The Flawed Horror of Silent Hill


by Nick Dinicola

12 June 2009


Silent Hill: Homecoming was largely seen as a departure from the survival-horror genre when it was released last October. However, this entry in the long running series remained true to its genre roots in many ways. Guns were sparse and ammo even more so, there were plenty of puzzles and dark environments, and while the new combat system bothered many long-time fans because it didn’t actively discourage fighting, since it emphasized dodging over attacking, players still felt weak and disadvantaged in each confrontation. But Silent Hill: Homecoming was a departure from form. It took more inspiration from the Silent Hill movie than from the previous games and ended up with many of the same flaws. It had all the elements of a psychological survival-horror game, but didn’t know how to use them properly, and as a result, it felt like more of a departure than it actually was.

One of the staples of the Silent Hill series is the different forms that the town takes on. There’s the Fog World, in which a thick fog covers everything, and there’s the Dark World, a mechanical, metallic hell any fan of the series knows too well.

In previous Silent Hill games, the world changed after players had almost fully explored a particular area. The map for each location would be covered with pen marks indicating which doors were open and which were stuck and where the dead ends and the secret passages were. With a single glance, players could be comforted by this knowledge. They knew where they were, and they knew the fastest path from one room to another. What was once scary was now familiar, but then the world changed. Players were transported to the Dark World and all the previous exploration was made worthless. The map was reset so that not only were players now stuck in a far more frightening environment, they were lost in it.

In Silent Hill: Homecoming the Dark World does not have the same emotional impact. When the world changes, players are still transported to a fearful looking mechanical, metallic hell, but the layout of the environment has also changed. Players are forced down a linear path, so the fear of having to explore this twisted landscape is gone. In one such sequence, players descend into a pit through a series of catwalks. Occasionally the path splits in two, but if a player chooses the wrong path, they’ll reach a dead end within seconds and finding the way back is easy. There’s never a fear of getting lost. In the one instance when players are forced to explore the Dark World, the area is very small. It’s just a singe house with two floors, a basement, and an attic. Once any room is deemed safe, that haven is never vary far away, so the fear of exploration is always tempered by the knowledge that safety is nearby.

Silent Hill: Homecoming is about Alex Shepherd, a war veteran who has returned home to Shepherd’s Glen only to find his town in chaos. Fog covers everything, people have been disappearing, and monsters roam the streets. When Alex learns that his little brother is missing, he decides to find him and get out of town.

The story unfolds as more of a mystery and less of a psychological horror story. Much of the plot focuses on answering the question, “What is happening in Shepard’s Glen and why?” With each new clue, Alex pieces together the history of his town, the secrets of its religious cult, and its inevitable relation to Silent Hill, but during this journey, there is very little self-reflection on his part.

Traditionally, the Dark World and its monsters were used as reflections of the protagonist’s own fears and desires, but not so in Silent Hill: Homecoming. Every time Alex is transported to the Dark World he usually talks with one of the founders of the town, and through their monologues, players come to understand that this hell that they have been brought to and these monsters that they fight are reflections of the founders’ dark pasts. In one scene, one of the founders constantly compares his late daughter to a doll, so it’s no surprise that the boss that Alex fights soon after is a twisted vision of a porcelain doll. This is a creative way of developing the antagonists, but it’s done at the expense of developing the protagonist.  As a result, the story loses that personal intimacy that the series is known for. While Alex does face some personal issues throughout the game (the history of his strained relationship with his parents emerges in certain scenes), this is treated as a subplot within the larger mystery.

It’s a shame Alex’s own psychological problems are not fully explored because he has a wealth of them. We learn late in the game that Alex was directly responsible for the accidental death of his brother. We learn that he’s not actually a war veteran. He was out of town because he was in a mental institution, insane with guilt about the death. But the game doesn’t take any time at all to explore his reaction to such a horrible revelation. After learning this, Alex quickly finds an elevator and rides it into the headquarters of the town’s cult. The fact that he killed his little brother has no emotional impact on him, and it seems the only point for the big plot twist was to shock the player.

Silent Hill: Homecoming doesn’t depict The Order, as the cult is called, as a collection of religious zealots but rather as a collection of psychopaths. The distinction may seem subtle, but the differences become blatant in the final area of the game, the Order’s headquarters. There all of the built-up mystery devolves into a wannabe Hostel game. Whatever psychological horror the game was going for is lost when characters begin to get tortured for no apparent reason. For a series known for its disturbing stories, unsettling atmosphere, and focus on the psychosomatic effects of fear, such unabashed gore is a major step back. Not only does this attempt at shock dilute the more subtle elements of horror in the game, but it gives a human face to our enemies. They are people, and people can be killed. There is nothing supernatural about the Order members, and compared to what players face throughout the rest of the game, a human opponent is preferable.

Both in its level and creature designs, the game perfectly captures the nightmarish visuals the series is known for, but it doesn’t have the frightening story to backup those visuals. With its updated graphics, it looks scarier than any other game in the series, but there’s nothing beneath that guise. It’s all just for show.

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