Sunday, 25 January 2015

Triumphs and Tragedies: Silent Hill

The other day I went digging in the basement for my Bill Hicks CDs, and discovered a cache of things long forgotten: the discs for Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3, arguably the best of Konami's Silent Hill horror series. Like any sensible person, I immediately installed Silent Hill 2 - my personal favorite - on my PC,  and was overjoyed to find it still worked. Kinda.

The save function is irretrievably borked. The console version only let you save at predetermined points in the game, an idea that sounds crazy but works really well in survival horror titles; the PC edition kept those old save points, but also allowed you to save in-game whenever you wanted. The save points are dead. Any attempt to use them doesn't crash the game, but doesn't create a usable save file either. Any attempt to use the in-game save option crashes the game completely.

Otherwise Silent Hill 2 seems to work well enough. It was never intended to run on a PC like mine; it's only a squidbrain standard box, but compared to the original specs it might as well be the starship Enterprise's holodeck. I seem to have the option of minimizing it to the desktop and getting on with my day, at least without causing its tiny brain to melt. Otherwise, if I want to do this - and assuming it won't implode halfway through - my only other option is a marathon non-stop session.

Which I may try.

Before I do, I wanted to talk briefly about the importance of atmosphere. When I first dove into James Sunderland's nightmare, I got as far as the bit where he recovers the radio - veterans will know what I mean - before being brave enough to tempt fate and hit the save button, hoping it would work better than the predetermined save points. Naturally, it didn't. However even playing that long, perhaps fifteen minutes in all, the player's given a crash course in what makes Silent Hill great: atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, with a side order of pure terror.

You start on the outskirts of a strange little holiday town, Silent Hill, where you spent the last happy days of your life before your wife died of a wasting illness. You think she's still in Silent Hill, so you make your way there. Except you can't get there the usual way as, for whatever reason, the roads are blocked; you have to walk. Through the thick, all-concealing fog. With no idea where you're going, or what it is that's making that horrible noise off in the distance.

Nothing like paranoia to make you paranoid.

There are no signs of life. Whatever happened here, happened quickly. Cars are left abandoned by the roadside, as if the owners just got out and vanished off the face of the earth. You get to town only to find that all the shops are shut, the houses abandoned. Some of the streets are sealed off with police warning tape, while one - a main boulevard - has collapsed altogether, making it impassible. The place might have been abandoned for months, and there are signs that properties have been boarded up and left to rot. Then you see something moving, off in the distance, and nasty looking bloodstains on the sidewalk seem to indicate recent activity of the very worst kind.

By that point I'm already wound up, and James doesn't want to avoid trouble; he wants to walk right towards it. In true nightmare logic, any attempt to wander in a different direction is met with warning tape and chasms, which in a tabletop session might seem like railroading, but somehow in a video game only enforces the otherworldly atmosphere. Of course you can't walk away from trouble. That's what being trapped in a dreamscape is all about.

It doesn't help that there's clearly something out there. I can hear it, but thanks to the fog, I can't see it. It's not human, whatever it is, and I can't help but think it intends me harm.

Some of this can be replicated in a tabletop session. I don't know if a Keeper can pull off the fog effect without an actual fog machine, or at least a darkened room. There's something about not being able to see trouble coming that puts people on edge, but it's a very sensual effect, and I don't think it can be recreated through imagination alone, at least not to all players equally and at the same time.

Sound effects, particularly these days, are not a problem. Tablets, smartphones and bluetooth enabled speakers can really screw with people's sense of reality. There are any number of wireless speakers out there small enough and loud enough to be hidden, and yet still be effective.

But to walk into a town and find nobody there, no sign of life whatsoever, that's the real kicker, and that's easy to pull off in a tabletop session. It can work in any number of ways; a Great War scenario in which you find the trenches completely abandoned is as effective as walking through empty London streets. Sometimes that event is nailed in actual history, while in other cases it can be just as illogical and insane as you like. Of course, waking up in a hospital bed after a disaster has wiped out humanity is a very popular trope; aside from 28 Days, The Walking Dead and Day of the Triffids both nicked the idea, and I don't for a moment think they were the only two to do so. In gaming, Portal pulls exactly the same trick, twice. Even Silent Hill does it, in the Room, fourth in the series and a big disappointment for me.

While the trope is cliched, the end result isn't; encountering a familiar environment, completely abandoned, is something that will chill pretty much anyone. It's a signifier not just that something has gone very badly wrong, but also that things will never be the same again. That's why it works so spectacularly in horror; the unspoken goal of a horror story is to return everything to a safe and normal end state which, of course, is impossible, and the empty, mocking streets and houses of Silent Hill know that only too well ...

edit: one unforeseen consequence of playing without a save function is that, when you die, you go back to the beginning, all progress lost! It's been so damn long since I played anything without an autosave function that I completely forgot this important bit of gaming history. Darn you, Pyramid Head! Time to take a break, I'm thinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment