Harry: That’s the lighthouse?
Cybil: Nothing’s quite what you expect, is it?
It begins with a warning:
This video game psychologically profiles you as you play.
It gets to know who you really are then uses this information to change itself. It uses its knowledge against you, creating your own personal nightmare.
This game plays you as much as you play it.
White text against a red background, to mimic those FBI Warning screens seen at the start of old VHS tapes. It’s gimmicky, sure. Much of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories—a game originally designed for Nintendo’s Wii platform, with its motion controls and controller-mounted speakers—is. But it’s not a lie: The game does psychologically profile the player. It does change itself as you play. That’s all true. And it does, in the end, play you.
It’s just that none of that means exactly what it seems to.
Shattered Memories is a reimagining of the original Silent Hill‘s plot. That’s true, too, in a purely literal sense. To get the most out of this entry, it’s better if you’re familiar with Silent Hill’s case history—especially since this is technically, like, the fifth time this story is being told, if we include the movie and Origins in the count. At minimum, I’d recommend reading the original Silent Hill: Biography of a Place and Silent Hill 3: Biography of a Place before delving any deeper.
As a storyteller, Shattered Memories‘ lead designer Sam Barlow has made a career of invoking antiquated technologies. He started off as a minor figure in the late-’90s indie interactive fiction revival, re-contextualizing the text adventure with his single-turn non-game Aisle (which you can play online if you’re so inclined). After working on the Silent Hill titles Origins and Shattered Memories, Barlow returned to the indie scene with Her Story, a database-crawling murder-mystery non-game that unfolds entirely within the desktop interface of a late-’90s computer, complete with scan lines and screen curve and the glare of reflected lights. The hum of the CPU, the whirr of the fan, the clatter of the keyboard, and the film of magnetic tape artifacts—the videos in Her Story were passed through two VHS recorders to achieve the authentic patina—are integral components of Her Story’s atmosphere.
But that’s all yet to come as far as Shattered Memories is concerned. I want you to go back, in your mind, to 2009, the tenth anniversary of the original Silent Hill. You insert Shattered Memories into your Wii or PlayStation 2 and the first thing you see is footage from an old home video tape, alive with static. A man and his little girl, posed in front of the family car. As you navigate the game’s menus, the footage rewinds, fast forwards, and pauses in that jittering, epileptic way characteristic of VHS (even the timestamp jumps between two numbers). Only snippets play out in full: he lifts her, squealing, into the air; “sweetie,” he says, touching her on the shoulder, and they both turn to wave to whoever’s holding the camera. The tape continues under the opening credits. The family piles into the car, and then they’re at an amusement park, posing behind one of those photo boards where your face appears on top of another’s body: his in the armor of a brave knight, hers on a princess being menaced by a dragon. “I love my daddy!” she squeals.
The tape rewinds, and the scene plays out again. The family piles into the car, then they’re at the amusement park. “I love my daddy!” the girl squeals.
Rewind. The scene plays out a third time. They’re at the amusement park. “I love my daddy!” the girl squeals. The tape stops.
There is no music accompanying these scenes, no monster growls, no ominous rumbling; just the whine of the tape in the VCR and the girl’s happy squeals. To those who’ve already played Silent Hill and know—or think they know—what’s coming next, it’s fucking heartrending.
These artifacts of old technologies endure throughout Silent Hill: Shattered Memories’ brief, carefully crafted story. The series has always used static, both visual and aural, as a signifier of obscured truths, but in Shattered Memories, the white fuzz that clings to the image clearly belongs to a well-worn VHS tape. Elsewhere, isolated patches of degraded video point to the locations of “hauntings” throughout Silent Hill, which protagonist Harry Mason can reveal with his 2009-era smartphone camera. It’s as though the entire game, impossibly, is contained within that same home movie, viewed in a dark room somewhere by somebody on the outside of it all.
The entire game, that is, except those scenes that play out in the first person in the office of psychotherapist Dr. Kaufmann. These bookend the experience, offering a narrative frame to the horrors endured by poor Harry. “We go back to the start,” Dr. Kaufmann says, “Understand what happened.” He’s a kind of smiling devil with traces of Jack Nicholson, fatherly but subtly menacing. The first-person viewpoint of these interludes emphasizes the fact that you are the doctor’s patient, and this is primarily where Shattered Memories “psychoanalyzes” you by subjecting you to a battery of real psychiatric tests, though it’s also watching during every second of the third-person sequences: watching to see which details of the environment you stop to investigate, where you let the camera linger. Every so often, Harry himself will chime in, providing commentary on whatever poster or vending machine you happen to be trying to read. Or he might not, depending on your psychological profile up to that point.
Shattered Memories tells the same story as the original Silent Hill, at least at the beginning. After losing control of his car and crashing through a railing, Harry Mason wakes up beside the wreckage. Snow is falling, and his seven-year-old daughter, Cheryl, is missing. “It’s good that we touched on the car crash,” Dr. Kaufmann says, providing an early clue that he’s listening to some variation on the same narrative you’re playing out. “That would have been a breakthrough before.” As he searches for Cheryl through the streets of Silent Hill, Harry encounters helpful cop Cybil Bennett, tragic nurse Lisa Garland, and the enigmatic Dahlia. His search takes him through a school, a hospital, a lakeside amusement park, and finally to the lighthouse.
The psychological profile is an interesting wrinkle. It changes the game in mostly subtle ways. In one version, a character who’s just gone through a break-up is nursing a beer; in another, she’s picking at a slice of cheesecake. In one variation, Lisa dies in Harry’s arms, hemorrhaging blood from the head wound she sustained while driving an ambulance—or was it just a car?—through the wall of Alchemilla Hospital. In another, she’s already dead when he arrives on the scene. Michelle Valdez—the one character unique to Shattered Memories—can be wearing a low-cut red gown, a frilly pink dress and tiara, or a sensible brown dress.
Outfits and dialogue—the aesthetics of the game—change, but the general shape of the story doesn’t. Most of the phone messages Harry can access, either by encountering hauntings or calling numbers he reads on billboards or posters, come in four or more variations, but it’s usually nothing more than words shifting around. With one psych profile, a haunting in a ranger’s cabin plays out like this: “Mom, it’s Jackie. Look, I’m sorry about earlier. You were right. I’m at the party. I don’t feel good. I don’t know anyone and I’m nervous. Can you come get me?” With another, it’s a little different: “Dammit, mom. Why do you never pick up? I need you. I’m at the party in the woods, but I’m feeling uncomfortable. I need you to come pick me up.”
And this is a very good thing. Choice-based narratives, where the plot proceeds down different tracks depending on (often binary) decisions explicitly presented to the player, are a cliche in video game design. They are usually accompanied by claims that the choice-based gameplay will make the experience more personal and immersive, but they often have the opposite effect, making the story feel thin and arbitrary. But Shattered Memories isn’t like that. The variations aren’t designed to make you feel like you are in control of the story. But they are designed to enhance your emotional reaction. Michelle Valdez is designed to be a character you instinctively like, whereas Dahlia is supposed to push your buttons, rub you the wrong way. The subtle changes to the dialogue are sometimes there to reinforce your preconceptions, and other times to confront you with things you’d rather not see or hear.
Those variations aren’t discrete forks in the road, either. They often blend together, pooling dozens of data points to create a totally personalized experience. You might sometimes get the sense that the system is misreading you—after all, it’s hard for the computer to know if you’re really interested in that football poster or just trying to make out the low-resolution text—but it somehow tends to work out in the end. Part of the magic is that you never feel quite in control of the experience—you might deliberately alter your responses to Dr. Kaufmann’s tests or your playstyle to try to force a specific variation, but Shattered Memories often has other plans. Some variations come up for me again and again, no matter how differently I think I’m playing, while others remain elusive.
“I’ve read your notes,” Dr. Kaufmann says at the start. “I want you to know that this will be different.” And it is different. When asked by Vice why he returned to indie gaming to develop Her Story, Barlow stated that it was in part due to publishers’ lack of interest in “kitchen sink” stories, working class dramas set in the modern day. “I was very excited to have the freedom to engage with material that takes place in a contemporary setting, where the characters aren’t superheroes,” Barlow recalls. “The stakes are personal and intimate. The details are ones that people will recognize from their own lives, from the lives of their families. I’m not saying every game has to be like this, but we do need more that are.”
Shattered Memories is a kitchen sink story. As Barlow acknowledges elsewhere in the interview, Silent Hill has always worked on a “personal, domestic scale” when you strip away its supernatural elements. But in other games, those supernatural elements have been significant, layer upon layer of symbolism mirroring, amplifying, but also obscuring the protagonists’ very real psychic struggles.
Shattered Memories is the first and only story in the franchise that makes no reference to cults or rituals—a significant departure from its source material, which barely talked about anything else. It’s been boiled down to its essence, the story of a father searching for his lost daughter, a real-life nightmare that anybody could recognize. In this version, Cheryl is Harry’s biological daughter. Alessa doesn’t exist; Dahlia is now Cheryl’s mother and Harry’s wife. The Balkan isn’t a church, it’s a night club; the Green Lion isn’t an antiques store fronting for a sinister cult, it’s the pawn shop below Dahlia’s apartment in what Harry describes as “not a great neighborhood.”
There’s still a lot of weirdness in a Lynchian vein. Harry returns to the address on his ID only to find another family already living there. Harry’s seven-year-old daughter shows up in the local high school’s student database; a photo of her at seventeen appears on the wall at the high school reunion. “What else did I forget?” Harry muses. He runs into Michelle, a twenty-something in a prom dress, who says “There was a Cheryl Mason when I was here. She was above me at school.” Michelle transforms into a teenaged Dahlia, who drowns in the lake and, hours later, sends Harry texts saying things like “Miss you Harry. Miss your touch, your kiss, your smell. XXX —Dahlia.” When Harry finally arrives at what he thinks is his house, he finds a middle-aged Dahlia there, stoned out of her mind. “Harry?” she asks in disbelief. Cop Cybil Bennett tells him she’s pulled his file. “You’ve been feeding me bullshit all night,” she says. “I know you’re not Harry Mason.”
And then there are the “hauntings,” objects and zones of static that send messages to Harry’s phone. These are mostly scenes of domestic drama, some of them profoundly uncomfortable, but none of them are “scary” in the traditional sense. And there are the moments when the environment becomes encased in ice and Harry is chased by mobs of faceless, featureless monsters called “Raw Shocks.” These are the only monsters that appear in this game, the only danger, and they can’t be fought in the traditional sense; Harry’s only option is to flee. As the game progresses, the Raw Shocks begin to evolve, taking on more distinctive traits to match the prevalent themes of the player’s psych profile. They hate the light, and they only show up when Harry is about to be confronted with the truth about something.
But these aren’t really monsters. At the end of the game, Dr. Kaufmann makes it plain: his patient’s skull is “teeming with agents of repression. Blind children clutching photos in the dark. Pale freaks, goggle-eyed from watching home movies on loop.” You might want to watch the full scene, below:
This is the big bombshell of Shattered Memories‘ ending, in which it’s revealed that Dr. Kaufmann’s patient, the one who’s recounting this story, isn’t Harry Mason at all. It’s Cheryl Heather Mason. This isn’t a story about a father in search of his missing daughter; it’s the story of a daughter in search of her missing father, a father who died in a car crash when she was too young to really understand who he was, who has only photographs and scraps of home movies to remember him by. Unable to accept his death, she’s created a fantasy in which her father is still searching for her, relentlessly, trapped in some nightmare but unflagging in his determination to reunite with Cheryl. This version of her father is a lot like her, because he isn’t real.
I judge all plot twists on one criterion: does knowing the truth improve or weaken the story? By this measure, Shattered Memories‘ twist is masterful. Knowing how it ends only raises the emotional stakes, and it contextualizes many details that might otherwise be brushed off as moments of arbitrary surrealism. The “hauntings,” it now becomes clear, primarily revisit moments from Cheryl’s own life, both before and after her father’s death. And it’s not a particularly happy life: she has a long arrest record, sleeps around, does drugs. Her character model is based on Silent Hill 3‘s Heather, including the deep bags under her eyes. They make perfect sense in this context.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories doesn’t feel much like a Silent Hill title. It’s not particularly good at being scary, though it is often unsettling on a deeper emotional level. It completely throws out the series’ trademark aesthetic, going instead with a look that feels at home on a Nintendo console. The visuals weren’t great even by 2009 standards. But it ranks among the series’ best. Hell, it’s one of the best video games, period, a milestone in interactive storytelling, a mature, nuanced story that outshines its gimmicks.
This is the last Silent Hill game I’ll be discussing, but we’re not done yet. Next time, we’ll take a look at another game series from Silent Hill creator Keiichiro Toyama, another game about a mysterious town outside of time, haunted by an air raid siren: Siren.
Your dad wasn’t a hero, wasn’t your knight in shining armor. He was a human being. You never knew him, and you never will. The dad walking around in your head isn’t even a ghost. He never existed. A Frankenstein’s monster, a child’s fantasy.