Travis, you messed-up sonofabitch. Whatchu doin’ on my road?
Given its troubled history, it’s a miracle Silent Hill: Origins turned out as well as it did. The first Silent Hill title to be handled by a western developer, its conception and early development were so horribly botched that producer Konami nearly aborted the title altogether, an action that, if taken, might have sent the franchise to an early grave. As lead designer Sam Barlow described in an interview with Edge Magazine, the direction under Climax’s newly minted Santa Monica studios was “bizarre”: laser sights, barricades, monsters that looked like rejects from PS1-era Resident Evil, and an incomprehensible shift in tone. “It was supposed to be a dark comedy,” Barlow divulged, “and, at some point, someone said Scrubs was [the inspiration]!”
We can all be grateful that this version of Silent Hill: Origins never survived to maturity. And we have Climax’s original Portsmouth, UK, branch, led by Barlow (who also created the envelope-pushing FMV game Her Story and single-turn interactive fiction title Aisle), to thank. Working under tight budgetary and time constraints, the team reconstructed the game essentially from scratch. That the Origins that saw the light of day is even halfway viable is an omen of things to come: the same team would go on to develop the most surprising and creatively successful Silent Hill game of the post–Team Silent era.
This isn’t that game, however; Origins is, after all, only halfway viable. It’s the story of Travis Grady, a trucker late on his run who makes an unfortunate detour through Silent Hill on the night of a tragic fire. Hearing screams from within a burning house, he rushes inside to discover a badly charred little girl surrounded by candles and ritual markings. Carrying the girl to safety, Travis becomes inextricably tied up in events that will shape the future of the quiet town. That girl whose life Travis saves, the girl at the center of everything, is Alessa Gillespie, age seven.
Silent Hill: Origins is a prequel, set seven years before the original game. It depicts the events leading up to the birth of Cheryl Mason and the creation of the Otherworld, clarifies the function of the Flauros, and ties up many loose ends remaining in Silent Hill‘s deliberately ambiguous backstory. All of that is so incidental to anything good about the game, though, and so redundant at this point in the series, that it’s barely worth mentioning.
Between frequent intrusions from members of Silent Hill‘s cast—Alessa and Dahlia Gillespie, Dr. Kaufmann, and red-sweatered nurse Lisa Garland—Origins manages to weave a tragic and effective, if perfunctory, original tale around Travis himself. Much like Harry Mason after him, he serves as Alessa’s errand boy for much of the game, gathering fragments of an artifact she needs to channel her powers and project her will into the real world. (In case you’ve forgotten, Alessa’s a bit of a Carrie White, a sensitive girl with highly attuned psychic abilities and an abusive, religious mother, although in Alessa’s case, her mom belongs to an obscure cult that believes Alessa’s prepubescent womb, “molded with suffering and pain,” will birth their god and bring about Paradise on Earth. If you’re still lost, I don’t blame you; I recommend starting with my write-up of the original game.)
Harry made a receptive pawn for Alessa because of his intense emotional bond with Cheryl, Alessa’s other half. Travis has no such bond, yet his connection with Alessa runs just as deep. (“She’s really worked you over, hasn’t she?” Michael Kaufmann quips near the endgame, as a bruised, battered, and betrayed Travis arrives just in time to interrupt the cult’s ceremony.) Although the how and why are never explicated, Travis serves as a conduit for Alessa’s power. And even though it takes him places he never thought he’d have to revisit, even though they butt heads constantly—”When do we get to look inside your sick little mind?” he demands, while the mute girl narrows her eyes expressively, the swelling air raid siren speaking for her—he completes the delivery on schedule.
Travis and Alessa are drawn together, in part, because they’re kindred spirits. They are both children of trauma, of abusive, unhinged mothers and absent fathers. We get the first hints in Origins‘ opening moments, when a trucker buddy of Travis’ needles him over CB radio. The transmission is garbled and the subtitles incomplete, but you can make out the words if you know what you’re looking for: “Maybe if you weren’t always blabbering about losing your parents when you were young, and how you don’t even remember how or why….” “Hey, chill,” Travis replies. “You don’t see me bringing up your issues.”
Bringing up Travis’ issues is exactly what Alessa has in mind, though. This conversation is fresh in Travis’ mind when he rolls through Silent Hill—we’re treated to a brief flash of memory, a child standing over an open grave—and the desperate Alessa latches on to it, leverages it. His initial destination, after a brief pit stop at Alchemilla Hospital, is Cedar Grove Sanitarium. This isn’t his first visit, however. A blend of memos and memories tell the story of a woman committed for attempted filicide, a female patient overwhelmed by delusion—she believes her son to have “the devil inside him”—”Good wombs can bear bad sons, they say”—and in the existence of an “otherworld” or “mirror world” to which she often retreats, appearing to observers to enter a catatonic state. This patient, Helen, believes that the mirror world reveals a deeper or truer level of reality; “This world is just a daydream,” she tells her doctor. The notes also report an “Amber Incident” in which an unattended male child somehow makes his way into the Female Seclusion ward. At first, the names are redacted, but as Travis finally confronts the buried memory, the principal players are revealed to be his mother, Helen, and himself.
The next stop—the Artaud Theater (a particularly apt name-drop for this narrative), where a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is being staged—is more about Alessa and her hang-ups, but the final destination trains the spotlight back on Travis. At the lobby of the Riverside Motel, we’re treated to a flashback: Travis and his father checking in, many years ago. One of them never checked out. Travis can’t get into their room immediately—the door is covered in police tape, and the key’s missing. (It’s eventually discovered inside a jeweled heart, which Travis must crush in a vise.) More notes and memories provide ample foreshadowing of what awaits Travis inside room 500, however. In a flashback, Richard laments, “There’s too much pain in this world without you. That thing that stole your body…it had the right idea.” A letter “To a ghost” begins: “We both know that thing at Cedar Grove isn’t you. You died the day you tried to kill our son.” It ends: “I know Travis will be fine on his own. I’m going to see you again, Helen.”
Despite this ample warning, neither Travis nor the player can be fully prepared for the scene that greets them upon gaining entry to Room 500. It remains one of the most unsettling and best executed moments in the series. It’s better if you see for yourself.
To summarize: a young Travis stands before his father’s feet. They swing freely, Richard Grady’s body suspended from the ceiling by a noose tied around his neck. Every so often, it creaks from the tension. “Daddy, I won the game,” baby Travis says. “I still got a quarter left. You want the quarter?” When this elicits no response, he takes a different tack: “Daddy, wake up. Please, Daddy.”
We see Richard Grady’s face for the first time. His head rests on his shoulders at an unnatural angle. His neck likely snapped when the rope when taut. His eyes open. “I’m not sleeping, son,” he says, his voice full of concern. “You knew I wasn’t sleeping. Why did you stand there for so long?” A note found in the hotel manager’s office clarifies that Travis was alone in the room with the body for ten hours before service staff discovered them. “It wasn’t right,” Richard Grady continues. “It wasn’t healthy, son.” His head begins to shake, the glasses fly from his face, and he transforms into another monster for Travis to fight, some cross between a giant mouth and cuts of meat arranged on a butcher’s block. It’s horrifying, yes, but the truly disturbing moment has passed.
It could be argued that the principal emotion underlying all good horror is not fear but sadness. That’s certainly true of Silent Hill, and it’s especially true here. Travis Grady’s story lacks the occult underpinnings of Alessa Gillespie’s, Henry Townshend’s, or Alex Shepherd’s. Those are found elsewhere in this game, of course: it’s a game of two equally defined halves, one supernatural and one thoroughly human. The occult half, Alessa’s half, is camp horror. Travis’ half, the human half, is suffused with tragedy. It’s that sadness that makes this entry into the series, and the subsequent Shattered Memories, work.
The moment is only made more uncanny by the fact that young Travis looks and sounds to be about ten in these flashbacks, far too old to be confused by the concept of death. Yet this isn’t the first time he’s shown an inability to differentiate between the living and the dead. He shows the same confusion upon finding his mother in Cedar Grove: “Mama? Daddy said you were dead. Are you dead?” This is one of those “If you have to ask…” questions, isn’t it?
There’s a bit more to Travis’ story, but before we get there, I want to touch on a note found in Prospero’s library (don’t ask) in the Artaud Theater. This library proves a treasure vault of information on occult theory and psychology. In an excerpt labeled “Chapter 2: Repression & Coercion,” we learn that “the more controlled a mind, the more a mind censors itself, the easier it is for outside influences to take hold and piggyback such mental programming.” This goes a long way toward explaining why Travis is so easily led on Alessa’s errands.
Another note describes “An Id Torn in Two,” in which “an abused child’s self appears to split in two.” One half craves acceptance and love, while “the other personality contains all the rage and anger of the abused and in many ways becomes a mirror of the abuser, seeking to inflict its pain on others.” While this is no doubt intended to foreshadow the Alessa/Cheryl split, it could just as easily be describing Travis. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Travis, in combination with his repressed memories, might suffer from schizophrenia, a heritable disorder characterized by sensory hallucinations (particularly voices), false beliefs, and social withdrawal.
Conceptually, Silent Hill: Origins faces a peculiar challenge: how to make a Silent Hill game that takes place before the formation of the Otherworld? Origins‘ answer is the mirror world. Throughout the game, whenever Travis encounters a mirror, he can use it as a gateway between the “real” world and the Otherworld. (Remember, Helen Grady also experienced an “Otherworld” beyond the mirror.) Unlike the Otherworld Alessa unleashes upon Silent Hill, Travis’ mirror world is inconsistent, malleable, taking on characteristics of its surroundings to a greater degree. Origins uses this mechanic to great effect, planting a number of nasty surprises on the other side of the looking glass. An early example of such appears in Alchemilla Hospital. In one of the area’s key puzzles, Travis must gather a set of plastic organs and insert them, in the correct order, into an anatomy model in the “real” examination room. When all of the organs have been inserted, the model’s eyes snap open, and Travis can remove a pair of glass eyes needed to progress. Later, when Travis visits the same room in the mirror world, the model has been replaced by a real corpse. “She’s been cut open and her eyes are…missing,” Travis observes, seeming not to recognize the scene. “What kind of monster could have done this?”
The mirror world is not just horrific; it is also revelatory. It’s here Travis’ most deeply buried memories reside. It’s also here he finds four of the five pieces of the Flauros artifact: future, past, falsehood, and truth. Only the last, the “present” piece, resides in the “real” world. That’s because there’s one fact about himself Travis never confronts, one piece of the puzzle that never sends him searching in the mirror.
It’s in this “real” world, the fog-filled Silent Hill, that the most disturbing truths about Travis await. It’s always in the foggy Silent Hill, never in the mirror world, that he encounters his tormentor, the Butcher, a kind of nascent Pyramid Head. Dragging his Great Cleaver, metal plates covering the left half of his scarred, featureless head, the Butcher can often be found slaughtering monsters—much as Travis does, in fact. As a matter of fact, there are many clues linking Travis and the Butcher. The monster is first encountered in a shop called The Family Butcher, much as Travis later butchers the apparitions of his family members when confronting his past, much as Helen Grady tried to butcher her husband and son. And remember the anatomy model?
The most significant clue occurs during the game’s “bad ending,” which occurs if Travis kills a certain amount of monsters over the course of the game. (A potentially important side note: this is the only Silent Hill game in which killed monsters never disappear from the environment.) In this ending, Travis finds himself restrained on a table while a light flickers overhead and scenes play back in his head, scenes that are familiar yet different. A woman’s voice asks, “What are you talking about? I’m not your Mama.” Her voice cuts off mid-scream. Another voice informs him, “Sir, the motel’s closed for the season.” It, too, is silenced. Travis kneels in a motel room, his hands covered in blood. His face momentarily becomes the Butcher’s.
Used syringes suggest this might be some form of cult brainwashing (Repression & Coercion, remember?). But it also makes a kind of sense. Travis doesn’t have the excuse that later protagonists have, that Silent Hill is creating the monsters and the horrific things he witnesses in the Otherworld. So just where is Travis going, what is he doing, when he delves through the looking glass?
GOOD BUDDY: Bad dreams still keeping you awake? I told you, man, a girl or two would go a loooong way. Sleep like a baby with a chick in your cab.
TRAVIS: Guess I just don’t meet the right girls, bud.