Normally we have a fairly loose policy on spoilers here–all of my articles are written with the assumption that you’ve played the game in question and that you’re looking for some after-the-fact critical analysis. Given that this article is being written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table–and will therefore reach outside of our normal audience–as well as the fact that the game under discussion has some particularly notable narrative pleasures if played unspoiled, I’m going to warn you. If you’ve never played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, go and do so before reading. Trust me, even if you’re not a horror game fan, if you have even the slightest interest in games as a narrative medium, you want to play this game.
My relationship to drugs and alcohol is, quite frankly, none of your fucking business, but the first time I played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, I got the ending which revealed that Harry’s divorce was a result of his alcoholism. Shattered Memories isn’t unusual in that it tracks your decisions and actions throughout the game and then assigns you an ending based on that; and while it does so to a more elaborate degree than many games do, it’s not the first game to alter cutscenes or entire levels based on player choice. But it is unusual in how explicitly it discourages role-playing. From the very first moment, we’re told that the game is going to psychologically profile us, that we’re supposed to answer any questions it asks us honestly. The very first thing we’re tasked with doing in-game is the completion of a survey with such questions as “Having a drink helps me relax” and “I have enjoyed role-play during sex.”
I’ve written in detail about Shattered Memories before. I believe that most of the reason for the game’s poor reception, besides the fact that it’s a waggly Wii game, is due to fan myopia and a refusal to accept anything resembling change. But I’ve been pondering the question since I first played the game, and now I’m beginning to think it’s something slightly deeper. The game is a horror game not so much because it features scary monsters that jump out at you–although there are plenty of those. It’s terrifying because it’s based around a more sophisticated, more existential horror–the horror of the realization that the world does not center around you. That there are others out there that are affected by your actions.
Somehow, I think the traditional gamer is not at a stage of development where they’re able to deal with that revelation.
Shattered Memories’s biggest and best trick is one of misdirection–it’s one of the only games I can think of, outside perhaps of interactive fiction, with a second-person narrative voice. The game is divided into two distinct sections–a first-person section where you’re in a psychiatrist’s office answering personal questions; and a third-person section, one which takes up the bulk of the game, where you play a reimagining of the original Silent Hill story: Harry Mason travels through a hellish town in order to find his daughter Cheryl. Through a series of elisions and ambiguous remarks–both in-game and in developer interviews and promotional materials around the time of the game’s release–the player is led to believe that we’re playing Harry the entire time. That Harry went to Silent Hill, had this horrifying adventure, and is now at a therapist to deal with the resulting trauma.
The truth is far more subtle than that. In the endgame, Harry makes his way to the lighthouse–where he’s been told his daughter is–and finds himself in the psychiatrist’s office. The camera swings around, and shows us that it’s not Harry on the analyist’s couch–it’s Cheryl, not the little girl we’ve been looking for the entire time but a young, troubled woman. When she was a child, Harry and his wife divorced–the reasons vary, depending on your choices, from alcoholism to serial adultery to simply two people falling out of love–and shortly afterwards, Harry was killed in a car crash. This inability to deal with the loss of her father is a trauma that Cheryl has been unable to deal with, and the therapy is an attempt to get her to finally begin to heal.
Whether Harry’s journey through Silent Hill is “real” or not is very deliberately left open to interpretation–I prefer the interpretation that the entire game is an allegorization of the process of psychoanalysis, but there are plenty of people who think there’s something literally supernatural going on–but a few things are clear. Harry’s character flaws, the ones which led to his divorce, are not pre-existing but are rather developed through the choices we make as players. If Harry is an alcoholic, it’s because we steered him into that direction. More importantly, if we’re playing honestly and playing as ourselves, Harry’s flaws are reflections, exaggerations, and distortions of our own flaws. The game provides a minefield of vices for us to choose from and not only characterizes Harry based on them, it shows us, in Cheryl, how much these flaws can hurt other people. The game isn’t scary because of the things that go bump in the night, it’s scary because it forces us to empathize with other people.
I will point out that the game stresses that people aren’t monsters. One of the game’s major themes is that while our traumas and flaws are damaging, awareness of them is a major step towards healing. It doesn’t even entertain the thought that its characters are irredeemable, and I think it might not even acknowledge the existence of Evil. (A major break with the rest of the series!) Its concept of empathy is a tough one: Just as Harry must acknowledge that his actions hurt his daughter, his daughter can only take her first steps towards being Okay by recognizing that her father was a victim of his own demons.
This is a far cry from the Sephiroth school of villain design, which creates monster antagonists that have a dimension of likeability from the fact that they’re either misguided or too extremist or too traumatized by their pasts or simply too cool to completely hate. Because no matter what, we’re never required to identify with Sephiroth. We may understand him, we may think he’s a total badass, we may draw pictures of him in our notebooks, but at the end of the day, we’re still fully on the side of AVALANCHE, and Sephiroth must be destroyed. Shattered Memories is an uncomfortable game because of how completely it divorces itself from conventional videogame conflict dynamics. If we do not consider every character in the game worthy of redemption, empathy, and love, then there is something lacking in us.
There’s a more direct way that Shattered Memories allows us to play someone other than ourselves, and that’s through more traditional role-playing. While replaying the game to research this article, I decided to go for the sexy ending–the one where Harry’s divorce was precipitated by hot, hot three-way sex with women other than his wife. I picked this ending partially arbitrarily and partially because it was the least likely ending for me to get, uninterested as I am in naked ladies.
And so, I looked up a guide to learn the decisions and actions which would skew me towards the sex ending. Largely, this involves telling the psychiatrist that I’ve cheated, staring at women’s chests, and looking at the sexy posters throughout the game. I did everything the guide said to do; for other decisions, I made either whatever choice seemed natural, or did the opposite of what I did in the first playthrough. And there were a few genuinely odd moments. Early on, for example, when Harry is first looking for his daughter, panicked and terrified, there’s some graffiti in a bathroom detailing what a young woman named Cammy did to several guys (or, more accurately, what several guys did to Cammy). Looking at the graffiti prompts Harry to say, lustily, “Hmmm…Cammy…” with a tone that sounds kind of like he’s licking his lips at the thought. And immediately this–well let’s say I had a very strange reaction. What are you doing? I practically shouted at the screen. Your daughter is missing, Cammy is probably half your age, and you’re thinking about how you wish you were there for the act described–what are you, some kind of perve–
And with that, Shattered Memories gave me a very weird, disturbing little glimpse of what sex addiction feels like. What was interesting was that I didn’t have as much cognitive dissonance during the first, alcoholic playthrough. Because it would be completely natural that Harry would want a drink. He’s in an ice-cold hell, his daughter is missing, no one seems to know who he is, and nothing is making any sense–of course he’d want something to take the edge off.
But a funny thing happened when I beat the game this time. Because even though I was making the sexy choices, apparently the other choices I made qualified Harry to still be a drunk. Maybe I’m so uninterested in girlie mags that I have a blind spot to them, or that I forget to look at women’s chests unless I’m constantly reminding myself to. Either way it’s strange the ways that we fall into the same patterns of behavior.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a scary game because it confronts us with the horror of the existence of others affected by our actions. But it’s also scary in another way: It just might confront us with those actions themselves.
This article was written for Critical Distance’s Blogs of the Round Table for January. For more articles on January’s theme of “Being Other”, visit their site, or select from the drop-down list below.
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