The 13th Floor

How The Game Plays You: Revisiting SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES

While the original RESIDENT EVIL is credited with giving birth to modern survival horror games, it was SILENT HILL that refined the formula. It followed the familiar tropes of a survival horror title – a lone protagonist, nasty monsters, limited resources – but it added a unique psychological edge. The creatures were straight out of a Freudian nightmare, the environment was a decaying hellscape covered with fog and the hero was a regular dude, instead of a cop or soldier. It wanted to get into your head and succeeded with gusto.

SILENT HILL 2 refined and perfected this style and remains the crowning glory of the series, but with each subsequent sequel, the scare factor gradually went down. The once suffocating atmosphere of dread became familiar, and terrifying enemies like Pyramid Head or The Nurses became like series mascots. To keep things interesting, fresh blood was needed which is what made SHATTERED MEMORIES such a treat back in 2009.

While it’s pitched as a remake of the original game, SHATTERED MEMORIES shares little in common outside of the setup. Like the original, it follows protagonist Harry Mason who crashes his car while driving through the town of Silent Hill and wakes to find his daughter Cheryl missing. Before the player gets to that, however, the game opens with a framing device which features a psychoanalyst interviewing the player. He gives you a questionnaire with queries such as “I make friends easily” or “I enjoy role-play during sex.” Depending on how you respond, certain elements of the game change around you.

These therapy sessions are sprinkled throughout SHATTERED MEMORIES, but the main adventure is Harry searching the town. The game is littered with characters and locations that feel familiar, but like the title implies it’s all twisted around. Characters who were villainous in SILENT HILL – Dr Kaufmann, Dahlia – are now seemingly benign. Instead of fog, the town is covered in snow, and instead of constantly being surrounded by creatures Harry is often alone while exploring the eerily quiet town. Unbeknownst to first-time players, the game and its unique Psych Profile is looking over you, seeing how you behave.

For instance, if you answered yes to the “I enjoy role-play during sex” question and then spent time idly perving on sexy magazines or posters in the game world, this will influence the look of characters, locations and even enemies. Instead of being a frumpy cop in a winter coat, Officer Bennett will instead be noticeably more sexed up, and even the lighting can change in certain locations from naturalistic to lusty red.

Another area that’s hugely different from previous entries is enemies and combat. While other SILENT HILL games put you in control of characters with little to no combat training, they at least let you defend yourself with guns or other objects. Not here. There’s zero combat in SHATTERED MEMORIES, so when the “Ice World” invades freezing over the environment and bringing the monsters with it, your only hope is to run. There’s only one type of monster in the game too, the mannequin-like Raw Shocks. The look of these freaky creatures is also altered by the player style; if the Psych Profile reads you as an addict of some kind they’ll look bloated and vaguely cancerous, while they’ll appear more perverse on a sexy play-through.

This feeling of the game looking in on you – and judging you – is a big reason SHATTERED MEMORIES feels so unsettling. Another therapy session has the doctor tasking you with coloring in a picture of a house, and when you rejoin the main adventure you see the exact same house, complete with the color you just painted it. The world is being shaped not only by your actions but your personality, which was a whole new twist on the genre.

The game recieved criticism from SILENT HILL fans for discarding many of the standard elements they expect and for not being terribly scary. On this last note they have a point; SHATTERED MEMORIES really isn’t that frightening. It has an engrossing story, bags of atmosphere and a typically haunting score by series composer Akira Yamaoka, but rarely will the player fear for their lives. Unlike previous games where enemies were plentiful, now they only appear in the Ice World, so the player knows they’re safe when outside of these levels. The Ice World itself becomes a bit of a chore since all the player has to do is run around until they find the exit.

This aside, once the game has its hooks in the player, they’ll want to see it through to the end. Despite Silent Hill being essentially empty throughout the game, it still feels alive somehow, especially thanks to the unlockable voice messages and phone numbers. A major part of the gameplay involves Harry’s phone, which he can use to take pictures, calls, bring up a map etc. If certain tasks are completed with the phone then voice messages reveal the dark underbelly of Silent Hill from abusive parents bullying their children to accidental murder, and again the tone of these messages vary depending on the player profile. You can even call publisher Konami, but they’re not much help.

SHATTERED MEMORIES practically begs to be replayed, since it builds to an almighty rug-pull of an ending, casting everything in the story in a new light. A pro-tip for players is to play through the game honestly the first time, instead of trying to guide it in a certain direction. Answer the psychotherapist’s questions sincerely, and let the game unnerve you with a directed experience, and then replay it the opposite way. Multiple replays reveal some of the changes are relatively cosmetic, but you can still appreciate how well constructed the whole experience is.

Despite the game’s cult status, it wasn’t a big seller back in 2009, partly because it was exclusive to the Nintendo Wii which wasn’t overflowing with horror titles. It was later brought to PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable, but it remains one of the least played titles in the series. That’s a real shame because by breaking the franchise mould SHATTERED MEMORIES feels like a bold reinvention, one that took risks that (mostly) pay off and offering a unique psychological edge. The downsides are the short length and lack of true terror, but it appears to have influenced later titles like UNTIL DAWN.

Sadly the series is currently in a state of disarray. The last main release was 2012’s DOWNPOUR which introduced some unique gameplay elements and offered a good story, but was let down by wonky design and staggeringly lame enemies. Even non-gamers will probably have heard of the heartbreak left behind by SILENT HILLS which would have teamed Guillermo Del Toro with gaming legend Hideo Kojima for a once in a lifetime collaboration. Making a long story short, Kojima had a major falling out with series publisher Konami whose scorched Earth approach means the game will never, ever happen despite the level of fan demand.

With the future of the series uncertain, there’s rarely been a better time for the curious to revisit SHATTERED MEMORIES and experience it firsthand. If you play it honestly, it even gives you a distressingly accurate breakdown of your own personality, which to some players might be the most horrifying part.