Stranger Things

After P.T. took the PlayStation Network by storm two years ago (geez, has it already been that long?), I set up my Google news feed with a subcategory specifically for Silent Hill news. I wanted to keep up with the progress of the game, since it looked like the most promising project the series had seen in a decade. After the traumatic cancellation of Silent Hills, that news feed has been mostly populated with articles mourning the loss, or with conspiracy theories about the game's return. Lately, however, a new story has been repeatedly populating that news feed: reviews and interpretations of the Netflix original series "Stranger Things".

With the internet's insistence that Stranger Things is "the show that Silent Hill fans have been waiting for", and some recommendations from co-workers and friends, I decided to give Netflix's new horror thriller a chance. So while House of Cards and Daredevil still sit unwatched in my Netflix queue, my girlfriend and I powered through all eight episodes of Stranger Things within a week.

Stranger Things reminded me a lot less of Silent Hill, and a lot more of Twin Peaks and E.T., but I loved the series nonetheless. I found myself amazed by just how much the show looks and feels like something from the late eighties or early nineties, and by how well it manages to capture a sense of nostalgia for its sources of inspiration without having to license them outright. Hollywood could learn a thing or two from this show. The insistence on reviving franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, The X-Files, etc., is starting to wear very thin. At best, these films feel like high-budget fan fiction. At worst, they feel like cynical attempts to play off of nostalgia for a quick cash-grab. Very rarely do they feel like genuinely inspired works of creative art. This reliance on adaptation instead of inspiration has created a dearth of creativity that in many cases has tarnished once-venerable intellectual properties.

Stranger Things - the Upside Down
The internet claims that Stranger Things is "the Silent Hill show that fans have been waiting for".

Stranger Things doesn't stoop so low. It wears its influences proudly on its sleeves, but it also remains, thankfully, it's own entity. It never feels derivative; it never feels stale; and it never feels creatively bankrupt. It's not exactly original (as it blatantly incorporates elements of its inspirations into its plots and characters), but it also manages to occasionally surprise with its clever subversions of genre tropes. It never feels like the shallow fan service that I've gotten so used to seeing from Hollywood blockbusters, and (most importantly) I could enjoy it without the baggage of expectations from a recognized namesake.

Much of this is due to the characters and performances, all of which are great...

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Silent Hills just won't seem to die. Shortly after the game was canceled by Konami, petitions started popping up demanding that it be re-instated. Then came the debacle of the Metal Gear Solid V release, which seemed blatantly incomplete and/or half-assed. Then Kojima officially left Konami, Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the cancelation of Silent Hills "breaks his greasy heart", and it all seemed done and buried.

Or was it?

Andrew House (Group CEO of Sony Interactive) announces a partnership with Hideo Kojima.

Within a week of the official announcement that Kojima had left Konami, he was reported to have already set up his own independent Kojima Productions studio, and that he had already partnered with Sony to develop an un-named PS4 exclusive. Geez, that was quick. Kojima has always had a good relationship with Sony. The Metal Gear Solid games were originally PlayStation exclusives, and were definite showcases for those Sony platforms. I mean, when you think of the original PlayStation, what are the first few games that come to mind? Probably Final Fantasy VII. Tomb Raider? Maybe Resident Evil? And definitely Metal Gear Solid. Even when Kojima was initially rumored to be leaving Konami, I had speculated that Sony might make a move to hire him. Contracting him to act as a second-party developer of exclusive content is just as good. I had also speculated at the time that there were three possibilities for Silent Hills to see the light of day:

  1. Konami could hire Kojima's independent studio to continue development of Silent Hills. This seemed unlikely considering the rocky conclusion to Kojima's employment.
  2. Kojima could buy the IP rights to Silent Hill (and maybe Metal Gear). This also seemed unlikely considering that both franchises are cash-cows for Konami.
  3. Lastly, there was the possibility that Kojima Productions could continue the development of what would have been Silent Hills, but without the "Silent Hill" title. Same game; different name.

The partnership with Sony opens up a fourth possibility: Sony could buy or lease the licensing rights to Silent Hill and then contract out development to Kojima Productions. This is the only way that the game could possibly see the light of day and still maintain the "Silent Hill" name. Konami has already expressed its disinterest in continued first-party console game development. It's just too expensive, and the company wants to focus more on its gambling business and mobile games. If Konami wants to continue to see revenue from those IPs, then they are stuck either making smaller in-house games (such as mobile games, pachinko machines, or browser-based games); or they would have to license out the IP to third-party developers. Sony certainly has the buying-power that Kojima, by himself, doesn't have, and could certainly afford to buy those rights, if they so desire.

A trailer for Konami's next Silent Hill game. Not exactly what fans were hoping for...
Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus

However, Silent Hill fans probably shouldn't get their hopes up for a triumphant return of their tarnished, yet beloved, franchise. In the video announcing the partnership with Sony, Kojima says that he is "thrilled to embark on creating a new franchise with PlayStation". So this project does not appear to be Silent Hills. At least, not in title...

Kojima is rumored to be collaborating once again with Guillermo Del Toro, which opens up the possibility that the two are going to work on realizing the plans that they had for Silent Hills. During a keynote address at DICE, Kojima and Del Toro stated that they would like to continue to work together. Del Toro even went as far as saying that he would "do whatever the fuck Kojima asks him to". He even made an off-hand comment about famed Japanese horror illustrator Junji Ito. I don't know much bout Junji Ito, but his work is apparently a pretty big deal, and he's also been seen with Kojima. Kojima and Norman Reedus have even been seen together, and it's been rumored that Reedus will be working with Kojima again. All the pieces seem to be fitting into place...

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Silent Hill 4: the Room

While I was playing through recent horror titles like The Evil Within, I noticed some interesting similarities with Silent Hill 4 that started to give me a new appreciation for some of this game's stronger aspects. In addition, while doing research for my Silent Hill timeline, I had to go back and play through Silent Hill 4: the Room again. I had only played through the game twice before, so I had to replay it in order to figure out how the timeline would work out. And while I was playing the game, I figured that I might as well go ahead and review it. At the time, it seemed like a novel idea to do a retro review of a Silent Hill game that wasn't Silent Hill 2, but lately, I've been seeing a lot of retro-reviews of The Room popping up other places. I haven't done any retro reviews yet; probably the closest thing has been my review of Demon's Souls. But in light of how unsuccessful the later Silent Hill games have been, the unfortunate cancellation of Silent Hills, and the uncertain future of the franchise, it's a good time to go back to look at what worked and what didn't about the previous games, and explore the question of whether we even want the franchise to continue.

The Room has the reputation of being the "bad" black sheep of the original Silent Hill tetralogy. I always thought that this reputation was unfortunate, and that the game wasn't quite as bad as people made it seem. I actually liked it better than Silent Hill 3 up until I was able to track down a copy of the first game and play through it (at which point, Silent Hill 3 suddenly made a whole lot more sense). The release of future games by third party developers has only made The Room look better in retrospect.

An experimental formula

The game itself is a bit rough around the edges. It deviates significantly from the controls and mechanics established by the previous games in the franchise, and these changes are very hit-or-miss. This might be due, in part, to the possibility that The Room started out as an independent side project that was developed concurrently with Silent Hill 3, and that was eventually redesigned to work as a Silent Hill game in order to be more commercially viable. Whether or not that's true is still a hot issue of debate among the fanbase, but it's obvious to everybody that The Room plays a lot differently from previous titles.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - combat
Movement and combat controls are radically changed from previous games in the series.

The most immediately obvious deviation is in movement and camera controls. The semi-first-person "tank" controls have been completely abandoned in favor of direct directional inputs, and the camera is significantly more limited than it has been in previous games. You can't snap the camera behind the character by holding the "look" button as you could do in previous games. Almost all camera angles are pre-set angles, and the player can usually only toggle between two possible camera angles in any given area.

This results in some very clumsy navigation of the environment, and it's very easy for the character to get turned around when camera angles flip. Most of the time, a camera change will go without a hitch, but there are a few frames in the game that consistently result in erratic and unpredictable movement. It happens most often when a camera change occurs concurrently with a change in direction of the character (to navigate around a corner or an obstacle). If the player's timing for changing the character's movement direction is not perfectly-timed, then the character ends up turning around, which can result in getting stuck in a loop between the two camera angles. This is the very reason that I prefer the tank controls. They may be a bit cumbersome, but at least they're consistent and always relative to a single frame of reference (the character's position in the world), rather than to an unpredictable camera.

The second major change is to combat. The game was designed to have a greater emphasis on melee combat, complete with new target-locking controls, a variety of breakable melee weapons, very limited ammunition for guns, and an on-screen meter for charging power attacks. The new movement controls do make it a bit easier to maneuver around enemies (especially multiple enemies), but only if you're in an open space and the camera angle doesn't go all wonky on you. The mechanics are serviceable, and I don't think they're as bad as some critics insist.

The designers were probably trying to mimic
the horror trope of fumbling for keys.

Inventory management is where things really start to get bad. Henry isn't a walking closet like the previous games' protagonists, and he has only a limited number of inventory slots. This is probably partly the result of the inventory being accessed in real-time by the directional buttons (which also might have played a role in the changes to the movement control scheme being entirely based up on the analog stick), in a desire to create a sense of frantically searching your pockets for a weapon or item while under pressure. It also adds more relevance to the Room 302 hub (another dramatic departure from previous games) by forcing you to go back to restock on supplies or swap out puzzle items.

But it's hindered by a lot of little mistakes. Identical items do not stack. Every individual health drink, med kit, and box of bullets takes up its own entire inventory slot. Bringing a melee weapon, a firearm, a single box of spare ammo, and a healing item or two easily takes up half your inventory. That's fine, until you start collecting more ammo and healing items in the world, and you quickly run out of space. And the game doesn't give you any way to drop an item from your inventory. So if you find a desperately-needed med kit, but your inventory is full of useless golf clubs and puzzle items, you have to travel all the way back to the last portal to the safe room, or risk pushing on ahead and hoping nothing kills you. This can result in a lot of backtracking to Room 302 and really slows down the pace of the game. The fact that many melee weapons can break means that I also never bother to use those weapons. The default steel pipe that you get early in the game never breaks, rendering the numerous golf clubs, wine bottles, and other such breakable weapons moot. I would recommend not even picking them up. And once I get the hand axe (which also never breaks), then the pipe gets retired into my item box also.

Other mechanical changes, such as the first-person segments in Room 302, the lack of a flashlight or radio, and so on fall more into the category of "different" for me, without necessarily being better or worse. The lack of a flashlight does mean that darkness doesn't play a role in the game at all, and your view of the environment is rarely restricted. So this game doesn't have the "what the heck is that?" factor that the previous games (particularly 1 and 3) nailed so well. The removal of the radio also makes sense (to me) as having emerged from the real-time inventory and focus on melee combat. Warning the player about incoming enemies (the radio's primary function in past games) would only lessen the "fumbling for your keys (or weapon)" sense that the inventory system was trying to evoke.

Silent Hill 4: the Room - nightmare stairwell
Henry must dive into the nightmare of a serial killer.

While I wouldn't want a Silent Hill game to be played entirely in first person, I do think that the first person perspective in Room 302 actually does add something to the game...

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In the comments of a recent post about Silent Hill 2's Otherworld, I had a discussion with a reader about the time period in which the Silent Hill games take place. This is actually an interesting and difficult topic, so I thought that I would dedicate a post specifically to it.

First and foremost, let's remind ourselves of when the games were released:

Game titleOriginal release
Silent Hill coverSilent HillJanuary 1999
Silent Hill 2 coverSilent Hill 2September 2001
Silent Hill 3 coverSilent Hill 3May 2003
Silent Hill 4 coverSilent Hill 4: the RoomSeptember 2004

Contemporary fiction

It is very important to note that no specific dates ever appear in any of the Silent Hill games that were developed by Konami's internal Team Silent studio. If dates are provided, they are either only the month and day (and not the year), or they are time periods relative to the events of the game (such as referring to the "events of 17 years ago" in Silent Hill 3), or it is just the year of an historical event in the past (such as the document about the sinking of the Little Baroness). Even documents that you would expect to have dates (such as newspapers, journals, diaries, patient reports, and police records) are intentionally left dateless (or at least ambiguous).

In Silent Hill 2, there is a point in which James finds newspapers scattered around a hallway. Upon examining the floor or walls, James comments that the newspapers have today's date. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the developers to provide a specific date for the game, if they wanted to. They could have had James read the date on the paper to the player, or the paper itself (with its date) could have been made clearly visible. The developers didn't do this; they left it completely ambiguous.

Silent Hill 2 - labyrinth newspapers
James notes that these newspapers have today's date, but doesn't tell us what the date is.

The developers went out of their way to not provide any specific dates for the games. Why would they do this? Typically, works of fiction that are not set in particular time period are written to be contemporary. Unless otherwise specified, most works of fiction should be assumed to take place now with respect to the consumption of the work by its audience, regardless of when "now" happens to be. if it's not contemporary to consumption, then it's usually contemporary to creation. This is usually pretty obvious if the work contains detailed descriptions of locations, technologies, and events that can be easily dated.

If we look at the original Silent Hill game in a vacuum, then the game provides no internal indication that it takes place at any specific time period. Players in 1999 probably had no reason to believe that the game took place in any year other than 1999. The same is true for Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4: if looked at in a vacuum, they can all be considered to take place in the same year that they were released. And if you didn't even know the year that the game was released, there's very little within the games to indicate that they take place at any time other than now.

However, this assumption falls apart because there is an absolute time difference of seventeen years between the events of the first game and the events of the third game, even though the difference in time between releases of the games was only four years. So we can't assume that each game takes place in the year of its release. At least one game has to be shifted on the timeline. So which game (or games) should be assumed to have taken place at which times?

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I frequently hear people bring up the infamous Fukuro video as a counter to my essay on why Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head isn't a rapist. I haven't addressed this issue in the past because I actually don't know that much about the video or its creation. But I thought I would take a moment to address this issue. First off, let's watch the video in question (warning: contains disturbing content that may not be suitable for sensitive viewers).

This video was made by a small group of Team Silent members, most notably, Masahiro Ito and Akira Yamaoka, and it was included in a documentary DVD titled The Art of Silent Hill. There isn't really much information about this video on the internet other than speculation. As far as I know, Ito and Yamaoka have never made any public statements regarding its relevance to the canon of the games. When asked about the symbolism of the video on Twitter, Ito responded that it abstractly represented the womb.

Does an abstract representation of the womb have any relevance to Silent Hill 2? Not at all. It does, however, have strong ties to Silent Hill 3. In fact, the Fukuro girl character does make a brief appearance in Silent Hill 3! Perhaps Team Silent already had basic designs and outlines in place for Silent Hill 3 when they started work on Silent Hill 2, and the Fukuro video incorporated elements of both?

Fukuro's wiki page asserts that she was a scrapped monster from Silent Hill 2, however no citation is included for this claim, so I can't verify it. The wiki page goes on [without citation] to claim that Fukuro might have been another representation of James' subconscious (along with Pyramid Head). If that is true, then she may have been scrapped because the nurses and / or Maria may have made Fukuro's role superfluous and unnecessary.

Silent Hill 3 - Fukuro Lady
the Fukuro Lady appears briefly in an elevator scene in Silent Hill 3.

In any case, if Fukuro had been planned to be a monster symbolic of Jame's repressed sexual frustration, then it seems even less likely that Pyramid Head would also have represented the same element of Jame's subconscious! Pyramid Head and Fukuro's interactions in the Fukuro video could be symbolic of James' sexual desires being a source of guilt for which he wants punishment. In that case, guilt and sexual repression are still separate conditions represented by different manifested creatures that reinforce each other.

Fukuro's necessity in Silent Hill 2 was rendered moot by both Maria and the design of the nurses. It is possible that at some point during the game's design, Pyramid Head's role was intended to be different, and to be more representative of Jame's sexual urges. This could explain the creatures' visual design and the early cutscenes of him "raping" monsters. But as the game's development proceeded, Fukuro was dropped, Maria and nurses were added, and Pyramid Head's role became more explicitly representative of James' guilt and need for self-punishment as a result of Mary's death.

The bottom line is that the Fukuro video and Fukuro character are not in the actual game. At least not in Silent Hill 2. Masahiro Ito may very well believe that Pyramid Head is a sexually-symbolic monster, and he may very well have designed the creature with its Freudian aesthetic with that assumption in place. But for whatever reason, the scenario-writers decided not to pursue that avenue for the remainder of the game. Any lingering sexual symbolism for Pyramid Head is dropped within a couple hours of starting the game, and his role as a punisher is explicitly stated at the end of the game. At best, sexual aggression is a minor, implicit element of Pyramid Head's design; it is certainly not a defining characteristic of the creature, nor is it the creature's primary purpose.

A similar video was also made for Silent Hill 3, and features Robbie the Rabbit. This video also has no relevance to that game's plot.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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