The Silent Hill series has long been one of gaming's horror greats, often bringing a subtle and mature approach to the genre thanks to its deep characterisation and mature themes. With Konami finally returning to the franchise after an extended hiatus, it's a good time to reflect on the past successes and curiosities of the series – and they don't come any more curious than Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, released on Nintendo Wii at the tail end of 2009. Although the franchise rarely flirted with Nintendo platforms (the only other offering being the obscure Japanese GBA title Silent Hill: Play Novel), Silent Hill: Shattered Memories delivers one of the finest horror games, and narratives, ever seen on the console.
"This started as a Wii project because we were really psyched by that tech, by the platform... the way it had disrupted the marketplace"
Developed by Climax UK – which had previous experience developing Silent Hill: Origins – Shattered Memories presented a reimagining of the original PlayStation game, offering a fresh take on protagonist Harry Mason's search for his missing daughter Cheryl. In the process, it shook up the series formula by introducing a wintery version of the town, doing away with weaponry, creating new uses for the Wii hardware and introducing a psychological analysis system that altered the game's environment, characters and narrative.
Whilst the game also saw release on PS2 and PSP, it was primarily designed for Wii. Lead Writer and Designer Sam Barlow – who has since found further fame with Her Story, Telling Lies and Immortality – explains how Nintendo's console revolution provided inspiration for the team at Climax UK. "This started as a Wii project because we were really psyched by that tech, by the platform," he recalls. "And, on top of that, the way it had disrupted the marketplace and brought in, or at least put the games in front of, a new audience."
But the path to realising the team's vision was a long one, with several different concepts created along the way. "There were a few pitches back and forth with Konami for Wii and PSP," Barlow tells us. Among these were Brahms P.D., a Silent Hill spin-off located in the titular neighbouring town, and Silent Hill: Cold Heart, which featured a new protagonist called Jessica Chambers. But even with these pitches left on the shelf, Barlow explains the links between them and how they culminated in Shattered Memories. "They all shared connective DNA – the psychology, some of the uses of the Wiimote, our technical ambitions for a seamless world and a stripped-back approach that came from my love of the immersive sims of my youth."
"I don't like messing directly with characters someone else has created – it feels disingenuous"
Thanks to previously approved ideas, Climax UK was given the opportunity to explore a lot of its early concepts. "If I remember correctly, at some point, we got asked to try making this a reboot of Silent Hill 1 – as this was an idea that had already been greenlit," Barlow reveals, explaining how Climax's previous work fitted into a new vision. "This was a pretty exciting idea as the stories we had been working on were very tied up in ideas of unreliable memory, nostalgia, and so on. Using Silent Hill 1 as a springboard seemed like a great way to do something fresh with those ideas."
Naturally, there was scepticism surrounding a re-imagining with the old characters, especially with a fanbase that often theorizes and debates the lore and history of the franchise. But Barlow and the team knew there was a way to explore this route respectfully. "It felt like there was a way to reconcile the two titles with something a little meta, but in a way where we weren't stepping on the toes of those original games," he says. "This is something we had to do with Silent Hill: Origins, but it felt icky. I don't like messing directly with characters someone else has created – it feels disingenuous."
During this process of rewriting and creating, the team was allowed a surprising amount of creative autonomy. "Konami were on board with everything we suggested," Barlow explains. "I think the only stipulation was that we had to have at least one Cybil that reflected the look popularized in the first game and in the movie." Barlow notes that new creations were a bit harder to sell. "The addition of Michelle to the core cast was something we had to push a little, but it was easy to make the case that we needed this character to flesh out the story we wanted to tell and that it also made sense to have at least one character that would feel like something entirely new."
"Working in the Silent Hill world was a godsend, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tackle these themes in a Triple-A video game"
And when it came to new elements, the approach towards narrative themes was bold and innovative. Although Silent Hill had its fair share of grand psychological terrors, Shattered Memories explored everyday fears, investigating subjects like mental illness and the anguish of loss in more relatable ways.
"I think these are the kinds of themes that appeal to me," Barlow reveals. "I always have to connect things back to the human experience, to stories that emerge out of the world we live in. I'm particularly interested in the ways our own subjective view of the world can be twisted and used to skew things. Those are the types of stories that I'm naturally drawn to. Working in the Silent Hill world was a godsend, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tackle these themes in a Triple-A video game. I can't think of a single other franchise that would enable that."
This fresh perspective spread its way throughout almost every aspect of design, with several shake-ups to traditional horror games put in place. One of the most notable was the underlying psychology system. This manifested itself in two ways: the first being therapy sessions with Dr. Kaufman, a psychiatrist the player sees intermittently as they follow Harry's journey. Barlow explains the philosophy behind these sections. "It allowed us to sometimes 'play against' the player, rather than just validate their choices. Ultimately, it tallied with the story we wanted to tell because it was important that the player feel a connection to Harry, as something that reflected them, something they'd created." One example of this was asking the player whether they had cheated on a partner, resulting in characters with altered behaviour or different clothing as a result of this player choice.
But the game also collected other information to alter the course of the game. Shattered Memories made note of players' more subtle actions in-game, keeping track of what they focused on in the environment. "I've always been interested in using implicit, behind-the-scenes ways to track players, rather than the more obvious kind of 'morality systems' in most games," says Barlow. These actions could be as simple as focusing on nude calendars, or where you look when talking to other characters.
"I think we could have done some subtle but fun things with those aspects integrated – just additional ways to get under the player's skin"
Barlow reveals that Climax intended to go further with these aspects and widen the uncanny valley by including the usage of players' Mii data, as well as using weather reports from the Wii Weather channel to recreate the local forecast in a player's game. Of course, his explanation for why these were left out is age-old. "Time and money!" he laughs. "I think we could have done some subtle but fun things with those aspects integrated – just additional ways to get under the player's skin! Especially with the Mii data – that could have been really freaky."
Even without these additions, Climax took advantage of the Wii's hardware in impressive ways. Although simple actions like controlling Harry's torch and moving the Wiimote to transfer items during puzzle-solving were well-tweaked, the golden touches came from Harry's phone. One function was uncovering fragments of narrative related to Harry, or from stories of unknown people in specific locations. This played out by using the phone's camera to find ghostly images known as "Echo photos", as well as receive calls and voice messages from characters using the Wiimote's speaker. Hearing someone's call of distress as you held the Wiimote to your ear certainly brought a new level of emotion to the proceedings.
This fragmented approach to storytelling came from Barlow's own influences, namely the book The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard. "This is one of the books that I always go back to," he comments. "There's a texture to it, the way that you can experience it through the connected symbols and imagery, the sense of many fragmented pieces that come together if you look at them in the right way, like a Magic Eye picture."
"It was clear that the core component of most horror is running away, fleeing – being chased by unrelenting, powerful and faceless terrors"
Along with these approaches of intertwining narrative, gameplay and hardware, Climax shook up the series in another large way: by eliminating combat. Although early horror games like 3D Monster Maze took this approach, they were few and far between. Until recently, horror games usually had some form of combat system involved. Barlow explains how the team came to this conclusion for exclusion. "We asked what the core action component of a horror game should be if you disregarded the baggage of the genre. We looked at movies, books and so on, and it was clear that the core component of most horror is running away, fleeing – being chased by unrelenting, powerful and faceless terrors. The fact that most horror games at that time were built on the DNA of the zombie movie – headshots, shotguns, lead pipes, gore and lots of carnage – felt like a problem to us. It didn't fit the genre of psychological horror. So we tried to fix that."
This approach was concentrated in the team's icy vision of the Otherworld, where the game's environment would suddenly transition at specific moments in real-time, resulting in gargantuan shards of ice rising from the ground, blocking off paths of escape – leaving the player open to Raw Shocks, enemies which chase the player until they find an exit. They can be fended off with flares and by the player knocking over obstacles. If they catch the player, they must be thrown off with motion control gestures. Unfortunately, it's at this point the motion controls falter, and these sections are the only times where the player is in a form of physical danger.
But regardless of the drawbacks, the ideas behind these sections were ahead of the curve, as these would become trends in horror games with the rise of the indies soon afterwards. "It's great to now look around and see that actually the majority of horror games work like this," says Barlow. "The genre has expanded and now contains these more pure horror experiences."
"I think Shattered Memories ended up being everything we wanted from Cold Heart and more, although it would have been nice to put out a title with an overt woman lead"
Moving from admiration for the current horror scene, Barlow reflects on the need for horror games to keep experimenting. "The horror genre is one that has suffered in the past from becoming too stagnant and fixated on specific mechanics. As the ultimate 'underground' genre, horror games should strive to push the envelope and experiment – it's what the audience expects!" And on this topic, Barlow comments on the promise shown by the cancelled Silent Hills. "The most recent stab at Silent Hill, Kojima's P.T., is a great case in point – I loved that it built on the surreal, domestic interiors in a way that went beyond what we were able to do in the 'nowhere' sequence in Shattered Memories, but worked with the way that a demo like that can be dropped onto the store and create a real social buzz and mystery around it."
Even though newer games have built on the genre further, Barlow is proud of what Climax accomplished with their second Silent Hill outing. "I think Shattered Memories ended up being everything we wanted from Cold Heart and more, although it would have been nice to put out a title with an overt woman lead." As a parting shot, Barlow outlines the importance of narrative not just in horror, but in games as a whole. "I think this is essential to the future of the genre – we need to keep evolving and finding better and more interesting ways to tell our stories."
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories remains a unique title in the series. And despite its odd niggles with motion controls during chase scenes, and the lack of enemy variety and moments of danger, it contains one of the most well-woven narratives you'll find on Nintendo's little money printer, with every ending to the story requiring a jumbo box of tissues. If you haven't visited Silent Hill, it's time you booked a trip you'll never forget.