Silent Hill Origins Part 3: Insanitarium

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 30, 2008

Filed under: Shamus Plays 27 comments

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.

Oh yeah - sexy!  Check it out:  Behind the homely nurse is a luscious <strong>save point</strong>.
Oh yeah - sexy! Check it out: Behind the homely nurse is a luscious save point.

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.

Gotta catch 'em all!  Taunting the demons of Silent Hill is easy and fun.   They move just slightly faster than you walk, so if you alternate between walking and jogging you should be able to keep them a good six steps behind you without running out of energy.  If they get too close, just run by a hydrant or street sign, since they tend to get stuck on those.  See how many you can gather.
Gotta catch 'em all! Taunting the demons of Silent Hill is easy and fun. They move just slightly faster than you walk, so if you alternate between walking and jogging you should be able to keep them a good six steps behind you without running out of energy. If they get too close, just run by a hydrant or street sign, since they tend to get stuck on those. See how many you can gather.

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.

The Adventures of Travis Grady, the second-smartest man in a one-man town.
The Adventures of Travis Grady, the second-smartest man in a one-man town.

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…

This wheelchair is more disturbing than a dozen of those armless goofs trotting after me in the streets.
This wheelchair is more disturbing than a dozen of those armless goofs trotting after me in the streets.

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.)

Confusing conversations with disturbed people?  Now it's starting to feel like something I might compare to Silent Hill.
Confusing conversations with disturbed people? Now it's starting to feel like something I might compare to Silent Hill.

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.

Wow. I didn’t notice the shift from third to first person until after I re-read it. It was completely unconscious, and probably a sign of how much more immersed I am in the game. I’ll think I’ll leave it that way instead of fixing it.

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.

The Pope in a go-kart. The room on the other side of this mirror sure does look a fearsome mess. You'd have to be dumber 'n a sack of dead possums to go over there. </p>
<p>I best get to it then.  No sense in standin' on ceremony.
The Pope in a go-kart. The room on the other side of this mirror sure does look a fearsome mess. You'd have to be dumber 'n a sack of dead possums to go over there.

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.

This series is going on longer than I’d intended, but this is too much fun. (This writeup, not the game itself, which is a mixed bag so far.) Plus, writing all this down seems to redeem the time I’m putting into the game. We’ll see how far this goes.


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27 thoughts on “Silent Hill Origins Part 3: Insanitarium

  1. Robyrt says:

    I like this linear exploration – it makes perfect sense for a heavily narrative-based game.

    Dead Space has a similar problem with having too many bad guys, so that the distant monster noises which were creepy on level 1 just prompt me to reload by level 8. Fortunately, they are faster than you are and chase you through the air vents, so you can still be scared by an ambush.

  2. Hal says:

    Hm . . . it’s not an unusual theme for puzzle games to have a “switch between mirrored worlds” thing going on. The Zelda games did it (Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time), Super Paper Mario did it . . . I wonder if this was an independent effort or if they were trying to capture the success of that mechanism from another game.

  3. Kel'Thuzad says:

    So… it sounds like there ARE some good points. Still, I think I’ll pass.

    EDIT: Er… why aren’t the wavatars working? Using firefox on a windows computer, and it says wavatar instead of showing the portrait.

  4. gahazakul says:

    @ Robyrt

    In Deadspace it is a little different of an approach to things. Its more “thriller” than “chiller”.

    The guys at Penny Arcade said it best “This isn’t Alien, it’s Aliens”

  5. Chuk says:

    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.

    Excellent prose, very evocative.

  6. Cthulhu says:

    That whole “switch between light and dark worlds to solve puzzles” thing is getting used way too much now. I first ran into it with metroid prime 2, and it failed to live up to its predecessor for that very reason. It’s a lousy gameplay device, but the industry seems to love it, I suppose because it doubles the gameplay time at no extra development cost.

  7. Aergoth says:

    It sounds like the twin Aethers from Metroid Prime 2. Or the whole Light/Dark Past/Present effects from (…3, 4?) several different Zelda Games. Nintendo adventure games do tend to follow the Get A, travel to X, open B with A to get to Y. Repeat. Sometimes it actually takes on a third level of crazy: Open B with A to get C to kill M (boss monster) to get D, to get to Y. Repeat (sparingly). Either way, you’re completely right. Giving the player the option to go back into a safer, less scary version of the game, kills the mood. Kill switches are annoying like that. Metroid Prime 2 accomplished much by sealing off entrances to rooms, right after you enter, so that you can’t double back, which helped a lot when the place you were in is slowly killing you. (1 HP per second, when not in a safe zone. 99 HP per Energy Tank, 4 energy tanks. Do the math.) One of the more frightening moments from Luigi’s Mansion (Yes. Luigi’s Mansion) was when they took all the hard earned progress you’d make creating safe bubbles, and threw it down the drain. For those of you who haven’t played L’s Mansion, clearing a room will cause the lights to turn on, rendering it safe from further ghosts. Roughly 1/2 to 2/3s of the way through the game, the ghosts kill the generator (and by extension the lights) and you have to travel back down to the basement to turn it back on. From the roof. Fun.

  8. Hal says:

    Ah, Luigi’s Mansion . . . I have a love/hate relationship with that game. So charming, but one of the few games to make me throw a controller. Which I recommend against, since mine bounced off the floor and hit me in the face.

    1. Bryan says:

      I played that game…but although I love Luigi, I didn’t lke it. Why the hell did they have to make Luigi’s game crap? It’s like they hate him.

  9. Kanthalion says:

    I have to echo Chuk. Although entertaining, the whole piece about Silent Hill was overshadowed with your prose describing the VA hospital. I actually felt my throat start to choke up at the image you painted.

  10. Tom says:

    Hmm, that mirror idea had potential. You know what might make it work better? Rigging the game so you don’t know, upon going through, whether you’ll be able to to get back or not each time – uncertainty is the lifeblood of horror, especially when it’s your lifeline, escape route, safe house or ride home that’s in doubt. Make some of the mirrors one-way, or timed (it wouldn’t necessarily have to be some mysterious property of the mirror, either – perhaps the floor has rotted away on one side, for example. Even better, have a monster smash the mirror so you have to find another one!) Just a few, mind – consistent inconsistency ruins suspense just as much as monotonous uniformity. As a general principle, it shouldn’t be possible for the player to figure out whether it’s random, algorithmic or following the narrative – if they do that, you’ve lost the immersion.

  11. Tesh says:

    In line with the “unexpected” factor, there are all sorts of games that could be played with the mirror. Cracks are creepy, and could be indicators of something terrible affecting the mirror, especially if an intact mirror is somehow valuable. Cracked glass doesn’t heal.

    Also, if monsters can somehow go through the mirror, that could be interesting, too, especially if the player doesn’t know that it can happen. (Well, at least it would work once.)

    There are few things more jarring than thinking you’re somewhere safe and secure only to see even the slightest element out of place to hint at imagined terrors, or remembered situations. Even a toothbrush out of place from where you last left it, or a dirty smudge under the edge of the door. The spooky is spreading, in other words. It could even lend a sense of urgency, as the “real world” (or is it?) gets increasingly warped, and the mirror world behaves ever more strangely.

  12. Viktor says:

    I hate games where there is only one route and you know it. I prefer lots of routes, but that wouldn’t work in horror, so…make a bunch of routes, and then figure a way of making the player avoid them. Make multiple branches in the road that lead to the same place, even though they head in different directions and would never reasonably meet. Make a bright path and a dark one, and either way mist closes in behind you, making a short walk one way endless the other, so you can’t realize that both routes are the same. Don’t drop a boulder in every street but one. That’s just boring, and breaks immersion. Above all, make it my own choices that screw me over, no matter how little control I actually had. As long as it’s perceived as my choice by me, it’s perfect.
    Think of the conversations in KotOR. A lot of times, the different choices would change maybe one line of dialog, sometimes not even that, but you’d think it was a unique response because of the writing. The same principle is possible with roadways, and it makes the world real.

  13. MRL says:

    The best way the mirror idea could have been used, I think, would have been making them goals rather than simply puzzle objects – say, something along the lines of the second new Prince of Persia game, where an Implacable Man-type monster is slowly but surely chasing you, and the only way to escape is to get to a mirrow – whereupon you get to see it scratching and clawing at the glass from the other side.

    Of course, it’d be nice to have a sequence in late-game where the critter actually manages to break through

  14. Illiterate says:

    MRL — as long as the monster

    a) Makes it obvious you can’t kill it
    b) Doesn’t kill you in one or two hits, but makes it clear that it can hurt you very badly

    That sounds like an excellent mechanic.
    Hell, I may use it next time I’m running a game.

  15. Kevin says:

    Yes! Keep writing this one, it’s fun for us too!

    Do bad guys stay dead once you’ve killed them, or do they respawn at any point?

    Maybe Travis was heading to the sanitarium because he felt depressed. Maybe he was looking for drugs. Maybe his hands were dirty and he misunderstood the meaning of “sanitarium.”

  16. Shamus says:

    Bad guys get back up if you don’t run over and stomp on them real quick. (The nurses get back up until you stomp them or beat them 4 times.)

    It’s hard to tell if they respawn. It tends to add monsters as you move forward. The sanitarium starts off empty, and by the time you’re nearly done there’s a monster in every other room. Some rooms which already had monsters will now have two, or have worse ones. Some larger rooms even have three, which is crazy.

    I’m not sure if you can call this “respawning”. I guess the real question is: Does killing monsters early on reduce the number of monsters to deal with later? I can’t really tell.

  17. Illiterate says:

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t actually play the silent hill games, my understanding is that the point of silent hill is that it has a desperate need for approval, and will make itself be whatever it thinks someone wants.

    A happy, well-adjusted person might simply drive through town well adjusted, maybe with an uncomfortable twinge as they drive past a motel which has a disturbing similarity to the one where they once cheated on a boyfriend.

    However, the games center around blunted and disturbed personalities, people who have major unresolved drama and put forth a large amount of psychic energy which the town can feed upon, while delivering up to them everything that is inside of their own souls.

    Has the game given any clues as to what this guy travis’ deal is? Or is he dealing with the baggage of other visitors to the town, who already imprinted upon it? Might actually reasonably account for recycled plot elements and characters.

    1. MidnightDStroyer says:

      I think Travis’ problem was well-stated in the caption under the pic of him standing at the Sanatorium’s gate: “The Adventures of Travis Grady, the second-smartest man in a one-man town.”

      When I read up to that point, my first thought was, “Might as well brand the word ‘Loser’ on his forehead & send him off to try winning a Darwin Award.”

  18. Eric J says:

    Here’s a fun variation on the move between two worlds gaming trope.

  19. David says:

    Yeah, it would be pretty scary if you went through one of these mirrors and found it was broken on the other side, meaning you’d have to find another one to get back.

    On another note, I’m still scared about the word Origin in the title. Does it mean that this idiot Travis is the cause of all the crap that happens in Silent Hill, or does his bumbling just make it worse?

  20. Nawyria says:

    The world-shift puzzle-solving game mechanic somehow reminds me of Legacy of Kaine, where the player has to switch constantly between the spirit world and the material world to get past barriers.

  21. Paige says:

    I’ve played all the Silent Hills, ever since the very first one for playstation 1 came out. lol. They’re amazing, and I am just recently finishing Origins, almost ready to play Homecoming. Serious about Silent Hill. And Origins had to be the one with the most amazing plot.

  22. Paige says:

    Travis isn’t the cause, they are waiting for another rebirth. The birth which is Alessa, Alessa is the origin. You’d know that if you finished the freaking game.

  23. Paige says:

    Let’s clear up some things.

    Silent Hill has been my passion from the very start.
    Im 17, and have been playing since I was 12.
    First off, Travis wasn’t headed to the Sanitarium, he was delivering boxes, (for those of you who haven’t played, when you get to the end of the game it tells the story in his eyes..)

    Alessa is the origin, because she is the rebirth from the cult. If you even read the walkthrough you’ll know that.

    Also, there may only be one route, but i hardly think that it’s someone who’s never played the game, place to judge wheather or not what game is better than it.

    There is alot of misunderstanding about the mirrors, althougn it would be pretty much amazing if you could go through an have to find another mirror to get back to the “normal” world, that’s not how it works, and if you don’t like the game, just simply don’t talk about it. but again it is the BLOG, so feel free to voice your opinions.

    If anyone has any questions about the games, please feel free to contact me, on my e-mail @

    [email protected]. or [email protected]
    Thank you.

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