Sunday, 7 February 2016

Silent Hill (Fear Itself)

Over the New Year's I tried to play Silent Hill 2 all the way through to the end. I had no choice; my copy is an aged PC version that, among its many bugs, wouldn't let me save, so it was play through till death or not play at all. I've seldom enjoyed a horror title more, and even half-bust as my copy is, that old corpse didn't disappoint.

For those who never had the pleasure, Silent Hill is a survival horror video game series originally developed by Japanese studio Konami. It's set in the one horse town that is Silent Hill, populated only by shadows and the damned. There's a map of the surrounding area, but you can't rely on it. There were other people here, some of whom are dead. The others? Well, you probably want to avoid them if you possibly can ...

People who come here seldom find what they wanted to find, and are lucky if they get out alive at all. Sometimes they stumble in, like Harry Mason, who just wanted to find his missing daughter. Some of them deliberately make their way there, like James Sunderland, who wants to track down his supposedly dead wife, or Heather Mason, who'd leave Silent Hill alone if only it would do her the same courtesy. Or you could be like Harry Townsend, who just wakes up one day and finds that he's trapped in his apartment, with no real idea why or how.

Silent Hill 2 is the best of the series. The rest? Eh, they have their moments, but none of them are as consistently frightening as James Sunderland's trip into nightmare. It's one of the most effective horror games of all time, and for good reason. No other game, and certainly none of the other Silent Hill titles, is as good at reaching into your mind and making you think; and once you do that, the shadows can get into your brain. After which, there's no chance at all.

This game partly inspired the hot mess that is the Silent Hill movie, with Sean Bean playing a Sunderland-esque role. Bean's a reasonable physical match, but that's about the only good thing that can be said about it. The terrible thing is, there are times when it becomes a really good movie, only to disappoint the viewer in the very next scene.

What makes Silent Hill work? Ultimately its character. You believe in James, Harry, Heather and the rest. You understand what they want, and why they're in the situation that they're in. Those strong characters then get to bounce off the weirdness that is the town, which will explore and exploit all of their flaws, until they break.

Silent Hill the town is a very odd place, even more so than it seems at first glance; and at first glance it's pretty damn odd. It's shrouded in mist and darkness, so you can't see all of it, and it's easy to get lost. Your initial impression is that it's a one horse burg, the kind of place that hasn't many young people because they all move off to the big city as soon as they can. Maybe it had a past, but it definitely doesn't have a future.

Then you begin to explore, and to wonder. How many one horse towns have apartment buildings? A fully functioning hospital and a separate medical clinic? A prison, a Civil War museum, a Historical Society, a lakefront Hotel, a funfair, a park? Suddenly it seems much bigger than before. But where are all the people? Yes, there are abandoned cars here and there, and signs that something cataclysmic happened. But there are far fewer corpses than you'd expect if there was a natural disaster, and far fewer survivors.

One of the first living people James Sunderland meets is Angela, whose importance you only really understand when you see her for the last time, at the end. Without wishing to spoil, it becomes clear that the Silent Hill she experiences is a completely different kind of Silent Hill to the one James has had to fight through. Here's her final scene. "You see it too? For me, it's always like this."

This demonstrates two very important truths: first, that Silent Hill is different for everyone. Second, that everyone in Silent Hill gets the experience that they think they deserve.

Ultimately, this is about Hell. But this isn't about scales being balanced or some kind of judgement. This is about the punishment we make for ourselves.

Angela sees the things she sees not simply because she's being punished, but because she thinks she deserves to be punished, and in that particular way. Taking that example, James too must see the things he sees for the same reasons. Which suggests that Silent Hill, the town, bends its appearance, its essential being, to the expectations of people like James and Angela. There's a Hotel, yes, but perhaps it only exists because James needs it to exist. For Angela, there may be no Hotel. She's clearly somewhere, in that final scene, but it might not be the same somewhere that James thinks he's in.

In that case, Silent Hill is just a set, a dreamscape. For James, the Hospital is clearly designed as a insane asylum. For someone else it might be an ordinary hospital, or a school, or some other building. Two people can be in the same place, the same room, and yet have completely different experiences.

Moreover this malleability doesn't stop at the streets and buildings. As James proves in his relationship with Mary not all the people are really people. But as with the environments, these phantoms aren't created by a god or devil figure. It's people like James who invent them out of nothing at all. Ultimately all they are is a reflection of the protagonist's mental state. Nor are they there to be helpful; after all, this is about punishment, not salvation.

So taking all that on board, how can you, as Keeper, simulate Silent Hill with a ruleset such as Fear Itself

Fear Itself has at its core the idea that ordinary people, without special abilities, magic or some kind of overarching Destiny (with that all-important capital D), can be plunged into terror beyond their imagining or control. This works nicely with Silent Hill's insistence that its protagonists be ordinary people, without powers or indeed weapons beyond the sticks and items they can scavenge. Often its scenarios are designed to be one-shots, which is perfect for a Silent Hill session. Also, in its character creation mechanic the players are encouraged to identify and describe The Worst Thing You Ever Did, which fits perfectly into the Silent Hill punishment trope. 

Finally, the characters are encouraged to develop a goal, and again, this is perfect for Silent Hill, since its protagonists are usually very goal-oriented. James' goal is to find out what's going on with his supposedly dead wife, for example. Heather's is to find out what Silent Hill wants from her, and incidentally to avenge her dead father figure Harry Mason, so that's both a goal and a Drive in one easy package.

My suggestion would be that, in addition to developing a character, each player also develop something that the Wraith RPG would call a Shadow. Don't worry about Stats for these creatures; the main points are the archetype, Drive and Goal, which work in just the same way as they would for an ordinary character. Except, as with Wraith, the Shadow's goal is to oppose the player's character, to drag them further down into the abyss. So their archetype, drive and goal ought to be a polar opposite to the player's character. 

A Jock player type might have a Brain Shadow, for example. That Brain's Goal might be to show up the Jock in front of his girlfriend, if the Jock's Goal is to rescue his girlfriend, and so on. An alternate Shadow for a Jock, assuming that his goal is to rescue his girlfriend, is to have a substitute girlfriend whose personality is the polar opposite of the Jock's actual girlfriend. So if his original girlfriend is a Good Girl, the Shadow is a Sexy Girl.

Instead of abilities, a Shadow has an Aberrance pool. That pool can only be spent to help, or frustrate, the character. Helping in this instance means adding points to a character's Pool, to help with tests or to uncover clues. Say a character wants to interrogate an NPC. The Shadow can contribute Flirting, Intimidation or Interrogation to assist, by using Aberrance on a 1 for 1 basis. If an important door is locked, blocking progress, the Shadow has the key, or knows how to bypass it, on a 1 Aberrance spend. Or say an Athletics test is needed to overcome an obstacle; the Shadow can contribute points to the test. 

Frustration is the same thing, in reverse. Though the Shadow can never willfully obscure clues, it can contribute pool points to increase the difficulty of a test. I suspect this will often be used to increase the difficulty of Stability tests, but not always.

This pool should be two points less than the Investigative build points used to create the character. Assuming 16 build points, then the Aberrance pool is 14, and so on. Aberrance can be refreshed whenever the character loses Stability. For each point lost, the Shadow regains Aberrance on a 1 for 1 basis, up to a cap of the Shadow's original Aberrance pool.

Shadows have no General abilities. They piggyback on the characters. So in a Fleeing contest, for example, if the character successfully flees, then so does the Shadow. Shadows also have minimal Health, and no Stability. However they can never truly die. If killed in a scene, perhaps by a monster, a Shadow can reappear, apparently unharmed, a few scenes later. Ultimately as a reflection of the character that created it, a Shadow cannot die unless and until the character that created it dies. 

A Shadow is never played by the person who created it. A Shadow's role should always be taken by another player, whenever possible. If that isn't possible for whatever reason, then the Shadow should be played by the Keeper.

OK, that's it for the characters. What about the town of Silent Hill?

Well, the great thing is that there are plenty of online resources that can help you create it. One of the most useful is this fan-created map of the town, but there are plenty of map examples online. That part of the map used in Silent Hill 2 is marked as South Silent Hill, but really you can pick and choose as you see fit. Print out this map. That way the players can draw on it, just as happens in the games.

What, exactly, is in Silent Hill? Ultimately that will be up to the players, but I suspect that it will depend greatly on whether or not they have played any of the Silent Hill games. Those who have will almost certainly expect to be able to go to their favorite locations. Brookhaven Hospital is a recurring setting. Heaven's Night nightclub may turn out to be a fan favorite, as might Neely's Bar. If you have the time it would be a good idea to ask, preferably at least a week or two before the session, which locations the players want to visit, and then build scenes around them.

If the Keeper's uncertain about an area, there are plenty of online resources that describe them. Alternately, make it up out of whole cloth. So long as there's plenty of atmosphere and fog, you should be fine. Even within a Silent Hill location there were always plenty of fenced-off or gated areas the player could never get to. The bit of the Hospital the characters are currently in could easily be one of those. 

The creatures encountered in Silent Hill often depend on the protagonists themselves. So James Sunderland, for instance, first encountered Pyramid Head because Pyramid Head is intended as a play on his frustrated masculinity and libido, all gleaming muscle and huge weapon. Ideally, as with the locations, the Keeper should get a week or more worth of heads-up about the Worst Thing The Character Has Ever Done, which should give enough material to design the look and basic behavior of the creatures the character encounters. 

It may also be useful to ask if there are particular creatures the players want to encounter, or avoid. Some long term fans of the series may feel that a particular creature type is done to death and just not interesting any more. Others may really look forward to, say, the Nurses, or Robbie the Rabbit. 

However the key to monster design here is to take a hard look at the character and see what can be done. So in Silent Hill 3, for instance, where there's a strong undercurrent of sex, Heather is often attacked by creatures that resemble walking spermatozoa, or giant misshapen muscle-men, and in one section has to kill a giant purple worm that suddenly emerges from a huge hole in the wall. As I recall, I beat it to death with a stick. Paging Doctor Freud. But the point is that the enemies she faces are dependent on Heather herself, so you as Keeper need to know about the characters' goals and Worst Thing. 

Try to keep it simple. Dividing it up into the Seven Deadly Sins is a handy reference that may help you in a pinch. A creature motivated by Lust is bound to be different from one motivated by Gluttony, and so on. Also remember that the Sin will affect the environment as well. Angela sees Silent Hill in a completely different way from James, because her motivating sin - linked to her goal and Worst Thing - is different from his.

Once all that's done, send the characters off into Silent Hill. Each character will probably arrive on his or her own; this isn't a moment for the Mystery Machine to rock up and start disgorging plucky teens and their crazy dog. But after they arrive each character will probably encounter the other characters one by one, just as James first meets Angela in the graveyard and leaves her there, or finds Maria in the park and brings her along with him. 

You shouldn't be afraid to let the characters split up and explore the town on their own, because when not on stage a player can assume a Shadow role. If there are a lot of players this becomes tricky, so you may be better off doing this in a smaller group. 

Alternately if you don't mind things getting really complicated, you can assign off-stage players recurring monster roles of one kind or another. Robbie the Rabbit returns, or one of the Nurses takes on a more human intelligence. 

I'm going to leave it there for the moment, and come back to this in a Part 2. So long for now! See you in a bit.


  1. Oh gosh, Silent Hill 2 is brilliant, by far my favourite horror games, and one of my favourite games ever, regardless of genre.

    One of the clever things about it is that malleability you mention, because it excuses they gamey aspects; Resident Evil 2 is also a great game, but when you have to slot medallions into statues to open doors in a police station, it starts to seem a bit absurd. Silent Hill -- at least in 2 -- is a strange place where reality is malleable, and so when similar incongruities crop up, they don't seem like incongruities at all. Very clever.

  2. :)

    The graphics are beginning to look creaky, and I really wish my copy didn't have its sound bugs, since the audio is such an important part of the game. But even with all that, hands down, in its original form it's a masterclass in how horror ought to work.