the only problem with the pc version, there seems to be an endless stream of complaints about it all over the place.

    I mean if they can’t even be bothered to put in enough time to actually have the game run properly then what hope is there for their ability to make a quality game?

    It’s a far cry from the days of team Silent, who actually put some time and effort into what were once, in my opinion, the best survival horror games ever made. R.I.P Silent Hill, you will be sadly missed.

  26. dan says:

    Wow I thought I was alone on this one. This article is exatcly the way I feel as soon as I started playing Homecoming. I have played all silent hills up to homecoming. My top favorite being Zero and least fav being 4.
    I laughed when the writter mentiones how he was so frustrated at the 3 nurse fight. I agree it wasn’t scary.. It wasn’t fun.. It was hands down annoying, frustrating and a headache. I blew up all my health bottles because the run back would have been worse which is like an hour far. *stupid savepoint idea* now I’m at the boss with no healthbottles. Up to this moment.. Zero is and will always be the best Silent Hill game ever. Thanks for posting this.

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