Silent Hill: Book of Memories reflects the industry's changing view of horror
Survival-horror is a misleading term these days. The genre emerged with the debut of Resident Evil, associating not just with horror, but also with the constant, exhausting struggle to stay alive. The commodities of other games, like ammunition and health, became sparse. Even the ability to save was restricted.
While Resident Evil is one of the biggest survival-horror series in history, running for more than 15 years, the Silent Hill franchise is a close contender. But something’s happening in the world of survival-horror, and it’s not pretty. Hollywood action — and co-op gameplay — is taking over, and while those can be welcome additions to other games, they’re a deadly mark on these ones.
Why? Survival-horror is one of the most popular niche genres around, and it’s transforming into a new breed of monster. I don’t like it.
Gamers are perhaps most familiar with this phenomenon through the transgressions of Capcom’s recent Resident Evil games, but what about Konami and Silent Hill? The publisher has made some grievous mistakes lately, pushing the Silent Hill HD Collection out the door in spring well before it was ready. That kind of treatment tells fans that the games they loved, the games that are considered classics — like Silent Hill 2 — are no longer important. They’re not worth the time and energy to do right.
What started as a private glimpse into one person’s nightmare has become a collective: a shared experience that you can change, redeeming yourself or others. In some ways, Shattered Memories was the first sign of this deviation in the Silent Hill series. The game took (spoiler!) Harry Mason’s daughter Cheryl and cured her, allowing her to better understand her father and forgive him for leaving her behind.
But that wasn’t always possible in the Silent Hill universe. James Sunderland, the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, couldn’t hide from his crimes. The town exposed him for what he really was: a murderer, escaping punishment for his sins.
Even Harry Mason, who was innocent in the first game (his daughter is what brought him to Silent Hill), suffered the town’s wrath eventually. He made it out alive in the first game but died in the third.
And in Silent Hill 4: The Room, Henry Townshend was pulled into a violent ritual against his will. You stop serial killer Walter Sullivan at the end of the game, but not before people die and you witness horrors, trapped in your own apartment and forced to explore evil dimensions.
Homecoming, an underrated entry in the series, doesn’t let its main character escape fate so easily, either. It’s the same with Downpour. Silent Hill: Book of Memories offers a much different option: to rewrite the past the way you want it, even letting you choose your own identity.
The presence of multiplayer — in a survival-horror series that used to pride itself on a personal experience of loneliness and fear — is also more prominent in Book of Memories. The game borrows the overhead shooter style of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which released in fall of 2010, less than a year before Konami announced Book of Memories (in June 2011). But where Guardian of Light refreshed the Tomb Raider series, guiding it toward a better future while keeping it grounded in its iconic past, Book of Memories completely shrugs off what makes Silent Hill so influential.
Although the idea of partnering up with someone else was included briefly in previous games, like The Room and later Homecoming, it wasn’t pushed to the forefront. Homecoming put you in the center of a crumbling community, albeit a somewhat united one. The Room, however, made you feel alone (unable to contact the world outside, including your neighbors) but also completely suffocated — at the mercy of forces beyond your control.
Homecoming, too, introduced more action to the series. Gone was the helplessness and unpredictability of the combat experience that helped make survival-horror so frightening. (Often, it’s easier to run away than fight creatures head-on.) Now, thanks to the main character’s army background, players were encouraged to face enemies one-on-one until none were left alive. The power was in their hands, not the monsters’.
The new style of Silent Hill is one where others join you, where you fight back on equal ground, and where you can redeem yourself — not the solitary struggle and doom of yesteryear. Resident Evil is also going in this direction, and together they’re leading survival-horror down a different path. Survivors are now soldiers, ready for action and whatever evil throws their way.
But the genre isn’t disappearing completely. While the big names are transitioning into action-horror, the PC space has recently welcomed games that still follow the old style. Titles like Amnesia and Slender pop immediately to mind, and both are excellent games. But not all is lost for console gamers: Other indie hits, like Deadly Premonition for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next year, offer hope. The traditional survival-horror genre is still hanging on, but we might need to look to independent developers from now on instead of the bigger companies that once defined it.
Follow @wita on Twitter.