The Psychology of Frozen Trauma
A Retrospective on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
words by Andy Roberts
Much loved by game-playing fans for its psychological depth, intricate storytelling, ambiguous characters and monstrous manifestations, the Silent Hill series is long considered a paragon of the survival horror genre. Created in Japan by a small group of developers known as Team Silent and published by media giant Konami, the series has gone on to expand to various other development teams across the world, remaining a successful and well-loved horror franchise. Beginning with 1999’s Silent Hill, the game focused on Harry Mason, a middle aged writer who travels to the eponymous town with his seven-year-old daughter Cheryl, only to have a car accident, waking up to find Cheryl missing. With the town wreathed in a mysterious fog, Harry becomes embroiled in the town’s dark past as he discovers the true fate of Cheryl and a terrifying ‘Otherworld’; an alternate dimension which periodically invaded the fog-bound streets. It was a critical and commercial success, with reviewers praising the dedication to psychological scares compared to the B-movie aesthetic of fellow Japanese survival horror series Resident Evil.
The series continued with Silent Hill 2 in 2001, featuring an unrelated story about James Sunderland, a young man who travels to the town having received a letter from his dead wife Mary, explaining that she is waiting for him in their ‘special place’. As James tries to locate her, he encounters other troubled visitors looking for their own respective figure from the past, frightening monsters and a mysterious woman named Maria, who looks eerily close to Mary herself. Released to even higher critical acclaim, Silent Hill 2 is both considered the best of the series and one of the greatest horror games of all time.
Silent Hill 3 followed in 2003, continuing the story of the original Silent Hill, with young teenager Heather Mason experiencing the Otherworld invading her hometown upon the arrival of the strange Claudia. After discovering a horrible truth when she returns home, Heather is forced to head to Silent Hill to confront her less-than-normal origins. Again, the third instalment garnered significantly positive user and critic reviews and remains a high point of the series. The release of Silent Hill 4: The Room followed in 2004, focused on the everyman Henry Townsend, who suddenly finds he is unable to leave his apartment in South Ashfield.
Discovering a strange hole in his bathroom, Henry finds himself travelling to alternate dimensions of both his city and the mysterious neighbouring town of Silent Hill, finding himself unwittingly entangled in a religious rite. Though still received well, Silent Hill 4: The Room was the first in the series to be less critically lauded due to its slight changes to the established formula. With a higher emphasis on combat, first-person-view sections and fewer locations in the titular town, the lukewarm reception meant that Team Silent ultimately decided to move on to other projects.
The series took an unofficial hiatus until around 2006/2007, when French director Christophe Gans helmed a live-action film adaptation of the first game, replacing Harry Mason with Rose Da Silva, a young woman who travels to Silent Hill with her daughter Sharon who has continual nightmarish sleepwalking incidents where she screams the town’s name. While it received a mixed response, Konami’s next project was a light-gun rail shooter Silent Hill: The Arcade, which was released to almost universal dislike.
Even more of a departure than Silent Hill 4: The Room, the game focused on Portland college students Eric and Tina as they blasted their way through the eponymous town as they solve the mystery surrounding a capsized steamship in the town’s lake. Deciding that another mainline entry was required, Konami chose to outsource the next game to British company Climax Studios. Dubbed Silent Hill Origins (Silent Hill Zero in Japan), the game was a return to the tried and tested formula of the original three games, following lonely truck driver Travis Grady as he becomes stranded in the town after rescuing a little girl from a house fire. Little does he realise that this action sparks a chaotic chain of events that eventually lead to the first Silent Hill game, rendering Climax’s entry a prequel. It garnered mostly positive reviews, with the only criticisms levelled at the game’s lack of originality compared to the other games.
With renewed interest in the franchise expanding, Konami bolstered the series with some mobile experiences like the Silent Hill: Orphan series and an iOS shooter Silent Hill: The Escape. Though these failed to garner any significant attention, Konami’s next entry was announced: Silent Hill Homecoming. Developed by California-based Double Helix Games, the game recounts the tale of Alex Shepherd, a war veteran who returns to his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen, only to find his brother and father missing, while his mother is catatonic at home. Finding the streets wreathed in ash and fog and terrifying monsters, Alex uncovers a sinister plot related to the town’s forefathers and the neighbouring town of Silent Hill. While garnering mainly positive reviews again, some players and critics were unsure of the greater emphasis on combat and predictable plot.
With a combination of franchise success and series fatigue both holding Silent Hill at an impasse, Konami accepted a novel pitch from their previous collaborator, U.K.-based Climax Studios. Originally titled Silent Hill: Cold Heart, it was to be a canon entry that followed a young female school student Jessica Chambers who becomes trapped in the town during a snowstorm. The new driving concept would be a game that psychologically profiles you during gameplay, altering the appearance of the game’s characters, story, locations and monsters dependent on player’s choices. It also featured the series’ staple melee combat but introduced a new Temperature and Hunger system, forcing Jessica to occasionally forge for food and shelter, as well as fend off monsters. While Konami were interested in the deeper psychological nature of the game’s mechanics, they felt that the survival elements and premise of the proposal would not be well received by fans. Ultimately, these elements were discarded but the project survived as a re-imagining of the series’ first entry, 1999’s Silent Hill.
Retitled as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to evoke a feeling of nostalgia whilst introducing new elements, Climax Studios pitched the idea of revisiting all of the original’s premise, following Harry Mason as he searches for his daughter Cheryl after a car accident in Silent Hill. As he explores the empty snow-covered streets, Harry soon encounters a bewildering shift to an alternative reality, where everything is encased in ice and disturbing monsters give chase in a gelid nightmare. With familiar characters in vastly different roles and an ever-changing universe, players were certainly kept on their toes about what to expect from this title.
The game starts with a cold winter’s night, as a therapist Dr. Kaufmann pours a drink of whisky on the rocks, awaiting the arrival of a patient. As the new arrival turns up early, the game suddenly cuts to a man struggling with his steering wheel as his car veers dangerously on a sleet-riddled road. Too late as it spins out of control and careens off the side, slamming hard into a junkyard. The man manages to undo his seatbelt, collapsing into the snow unconscious. Thus, the game begins.
We cut back to Dr. Kaufman in one of the game’s signature recurring elements: the therapy session. Frequently, gameplay will revert to Kaufman’s office where the player character is being offered questions and is free to look around the office whilst seated. The shrink is comforting and thanks you for your participation, and offers you questionnaires, drawing activities, matching pictures.
Each of these of sessions has an overarching theme, such as family, sex or death; Kaufman’s questions are quite in depth and the player is encouraged to answer truthfully in order to get a more authentic game experience. These segments serve an important function of setting up how your game will play out; answering that you have cheated on a partner or enjoy role-playing during sex will affect some of the female characters’ attire in the game, the situations you encounter and the dialogue choices made by your character. Conversely, answering that you don’t make friends easily and prefer abstract concepts means that characters react to you in a more hostile fashion and your character reacts in a more detached fashion. While the variations are limited, subsequent playthroughs allow a player to experience a different version of the game by purposefully portraying themselves as a sleazeball or a paragon of purity.
After this introductory session, the main gameplay starts, with the man (Harry Mason) waking in a panic and finding that his daughter Cheryl is not in the car. Grabbing a flashlight, he searches the immediate area of the junkyard and is distraught that she isn’t nearby. The player now controls Harry, able to walk or run around, move the flashlight around, focus on anything with a closer zoom, peek behind you, etc. Unlike previous iterations, Harry’s options to pick up objects are limited to keys only; the majority of the interactivity in this game is from observing. As an example, Harry can find an abandoned teddy bear hooked to the grille of an abandoned school bus in the yard.
Focusing his flashlight on this prompts a verbal response from Harry, who comments “It’s not Cheryl’s”. While this provides an organic feeling as the player interacts in real time with the word around him, this is also integral to the game’s psychological profile mechanic. While the player may not be aware, looking at the teddy for a little longer than normal signals that you are focused on Cheryl, and the game will change appropriately. So too will this process unfold if the player stares a little longer than usual at a stack of beer bottles, or a sultry poster. So even outside of the explicit therapy sessions, the player’s choices and play style are continually evaluated, causing the game to select appropriate alterations.
For instance, Harry progresses through the scrapyard, the adjoining offices and then enters a junction within the city. From this point on, the player can choose to enter either a dress shop or an electronic goods store. Entering either instantly invalidates the other; once one is entered, the other one closes permanently. This is registered as a player choice, but Harry still ends up in the same place. When he exits the alleyway adjacent to both these shops, either a café or a bar will be accessible, dependent on player choice. Not only that, but the design of said locations will vary, with sexualised answers leading to a racy, sleek diner with resident police officer Cybil Bennett donning an open shirt, pronounced breasts and suggestive body language.
Oppositely, answering in negative ways or being otherwise difficult during your choices leads to a dated ‘50s style diner with a much more aggressive Cybil, hair tied in a ponytail and wearing an extensive SWAT-style uniform. The overall story does not change significantly in terms of key points, but rather how Harry gets from Point A to Point B. While this means that the player cannot see everything the game has to offer the first time around, the high degree of variety in the game’s variables allow for frequent replayability. Some of these choices are more direct, such as a house look
ing exactly the way you have coloured it in during a session or a school curriculum featuring your favourite subjects, or much more subtly, the name of a movie at the local cinema being different.
Shortly after his encounter at either the café or bar, Harry realises he has a cellphone and can now use this in gameplay. This is a very novel addition to the franchise where the player can use a cellphone in real-time to dial numbers, check messages, take pictures and check the town’s map. The number dialling is particularly impressive as there are phone numbers dotted all around the game, allowing a natural world building to take place as the player dials various places. Of course, you can dial the obligatory 911 to report your daughter missing, phone the local hospital, forestry services and even the real world Konami Customer Service hotline. Messages are sent to Harry by the various characters, and the contents of these vary using the Psych Profile, as do the audio messages. A lot of these are unlocked as you explore the vacant icy streets of Silent Hill, as more ghosts haunt this town than the main plot of trying to find Cheryl. Speaking of ghosts, the camera function on the phone can also capture morbid images of spectres and apparitions lurking in the game’s environment, adding another layer of creepiness to the otherwise forsaken town.
After receiving a phone call from Cheryl, Harry begins to experience one of the game’s main features and series staples: the Otherworld. In this incarnation, a supernatural ice begins to cover the terrain around Harry, raising gargantuan icicles and glaciers to block roads, destroy structures and form frighteningly labyrinthine mazes to navigate. The first time you see this happen in the game, it occurs in real time as you walk through the streets and is an utterly chilling moment, as you watch the ice helplessly cover everything in sight. It’s also at this stage that the game introduces another staple: the monsters.
In a direct reference to the Rorschach test used in psychological profiles, the main enemies of the game are called Raw Shocks, depicted as naked featureless humanoids with blank faces, shiny skin and a highly-pitched shriek. They pursue Harry on sight, and unlike the rest of the series, he is completely unarmed and unable to fight back, forcing the player to either avoid them, or flee upon being spotted.
Despite seeming rather primitive in nature, Raw Shocks can work effectively together to seize Harry; they let out high pitched yells if they spot him, alerting any nearby companions and they follow in hot pursuit like a pack of wolves. When within arm’s reach, the monster will latch onto Harry, leeching his body heat and refusing to let go until shaken off. Up to four creatures can latch onto Harry at one time, but if he has sustained too much of the cold, he will faint. Disturbingly, the creatures begin to caress him gently as this happens, before the game will return the player to the start of the nightmare to try again. More on that later, but in another first for the series, there is no traditional game over; the player will simply restart the nightmarish section until they succeed.
As with most of the other game elements, the monsters too will respond to the player’s psychological choices. Favouring more sexualised options and being sleazy will result in very feminised Raw Shocks, with breast-like protrusions, more rounded buttocks, large stylised lips and scarified tissue around their legs, which resemble stocking suspenders. Alternatively, being generally unkind and unhelpful results in large chunks of flesh missing from Raw Shocks, eventually culminating in atrophied limbs and a skeletal structure. Due to how the Psych Profile works, it is possible to have multiple combinations within the same creature, resulting in a truly dynamic player experience.
The game continues with Harry exploring Silent Hill, trying to head back home only to find strangers living there, who have no idea who Harry or Cheryl are. Receiving help from police officer Cybil Bennett, Harry makes his way through the woods and reaches Midwich High School, used often as an emergency shelter in snowbound conditions. Continually struggling through frequent shifts to the icy Otherworld, Harry meets up with Michelle Valdez at the school gymnasium and discovers that a much older girl who resembles Cheryl used to go to the same high school, noting down her address.
Escorting Michelle to her place of work, a bar, Harry soon encounters Dahlia, a young woman who treats Harry with flirtation and familiarity. During their car journey, Dahlia reveals they are lovers and believes Harry’s amnesia to be some sort of cruel prank. Suddenly, ice takes over once more, freezing Dahlia and the car, causing it to fall into the river. Waking up inexplicably in the local hospital, Cybil is tending to the distressed Harry, when ice takes over once more, forcing Harry to flee into town. Encountering a young nurse called Lisa who has just suffered a car crash, Harry escorts her home and heads on out again to Cheryl’s supposed home. Receiving a panicked phone call from Lisa, Harry rushes back and finds that she has succumbed to her injuries. Cybil catches up with the amnesiac and pulls a gun on him, declaring that she knows he is not Harry Mason. Ice takes over once more and freezes Cybil to the floor, allowing Harry to make his way through a large shopping centre to reach Cheryl’s home address: a pawn shop.
In the apartment, Harry finds Dahlia significantly aged and asks her about Cheryl, with Dahlia responding that she is at ‘the lighthouse’. As the Otherworld encases everything in frigid blight, Harry finds that the monsters are ever more desperate to stop him reaching his daughter. Receiving a lift from Michelle, Harry travels through the closed Lakeside Amusement Park via a sewer opening and encounters Michelle once more, having just broken up with her boyfriend. The young lady bids farewell to Harry for the last time as he soldiers on to the docks, where he finds a boat containing the youthful Dahlia once more. He gives in to her and the pair make love, only for Harry to awaken with a frozen Dahlia by his side, reverted to old age again.
Noticing that the boat is encircled by the hell-frozen lake and spying the lighthouse’s distant beacon, he runs towards it, pursued by countless Raw Shocks. He is unable to outrun the creatures as they encroach upon him and knock him unconscious. This time however, they back away at the penultimate moment and succumb to the otherworldly ice themselves. Harry swims with all his might and is rescued once more by Cybil Bennett, who pleads with Harry to listen. She declares that Harry Mason died in a car crash 18 years prior, but is utterly convinced that Harry is indeed who he says he is, imploring him to find answers at the lighthouse, which is now revealed as… a therapy clinic.
In the final session, the participant of the therapy is now revealed as the mature Cheryl, being sternly and angrily confronted by Dr. Kaufman about her father’s death, which she is in utter denial about. As the phantom Harry enters the therapy room, Cheryl finally acknowledges the bitter truth. Harry shares one last moment of tenderness with his daughter before he himself freezes, to be finally acknowledged as an imaginary dream which the traumatised Cheryl was conjuring up.
It was never the Raw Shocks’ objective to kill Harry; far from it, they were explicitly trying to prevent him from proceeding and finding out the truth about his existence as a memory in Cheryl’s mind. When he is knocked unconscious by their ‘attacks’, they soothe him back to health and place him back where he started, unable to harm him but capable of misdirecting him. The icy Otherworld also performed this function, freezing and halting any further exploration by the inquisitive Harry; literal walls and blocks that Cheryl was erecting in her mind as she experienced Kaufman’s therapy. The game ends as Cheryl collects away her mementos and begins to rebuild the relationship with her mother, revealed to be Dahlia.
The game ends with various endings, usually showing what Harry was like when he was in fact, actually alive. If the player remains virtuous and tries to help as many people as possible, Harry was indeed a kind man who simply fell out of love with his wife, eventually divorcing. If the player was a sleazeball, Harry himself was a womaniser who forsook his family in favour of casual hook-ups, or if the player is focused on being disagreeable and unfriendly, Harry is the victim of spousal abuse by Dahlia and is unable to be a father figure for his daughter. The game then treats the player themselves to an in-depth analysis of their personality (if they played the game honestly without trying to force a particular ending or playstyle).
Released in 2010 here in the UK (December 2009 in the US) for Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 2, the game received almost universal acclaim with praise given to the story, different approaches to gameplay and characters but the chase sequences and lack of true death for the player were criticised. Due to being set outside of the accepted Silent Hill canon, the game can be enjoyed by casual players or non-devotees of Silent Hill’s lore, since everything is new and unrelated to previous games. Though it is by now almost a decade old, copies are still fetching relatively high prices on both console versions due to the game’s rarity and positive reception.
Personally, Silent Hill Shattered Memories resonates with me and remains one of my favourite entries in the series, for its in-depth exploration of trauma, denial and how one’s maturity is accelerated in the face of pain and loss. Our first encounters with peer pressure, sexual exploration, delinquency and petty crime, parental antagonism, lost innocence; all of these things are events that we ourselves have had to encounter for the first time. Those who’ve suffered trauma also must confront them, but through the lens of their already damaged perspective on life. This is why I believe Shattered Memories to be a truly revolutionary game; it perfectly encapsulates the complex and subconscious craziness that unfolds in a damaged mind. It doesn’t make sense, it’s not logical, it’s not even consistent; it is, simply put, a nightmare in its own right. Though very few of us may conjure up such imaginary barriers (and in Cheryl Mason’s case, supernaturally made flesh to boot), her defective viewpoint and refusal to acknowledge her pain is something that reverberates within all of us who have suffered.
The Silent Hill series has recently become something of a memory itself; while Climax Studios recused themselves from further instalments, Vatra Games produced the next instalment, Silent Hill Downpour, focusing on prisoner Murphy Pendleton as he becomes stranded in the town after a prison bus crashes. With the streets becoming periodically covered in rainfall, Murphy is forced to confront the death of his son and his own history of immoral actions in reaction to it. The game received fairly positive reviews but was much more lukewarm in comparison to others.
Trying to boost interest in the series and enthuse fans about its future, Konami greenlit two projects, entitled Silent Hill: Book of Memories and Silent Hill: HD Collection. Book of Memories took the biggest series departure in making a Playstation Vita title which eschewed all aspects of horror in favour of a cooperative hack ‘n’ slash RPG. As expected, the game suffered negative reviews for the drastic change in tone and for the very simplistic gameplay system. Somehow, Silent Hill: HD Collection made the fans even more infuriated. Purporting to be a HD release of Silent Hill 2 & 3 with enhanced graphics, modern features and achievement support, Konami botched the release very badly, with framerate issues, missing audio, unstable textures and an overwhelming lack of polish. The signature fog was missing, the original voice actors were re-recorded unceremoniously and the whole atmosphere of the games was ruined.
Silent Hill seemed dead in the water for many years, until the release of a mysterious demo called P.T. on the PlayStation Store. Featuring an endless hallway and kitchen area in a home, the player was free to explore and occasionally be terrified by variou phenomena, including a deformed female ghost that would sometimes pop up. Receiving possibly the most acclaim from any demo game in game history, the end revealed that it was for a game entitled Silent Hills, developed by Hideo Kojima (famous for the Metal Gear series) and horror movie maestro Guillermo Del Toro, and starring Norman Reedus from the hit series The Walking Dead. Not much longer after this however, fans were devastated to hear that Kojima had left Konami on bad terms, with Silent Hills retrospectively canceled. Even P.T. itself disappeared from the Store, never to be seen again.
I think I’d speak for most people when I say that our British developer Climax Studios deserve another shot. They made two extremely loveable entries in the Silent Hill series and they have more than enough talent to tackle it again. With recent rumblings of Konami waiting to announce a new title and even Shattered Memories writer Sam Barlow wanting to produce a spiritual sequel to the game, the legion of fans out there and I await the next entry… silently…
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