A Great New Direction
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the kind of game I would love to make someday. I love to play the traditional styles of video games, but if I were to actually get involved in making games, I would want to make the kinds of games that explore video games as a story-telling medium. I often think about the unique methods video games can use to convey ideas and stories to the player. These are methods that are different than films, television, or even books. In games, the player is in control and able to interact with the world, instead of just being taken along for the ride. Some of the best stories in games are ones that have the player make decisions that will impact the game in ways they don't see until much later, or have revelatory moments that flip the player's perspective of the story on its head. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories accomplishes both of these and executes on them brilliantly.
Shattered Memories has been described as a re-imagining of the original Silent Hill, and boy is it ever. If you're familiar at all with the original Silent Hill, you may think you know what to expect going into this game. You start off as Harry Mason, you've just been in a car crash, and you're looking for your daughter Cheryl. You might think, "Oh yeah, I got this. Give me a pipe so I can start bashing the monsters from those crazy cultists." If you thought that, you would be dead wrong. Aside from the names of characters and the car crash, this game is completely different from the original. I mean, it's shocking how different this is. I'm not just talking about the lack of combat. In the original, you were fighting (or running from, usually) a ton of creepy monsters of different shapes and sizes. In Shattered Memories, you can't fight the creatures. Instead, you get put into intense (and often intentionally confusing) chase sequences. That's pretty different. It also veers away from shocking and grotesque imagery, going more for uncertainty and a more mental approach to the horror (that still remains disturbing and effective). But the biggest difference is in the story itself. This is not the original Silent Hill. And you know what? I kind of like it better.
Now if you remember my horror games post, I had high praise for the Silent Hill series, so I'm not knocking what it has accomplished thus far by any means. But the direction Shattered Memories takes is one that I would embrace wholeheartedly. There have been some comments/reviews that Shattered Memories isn't really a Silent Hill game. And they're right, when you consider the continuity of the series up till now. All that crazy cult stuff and the horrifying "Otherworld" are gone here. All the things you might think of that make up a Silent Hill game are pretty much gone here, save for the town itself. And yet, the atmosphere and the psychology involved in the story make me feel like this very much deserves to have the Silent Hill name attached to it. Let's be honest, the best game in the series (that would be number 2) focused away from the odd cult story and focused more on the characters and their psychological issues. In that regard, Shattered Memories stays more true to that spirit than any of the other sequels. Harry's journey gets more and more bizarre to the point where you wonder how on earth they could possibly resolve it in any satisfactory way. And then they totally do just that. I won't spoil anything, but I will say the ending allows you to actually look back at what has transpired, and see the meaning in all this stuff that previously seemed inexplicable. It's really cool, and one of those tools I love to see storytellers use.
And yet the story itself is dictated by your own actions. I don't know what all the game is reading while you're playing, but it is somehow analyzing you as you play. The most obvious method is via the psychoanalysis sessions you have with the game's therapist throughout the game. But it is reading something more from your actual gameplay style. When I finished the game, it began to profile me, and it was pretty spot on for the most part. Eerily so. And this is where the real beauty of the game lies. As you play the game, the characters and story are altered by the choices you make. This means that one person could see the game from an entirely different perspective than another. While I'm sure the general flow and major locations remain largely the same, I have a feeling that the kind of story you experience and the resolution could be very, very different. I've finished the game once, and I'm very interested in going back in to try a different approach. To see some of this in action, check out the award video from 2009 and see how Brad reacts.
I have to say, as far as stories in games go, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (my personal Game of the Year, if you recall) stand tall at the top of the heap this year. Yet they both approach their storytelling in drastically different ways. Uncharted goes for a tightly focused and thrilling narrative that parallels the best of the summer blockbusters. Shattered Memories instead opts for a very experimental and intriguing psychological thriller that allows the player to basically form a story tailored for them. While I am definitely looking forward to more games learning and utilizing the methods used in Uncharted 2, I would love to see more developers build on the work established in Shattered Memories. And who knows? Maybe some day I might actually get to do that myself...