"The other therapist didn't work out for you."
Konami's Silent Hill series is essentially the classier, spookier cousin to Capcom's Resident Evil franchise, but although you may have noticed I'm a big Resi fanboy, I've never really had a chance to play a Silent Hill game until now. And I have to say that the series has never seemed more tempting. As Resident Evil devolves into standard shoot-em-up territory, Konami, having attempted to do something similar with Silent Hill, then decided to pull an about-face, getting British independent games studio Climax to make a Silent Hill game in which the protagonist can barely fight back at all.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories begins with Harry Mason driving through the snowbound and deserted summer holiday resort of Silent Hill, with his daughter Cheryl. When he skids off the road and crashes the car, he comes round to find that Cheryl is nowhere to be seen. Harry wanders off into the town in search of her, but as he explores and meets the few people around, he's confronted by facts that seem at odds with his own memories, and even his current experiences are frequently contradicted at a later point by other characters. And then there's the little matter of how, every time he seems to be getting close to the truth, the world twists and freezes over - strange, skinless beings appearing to pursue Harry relentlessly.
These latter sequences are the game's weakest point. I certainly found them unnerving, but this very fact, combined with their frantic nature, simply made me solve them by running around in a blind panic. Initially I found these sequences extremely incongruous as well, but actually, as the game progressed I thought they acquired a better sense of purpose while becoming much better married to the other parts of the game - which in itself is a part of the wider progression of the story towards conveying exactly what is going on.
Still, the game's non-chase segments are more my preference, involving simply exploring the town of Silent Hill, interacting with characters and solving puzzles by manipulating objects semi-intuitively with the Wii remote. As much as the chase sequences gave me the heebie-jeebies, it was these more sedate and grounded scenes that I found by far more scary - from supernatural chills such as chasing a shadow Cheryl with your flashlight, to more mundane scares such as internal bleeding following a blow to the head (the latter being a part of a sequence that I found genuinely very upsetting).
The third set of scenes are where it gets really interesting: the game's framing narrative involves sitting on a psychiatrist's couch and answering his questions and tests. The rest of the game comprises the story that you are telling him. As the very first loading screen makes clear, these questions and tests are used to shape your experiences in the rest of the game (although your behaviour is also analysed elsewhere). For example, my Cybil was a homely police woman wearing a realistic cold-climate uniform. A player who showed more interest in getting sexual images out of the game would instead have found Cybil to be a blonde bombshell whose stripper-esque outfit can barely contain her cleavage.
This is really interesting to me as a development in interactive narrative. Although the events you experience can change, the story is generally linear. The interactive part of this story is rather in that it shapes itself to be the story that it thinks you should experience. Looking through the Silent Hill wiki, I'm surprised just how much the game got right for me - I definitely think I was much happier getting the events and characters that I got from the game compared to some of the others that it might have given me. Of the three different Dahlias, for example, I found the “punk” version I got to be much more my kind of gal than the “seductive” or “tomboy” versions.
And then there's the ending. Holy fucking shit. I don't know if any others saw this coming, but I found it to be the perfect culmination of misdirection and foreshadowing. It was so surprising and tragic, but hopeful (again, something that the game selected based on its psychological profiling of me), such a beautiful shock, that I actually started properly crying. Which is a first for me and a video game.
As someone with a penchant for interactive storytelling, I think Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is one of the most powerful and well devised examples of how to shape a story in tandem with your audience that I've yet encountered. Its chief flaw is that it perhaps tries a little too hard to be a video game. Although I enjoyed the puzzles, and the chase sequences did grow on me, ultimately they were never as powerful as the experience of exploring a convoluted and deeply psychological narrative. If you're interested in survival horror games, this may or may not be for you. But if you're interested in storytelling, then you owe it to yourself to check this out. You may not find the story as deeply moving as I did, but it will definitely teach you something about how it can be done.