[11 February 2010]
Death, memory, trust, sex, alcoholism, adulthood, reality, loneliness. The Silent Hill series has never been one to shy away from broaching heavy subject matter. It’s latest incarnation, Shattered Memories—a re-imagining of the original game that came out way back in 1999—is no different. It’s not so much a fear of the dark or of dying in-game that makes Shattered Memories an unnerving game to play, it’s the exploration of these dark corners of the human condition that does.
Shattered Memories succeeds because it is a video game that messes with the player psychologically, not just the in-game avatar. In this way, Shattered Memories is a resounding success, and one that demands play from those interested in where the medium can go.
You play the role of Harry Mason, loving father, writer, and somewhat of a nerd. Upon crashing his car, he loses his young daughter, Cheryl, and much of his memory. He is left to explore the desolate town of Silent Hill on a mission to find his daughter and piece together his fractured psyche.
The game takes a different angle on storytelling though, as it is divided into first-person therapy sessions where you are essentially reflecting back on what is going on in-game. The game’s title screen comes with a warning that the game “psychologically profiles” you, and it becomes very clear early on why this warning is present.
You will answer personal questions about your lifestyle, family history, and other probing facets of your persona. The game adapts to this in a number of ways. Not only do your therapy answers change aspects of the game world, but what you do in the game world (be it through NPC interactions or exploration of the environment) changes the game as well. This approach is brilliant because you don’t know it’s happening. I was simply being honest in the therapy sessions, unknowingly contributing to the plot. I was just doing what I would do in situations presented to me in the game, not thinking about what the “best” thing to do would be.
Other games claim moral choices effect gameplay, but when simply looking at something too long or reacting a certain way (without a prompt) changes the game world, well, that’s a true achievement.
Memories removed combat from the equation altogether, the weakest part of most true survival horror games. Instead of clunkily fighting enemies with a pipe, there are “nightmare” sequences where you must run from enemies, with no ability to fight back. Thematically, this works. It was scary to have to run from enemies, unaware of which way to go or when these sequences would end. But in practice, this mechanic falls short. These portions reminded me of racing games, where I simply had to keep going forward until the finish line. Dying in these sections is merely an inconvenience, as you just go back to the starting line.
I was happy that developer Climax decided to go a different route and do something that fit into an established franchise’s universe, but it often served to break my immersion in the story, as these parts often come during the most engrossing plot elements. I’m not sure what I would have preferred (certainly not fighting enemies) over this system, but it was certainly the weakest part of the game.
Being a Wii title, Memories uses motion controls and IR interaction. And instead of begrudgingly accept these as a necessary evil, they were a joy to perform. Harry’s trusty flashlight is represented by the pointer on-screen, and exploring the nooks and crannies (complete with lovely shading effects) of the abandoned buildings of the game with it were nearly flawless. The aforementioned “combat” sections use motion controls, mostly to fight off the horrors that have jumped you. A two-handed thrust forward will get one off your chest, for example. There is also the requisite twisting, turning, and flipping of objects with the Wiimote. But it all works well and never feels forced. There are even moments where this system enhances the events on screen ten-fold and would have been much less engrossing on another system.
I would be remiss in not mentioning what the game does with Harry’s PDA. The cellphone acts as a great fourth wall breaking device. It rings through the Wiimote when someone calls, and when timely static garbles what is being heard, you truly feel like Harry. You’ll get text messages and take pictures, have to dial numbers to get clues to puzzles, and be warned of incoming danger. The device really was masterfully executed.
The story and plot of Memories is the real selling-point though, and they are brilliant. We have something of an unreliable narrator in Harry. Since his memory is damaged, we begin to doubt who is real, if what he is claiming is true, if the world itself is even what it appears to be. Throw in some truly disturbing subject matter and the result is a narrative that is far too rare in modern games. As the game arrives at it’s stunning conclusion, I was left to pick my chin up off the floor. At a brisk six to eight hours of playtime with multiple story branches and results, (a Silent Hill staple) Shattered Memories begs to be re-played. I personally beat it in three sittings, unable to tear myself away toward the third act.
The Wii has become the home for survival horror games with mixed results. I can safely say that Shattered Memories does everything I want a Wii survival horror game to be by including intuitive and engrossing motion controls, a great use of first- and third-person perspective, and, of course, scares. I can’t recommend this game enough. A welcome addition to the Silent Hill family.