My review of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories went up last week at gamecritics.com, and I really regret that I had to pan it. The game had some good ideas buried in it, but the overall experience was just miserable, oscillating wildly between deadly boredom and screaming frustration. I covered most of the gameplay issues I had in the review, but I only lightly touched on the positives and negatives of the game’s storytelling. My reason for this is that it’s difficult to talk about what’s really going on in the story without revealing the game’s central twist. I think it’s unfair to even slightly spoil a game in a review (I felt I had to change the review’s subtitle for just this reason), and like many Silent Hill games the twist at the end is profoundly important to the player’s experience. Here on the blog I don’t feel so much restraint, however, and I think it’s worth discussing what the game gets right and wrong in terms of the characters, locales, and echo messages. That means the following discussion has massive spoilers, so be forewarned.
During the bulk of its playtime, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories appears to follow a typical meander, in which incidents are strung together mainly as an excuse for showing off particular environments. At the end of the game, when it is revealed that the protagonist Harry Mason actually died several years previously, his path through the town seems to take on a different significance. Rather than just being the story of a man searching through a place for his daughter, Shattered Memories seems to tell the story of a narrowing temporal and psychological distance as well. Even if Cheryl can’t ever really know her father, the game seems to be giving Harry the chance to know his daughter. I probably would have thought more highly of the game if its narrative materials had really fallen into line behind this idea, as it would have made the moment of revelation an amazing punch in the gut. Unfortunately, Shattered Memories gets burdened with irrelevant narrative materials and a loss of direction.
The main culprit when it comes to irrelevant narrative materials are the various echoes that Harry can find, some of which just require him to walk up to particular places, and others which require him to photograph shadowy figures. The world seems pretty well littered with these, and while almost none of them directly involve Harry or Cheryl, many of them connect to the story in other ways. For instance, an episode fairly early in the game where Harry has to find his way through a snowy forest features several echoes involving children who meet disaster in the absence of their parents. With respect to Harry, these echoes accentuate his fear for his “lost daughter”, while for Cheryl they reflect the uncertainty of a child who has lost a protector. Similarly, a later set of echoes that can be accessed in the Toluca Mall concern a teenage shoplifter who eventually stabs a security guard. Cheryl, it is learned, has also been arrested at some point, and whether she is the girl in the echoes or not, the attack on a sheltering figure could be seen as an expression of conflicted feelings towards father figures.
In those cases the echoes give the player something to think about and suggest insights into Cheryl’s mind as she’s being interrogated by the psychologist in the therapy scenes. In other cases the echoes are not so successful. The father/son hunting story that can be gathered near the hunting lodge, for instance, is intrinsically well-conceived, taking on new shades of meaning with each additional message, but doesn’t seem to add anything to the main narrative. Similarly, the strikingly disturbing “Pigtails” echoes work well when examined independently, yet feel somewhat out of place with respect to Harry and Cheryl’s story. When the echoes are not particularly well-written or interesting on their own terms, as is the case for many in the high school and mall, their irrelevance to the story becomes even more of a problem. Although these little vignettes have the potential to make the game a deeper and more interesting narrative experience, they can also induce the player to grumble about wasted time and effort.
A more troubling problem is irrelevant or even destructive material that the player cannot avoid, and in this respect Shattered Memories goes awry during the encounter with the nurse, Lisa. The player is introduced to her by a scene in which she appears to have crashed a vehicle into the hospital and seems to be desperately trying to open its door. Even though this gives the impression that someone is trapped in the burning vehicle, she immediately, on seeing Harry, decides that she wants to walk home. I cannot even conceive of a human being who would agree to this plan under these circumstances. There is, after all, the question of the fire, whoever might still be in the vehicle, and her blood-gushing head wound and probable concussion. Harry, however, assents meekly and follows her back to her place. After depositing her in her apartment and fetching her a few pills, Harry heads off for the mall. Before he gets inside, he receives a call from her, and runs back to find her either dead or dying, bleeding from new, unseen wounds. Of course, the cop walks in at precisely that moment, in a ludicrous coincidence. The whole episode is ridiculous almost to the point of comedy, doesn’t take the story anywhere, and doesn’t offer any believable insights about Harry. His behavior here is so difficult to reconcile with an actual human being, even a confused and desperate one, that it actively harmed my connection with him. Some kind of overworld segment was needed at this spot in the story to make a space between the hospital and mall nightmare sequences, but this was so bad I would have been happier to just do two nightmare segments one after another. Remember, I hated the nightmares.
The other thing that goes awry with the main story is the trip to the amusement park. I don’t think this episode is an intrinsically bad idea so much as I think that it is out of place. As I mentioned before, Harry’s trip through Silent Hill seems like a journey towards his daughter psychologically. The first part of the game features a trek through a daycare playground, and then he visits her childhood home. The journey through the woods is difficult to place, but the echoes and the nature of the darkened forest suggest childhood fears. He subsequently traverses the high school, which was apparently the location of some social trauma for Cheryl, and on to the mall, which connects with her criminal life. His arrival at her current home would put a nice, symbolic cap on the psychological story, but the game keeps rolling. The concluding incidents of Michelle’s storyline are, I think, essential because they display an external point of view on the dissolution of a relationship, similar to Cheryl’s view of Harry’s failed marriage. But following that, Harry ends up at the amusement park that is shown in the game’s opening credits. It’s a return to a place that figures in Cheryl’s childhood memories, not her adult life, and so it feels like a step backwards, a descent back into madness.
This could be interpreted differently. You could argue, for instance, that the sequence represents Cheryl’s final defense against the realization of her father’s death, an attempt to retreat into happy memories of her father. Had the “tunnel of love” been more like a nightmare segment I would be inclined to agree with this idea, but the area doesn’t feel like it’s trying to hold Harry back so literally. Similarly, one could view this area as Cheryl reconciling with her final memories of her father, or the fact that she didn’t know him. The “overheard” conversation between Harry and Dahlia in the tunnel seems to fit this take on it, as would the fact that Harry shortly afterwards puts on the shirt we saw him wearing in the opening scene. This doesn’t seem to jive with the therapist’s ensuing frustration, however, nor does it agree very well with the idea of Cheryl’s final catharsis. The only place the trip to the amusement park fits is in the storyline where Cheryl refuses to accept her father’s death, but that’s a difficult ending to get if you’re engaged in the game’s fiction.
Overall, I thought that the story of Shattered Memories worked and was probably the best part of the game. The strength of it lies in the (mostly) deceptive appearance of a meander, which crystallizes pretty effectively into a clear storyline once the game reveals its central twist. All too often, games produce twists that are nonsensical or undo the story (I complained about this with respect to Silent Hill: Homecoming, for instance), but the developers of Climax don’t fall into this trap. The twist in Shattered Memories reshaped the preceding narrative in a way that illuminated, rather than erased, what had gone before. Unfortunately, perhaps in an effort to accommodate all the possibilities of their profiling system, Climax also larded the game with a bunch of extraneous story materials, and they also took what was arguably a wrong turn near the end of the game. As with everything else in Shattered Memories, the story shows sound underlying ideas that have been undercut by rough implementation. The general concept is sound, but needs to be refined before it all actually works.