A Fear of Worlds: ‘Silent Hill: Downpour’ and Level Design

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how breakable weapons in Silent Hill: Downpour allowed players to feel vulnerable without making them weak, but the game evokes horror in other ways as well. In particular, through its smart level design (“The Combative Horror of Silent Hill: Downpour, PopMatters, 7 June 2013).

Long ago, I harped on Silent Hill: Homecoming for what I saw as a grave misuse of the “Dark World,” the nightmarish, industrial hellscape that is this series’s calling card:

In previous Silent Hill games, the world changed after players had almost fully explored a particular area… 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… Players are forced down a linear path, so the fear of having to explore this twisted landscape is gone… There’s never a fear of getting lost. (“The Flawed Horror of Silent Hill: Homecoming, PopMatters, 12 June 2009)

Those same criticisms could almost be applied to Downpour as well, since the Dark World is still linear, but it doesn’t actually feel linear thanks to some clever level design and because you’re always being chased by a weird, red… black hole thing.

The weird light may not be scary looking, but it’s very obviously out to kill you. Every time that it gets close, time slows down and Murphy screams in pain. That’s enough of a motivation to run — and to keep running. These chase scenes always occur in narrow linear hallways, but within the context of a chase, that kind of level design becomes smart rather than boring.

A good horror game makes players afraid to die, but if we actually do die, a lot of that horror disappears. That’s because death in gaming is often frustrating, forcing us to replay the same part of a level over and over again. The linear Dark Word in Downpour ensures that we always have someplace to run; we’ll never get cornered and killed and have to restart. Add in the perceived threat of the light that spurs us into running, and you have an effective horror game that’s able to maintain a sense of danger without actually killing the player.

Later on, these chases become harder (or at least they seem to) with the introduction of branching paths. You’ll come to some kind of junction and have to make a split second decision which way to go. With no kind of hint as to which way is the right way, it’s very easy to get lost and end up running in circles. But, again, that’s a good thing. The levels always circle back on each other, so even when we get lost, we never get stuck. Downpour is able to evoke the fear of getting lost in a dangerous place while still maintaining the linear level design necessary for a good chase scene. In other words, it takes what Homecoming did wrong and finds a way to do it right.

The transformation of the world has always been a scary ace up Silent Hill‘s sleeve. In some games, this change happens quickly, as we walk though a door or as we run down a street. In other games, this change happens over the course of a protracted cut scene, so that we get a chance to see the world we know slipping away. Downpour gets to have it both ways.

The transformation to the Dark World always happens in a cut scene. Like in Homecoming (and the Silent Hill movie), we see the skin of the world flake off and float up into the air, revealing a bony, metallic world beneath.

Unlike other Silent Hill games, the Fog World has its own share of transformations. We’ll walk up to a door, and it’ll suddenly jump away from us, stretching out into a long hallway. Once you run to the end and turn around, the hallway disappears, and it looks like we’ve only traveled five steps. In what is perhaps the best, most surreal sequence of the game, a children’s production of Hansel and Gretel suddenly becomes real: There’s a flash of lightening, and the school theater is filled with bushes, trees, grass, hills, a real log cabin in the distance, and the ceiling has vanished to revel a dark and rainy night. It’s a frightening transformation because it’s unexpected, and it doesn’t conform to the tropes of the series. These changes make us question the logic of the Fog World, giving both dimensions a sense of danger.

The Fog World and Dark World are such staples of the franchise that the worlds of Silent Hill are dangerously close to becoming predictable. When the room transforms around us we expect to be scared, but it’s hard to scare someone that’s expecting it. Downpour subverts these expectations; it knows when to adhere to series conventions and when to avoid them. In doing so, it shows that there’s still plenty of fear left in Silent Hill.