Warning: This review contains images that are both disturbing and stupid. Mostly the latter. Either way, viewer discretion is advised.
This is not a scary game compared to the previous offerings under the Silent Hill name. I could end the review there and we could all go back to talking about City of Heroes, but then you might be left wondering why it isn’t scary.
I’ve already had a lot to say on what makes games frightening. One thing I’d add to that is that the player really needs to connect with the main character before you can hope to start scaring them. The player needs to empathize with their avatar, or else the whole game is just a tedious system of resource management and dodgy combat controls. The first few minutes of the game are crucial for building that connection and coaxing the player into immersing themselves in the gameworld even though it’s dangerous and unpleasant. Let’s see how well Silent Hill: Origins pulls this off. (He said, a paragraph after he’d already tipped his hand.)
The game starts off by dropping us into the shoes of Travis Grady, a trucker who is just passing through Silent Hill. Travis has an expositional conversation with another trucker over the CB. Suddenly a robed woman lurches into the road. Travis slams on the brakes. He gets out of his truck, but she’s gone. Then he sees an apparition in his side-view mirror, which looks like a little girl. Then a little girl (seemingly a different one) wanders by in front of his truck and runs off into the fog.
And Travis, for no reason available to the player, takes off after her.
In the original game, Harry Mason strayed into Silent Hill because he was looking for his daughter. In the second, James Sunderland was looking for his dead wife, who’d mailed him a letter. In SH3 Heather was driven to Silent Hill in search of why she seemed to be inadvertently turning the world around her into a nightmare world. Henry Townshend was drawn there in SH4 in order to find an escape from his haunted apartment. They all had reasons why they couldn’t just leg it when the spooks showed up. They all had deeply personal forces (and in the first two, loved ones) which compelled them to stay.
But Travis abandons his rig (which is blocking both lanes of traffic) to go running into the dark and fog in search of a little girl who seemed to be just fine. Ignoring the haunted town for a second, if you’re a grown man you shouldn’t go chasing after little girls in the middle of the night just because they run away from you. That’s what they’re taught to do. You’re a stranger, remember? The game has already established that he has a CB radio in the cab. If he was genuinely worried about her he could make himself a lot more useful by calling for some sort of help. Since she ran down the road he could at least drive after her. But no. He just charges off into the darkness like a dolt.
Travis jogs down the road until he reaches a burning house. Inside, he hears someone crying out in pain.
Now, there’s nothing really wrong with this setup except that the whole thing feels so ADD. We stopped for a robed woman, but then Travis forgets about her and looks for ghosts. But then he forgets about that and chases a little girl down the road. And then he forgets about her and charges into a burning house. We’re several minutes into the game we we still haven’t hit a solid hook. It’s just disjointed weirdness.
Travis makes his way upstairs and finds a horribly burned little girl. (What, another little girl? The “spooky little girl” thing is already pretty cliche. Here we are five minutes into the game and we’ve already hit the five-bladed razor of spooky little girls.) She says, “Let me burn.” She’s scorched black and shouldn’t even be alive, much less awake and talking.
The kid is completely burned. She’s in the middle of some hocus-pocus scrawled on the floor, which is wood yet not burned. Encircling that is the requisite candle arrangement, still lit and not reduced to puddles by the heat and flames. Out beyond that we have a house, which is currently burning. But the fire has not yet reached this spot, where the girl is already burned. This makes no sense. If I was immersed in the game – if I’d been hooked by this point – I might have blamed the unconventional burning on “magic” or “freaky cult hoodoo”. But I wasn’t sold on the world yet, so this felt like the designer was just careless.
Travis scoops her up and takes her to safety. Just a question here, but if you were escaping a burning, collapsing building, how would you move:
He’s walking through a burning building carrying a person, but he shows no signs of stress. Apparently the fire isn’t dangerous, the house isn’t filled with smoke, and the air isn’t searing hot and bereft of oxygen, and the girl isn’t any sort of burden. He strolls to safety with a blank look on his face. Yawn.
Once he gets outside, he takes her fatally burned body and drops it in the dirt a few feet from the burning house. So instead of dying of burns she can die when the house falls on them both. Assuming she didn’t asphyxiate on the way through the house. Or succumb to her injuries.
“There”, he says, “safe now.”
I howled with laughter at this. That is not hyperbole. I threw my head back and laughed. I immediately thought of the famous line from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Ah, this is obviously some strange use of the word ‘safe’ that I wasn’t previously aware of.” Indeed, Travis seems to be using the word in the same way it was used in Hitchhiker’s: I have saved you from certain death so that you can live for a few minutes longer in incredible pain and then die even more horribly. You know, that kind of “safe”.
The game is already giving Sam & Max a run for their money in the laughs department. This is probably not the mood they were going for, but I am sort of inadvertently having fun.
Out of ideas for how he can screw things up any further, Travis passes out beside the girl.
We’ll chart more of Travis’ ridiculous journey in part 2.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
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