In an interesting twist, the protagonist is a supporting character in the story of Silent Hill: Downpour.
The story is usually considered the most important part of a Silent Hill game, yet I’ve largely ignored the story of Downpour in my last two posts about the game. That’s not because it’s bad, but because the story really deserves its own post since it’s just as smart and subversive as the combat and level design.
While Silent Hill games are usually praised for their main narrative, the side quests in Downpour deserve special mention since they take some good cues from the Shattered Memories school of horror, which posits that reality is just as horrifying as any supernatural event. There are a couple side quests scattered around Silent Hill that showcase less fantastical everyday acts of horror. They make great short stories by themselves, but what’s especially impressive is how these short stories tie back into the unconventional (for the series) narrative.
Specifically, there’s a quest that finds the player tracking down a missing mentally handicapped girl by following colored ribbons meant to lead her home from school. The ribbons eventually lead to the docks and to the end of a pier, where the game's protagonist finds a scarf caught on the planks, implying that the girl walked off the pier and drowned. When he finally tracks down her house, there’s a note on the bed from her mother in which she confesses to the crime because it was just too stressful trying to raise a mentally handicapped child.
Another, less intense quest requires returning stolen items to tenants of a small apartment complex, essentially asking the player to play Ghost Detective. That role continues when you’re tasked with solving a woman’s murder or the mystery of a mirror that reflects things that aren’t there.
These are stories grounded in reality, even if some have a tinge of the supernatural to them, which serves to ground the whole game. These stories establish the town as a place that exists beyond the main character. We may play as Murphy Pendleton but his is not the only story in the game. In fact, his story may not even be the central story at all, and this is where Downpour radically departs from the series norm, causing the many side quests to start to make thematic sense.
In Downpour, Silent Hill is a true open world. The franchise has always been partly an open world. The first game let you wander through a large environment, even if it did eventually funnel you into specific buildings, but the distinction here is that the city of Silent Hill in Downpour doesn’t seem to care about you. You meet other people going through their own horror stories, but overall, it seems as if the town is getting along horribly fine without you.
That’s because the town isn’t trying to be Murphy’s own personal hell, but rather he’s just a tool in making the town someone else’s personal hell. The protagonist is a supporting character. The real main character is Anne Cunningham, a prison guard seeking revenge against Murphy because she thinks he killed her father. (This element of the plot is really open to interpretation, and the themes of the game can change radically depending on what ending you get, but based on my game, this is the interpretation that made the most sense.)
The symbolism of the side quests makes more sense if we look at them from Cunningham's point of view. She’s a disillusioned cop, so it makes sense that she would have to fight off monster officers. She only works in a prison to get close to Murphy, so freeing the caged birds reflects her desire to get away (and Murphy eventually reveals that he got himself locked up on purpose). All the detective side quests seem like a natural extension of her role as a police officer.
The bosses also reflect her worldview more than they do Murphy’s. There’s a giant with a gas mask and sledgehammer that appears multiple times in the first half of the game. When you finally defeat it and remove the mask, Murphy sees himself underneath. He is the monster, but up to this point, we haven’t seen any indication that Murphy hates himself. The one person he killed in the beginning of the game was justified. However, Anne thinks Murphy is pure evil. The monster is what she imagines him to be. Then there’s the boss of the game, a skinless, withered humanoid thing in a wheelchair. This creature has no meaning to Murphy, but it’s actually a twisted version of Anne’s father who was beaten into a catatonic state.
In the end, we even start playing as the gas mask monster. We chase Anne as she shoots at us, and when we catch up to her, the game gives us the option to kill her or walk away. It’s a typical final choice for a game, but there’s a nice twist to it this time. The final choice isn’t so much about what kind of man Murphy is, but what kind of man Anne thinks he is.
There’s a popular sentiment that says the Silent Hill series has lost its way in the HD gaming generation, but this premise doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. In retrospect, most of the games in the franchise have ranged from good to great. In my opinion, the only real misstep has been Homecoming, though I haven’t played the PSP game Origins. The Room was maligned upon release for its radical departure from form (and admittedly crappy inventory), but its central concept and focus on voyeurism is so intimately creepy that it still holds up today as well as any classic survival-horror game can hold up. Downpour and Shattered Memories are both highlights of horror gaming for this console generation, and together they should kill the idea that the series has lost its way. At least for fans, if not everyone. I’m now more excited than ever to return to Silent Hill.