As you may know from reading my top picks from last year, I found the game to be one of the most emotional and beautiful games I’ve played in a while. I even went so far as to say that the “game…understands the series and videogames as a medium so well that it alienated nearly the entire Silent Hill fan community.” I was not being hyperbolic. I meant every word I said.
So let’s talk about that reaction. Climax’s previous Silent Hill game–Origins–was very Silent Hill By The Numbers and is widely considered one of the least interesting titles in the series for that very reason. Shattered Memories, on the other hand, throws out nearly everything that makes Silent Hill be Silent Hill, and that led to an appropriately chilly reception. Rather than being a case of a developer latching onto a series to boost sales no matter how inappropriate the idea is (The Room, anyone?), I believe that the alterations and changes were not made lightly. Climax had the opportunity to give us Another Silent Hill game that would be everything we expected and would sell well, but it decided to brave internet flames to give us an example of a videogame that does something different. I would like to take some time to briefly (for me, at least) discuss how Shattered Memories uses its Silent Hill-ness in order to futher its themes.
There will be spoilers.
I tend to get fairly idiosyncratic interpretations of games, so take anything I say with a grain of salt, but I actually think the Silent Hill brand is pretty necessary to the game. Thematically, the game is about the process of therapy as a method of uncovering past trauma in order to finally deal with it properly. Cheryl’s character has some preconceived notions about how the past was, how the people in her life acted and how they treated her. As is the case with many of us, she dealt with this trauma at too young of an age to make a rational, empowered decision and it’s caused some major psychological issues. She has this notion of who her father is, who her mother is, why she feels abandoned, etc. Dr. Kaufmann’s goal is to force her to break through her prejudices and see her parents for who they “really” are–flawed and human. To realize that, for example, the divorce wasn’t something done *to* her, but the result of two people who simply made some mistakes.
Without playing the games, without having lived with these characters for 10 years, one can certainly understand and appreciate the story–it’s extremely well-written, I feel, and the emotional resonances of the story do still exist. That’s part of why the game needs the variable dimension–if the questions are answered honestly, it’ll confront you with things that you may feel guilty or ashamed about.
But if you’re a Silent Hill fan, the personal resonances become deeper, because you *have* lived with a picture of Harry for 10 years. The first time you saw him, in SH1, he’s a devoted father willing to go through hell to find his daughter. Dhalia is a manipulative woman in league with the demons and willing to inflict abuse and neglect upon her daughter. Shattered Memories’ Harry is not the Harry we have come to know and love. Mine was a drunk. Yours may have been promiscuous. Either way, there’s supposed to be a feeling of wrong. Did you pay attention to the backlash over the new character design? People criticized the fact that, this time, Harry wears glasses. Ruined forever.
You are, through the entire game, supposed to be telling yourself: That’s not Harry. That’s not Dhalia. That’s not Cybil. They changed these characters. They changed them into something completely different and that is not how these characters are and why did they change my favorite characters and why didn’t they just use new characters if they’re going to shit all over them?
For Cheryl, Dr. Kaufmann is doing the psychoanalytic equivalent of shitting over her family.
As far as my limited understanding of therapy goes, there are two related concepts at work here–repression and resistance. Both are pretty easy to understand and you may already know them. Repression is when a traumatic experience or a desire proves so difficult to deal with that you banish all traces of it from conscious thought. This rarely goes well. The trauma will appear elsewhere. I don’t believe it to be so straightforward as Freud’s conception of repression–few people do anymore–but pretty much everyone agrees that if you go through some tough times before you’re ready to deal with them, and you’re expected to deal with them on your own, you’re going to have a bit of an interesting worldview.
But the problem is this: It’s YOUR worldview, dammit, and though you may be miserable and crazy, you’re damned if you want it changed or taken away from you. And that’s where you get into resistance. You may not like the way you think and feel and act, and you may be going through therapy to change those things, but no one said it was going to be easy. No matter how comfortable you feel with your therapist, no matter how open a person you may be, no matter how much you desire to change or receptive you may be, there are going to be times where you’re going to want to fight your therapist or spend the full hour saying nothing and staring at the window.
Very little of the action in Shattered Memories actually happens. What we are seeing is a literalization of resistance. The Raw Shocks are the most obvious manifestation of this. Any time a character is about to reveal a truth about the situation, any time Cheryl is about to have a breakthrough, the world freezes and a bunch of monsters chase. When you get caught, the monsters appear to caress Harry. A lot has been speculated about this, often in Electra-complex terms–there’s definitely some strong overtones of this throughout the game. There’s other theories that the creatures are offering simple comfort. Whatever your interpretation, it’s undeniable that the creatures aren’t trying to kill Harry–they’re just detaining him indefinitely. The creatures are agents of repression. They appear to protect Cheryl from the truth. More importantly, they prevent the player from continuing.
Let’s never forget this: Shattered Memories was pitched at tailoring itself to the player from the beginnig. The very first thing you see is a warning screen which, rather than the normal survival horror intro letting you know that the game you just paid $50 for contains violent images and you should shut it off forever if you don’t want to see blood, alerts you to the psychological profiling. “This game plays you as much as you play it.” It shows its hand: If you don’t want to be manipulated, don’t play it.
In the original Silent Hill, Harry braves hell in order to find his daughter, with no thoughts towards his own safety. Dhalia manipulates him, prevents him from finding Cheryl, is ultimately responsible for all the horror. Dr. Kaufmann abuses his position in order to grow his power, callously using everyone around him without any care for their feelings. Cheryl is a sweet little girl who’s been wronged, who is scared, and who can’t take care of herself–who needs her daddy to take care of her. Those are the preconceptions the player takes in with him or her. Take out the supernatural elements and view the characters as archetypes. Harry is separated from his daughter and, even in death, longs to be with her. Dhalia drove Harry to a ruin which ultimately led to his death and Cheryl’s unstable mental state. Dr. Kaufmann is a sadistic, angry, often frightening man who yells at and berates his patients. Cheryl herself is having a difficult time making her way through the world and anxiously awaits the return of the one person who can make her whole. Those are the preconceptions that Cheryl brings to therapy.
Shattered Memories plays you as much as you play it. It manipulates you. That backlash you feel? The feeling that this Harry isn’t the real Harry, that that’s not who Dhalia is–that’s resistance.
You’ve got your ideas about how Silent Hill works, the game is challenging you, and you’re fighting back. I don’t even think that the “real” Dr. Kaufmann is as angry as he appears in the game. I think he’s just a stubborn therapist who knows that the best thing for his patient is to force her to confront what she does not want to, and she sees him as a raving lunatic.
We’ve all seen player/character identification before: The example I always give is when Mario falls down a pit, the player simply says, “I died.” We’ve all seen games which directly involve or address the player–the final battle of Earthbound, for examples. We’ve even seen games which give the player the same exact experience as the character–the .hack// series is one. Shattered Memories, in my interpretation, does all of those things. It places its psychology scenes in first-person not only to delay the reveal, but because the game desires to analyze you. Because you are the one answering the therapist’s questions, you are, effectively, taking on the role of Cheryl.
Shattered Memories not only uses videogames as a medium for telling its story, it uses the Silent Hill franchise as part of its palette. Most of the complaints had to do with the fact that it’s widely perceived that the game simply uses the franchise/characters in order to boost sales of an unrelated game; it would have had a better reception if it had used all new characters to tell its story. But that’s clearly not the case. The game is quite literally about the inability to see people you believe you know in a different light, from a different angle. Our unwillingness to do so mimics the characters’ inability. We need to have preconceptions of these characters; we quite simply need to have some baggage. Giving this storyline to completely original characters would not have made it nearly as effective; the player would have been more of an observer than an active participant. The fact is, the only way the game could have furthered its themes more intensely would be if the game had been from the perspective of Princess Peach, thinking about Mario’s journey to save her.
2. I may have a Lit degree, but I have more credentials about talking about psychology than Cooper Lawrence does about videogames, and she even got on TV and everything. A large component of that lit degree was spent on psychoanalytic criticism, so I’ve got some Lacan and Jung and other writers under my belt. Meanwhile, I’m in therapy myself; my therapist is aware of my interests and will often discuss the underlying concepts of what’s going on in our sessions with me. I may not know enough to write a paper for an academic journal, but I’m not working from entirely false information here. And that’s why our side is better than the moral guardians’.
3. My friend Rai pointed out that Silent Hill 3′s main theme, “You’re Not Here”, always felt a little too sexual for the game’s plot. The song is intended to be sung by Heather/Cheryl–there’s a video which i believe is official depicting her singing it. The most important character to her is her father, who is definitely a source of strength for her, and it’s natural for her to miss him, but the lyrics are clearly addressed to a lost lover. In light of Shattered Memories’ plot, the song takes on a completely different meaning.