Everything’s just been falling apart around us, you know, but you just keep moving forward.
It’s been three years since I last set foot in Silent Hill. Its streets are now deserted, its shops shuttered; the locks on most of the doors are busted beyond hope of repair. None of my favorite stations come in on the radio; it’s nothing but static all the way across the FM band. I found a map, but it’s thirty years out of date. The pavement’s in bad need of repair. It feels like home.
I left on a note of ambivalence. And that same emotion characterizes my return. How else can you feel when you owe so much to a place and see it go to shit before your eyes? When the founders—original developers Team Silent, who were disbanded after Silent Hill 4—have been run out of town and the keys to the city handed over to a series of strangers filled with hot air about “urban revitalization” and “economic stimulus”?
Why have I returned? Let’s call it a death in the family. It’s clear, for now at least, that the Silent Hill franchise is dead. Its last murmur was P. T., a playable teaser for a collaboration, in the Silent Hill universe, between game designer Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak), actor Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead, Boondocks Saints), and mangaka Junji Ito (Uzumaki, Tomie, Gyo). In April 2015, the project was officially canceled. It’s, perhaps, better this way; Silent Hills never had the opportunity to disappoint. Like Jodorowski’s Dune, it will be immortalized as an unrealized masterpiece, unfettered by reality.
In the time since P. T. was removed from circulation (I’m tempted to say it was “disappeared”), publisher Konami has essentially left the video game business, while Kojima, del Toro and Reedus have moved on to a new collaboration: Death Stranding. While Death Stranding looks to feature an upside-down Otherworld, pervasive mists, somersaulting fetuses, and invisible monsters, and while it is inspired, as were parts of Silent Hill, by surrealist Kōbō Abe, Death Stranding is not Silent Hill. Silent Hill is dead.
So here I am, back in Silent Hill, wandering the cemetery, searching for a headstone that isn’t there. If I want to conclude the biography of the place that is Silent Hill, I’ll have to revisit some unpleasant memories.
Silent Hill: Homecoming. Released in 2008, this was the second Silent Hill game to come out of a Western studio—Double Helix games for this one, comprising members of Shiny Entertainment (Earthworm Jim, MDK) and The Collective, which almost exclusively developed licensed titles. It was also the first game that had any opportunity to be influenced by the 2006 film. Both points are acutely felt; despite an all-new cast and storyline, Homecoming often feels more like Silent Hill: The Movie: The Game than anything that breaks any real ground.
The great irony of Silent Hill is that it’s a town trapped in the past—its streets and storefronts haven’t changed since the 1980s—but it’s also a place of near-constant flux, where reality itself is uncertain. The sky goes black without warning, roads crumble into the abyss, walls peel away to reveal a skeleton of barbed wire and pulsing flesh.
I grew up in Ojai, which, like Silent Hill, was almost destroyed in a fire that still smolders beneath the asphalt. Every time I return, I get that same uncanny feeling, the way the world goes on without you, the way nothing ever changes except everything. Thomas Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.
When I revisit Silent Hill, it’s as Alex Shepherd, who’s returning to his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen following an ambiguous hospitalization. (He’ll make it to Silent Hill sometime in the third act.) The streets are in decay. The population has all but vanished; missing persons posters accumulate like weeds, disregarded except by a few fervent citizens. An unnatural fog hangs over everything.
Meanwhile, banners advertising the town’s 150-year anniversary celebration festoon the streets, just as they did before Alex left. Time seems to be standing still—literally. Curtis Ackers, the junkyard fix-it man, points out the obvious: “Haven’t you noticed that every single clock in this town has stopped at exactly 2:06? It’s like something’s not letting us move on.”
Yes, that’s the level of subtlety you can expect from Silent Hill: Homecoming.
Even if you were to strip away the supernatural elements, Alex’s homecoming is more difficult than most. His army surplus jacket, dog tags, and shell-shocked expression imply he’s seen recent combat. Even for soldiers not suffering from PTSD, the transition from military to civilian life is often psychologically devastating. It’s a major problem for the United States, a country with 1.3 million active service members despite no imminent threats to our borders. It’s a problem that Homecoming seems to want to tackle, although it’s so distracted by lurid tales of buried family secrets that the military narrative escapes with a mere tap on the shoulder.
Alex is an ideal soldier. It’s because he really wants to be a soldier; it’s integral to the identity he’s constructed for himself. He believes that he can save people, make a difference. He calls his father, a decorated veteran, “sir.” And he believes that a good end can come from violent means. In fact, it’s conspicuous how often weaponry, for Alex, serves as a means of progress. Every weapon Alex wields overcomes a different type of barrier: the combat knife slices through paintings and plastic tarps (or, more often, stretched canvases of skin); the fire axe hacks through boarded-up doors or crumbling stone walls; the lead pipe can be employed as a crowbar; and, late in the game, Alex acquires a ceremonial dagger that functions as a key to operate certain occult mechanisms when he’s not using it to stab skinless dogs or smog-spewing cancer monsters.
Like his predecessor Harry Mason/Rose da Silva, Alex spends most of his time chasing after children. This time, the little MacGuffin is Josh Shepherd, Alex’s kid brother. Precipitating Alex’s return to Shepherd’s Glen, according to Alex’s diary (a promotional blog previously hosted on the Silent Hill: Homecoming website), is a recurring nightmare, which also comprises the game’s opening sequence.
In his diary, Alex writes:
No matter how close I got to Joshua, he always got away. He kept asking me for things, but whatever I got him didn’t seem to help. He didn’t look good. Something was wrong. I know it was just a dream, but I’ve had this bad feeling all day long that something’s wrong with him.
It’s obvious to everyone that something is wrong with Joshua, but the deeper significance of this nightmare takes a while to sink in. Alex never actually finds his brother in Shepherd’s Glen, but he does encounter him several more times in Silent Hill, which Alex visits repeatedly in a kind of waking nightmare before traveling there “for real” by crossing Toluca Lake in the game’s third act. (During that crossing, Alex complains, “This place brings back bad memories for me,” a nice triple or quadruple entendre for those who know how it all ends.)
Each of these encounters with Josh plays out pretty much like the nightmare: Josh waits on the wrong side of a locked gate or other impenetrable barrier, and as soon as Alex finds a way through, the boy runs away, drawing his brother deeper into danger and darkness. If you’ve played Silent Hill 1 or 2, you know where this is headed.
Family and legacy are cornerstones of the story Homecoming wants to tell. Alex Shepherd belongs to one of Shepherd’s Glen’s four founding families. His father is the sheriff, and the other families have equally distinguished professions: Mayor Bartlett, Judge Holloway, Doctor Fitch. When Alex returns home, these four families are in disarray: Mayor Bartlett’s digging up graves in the local cemetery, Doctor Fitch is busy exsanguinating himself with a scalpel (“I bleed out the sin,” he says, “but it grows back”), and all three families have missing children about Josh’s age. In fact, as Alex soon discovers, these children aren’t missing; they’re dead, killed by their parents’ hands. It’s all part of a secret pact the founding families made with their god, the old god of Silent Hill. Every fifty years, they must sacrifice one of their own in exchange for “continued protection and prosperity.”
Investigating this mystery brings Alex in conflict with Silent Hill’s Order, the movie version with gas masks and mining gear. In fact, Homecoming liberally borrows imagery from the film, from the Otherworld transition sequence (visualized as the veneer of reality flaking off and rising like ash, revealing the world of rust and blood beneath) to the visual design and animation of creatures like the nurses and the “armless man.”
Nor is this the only filmic influence: the streets of Shepherd’s Glen, like those of Silent Hill, are named for the horror luminaries who inspired the game, but whereas Silent Hill was built on novelists—Levin, Matheson, Bloch, Ellroy, Bachman—Shepherd’s Glen’s cartography is dominated by filmmakers: Craven, Kubrick, Friedkin, Carpenter, Lyne (named for Adrian Lyne, director of Jacob’s Ladder, from which Homecoming also cribs heavily). The one writer who earns a mention, Clive Barker, is perhaps best known for his work on film, notably Hellraiser. The gory “kill scenes” that sometimes occur at the end of combat certainly seem to originate from the mind of someone who enjoyed Hellraiser.
Like the movie, Homecoming is at its best when it is at its most mimetic. Harnessing the power of then-advanced consoles like PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, it seems less concerned with progressing the series forward than it does with recapturing the past in high fidelity. This explains the several mostly pointless cameos from fan-favorite monster Pyramid Head. And if the environments never really develop beyond the amber-and-rust landscapes established in earlier entries, at least they’ve never looked better.
In fact, Homecoming‘s creature design establishes a high water mark for the series. The nurses, while derivative, are perfectly realized, their herky-jerky movements truly unsettling. Even more disturbing is the way they freeze when you turn your flashlight off, holding contorted poses. And, if you can position one in front of a powerful light source, you can see the shadow of a fetus inside each nurse’s translucent torso, foreshadowing the game’s themes of legacy and child death.
Other monsters are equally well rendered. Hammerhead-like faces, split into vertical mouth-slits, swing like heavy, bifurcated dongs. Flesh has been split and fused. Vagina dentata is sort of motif here, symptomatic of broader themes of parental betrayal and neglect. A hybrid creature trundles about on swollen, club-like appendages while its female half, strapped back-to-back with leather bondage gear, kicks helplessly with stiletto-clad legs; her hands, bound at the wrists, form the creature’s face. Muscle spasms. Limbs twitch.
Double Helix reserved the most disturbing designs, however, for the game’s four bosses. Each of these represents one of the sacrificed children, and the design incorporates both elements of the child’s personality and the manner of death. (Helpfully, each family is prescribed a distinct method of sacrifice with clear visual touchstones.) Scarlet Fitch, who was “consign[ed]…to the knife,” appears as a white china doll in black wedges, her spindle-limbs fully articulated, the top of her face chipped away. But as the fight progresses, chunks of her porcelain “armor” break away, revealing the raw muscle beneath and making her resemble a living anatomy model. (Remember, her father was the town doctor.)
Nora Holloway, meanwhile, who was “consign[ed]…to the noose,” looks like The Human Centipede as imagined by Guillermo del Toro:
Joshua Shepherd, when he inevitably appears, is full Giger, a mechanical spider with a telescoping face and a water-bloated, pregnant belly.
It’s never clear whether these twisted apparitions are manifestations of their parents’ guilt or the wrath of a displeased god. From Alex’s point of view, it doesn’t make a difference. In a sense, they exist—the entire “semicentennial child sacrifice” storyline exists—only so that Alex can bear witness to their retribution, can acclimate himself, by degrees, to the concept of a child’s life ending prematurely…and of the perpetrators getting their just deserts.
In any case, it’s a good thing the monsters are so memorable, because Alex spends a lot of time fighting them. Homecoming introduces a greater emphasis on combat—and violence in general—than previous entries. It adopts the over-the-shoulder viewpoint popularized by the action-horror game Resident Evil 4, bringing with it free aiming of firearms—previous games automatically locked onto the target—a dedicated dodge button, and a combo system built on light and heavy melee attacks. Monsters in previous Silent Hill titles were part of the scenery, never occupying your attention for more than a few seconds. Here, they’re a central focus. Whether the new combat system makes things more enjoyable or simply longer is a matter of personal preference.
More upsettingly, for the first time in Silent Hill history outside of a few boss fights, Homecoming makes you fight actual people: the foot soldiers of Silent Hill’s cult The Order, equipped with lead pipes and rifles. There’s a significant moral gulf between shooting monsters and shooting people, but Homecoming barely seems to acknowledge it. Another missed opportunity for commentary on combat desensitization and dehumanization.
On the other hand, these flaws—the combat focus in particular—go hand in hand with the story Homecoming is trying to tell. The game forces you to play out these little action hero fantasies, including a sequence that plays out like Assault on Precinct 13 with the gangbangers replaced by Stranger Things‘ demogorgons. It encourages a guns-blazing approach: ammunition isn’t unlimited, but you can’t stockpile it, either. It lets you save the day, mostly by shooting or stabbing things. And, in so doing, it completes the characterization of Alex Shepherd.
Near the end of his diary, just before Alex formulates his plan to escape the hospital, he writes:
I told them that I just needed to get out of here long enough to check on my brother. They said that I’m suffering some sort of post-traumatic shock. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Or maybe they do. Is that all this is? If so, how do I make it stop?
You see, there’s something about Alex I haven’t mentioned yet. Despite all appearances, he’s never seen combat. That army surplus jacket? He probably got it from the army surplus. Those dog tags? They’re his father’s. Alex isn’t a soldier, but he desperately wants to be. He fantasizes about saving people, making a difference—specifically, he fantasizes about saving Josh—and this is the exact fantasy he gets to play out over the course of the game.
This explains the splitting, twinning, fusing, and doubling imagery seen throughout the game. (Seriously, it’s everywhere.) Alex appears to have developed a form of dissociative identity disorder, commonly known as split personality disorder, stemming from a single traumatic event. (I don’t know enough about psychology to tell you if Alex’s particular disorder, in which the new identity/past has completely eclipsed the old, exists outside of fiction.) He believes he’s seen combat because Soldier Alex replaced the memories of his brother’s death with equally traumatic, but less guilt-inducing, memories of war.
When Alex says he was “just discharged,” he means from a mental hospital. He is suffering from PTSD; Alex’s trauma is that he was accidentally responsible for the accidental drowning death of his brother. (2:06, by the way, is the time showing on Adam Shepherd’s watch when Alex suffers his mental break. It’s also his room number at the hospital. This coincidence strains credulity, but it’s left deliberately ambiguous which instance of this number is a legitimate memory and which a delusory echo.)
Josh’s death in the waters of Toluca Lake, somehow, ruins everything, nullifies the entire deal the founding families had with the Order’s god, despite the fact that drowning is exactly how a Shepherd child was supposed to die, despite the fact that it was always Alex who was singled out for the sacrifice, Alex who is still alive and healthy. But Alex is never sacrificed, at least not that we see; Josh’s death somehow makes this impossible. (There is one ending in which Adam drowns Alex in the bath, saying that this way, “Joshua will be safe to carry on the family line,” which doesn’t exactly clarify things.) It’s easy to write off as a gaping plot hole; this is, after all, a game that uses mental illness for shock value. But there’s another explanation. Two, in fact.
Alex’s feelings toward his own family are…complicated. Examining the items around his house reveals a story that’s more disturbing than any of the occult mumbo-jumbo. Pictures of the happy family line the walls: mom Lillian, dad Adam, and son Joshua. Alex’s face is conspicuously absent; in fact, photos of him have been removed from the walls. In his diary, he writes:
I remember the day he was born how happy my parents were. It was almost like relief. Joshua’s ten years younger than me and I think they were trying to have another kid the entire time so I think they were just glad he was healthy. They pretty much spoiled him from that day on. I didn’t mind it at first, because he and I get along great. But they basically wrote me off after he showed up.
There’s an explanation for this behavior that fits with the child sacrifice backstory. The Shepherds knew that they would have to sacrifice a child. But they also knew that they need to continue their legacy. They must have two children, and—as the ten-year gap shows—the couple has trouble conceiving. So, when the second child is born, they make the difficult decision: sacrifice Alex, let Joshua carry on the legacy. They detached themselves emotionally from Alex in anticipation of his death. (Actually, Adam Shepherd’s line—“We chose YOU”—is ambiguous, but other clues indicate that, at the very least, this is how Alex interpreted his words.) With one child remaining and no guarantee that another could be conceived, the Shepherds could not carry out the sacrifice without effectively terminating the family line.
The other explanation is that the whole child sacrifice backstory exists because of Josh’s death. In other words, it’s just another fantasy Alex cooked up to come to terms with his guilt and resentment toward his distant parents. This theory has the benefit of explaining several other apparent plot holes, such as the fact that neither Alex nor his friend Elle Holloway seem aware of the other children’s deaths, which supposedly occurred on the town’s susquecentennial. (“But wasn’t that celebration, like, years ago?” Alex asks Judge Holloway. “I thought I remembered being here for it.” Elle’s promotional diary mentions dunk tanks and petting zoos, calling the celebration “fun”—not the word you’d use to describe the day your younger sister died.)
This theory also explains Alex’s remarkable prescience. While it’s understandable that Alex’s recurring nightmare would contain resurfaced memories of Joshua’s death, Homecoming‘s opening sequence is chock full of foreshadowing for things that our hero couldn’t possibly foresee. It hints at his father’s death at the knife of Pyramid Head, rechristened “The Bogeyman” in this iteration. Most notably, the scenes of malpractice he witnesses in the opening moments—doctors throttling, decapitating, and inhuming children—match the manner of death of the other three children. But Alex doesn’t know anything about these ritualistic sacrifices until after he returns to Shepherd’s Glen, so how can he be dreaming about them?
The answer is that it isn’t about the other children at all. The character model used in all three cases is Josh’s; Alex is seeing Josh die, not the other children. Later, he displaces these deaths onto the Holloway, Fitch, and Bartlett children, and he receives some satisfaction in seeing these parents punished for their misdeeds. But he’s really conflating his own guilt about Joshua’s death with his anger toward his neglectful parents. Alex is fixated on justice—his journey constantly brings him back to prisons and prison-like environments—but he’s never clear whom he wants justice delivered to. Does he want to become the father confessor, with the power to show his parents mercy or pronounce their guilt and damnation? Does he want to be G.I. Joe, saving his brother by infiltrating the stronghold of a sinister cult? Or does he want Joshua to punish him? Alex gets to play all three roles in this fantasy, which ends with him crouched over his brother’s sodden body, seeking absolution.
Dad told us never to go to the lake by ourselves, but we did anyway. And it was so much fun.