Sleep paralysis is odd, scary and enthralling all at the same time. It’s a phenomenon that not everybody experiences, but if you don’t, I’m telling you, you’re missing out. You emerge from slumber to find you can’t move, sometimes feeling a presence in your house, occasionally being able to hear voices as you lie there impotent to movement. It’s like a waking nightmare while it lasts, but a blast to look back on. The powerlessness and confusion seem like things any sane person would want to avoid, but remember, I’m someone who wakes up convinced that people are talking in my walls. This kind of experience – one that steals away your agency, yet manages to still place you within a world you are involved in - is rarely, if ever, seen in games. However, the latest creation baring the Silent Hill moniker manages to submerse you in these types of feelings in an even purer form than past iterations of the series.
You are dragged through Shattered Memories as a character completely at the mercy of the game’s world. That may sound as engaging as spending your Saturday evening chatting with a bowl of pumpkin soup about your uncle’s stamp collection, but it somehow manages to pull you into it in an incredibly interesting way. It’s hard to tell if it’s the Lost-like hints with no real answers, or the simplicity of storytelling through physical metaphor, that help the game achieve this; in part these are the things that make the narrative of Half-Life so compelling. The feeling that there’s more to the game’s world than is immediately apparent to us creates a deep desire to uncover its secrets.
The vast majority of the in-game time is spent searching through the town for shadows of memories which vaguely reference both the protagonists past your own psychological profile (which the game builds through breakout sections in which you undergo therapy sessions from the first person perspective). The experience leaves you completely interested in the world, but at the same time somehow detached. Moments of panic as you take flight from its grotesque denizens is similarly effective, born not from the worry you won’t be able to overcome them, but instead from the knowledge that you can’t.
Gone are the previous Silent Hills’ weapons, inventory and combat (clumsy as it was). There is very little, action-wise, that you can do to affect the game’s world, and in fact, as the game’s opening warning suggests, it “plays you”. In many ways this statement speaks less to the novel way that it employs psychological profiling, and more to the way you are cast, not so much as an engaged actor within the game’s world, but an active observer of the internal workings of the main character’s mind. Sure, there are a rare moments in which you’re tasked with solving puzzles but these are the only instances in which you exert any real control over, and true interaction with, the world around you (and these are not the elements of the game that leave any lasting impression). These feelings of confusion and loss of agency are rarely offered to us by videogames, yet other storytelling mediums don’t seem to have this gap in their emotional vocabularies.
Children of Men pulls its protagonist through an understated post-apocalyptic world filled with the infertile, his path unclear and his ability to make a difference seemingly naught, until the very end. And from Mersault in Camus’ Outsider (a confused soul who’s come unstitched from the world around him) to Tralala of Hubert Selby Jnr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn (whose life slowly spirals out of her own control into a destructive mess), literature is full of examples of lost characters whose worlds have more power over them than they have over their worlds.
Even when a game does tear away clarity or strengths, the loss is generally fleeting. Samus is always sure to gather back all her weapons and skills in Metroid; Batman is sure to regain his sanity in Arkham Asylum. It seems that it’s much easier to place the player in a position of power and force feed them a clear understanding of their motives, than it is to leave them vulnerable and confused. The former aids in preventing a sloppy game from devolving into a maddening pool of frustration, but if executed effectively, placing a player in a world in which they are at risk, confused and lost can create a profound experience. And that’s where Shattered Memories has something to offer the medium.
While it’s far from a perfect game, with one-or-two slightly clumsy methods of interaction and a little too much separation between exploration and fleeing from monsters, there’s nary a moment, until the story’s last gasps, when you truly understand all that this new frozen version of Silent Hill presents. And it’s mainly because of this that the game remains engaging the whole way through. What Shattered Memories can teach us about the possibilities within the form is that our games do not have to be all about power and overcoming obstacles; they can just as easily be about a lack of power, confusion about one’s surroundings and an odd, near-paralysing sense of discomfort.
- RKD on… 2010: Part 5 – Dealing with death
- Arkham Asylum, and the space of traumatic memory
- Numbers? We Don’t Need No Stinking Numbers!