Oct 282008

A writer takes a significant risk when he adds a plot twist to a story. In the best-case scenario, the secret that changes everything gives the audience a feeling of revelation. Everything clicks into place and suddenly makes sense. Laying the groundwork for that feeling is a tricky business, though. It’s very easy to sell the setup too hard, making what’s coming too obvious. In this case the twist merely bores the audience, which is not the worst thing that can happen. If the writer works too hard in the other direction, and does not give enough basis for the change-up, the audience may reject the surprise, in which case you lose them entirely. Beyond these considerations, the big reveal has to be timed well, so that it builds rather than deflates the emotions of the audience. Silent Hill: Homecoming has two twists that don’t work out as well as they could. Their failures owe much to the nature of the medium itself, so it’s interesting (to me at least) to examine them.

The first surprise that Homecoming springs on the player is the fact that its protagonist, Alex Shepherd, is not a special forces soldier. He is in fact an escapee from a mental hospital, wearing his father’s old dog tags. This revelation is primarily used to set up the later, more significant twist, so it doesn’t end up clarifying much about the game’s situation. Unfortunately, what it reveals does not mesh well with the player’s experience.

In contrast to previous entries in the series, Homecoming features a dynamic combo system. This arguably improves the combat experience, and certainly accelerates it. Alex and his monstrous opponents move quickly, strike quickly, and dodge quickly. Also, firearms now come with a targeting reticule, and precision shots are key to dispatching certain enemies. All of this makes a great deal of sense and feels very natural if Alex really is a special forces soldier, much less so if he is some schlub who sneaked out of the mental ward. The player’s entire experience of Alex strengthens the impression that he is a well-trained soldier, versed in the use of multiple weapons. It simply doesn’t make any sense, in terms of this interaction, for Alex to be something else. In short, the game does too good a job of convincing us that Alex is who he believes himself to be. If the player had been burdened with the cumbersome combat of earlier Silent Hill games, by contrast, he probably would have already started to doubt that Alex was a highly trained veteran. In this sense, the move to the new combat system, despite the improvement to the gameplay, was probably a mistake.

Of course, the entire plot of the game could just be one of Alex’s delusions. The fact that all the clocks in his hometown are stopped at 2:06, connecting with the suggestion that he was in room 206 at the hospital, would seem to support this idea. Yet this idea doesn’t seem to lead us anywhere further. For one thing, Alex continues to fight like a super-soldier even after he learns that he isn’t one. For another, the monsters inhabiting Alex’s hometown don’t really seem to reflect any psychology. Silent Hill 2 featured a man roaming through a town populated by the demons of his own mind, but the secondary characters of the game helped provide a map to his psyche. Here we have nothing to go on. Do the ferals represent the family dog? Did someone’s smoking habit produce the Smog? The Nurses might symbolize Alex’s unpleasant time in the hospital, and the Schisms might be saying something about Alex’s conflicted feelings towards his parents. Overall, however, the monsters just feel like monsters, thrown into a game because they look frightening. If they attacked differently (if the Lurkers tried to pull him under water) or were differently armed (why not give the nurses drills or icepicks?) the lines might have been more clearly drawn. Unfortunately, while the monster designs are reasonably scary they seem to have little to do with Alex’s soul.

The news that Alex isn’t a soldier ends up being just too hard to swallow. The mechanics of the game do too much to convince the player that Alex really is a trained killer, and the presentation doesn’t really sell the player on the idea that the whole game is in Alex’s head. The devil of it all is that it’s such an unnecessary choice. Would it have cost the story so much for Alex to have really been a soldier? It’s a needless twist, poorly supported. The most interesting lesson here is that the gameplay is a core reason why the twist doesn’t work well. The player’s experience simply can’t be ignored when you’re trying to set up a surprise like this.

Homecoming‘s second, more shocking revelation is that Alex’s brother Josh, whom he has been pursuing and trying to save throughout the game, died some time back in an accident for which Alex was responsible. His bad psychological reaction to this event was why Alex ended up in the mental hospital to begin with. The game’s writers did a good job setting this up: when you learn this it causes many of the game’s events to click into place, just as you would want. For the Silent Hill fan, however, this revelation is surprising only for the sheer audacity of the choice to recapitulate the central twist of an earlier game. Problems in the cutscene itself, and poor design choices around it, also conspire against the central twist.

The cinematic in which we learn what happened to poor Joshua simply didn’t work for me. One key issue was that the Alex Shepherd of this scene didn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the game. In the game itself, Alex comes across as very serious and adult, which admittedly could be the product of maturity. However, in other flashbacks Alex also seems to be mature and caring. These perceptions simply don’t fit with the childish speech and behavior Alex displays in the flashback to Josh’s death. The Alex we see on the boat in the cutscene acts and speaks like a 10-year-old; although physically recognizable, he is psychologically unrelated either to the Alex we see in the game or the Alex we see in other glimpses of the past. The flashbacks and found materials should have been put to use to get us acclimated to this character.

The scene also lacks a certain internal logic. Why has Alex rowed them onto the lake? Even a few fishing rods in the boat would have made this into a non-issue, but instead this question is allowed to hang over the whole scene. It becomes even more difficult to swallow if you’ve explored the town hall. Reading material found there suggests that Alex himself might have very good reasons to be afraid of the water. In an almost painful error, the writers have Josh actually ask Alex the question, forcing the player to confront the scene’s logical failing.

Inconsistencies in character and plot make the revelatory cutscene needlessly difficult to swallow. Realizing the angle that the writers decided to take makes the surprise seem obvious and disappointing — this series already had a main character who killed a loved one and forgot that he’d done so. Although various scenes in the game and the found materials do an excellent job of supporting this development, the big reveal itself nonetheless manages to find the worst of both worlds by being at once too obvious and too absurd.

The reveal has a timing issue as well. Alex spends the whole game trying to save his younger brother. When the big twist gets revealed, that quest gets deflated. Josh is dead; nothing Alex can do will save him. Immediately after this revelation, we have the big, final boss fight. The thing is, the twist completely deflates this battle. Knowing that the main character’s principal motivation has evaporated, it’s difficult to see why he would struggle to survive at all. Why should I force him to fight, when victory would still mean failure?

So I didn’t. I let Alex die, and turned off the XBox.

I eventually came back and tried out the various endings, of course, but I never felt right fighting Amnion. Alex’s singular determination to save Josh had caused his psychotic break and propelled him through legions of hellish demons. With that determination gone, I was left searching for a reason for him to continue, and it just wasn’t there. I don’t contend that this is the only proper reaction or interpretation, but it is a valid one. In a movie or a book, continuing through the battle with Amnion isn’t a problem, but in a game the player’s emotional reaction to the flashback really ought to be considered, especially in a game where the player is making choices about Alex’s emotional reaction to his journey home. If the developers were absolutely committed to the idea of putting this cutscene where it was, they should have offered the player the option to accept death from Amnion. Several of the game’s existing endings could conceivably follow from such an outcome. Moreover, an ending wherein Alex trades his own life for Josh’s using the powers of the town could have been profoundly affecting.

Alternately, the big reveal could be moved to after the fight with Amnion. If Amnion were to swallow Joshua in front of the player, an act that would have symbolic meaning, it would provide a strong motivation to win the final battle. Seeing Josh tumble, drowned, from Amnion’s body would be a sensible stimulus for Alex’s final flashback. Better yet, it would shift the disorienting emotional shock to a moment when the player can actually try to process it, rather than just diving straight into apocalyptic combat.

The decision to hit the player with the revelatory flashback just before the final battle feels at odds with the requirement that the player win that battle. Giving the player the option to progress by losing (it is survival horror after all), or shifting the flashback to the end of that fight would help sustain the emotional momentum of the story. For a game, that momentum is critical because the player is the agent who continues the story. You have to keep him on board.

For all the criticism I’ve leveled here, I didn’t think Silent Hill: Homecoming has a bad story, or even particularly bad twists. As an effort to integrate the occult drama of Silent Hill 3 with the psychological horror of Silent Hill 2, it largely succeeds. The problem is that the play and structure of the game don’t agree very well with the two main twists. They might work perfectly fine in print, or even on film, but these change-ups just don’t play well. As a result, Homecoming feels like less than it could have been.

  2 Responses to “Silent Hill’s twists unravel”

  1. In regards to the issue of rowing on to the lake, or any other illogical actions Alex takes: Do you think that perhaps the developers were just lazy and went with the "well Alex is crazy, that's why" answer to these issues?

    "Frink: Yes, over here, n'hey, n'hey. In episode BF12, you were battling barbarians while riding a winged Appaloosa, yet in the very next scene, my dear, you're clearly atop a winged Arabian. Please do explain it.
    Lucy Lawless: Ah, yeah, well, whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it."

  2. But Alex isn't crazy yet when he rows onto the lake. However, he's probably almost there.

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