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The Brilliant Horror of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

A warning screen appears when you first start Silent Hill: Shattered Memories that states “This game plays you as much as you play it.” This is a warning not to be taken lightly.

This discussion of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does contain spoilers.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a complete departure from the traditional survival horror format. It’s not simply a reimagining of the original Silent Hill. It’s a wholly new game. However, despite the differences, it keeps the single most important facet of the Silent Hill franchise intact, the very facet that its predecessor, Homecoming, forgot: retaining the psychological in psychological horror.

Most of the game takes place in the snow-clogged, oddly-empty, though otherwise realistic, town of Silent Hill. In this world, Harry is safe. There are no monsters here. The only danger that the player faces is one of boredom. With no direct threat to the protagonist, the game could easily become tedious as we navigate the environment. Shattered Memories avoids this pitfall by populating this world with ghosts, harmless ghosts, but ghosts with a story to tell. As Harry approaches a specter or haunted item, he’ll get a phone call or text message telling a sad and disturbing story of everyday life: a big sister who jumps into a sewer to save her little brother; they both drown. A teenager calls her mother from a forest ranger’s payphone asking for a pickup because she doesn’t trust the crowd that she’s with; the next text we find has a photo of her dead body and tells of a prank gone wrong. I discover a brothel next door to a Chuck E. Cheese style play house, both are across the street from a high school. In the brothel, I receive a call from a man talking to a prostitute: “Sorry,” he says, “you almost had it, but when I noticed the wig you lost it.” I later hear him complimenting the pigtails of a high school girl.

These vignettes of everyday wickedness don’t make the real world scarier necessarily, but they are far sadder and more disturbing than the nightmare world. At least when everything freezes over and the monsters come out to chase us, the dangers are obvious -- in the real world they’re hidden. These stories paint the picture of a cruel and uncaring world. They, combined with the pitch-black nights you often find yourself in, and the claustrophobic, snowed-in streets, give this supposedly safe world an oppressive atmosphere. This is a sad, sorry place to live. Since you hear only snippets of these peoples’ stories, and because there’s no gore, no blood, and no violence, much of the horror is implied. Your imagination fills in the blanks and by this point the game has lead you so far down into this dark world that you can’t think of anything nice. When I hear a recording at a thrift store of a girl excited over finding the perfect prom dress, I don’t think, "That’s sweet," I think of the many ways that such a night can go horribly wrong. Nothing in Silent Hill ever ends well. That fact is hammered home every time you hear a message, and it weighs on you like a heavy depression. It’s almost a relief when everything turns to ice, and you enter the nightmare world.

And then there’s the twist. The story leads us to believe that Harry and his daughter Cheryl were in a car crash near Silent Hill during a blizzard. Cheryl disappeared and Harry braved the weather to find her. This story is told through flashbacks, as we take periodic breaks from the action to talk to a psychologist in his office. But the action isn’t really a flashback, it’s a dream, a made up story. In truth, there was a car crash, but Harry died. Cheryl, being only a young girl, couldn’t take the trauma and made up an elaborate story to explain her father’s sudden disappearance from her life. No child sees their parent as a normal person, and this little girl saw her father as an unbreakable hero; death was simply not possible. She created this alternate history and believed in it so firmly that it became her truth. Our time spent playing as Harry is her retelling of this story to the psychologist. He tries to guide her towards the real truth, but when she gets dangerously close to a breakthrough, the story stops. Everything freezes, monsters come out, and by the time the world is back to normal, the subject has been changed. The transformation of Silent Hill is a tool of repression, her way of literally running from the truth.

The real Harry is what you make of him. While you play as Cheryl in the office, your actions as Harry define his character and what ending you get. All Silent Hill games have multiple endings, but in Shattered Memories, they’re not just used to continue a series tradition. They personalize the ending to a degree that the other games weren’t capable of. True, other Silent Hill games base endings on how you interact with characters. For example, Silent Hill 2 uses how much time you spend with Maria as a factor in determining the ending, but the games have never kept track of your actions to this great a degree. Are you nice to people? Do you call them back if you get cut off? Do you take a particular interest in those drinks behind the bar counter or that risqué poster on the wall? These are all factors. Cheryl sees Harry as a hero, but in my game, he turned out to be a pitiable, milquetoast writer who can’t get published and is constantly abused by his drunk of a wife. He had a miserable life, one that I believe was only made bearable by the unabashed love of his daughter and vice versa. When he died, Cheryl was left with a broken home and a broken mother. It’s no wonder she created the fantasy of her father.

But that’s my ending. Other endings present Harry as the drunk or as a serial cheater, in which case Cheryl’s perception of him is entirely wrong. What seemed to be the inspiring, innocent love of a daughter in my ending is transformed into a heartbreaking example of childhood naiveté in another ending. This is what makes the multiple endings so unique. By changing Harry’s character, you change the context of Cheryl’s love, and the game ends with a different thematic focus each time while still remaining a coherent whole. This is a kind of story only games can tell, one with multiple endings, all of them thematically relevant, and all of them just as “true” as the others. Taken one ending at a time, Shattered Memories tells the story of a child who never really know her father, but when all the endings are considered together, the game becomes a larger work that explores multiple aspects of that same theme. There is no one ending, only your ending.

The game tries to psychologically profile you as you play, a feature that seems at first rather gimmicky but later (at least in my case) one that becomes very unsettling. Each time you jump back to the office, the psychologist gives you a little test to measure how you feel about sex, guilt, death, and marriage and then tells you about yourself based on your answers. These quickie profiles were often wrong in my case. They began accurately enough but grew more inaccurate with each test until I wasn’t sure if I was even doing them right. So I figured the game was just bad at profiling me until the credits started to roll, and I was privy to the psychologist’s private notes. And he knew me. Quite well.

It’s possible the game really was bad at profiling me or that I was doing the tests wrong, but if not, then Shattered Memories fooled me with ease. It lowered my defenses with purposefully inaccurate mini profiles. It led me to believe that I was smarter than it, that I knew how to break it. And its manipulation extended into the story as well, leading me to believe that I knew where it was going, using my knowledge of previous games against me. The ending was so powerful because it all makes sense in retrospect and because the game never led me astray with false information. It allowed me to go down that path myself.

Of course, this is just my interpretation of the game. There are two fascinating interviews here and here here with the producer, Tom Hulett, that offer up more questions and ambiguities. After all, it wouldn’t be Silent Hill if we got a straight answer.

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