Brainy Gamer Podcast - Favorites of '09 pt.4
A good place to die

The wrong game

Somewhere between its preview at E3 last June and its release last month, a subtle change was made to the warning screen that appears at the beginning of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

Here's the original, from a developer walkthrough shown at Konami's E3 press conference:


And here's the screen that appears in the released version of the game:


As writing goes, the original works better than the revision. It's punchier, and it grabs the reader more boldly than the grammatically improved version. If I had my way, I'd keep the red background and fonts from the revision and replace its text with the original.

Why the sudden obsession with an opening screen? Because it's a metaphor for something more pervasive about this game and its curious construction. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories aspires to immerse its player in a nightmarish experience. It means to do so by leveraging the interactive mechanics of the hardware it relies on to deliver that experience. And it very nearly succeeds. 

But clinging to genre tropes and gameplay formulas - in other words, making the game less messy, more structured and familiar - separates the game from its defining vision and diminishes what could have been a deeply evocative first-person experience. 

Shattered Memories is a game with too much "game." Just when it begins to gather momentum, plunging the player into an eerily deserted environment full of shadows and ghostly residue from painful events, suddenly you find yourself stuck in a room forced to solve a gumball machine puzzle. Or you enter an abandoned card shop, piecing together clues that suggest your lost daughter may have been here, when you realize the door has locked, and you must decipher clues inside greeting cards to extract a key code to get out.

The jarring incongruity between the disturbing experience Shattered Memories can be, and the puzzle-solving Silent Hill game its developer insists it must be, repeatedly destoys a state of mind that few games induce. When you shine your flashlight on a child's swing and catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure there seeming to beckon you forward; when you slowly approach and are abruptly accosted by a sharp noise and flash of light, followed by a child's voice emanating from the cellphone in your hand, you may forget you're playing a video game. Soon enough, unfortunately, the game will remind you.

And that's a real shame, because this is the first game I've played which fully exploits that white thing with the strap we normally call a Wiimote. In Shattered Memories it functions as a flashlight (your primary means of navigating most of the game's envronments), cellphone, camera, notebook, and GPS. Each of these tools are smartly integrated into the game as helpful and necessary devices, rather than gimmicky tricks for the Wiimote.

I'm not suggesting Shattered Memories shouldn't function as a game. The nightmare sequences, which essentially work like survival missions requiring you to flee an assortment of demons until Harry Mason wakes up, integrate a form of gameplay that deepen and reinforce the narrative. Unlike hunting down yet another key (usually "hidden" in plain sight), these ludic sequences plug directly into Harry's desperate need to escape a nightmare of his own making. 

As a "re-imagined Silent HIll," I wish Shattered Memories had further departed from the Silent Hill formula by channeling its gameplay into the activities this version enables so remarkably well. It should have trusted the player to explore its loaded environments and piece together what happened unimpeded by arbitrary puzzles that feel forced and uninspired.

Clearly, many Silent Hill fans enjoy puzzles, and one can argue they're a signature part of the Silent Hill franchise. But this game repositions Harry as a man with no weapons or ability to fight, and it redefines the player's relationship to the game's environments. We often toss around the word "immersive" when we discuss video games, but few games are built to go there as well as this one. It's too bad the re-imagining left some things off the table.

Shattered Memories could have been a game that charged the player to find his own way, grappling with the puzzling problems of life, instead of arranging gumballs by their colors. Given the aspirations of its creators and the great possibilities it conveys, Shattered Memories sadly feels like the wrong game.