This town. It knows me. It showed me things. It wants me to finish this.
Murphy Pendleton kills monsters.
One of the most significant, most haunting lines of the Silent Hill franchise was delivered in 2003 by a young priest of the Order, Vincent Smith. “Don’t stand there looking so smug,” he begins. “You’re the worst person in this room. You come here and enjoy spilling their blood and listening to them cry out. You feel excited when you step on them, snuffing out their lives.” When Heather asks if he’s talking about the monsters, he replies, with mock consternation, “They look like monsters to you?” He instantly passes it off as a joke, but it’s a damning conviction of Heather and of the player, who likely does get a perverse thrill from stomping the life out of Silent Hill’s menagerie of horrors.
Once the possibility has been raised, it’s hard to shake. The town of Silent Hill has already proven itself adept at playing with one’s perception of reality, and it seems to reform itself according to the psyche of the individual. There’s no guarantee that anything is as it seems. But if they aren’t monsters, just what is the protagonist killing? The question becomes more pressing in the later entries into the series as combat evolves into something more kinetic, smooth, and visceral, and thus more “exciting.” As we’ve recently seen, the notion of “killing bad guys” is vital to the “soldier” identity Alex Shepherd has created for himself, even as those “bad guys” become increasingly human. And Travis Grady might truly be the worst person in the room depending on how you interpret the demons he faces.
Murphy Pendleton kills monsters.
From its first moments, it’s clear that Silent Hill: Downpour isn’t your typical Silent Hill game. Our hero, Murphy Pendleton, steps into a rusty elevator wearing a prison jumpsuit and a scowl. At the bottom floor, he’s greeted by a prison guard, Officer Sewell. “All right, Murphy, it’s all set,” the guard says. “Follow me.” Sewell leads Murphy to the prison showers. Murphy enters; Sewell stays behind. “He’s all yours now. Make it quick, cupcake.”
At Sewell’s prompting, Murphy runs all of the showers, filling the room with steam. The opposite door opens, and an obese man in a towel—Patrick Napier—enters. “I’m a sequestered prisoner,” he protests. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” Murphy asks. “We used to be neighbors.” As understanding dawns on the other man’s face, he tries to run, but the doors are locked. Murphy stabs, flogs, and punches Napier until he is reduced to a bloodied, crawling lump. Then our hero pulls a shiv from his belt.
Murphy Pendleton kills monsters.
The next we see of Murphy Pendleton, he’s being loaded onto a prisoner transport vehicle, bound for a maximum security penitentiary. “You gonna miss us?” Sewell asks.
Murphy shakes his head, refusing to make eye contact. “Not even a little.”
Of course, Murphy doesn’t make it to Wayside Max. As the bus is passing through Silent Hill, the driver loses control. Murphy, crawling from the wreckage, is free—if he can escape from the town and from Officer Anne Cunningham, who will seemingly go to the ends of the earth to track him down. What follows is a bizarre melange of influences: The Fugitive, Safety Last!, Cube, The Aphex Twin’s “Rubber Johnny” music video, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, M.C. Escher, Suspiria, Twin Peaks, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shawshank Redemption. Downpour cribs elements from The Suffering, another prison break survival horror game eight years its junior, and from the seven-year-old Condemned: Criminal Origins. Producer Devin Shatsky mentioned Call of Cthulhu as an inspiration. The credits music is by Korn.
Ruled by competing impulses, Silent Hill: Downpour has difficulty controlling its tone. Delectably creepy moments like a Cube-style sideways elevator journey through a spatially improbable prison-factory (seen above) segue without warning into Harold Lloyd–inspired slapstick antics. The script veers between surrealism and sentimentality. Major revelations are telegraphed with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head, while most players will enter the final boss battle with no idea who or what they are facing. The existence of a couple of side characters is justified only by graphic novel tie-ins. Of the four or five creature designs used in the game, one is brilliant, and the rest are generic crowbar-fodder. It is actually a rather complex, layered story, as much about the officer chasing Murphy as it is about Murphy himself, but you won’t get that without reading the comics. Myriad technical glitches do nothing to help the situation. For all that, Downpour has some masterfully orchestrated moments; at its best, it delivers all of the creepy joy of a haunted house attraction. It’s also the first and only Silent Hill title playable in stereoscopic 3D.
Unfortunately for Murphy and the player, Downpour cannot long sustain its best self; it is repeatedly shackled by its complicated relationship with freedom. In another first for the series, once Murphy makes it into Silent Hill proper—after a harrowing journey through the 1,700-foot-deep gorge and defunct coal mining facility known as the Devil’s Pit—he is free to explore the nooks and crannies of the town. Previous Silent Hills have typically had a few optional areas, but Downpour doubles down with fourteen fleshed-out sidequests, some self-contained within buildings and apartments, others ranging across the entire map. Murphy might have to track down a lost autistic girl by deciphering a code of colored ribbons, call in rogue police cruisers stalking the streets, scatter a couple’s ashes in their “special place,” free some caged birds, break into a bank vault, or track down a series of paintings to reveal a hidden treasure map, National Treasure–style.
A few of these sidequests, which vary in quality, deliver atmosphere on par with the main story elements, while others flesh out Murphy’s backstory. By exploring the movie theater, Murphy can step through the silver screen into a set of reels that seem drawn from his own memories; the titles of the films are “House on the Lake,” “The Silent Children,” and “The Secret in the Attic.” Exploring these cinematic worlds, which are devoid of monsters but filled with deliberately cheesy ’90s-era bumps and shocks, Murphy can discover the password to the editing room and splice the three reels together into one film, “The Secret of the Child at the Lake.” This reveals the filmic environments to be interconnected à la Silent Hill 4.
Another standout is “The Gramophone,” in which Murphy must first awaken and then exorcise a murderous family patriarch:
Unfortunately, even the best of these quests is tainted by an overwhelming sense of futility. The game’s underlying mechanisms—particularly the combat system, which allows Murphy to carry only one holstered firearm and one melee weapon or a second firearm at a time—simply can’t support rewards commensurate with the effort these quests require. The “Cinema Verité” quest described above rewards Murphy with a golden gun (“just like in the movies”), a slightly improved handgun he’ll toss aside the minute he picks up a shotgun or rifle. Following both “Shadow Play” and “The Art Collector” to their conclusions—two particularly involved quests requiring the player to solve riddles, scour the entire map for hidden items, and bring them back to out-of-the-way locations—yields two incompatible melee weapons; Murphy can’t carry them both at the same time, and whichever he chooses, he’ll be forced to abandon it the next time he needs a ladder hook, shovel, or fire axe. Even unclipping the flashlight from Murphy’s belt causes him to drop whatever else he’s holding. The rewards will still be waiting for him later, of course, exactly where he left them—things in Silent Hill: Downpour tend to persist, even when forgotten—but there’s no reason to backtrack halfway across the map, through long loading screens and tangled streets, for a glorified club that will break after a dozen swings.
One of the few permanent rewards—unlocking doors to allow Murphy expedited travel through the subway system—can easily be rendered moot by a malicious glitch that randomly locks them again. And none of these rewards mean anything once Murphy enters the final area, a “point of no return” that confiscates his entire inventory, forcing him to start again from scratch.
From a gameplay perspective, it’s bad design, plain and simple. I should note that the limited inventory and breakable weapons work fine for most of the game, limited inventory being one of the foundational concepts the survival horror genre is built upon. But these strictures are fundamentally at odds with the “freedom” the game tries so hard to promote. Exploring Silent Hill leads to nothing but frustration and futility.
Which is, maybe, as it should be. This is, after all, a game about incarceration, which is itself an exercise in futility; an in-game document mentions that, for most prisoners, the ideal of “reformation” upon which American prisons revolve is an illusion. Those who escape the prison quickly find their way back inside. And, short of total paralysis, incarceration is the ultimate loss of agency. You lose control over what you wear, what you eat, where you go or when. You lose your name, replaced by a number. The freedoms that are offered you might, rightly, feel like mere distractions. “Once convicted, a criminal’s life is forever linked to wrongdoing.”
In fact, Downpour‘s most effective moments are when it takes all freedom away, when it is the most on rails. The theme park attraction gone wrong that is the “Devil’s Ride”; the instant when the elevator in which Murphy’s confined starts moving in the wrong direction, an impossible direction; the many ways Downpour toys with your perception of space and time. Wheelchairs have been a defining motif of the Silent Hill series since the beginning, and the first few times you see them in Downpour—a grotesque phantom glimpsed through a film of rain from the Devil’s Falls binoculars; an abandoned wheelchair trapped between the doors of an elevator; the tracks revealed by the ultraviolet glow of Murphy’s forensic flashlight, always leading Murphy exactly where he needs to go—might seem like nothing more than a creepy homage. However, the wheelchair and its rider have unique significance to the story of Downpour. “He didn’t die right away, you know,” Officer Anne Cunningham recounts. “He spent years in that wheelchair, a…a fucking vegetable. Did you know that? And I had to watch this…this wonderful man shit and piss all over himself day after day after day. And every time I looked at him, you know what I saw? I saw a monster. I saw you.”
Downpour pushes its fugitive theme as far as it can go. Instead of a radio, Murphy carries a walkie-talkie that spews police chatter when enemies are nearby. Demonic police cruisers stalk the streets, chirping their sirens menacingly. A forensic flashlight replaces your old-fashioned one, revealing hidden messages and footprints. To get a free tram ticket to access the Devil’s Pit, Murphy plays a “Prison Break” arcade game that also incorporates Downpour‘s water motif. Dead bodies strung up all over town wear prison jumpsuits. Everywhere he turns, Murphy is faced with reminders of his criminal past.
He’s also confronted, around every corner, by reminders of what drove him to commit the stupid, pointless crime that got him sent to prison. A “Missing Child” flyer stuck in the dirt of a sandbox advertising the disappearance of six-year-old Charlie Pendleton. A children’s book, “Nice Mr. Neighbor,” stuck inside a textbook chapter on conduct disorder; the illustration shows a man inviting an excited youngster into his van. A blue van, bearing the logo of “Security X Systems,” parked conspicuously in several locations throughout the town. A crime scene photo showing something bulky wrapped in a wet canvas sack. A newspaper article about the trial and conviction of Patrick Napier, a registered sex offender, for the kidnapping and murder of a second child, Daniel Stephens. An autistic boy in St. Maria’s Monastery who looks just like Charlie, whom Murphy is forced to watch die at the hands of a raincoat-wearing, sledgehammer-wielding behemoth called The Bogeyman. (While this scene plays out, Murphy is desperately reciting the lines of a nursery rhyme that begins “Poor little Steven Skelter / Even the chaplain won’t forgive you / Forever lies, your pleading cries / But Suzy knows you felt her.”) A school play based on “Hansel and Gretel” that becomes too real in the final act.
Downpour, like Shawshank, like nearly every other story with a prison setting, is a redemption story. Murphy is a good man in a bad situation. After his marriage falls apart and his son is taken from him, he concocts an elaborate plan for revenge: do something so audacious that he can’t help but be locked up in the same prison that’s holding Patrick Napier. Find a way to get close to Napier, which involves cutting a deal with a crooked corrections officer, George Sewell. Kill the monster. That alone would be enough to atone for—revenge changes a man, and murder is a mortal sin. “When the bee does choose to attack, this single act of retribution is almost always fatal for the bee itself,” says another book from the archives. But it doesn’t end there. Murphy still has to pay off his debt to Sewell by taking care of another “monster.” It’s this last one—perhaps the one person left, including Murphy himself, who sees the good in Murphy, who sees him as anything other than a monster and a bogeyman; the “good man” who is to have his agency stripped away, transformed into the monstrous reminder that is the Wheelman, living a half-life sustained by artificial respiration—it’s this last one that seals Murphy’s fate.
We’re the ones who decide if we can live with what we’ve done.
—J.P. Sater, Devil’s Ride operator