Don’t worry about it too much. There are a…lot of strange things in this world…. The umbilical cord I keep in a box in my room…lately, it’s started to smell terrible….
There. You’ve now experienced the worst of what Silent Hill 4 (subtitled The Room, like that equally terrifying Tommy Wiseau flick) has to offer. Nothing else can touch you now.
Oh, wait, there’s one more thing:
I’m really th-thirsty…. I’m so, so th-thirsty…. Oh, chocolate…. Oh, chocolate…. I’m really thirsty…. I’m so, so thirsty…. I want some chocolate milk….
There. Now, you’re untouchable. Now, you’re prepared to venture into one of the most controversial Silent Hill games ever created…the Silent Hill that almost wasn’t.
Silent Hill 4: The Room marks a turning point for the series. Throughout its tumultuous development cycle, Team Silent, the dev team behind the Silent Hill series to date, attempted to take the series in new, unexpected directions, featuring sequences in first-person viewpoint and beyond the city limits of Silent Hill itself. The game was also the first in the series to abandon what some viewed as the series’ trademark pocket flashlight and radio static. And there were ghosts. After the game’s release, publisher Konami disbanded Team Silent, perhaps due to fans’ complaints about these alterations to the tried-and-true formula, and turned the series into a franchise farmed out to an ever-cycling stable of western developers.
In other words, the game that most fans decried as “not a real Silent Hill game” became, ironically, the last true Silent Hill game.
It’s usually easiest to describe these games based on their literary and filmic inspirations: Silent Hill borrowed from Carrie and The Mist; Silent Hill 2 took some pointers from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks; Silent Hill 3 cribbed from Jacob’s Ladder and Session 9. Meanwhile, Silent Hill 4 takes inspiration from a grab-bag of sources in the serial killer genre, from classics of suspense to surreal cult favorites. Rear Window, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs serve the former function, while The Nightmare on Elm Street and the criminally underrated The Cell fill in the latter. The game’s developers have also cited Ryu Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby as sources of inspiration, although the sequel, Son of Rosemary, might be a more apt comparison.
Looking at the grab-bag of inspirations listed above, you’re probably wondering what the hell Silent Hill 4 is actually about. I’ll explain. It’s about voyeurism, shame, and Oedipal displacement. It’s about introversion, obsession, and compulsion.
I’ll explain again. Silent Hill 4 begins with protagonist Henry Townshend, a shy twentysomething photographer, waking up from a recurring nightmare to discover that he can’t leave his apartment, room 302. His door’s been chained shut…from the inside. But that isn’t everything–his windows are unopenable and apparently soundproof, his phone’s stopped working. After five days of this madness, a small hole appears in Henry’s bathroom, beside the broken mirror. Instead of leading to the neighboring apartment, it opens into an impossibly long tunnel, through which, feeling he has no other choice, Henry crawls. With no knowledge of how exactly he got there, Henry finds himself squatting on the escalator of a nearby subway station. He soon meets a woman who explains to him, in no uncertain terms, that he’s intruded upon her dream. (The tunnel to a private mindscape serves as another point of reference, this time to the absurd comedy Being John Malkovich.)
Before long, Henry loses track of this woman, Cynthia Velasquez, reuniting with her only after she’s been fatally wounded by an unknown assailant. He is ejected from the “dream” and awakes back in his apartment, where he discovers an ambulance waiting outside the subway entrance across the street, apparently to remove Cynthia’s mutilated body.
That’s when things get weird. A piece of furniture’s been moved in Henry’s apartment, revealing a peephole into his next door neighbor Eileen Galvin’s bedroom. While it’s not stated outright, Henry clearly has a thing for Eileen, although he doesn’t have the courage to confront her about it: peephole aside, he instantly recognizes her by name, unlike his other neighbors. As the hole in his bathroom grows larger and more regular, Henry travels into various other people’s “dreams,” including a forest by the lake; a tall, cylindrical orphanage-prison fashioned in the style of the Bentham’s Panopticon; the apartment building across the street; and St. Jerome’s Hospital, where Eileen has been hospitalized, the apparent victim of the same killer.
This hospital sequence is the fulcrum of the game’s narrative and displays Silent Hill 4‘s penchant for the surreal. It consists primarily of a single long hallway flanked by rows of randomly distributed rooms. Each room presents a surreal tableau, including the infamous “giant seizing Eileen’s head.” In one of the rooms, Henry discovers Eileen, limping and bandaged but still alive, and, explaining the situation, he leads her through the hole back to his apartment.
This, as mentioned above, is the axle on which Silent Hill 4 turns, and it’s also the point at which most fans of the series jumped ship. After leaving the hospital, the game changes in several significant ways:
*Henry is no longer alone. For the remainder of the game, he’ll be escorting (the most dreaded verb in a video gamer’s lexicon) the injured Eileen through the levels, unable to complete them without her presence.
*Henry’s apartment, to which the player frequently returns to manage inventory, save the game, and observe the world outside, infested by hauntings, creepy changes that will slowly drain Henry’s health when he is nearby, unless he lights a Holy Candle to exorcise the spirit. These Holy Candles, a limited resource, are also the only way to heal Eileen and Henry’s primary defense against the unkillable ghosts that haunt the levels.
*These levels are a recycled (according to some fans; I prefer the term “upcycled”) version of the same areas Henry’s already visited, with several significant twists. Henry must find new paths through these areas to accommodate Eileen, who can’t climb ladders due to her broken arm. He must also avoid the ghosts of the victims, such as Cynthia, he failed to save his first time through, who’ve returned as deadly, inexorable, intangible spirits. And the murderer, now revealed as Walter Sullivan (a minor character mentioned in Silent Hill 2), will also be following Henry and Eileen through these levels, armed–unfairly–with twin handguns and a chainsaw.
*What appeared, on the first visit, to be discrete, standalone areas are revealed as an interconnected descent through Walter Sullivan’s psyche, connected by a fog-shrouded spiral staircase. The final stop: Henry’s apartment, where he finally breaks through the wall and discovers the hidden shrine on which Walter’s corpse (yes, he’s a ghost, too) has been crucified.
So that’s what Silent Hill 4 is all about. But what’s it really about?
The first three Silent Hill games were psychological constructs, horrific and magical worlds in which every detail reflected back onto the subject’s psyche. They dealt often with trauma and repression. But Silent Hill 4 offers a split subject: On the one hand, we have the murderer Walter Sullivan, who is manipulating events from beyond the pale; and on the other, we have the protagonist, Henry Townshend, who has more to do with the story than it might first appear.
So, Walter. He’s the classic Silent Hill subject. His defining trauma, revealed near the game’s conclusion, is remarkably odd. Walter’s parents never wanted a child, and financial hardship and emotional callousness drove them to abandon a young Walter in their rented apartment–Room 302, the same room in which Henry finds himself trapped–when they fled town. Over time, the boy began to think of this apartment as his true mother. Adopted by Wish House, an orphanage that served as a front for Silent Hill’s religious cult, Walter grew up on their religious doctrine and became obsessed with a certain ritual: the 21 Sacraments for the Descent of the Holy Mother. When he reached adulthood, Walter began performing the sacraments in the hope that he could “awaken” his “mother,” Room 302. This led to his ten grisly murders. In prison, Walter committed suicide by stabbing himself in the neck with a spoon; in so doing, he became the 11th Sacrament. This “Holy Assumption” allowed Walter to create a personal Otherworld from which he could continue his work as his victims slept, a la Freddy Krueger. Walter’s Sacraments culminate in his final two victims, Eileen (designated “Mother” in the ritual) and Henry (who assumes the important role of Receiver of Wisdom).
Superficially, the environment and creature design of Silent Hill 4 reflects Walter Sullivan’s obsessions. The umbilical symbolism appears frequently: the “Sniffer Dogs” and their blood-sucking tongues, the questing fungal growths that rise from corpses’ abdomens; the leeches and giant mosquitoes; and the large, pulsing tubes that clog the subway area. This subway, too, recalls a birth canal, as do the long hallways that characterize the game’s architectural style…and, of course, the hole/tunnel through which Henry enters and exits Room 302. Walter, whose upbringing closely mirrors Alessa’s from the original game, sees monsters in many of the same places, including the violent, ape-like “Gum Heads” that represent his view of adults–even with no enemies present, the “Building World” sounds like a menagerie.
But then there’s Henry. Henry’s not exactly innocent in all this, is he? He is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a pervert. His role as the Receiver of Wisdom is well assigned: Henry likes to watch. Over the course of the game, the player will spend a significant amount of time passively observing. He’ll observe the victims’ grisly deaths in cutscenes, watch the neighbors across the street through his windows, watch the superintendent through his apartment’s peephole…and watch Eileen through his apartment’s other peephole, the one he keeps hidden behind a cabinet. Okay, perhaps this peephole existed before Henry moves in, but that doesn’t stop him from using it. He’ll also peer through the one-way observation windows in the cylindrical Panopticon. It’s no coincidence that Henry’s a photographer, or that the in-apartment gameplay takes place from the comforting first-person viewpoint, through which Henry can see without being seen. And, of course, everything I just said about Henry applies to the player, as well. After all, you’re the one choosing to look through that peephole. You’re the one passively watching a man being electrocuted to death.
Silent Hill 4 is, more than any other game from Team Silent, a phenomenally risky design. Eschewing traditional horror tropes and jump scares, it aims to make the player feel uncomfortable, to psychologically undermine the player’s expectations. It deliberately bewilders the one thing that, by definition, games are supposed to be: fun. When judged on its own terms, freed from any preconceptions about what Silent Hill or video games in general are supposed to be, Silent Hill 4 is a masterpiece. But, for most gamers and many critics, these risks fell flat. Silent Hill 4 defeated itself. While it may not be the most fun or the scariest game to play, though, it’s a fascinating experiment in game design. Here’s a short list of the rules it broke:
Mortal Sin #1: Backtracking – Silent Hill 4‘s design enforces backtracking, a (rightfully) maligned game design trick that pads the length of gameplay by forcing the player to pass through previously completed areas, on two levels. On the first, more obvious level, the game’s second half sends the player through largely identical areas (albeit with some minor alterations). On a subtler but equally bothersome level, the game’s limited inventory system and lack of in-level save points forces the player to frequently revisit Room 302, the only area in which Henry can swap out inventory items and record his progress.
This gameplay tedium doesn’t exist for no reason; Team Silent is far too clever for that. These two instances of backtracking enforce, in different ways, Silent Hill 4‘s unique brand of horror, the horror of cognitive dissonance, what Freud called Das Unheimlich, the uncanny. The player must feel Henry’s sense of isolation and confinement; his journeys into the horrific dream-worlds, although fraught with danger, must feel like a breath of fresh air. At the same time, the player must feel that Henry’s apartment is her own; it must feel like home, a safe haven. Both of these necessitate frequent returns.
There is, also, that strain of voyeurism I mentioned earlier. Silent Hill 4 wants the player to peer in on the neighbors, to watch Eileen while she sleeps or gets changed for the party, to passively take in the murder details as they’re broadcast. For this reason, it’s necessary that these return trips feel tedious. How boring Room 302 can be, the player is supposed to think. I wonder what the neighbors are up to? To reinforce this tendency, the game makes sure to drop creepy little Easter eggs every once in a while, to make the view out the various peepholes semi-randomized so that they remain an effective diversion after multiple playthroughs.
And then, in the game’s second half, everything changes. The apartment becomes corrupted; the player’s “home” becomes a danger zone. Once again, the game makes clever use of randomization to ensure that the hauntings that appear will always be a surprise, and some of them are very subtle. The familiar safe haven becomes unfamiliar and, by degrees, openly hostile. This is the very definition of unheimlich, “not-at-homedness.” The same holds true for the repeat visits to the levels. While it’s true that they are mostly identical on the second trip, that’s entirely the point, helping to underscore the occasional, uncanny changes. Most significantly, the player’s understanding of these environments has changed, allowing previously overlooked details to take on new significance.
Mortal Sin #2: Escort Quests – Everybody knows that escort quests, usually characterized by forcing the player to babysit a weaksauce Darwin Awards candidate (often a damsel in distress character), make for terrible game design. They were terrible in Resident Evil 4, when the President’s daughter was more concerned about the player seeing up her skirt than she was about crossbow-armed cultists or swinging blade traps. That Peter the Puppy level from Earthworm Jim, while funny in concept, is the very thing that ragequits are made of. Unless your name is Fumito Ueda and your game is called ICO, you have no business introducing an escort quest into any modern video game.
Silent Hill 4‘s entire second half was one long escort mission, raising the ire of many a gamer. Except, if you look closely, Eileen is not your typical escortee. While she begins with a measly purple purse, she can be equipped with increasingly powerful weapons the player discovers over the course of the game, including a fully automatic firearm. She’s also unkillable, which helps a lot.
This last point is rather important. Eileen isn’t meant to be protected, in the context of the narrative; she’s meant to take a beating. Like Walter’s other “mother,” Eileen exists to provide a false sense of warmth, of security, and then to snatch it cruelly away. Despite her navigational difficulties, Eileen begins as a major boon for the player, but as she soaks up damage, things begin to…change. She’ll start talking in a babyish voice, rambling snatches of the cult’s scripture. Awful-looking bruises will appear over her skin. And, after enough abuse, Eileen starts to lapse into trances that drain Henry’s health, just like the ghosts and hauntings in his apartment. If these trances get bad enough, Eileen will self-flagellate with whatever weapon she has on hand.
Mortal Sin #3: Unkillable Enemies That Follow You Around Relentlessly, Damage You by Proximity, and Can Phase through Solid Walls – Oh come on, I thought you wanted a horror game! Besides which, the ghosts’ “coming out of the walls” animation is disgusting reminiscent of adult childbirth.
Like Takashi Miike’s Audition, Silent Hill 4 breaks all the rules because it wants you, the audience, to feel personally betrayed. It invites you home and then turns that home into an oppressive prison. “It’s okay to look,” it tells you, right before calling you a disgusting pervert. It lets you feel comfortable with Eileen, like you can rely on her, and then has her reveal her inner cruelty–a defining experience with women that, without a doubt, both Walter and Henry share. It takes you inside the mind of a sociopathic, depraved killer, and then shows you that you have more in common than you thought.