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 (and of Konami as a studio), 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 when I first played it, because I had never played the first Silent Hill. After I was able to track down a copy of the first game and play through it, Silent Hill 3 suddenly made a whole lot more sense, and I came to love it almost as much as I loved Silent Hill 2. So while I tend to agree that The Room is the "weakest" of the original Silent Hill games, I never really thought of it as being "bad"; just "less good". 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...

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Silent Hill 3

In my previous blog entry about the history of Silent Hill's cult, I had originally intended to include a small section about the cult's name, as it is accepted by series fans: "The Order". However, it wasn't really relevant to the specific topic of the in-game cult history, since it is a more meta point about the games in general. So instead, I decided to make it a brief independent article:

Silent Hill 3 - The Order
Joseph's article is the source of
the name "The Order".

I am one of a subset of Silent Hill fans who does not like using the term "The Order" to refer to the game's cult. For one thing, the name reminds me of the movie and Homecoming, which causes a resentful knee-jerk reaction. But there are also other in-game evidences to suggest that naming the cult might not have been intentional.

The primary source for the name "The Order" comes from an article written by the journalist Joseph Schreiber which details an orphanage that is run by a sect of Silent Hill's cult.

This article is present in Silent Hill 3 as well as Silent Hill 4: The Room, but there are slight differences in the text of the document in each game. Most noticeably, the name of the orphanage changes between the games. In Silent Hill 3 the article appears in a patient room in Brookhaven, and the orphanage name is given as "Hope House". In The Room, however, that same article gives the orphanage the name "Wish House". It was apparently changed sometime in the development of The Room, or it was mistranslated to begin with.

Silent Hill 4 also doesn't give us any indication as to whether the appearance of this article is intended to retcon the article in Silent Hill 3, or if it players are to assume that the actual text of the article changed at some point after the magazine's publication. Perhaps the article was reprinted in a different magazine and the editor or author changed the name. We don't know if it's the same magazine because in Silent Hill 3 the magazine is closed and we only see its cover and never the page of the article, but in Silent Hill 4 the magazine is sitting open on a desk and we see only the page of the article and not the cover.

Silent Hill 3 - Joseph's article Silent Hill 4 - Joseph's article
"The Order" comes from an article that appears in both Silent Hill 3 (LEFT) and Silent Hill 4 (RIGHT).
But if the name of the orphanage changes between versions, can we trust the name of the cult to be correct?

As far as I can remember, "The Order" is never referred to anywhere else in The Room...

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In one of my earlier posts titled "'Silent Hill' is NOT about 'repressed guilt'; it's about occultism!", there seemed to be some misunderstandings about the interpretations that I offered. For one thing, reader Malik commented:

"I have to disagree. The series has never established the cult as the basis for the goings-on in Silent Hill. It is never explicitly stated that the cult or Alessa are the true source of the supernatural power ..."

The commentor is correct on that point. Though, I don't think I ever said that Alessa and the cult were the ultimate source. If you got that impression, then there might have been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and I apologize for not being clear. To be clear: I was arguing that the plots of the game were focused on the cult and Alessa, and how they affected this supernatural power -- not that the cult is the cause of the power. I thought about responding with my own comment on that original post, but I felt that it would be more appropriate to just write a new blog article about it, so that I could spend more time exploring the town's history, as it was established by the original creators. So, Malik, I hope you read this. and I hope it makes more sense. I'd love to hear your feedback.

Please note that much of this post is speculation. The games themselves provide very little concrete information about the extended history of the cult and region -- especially prior to the Civil War. The following is all retroactive explanation and may not represent the original intentions of the creators. This will be my own, personal opinion and interpretation regarding the nature of Silent Hill's otherworldly power.

The Place of the Silent Spirits

I never intended to imply that the cult and Alessa created the supernatural phenomena, nor that they are the power's ultimate source. I agree that the power likely existed (in some form) far prior to the events of the first game.

Silent Hill 2 - sacred place
Mary refers to Silent Hill as a "sacred place".

Mary's comments regarding the place being "sacred" in the past implies that early inhabitants (probably the Native Americans) were aware of the supernatural effects of the region going back hundreds - maybe thousands - of years. Since the Natives saw the place as being "sacred" and beautiful, I tend to believe that the power did not originally manifest demons or project people's nightmares onto reality during these periods of history. Instead, I would imagine that the force (whether conscious or not) would have been more benign - maybe even benevolent.

We don't know much about the natives' beliefs prior to the arrival of European colonists, and what little we do know is possibly clouded by the lens of the European colonists and cultists.

Based on what is known about real-world Native American beliefs, it is probably safe to assume that the natives of the Toluca Lake region would likely have worshipped any regional supernatural power as "ancestral spirits" or as "spirits of nature". The Book of Lost Memories can be found in Silent Hill 2 after beating the game, and it supports this idea and tells us about the nature spirits:

Lost Memories
"They called this place 'The Place
of the Silent Spirits'. By 'spirits',
they meant not only their dead
relatives, but also the spirits that
they believed inhabited the trees,
rocks and water around them.
"
     - Lost Memories book (Silent Hill 2)

The name "Place of the Silent Spirits" may simply be an innocent callback to the game's title, or it could be a significant clue. The fact that the spirits were "silent" implies that the natives were not able to talk to it; or at least, the spirits did not talk back. This implies that the "spirits" are probably not a conscious entity. Even though it can apparently react to the thoughts - and even desires - of the people it comes in contact with, it may not have an intelligence or will of its own (which I explained in my earlier post about repressed guilt)...

[More]

I was going through the comments on my posts a while back, and I came across a doozy of a comment by user Maiden T. I'm not going to replicate the entire post here, but you can review the comment at the link provided. In summary, the commenter asserts that Silent Hill, as a series, was never about occultism, and that all the games were "repressed-memory morality tales". The first Silent Hill and "to an extent the third one" are the exceptions (according to Maiden T).

Silent Hill - Incubus concept art
Totally unrelated image of a demon god...

My mind just about exploded when I read this comment, and I started typing up a response, only to realize that I had written a whole blog's worth of counter argument. So, I decided to just turn it into a new blog. I'll continue my series of analysis and interpretation articles about Silent Hill with a write-up about how the series is most definitely about occultism.

What is Silent Hill about?

I've already tackled two topics that I consider to be common myths about Silent Hill. The first was about the over-sexualization of Pyramid Head, and the second was about the realness of the Otherworld. Now I'll address one of the most fundamental misunderstandings about the series: what is it about?

The repressed-inner-demon myth

Probably the most core and fundamental myth about the Silent Hill series is the continued propagation of the idea that the series (as a whole) is about characters dealing with repressed inner demons - typically a repressed memory of guilt over a perceived sin which they have committed. This idea is rooted in the popularity of Silent Hill 2. It is so pervasive, that the designers and producers of newer installments of the series embrace it, while dismissing the other critical elements of the other games' stories:

"[My favorite SH game is] Silent Hill 2. I didn’t really care for all the heavy occult based storyline in SH1 and 3. I felt SH2 had the best stand alone storyline, and provided the best atmosphere of all the SH games by far.
[...]
I find all the in’s and out’s of ‘The Order’ to be overly intricate and rather uninteresting, but that’s just my opinion."
   - Devin Shatsky (producer, Shattered Memories, Downpour), in an interview with Hell's Descent (Nov 5, 2010).

The reason that Silent Hill 2's design was so successful (and unique within the series) is because SH2's excellent atmosphere was based around feelings of melancholy and depression rather than fear and threat. Exploring a character's personal guilt and depression works great when the entire game is designed around that central, unifying theme! It doesn't work quite so well when ...

[More]

Stumbled onto this Gamefaqs forum topic about Masahiro Ito "confirming" that the Good ending of Silent Hill is canon, and that Cybil is supposed to die. Many fans apparently see this as absolute validation of their dogmatic opinions on the topic, and that to argue otherwise is moronic. I don't understand why there is so much vitriol thrown towards people who support the Good+ ending and Cybil's survival. Why does the fanbase want Cybil dead so much?

There are three key arguments that I hear in defense of the "Good is the only canonical ending" position:

Book of Lost Memories - regarding the aglaophotis pendant
Why do fans want Cybil dead?
  1. Harry wouldn't have known what the Red Liquid does until after he sees Kaufman use it on Alessa, and so he couldn't have used it on Cybil earlier.
  2. If Harry used the Red Liquid to save Cybil, then he couldn't have had any left over to solidify into the pendant for Heather.
  3. Cybil does not appear in any subsequent Silent Hill. She is not referenced in SH3, and in Silent Hill Homecoming, Deputy Wheeler refers to a female police officer who went to Silent Hill and never returned. Clearly, this means that Cybil is dead.

To many fans, these three arguments are bullet proof! At this point, they've practically become gospel (along with Pyramid Head's well-known rape antics).

But how well do these arguments really stack up to scrutiny? Let's play Devil's Advocate...

I'm going to start with Masahiro Ito's comments on the issue:

On Mashiro Ito's Twitter feed, he "confirms" that Cybil is dead.

Masahiro Ito confirms Cybil's death on Twitter: 'Yes, I remember Cybil is dead'
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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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