Jun 28, 2012

It's a Fight: Silent Hill & Narrative Combat

Fight or flight. Human instinct. All basic.

The instantaneous decision of whether to flee or face up to your predator runs in us all, and the Silent Hill series mines that as another source of its tension. This is less about the monsters being "hard," than the very idea of facing them. The unpredictable nature of the world of “Hill” 1-4 are such that venturing anywhere might lead you some place uncomfortable.
all derive from silenthill.wikia.com
Paradox: horror gamers want to be scared, but try to avoid being scared. Fight, or flight.

A common complaint from reviewers not cogent of how to review is that the series features “bad” combat.

Or, as IGN puts it: "If this is your first time playing Silent Hill 2 or 3, you will instantly notice how outdated the combat system is, even for a PS2 game. The melee is slow and clunky, and the firearms auto lock on the monster's torso."

Technically, this is true. In a creative vacuum, compared to current actioners Gears of War 3 or Call of Duty: Black Ops, this is true. But in the standard that matters—that of coherency of communication and narrative—the combat excels.

The combat contributes not only to the fear, but to the off-kilter nature of the experience. That feeling that gives the series an ethereal quality that’s not quite American, not quite Japanese, not quite anything recognizable.

Combat is as much Silent Hill 1-4’s identity as tilted camera angles and inside-out monsters. Those games frightened us with the sheer grotesqueness of the killing (blood, sound effects, twitching) as much as the monsters themselves (unnatural flesh).

Beyond that, with combat you know it is always possible to fail. You can miss that last pipe swing. You can bring the rifle up too slowly. You can run out of ammo. Real world possibilities in a digital world, they not only give limitations but damn us by making us overconfident. That "clunky" melee lends an odd physicality to the fighting.

And even if we master them, we still don’t feel right in Silent Hill. Who knows what is around the corner, even besides the monsters? When will the mangled face of our crush come face-to-face to our own? When will a haunted house attraction turn deadly?

We never know.

Silent Hill: Homecoming is a natural growth of 1-4’s narrative, and a betrayal. The combat is varied in that it features counter moves, blocks, weaknesses to exploit, waves of enemies, and creatures that will follow you across the map. Technically, this is coherent and right: main character Alex is a soldier, of course you need to change the combat to reflect his abilities and to reflect his vision of Silent Hill. It isn’t too hard to imagine a world based on an Iraq veteran’s (what other war could it be?) trials being aggressive.

Unfortunately, Alex is not really a soldier. That’s a “plot twist.” But even if he was, the whole design as is fails.

Like Resident Evil 5 after it, “Homecoming” has mazes for levels. The hotel, the dentist Otherworld, the church. Mazes. None of the art design properly reflects the aggression of war—and certainly not the then-current one in Iraq. The timing (2008) of this storyline’s publication cannot be doubted, and it should be seen as the cheap ploy it is on the developer’s part.

Instead of genuine PTSD/war imagery, “Homecoming” concerns itself with Silent Hill film reject material; a better source for this story would be Resident Evil 2 and 3’s Americana. In fact, the game clearly owes a lot to Resident Evil 4: the combat system is almost certainly inspired by and put in due to the success of that game (as well as Double Helix/The Collective's prior project, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but the developers forgot something.

They forgot that their game was not meant to be a camp-infused romp. What works for one game does not work for every game. Copying will do you no good if your game does not fit with what you are copying. Combat defines Resident Evil 4’s identity. Combat defines Silent Hill.

(Speaking of copying: the Hostel imitation drill scene, which almost works as a twisted version of a “soldier gets captured, is tortured” scene from a film, is not twisted enough. It’s neutered. Worse, it’s too standard: we can picture Liam Neeson growling in Alex’s place.)

When we are presented with the Silent Hill staple Otherworld, they consist of copy and pasted red corridors or gray FPS knockoffs; barring that, a Silent Hill film location like the hotel just for the hell of it—not for any coherent reason I can detect. The Otherworld from that alternate universe where “Homecoming” is good should be like PTSD on steroids. Or like the film it rips off instead of coherently incorporating its images, Jacob’s Ladder.

Imagine if they took the combat of a Call of Duty or Gears of War, and made it weird. Off-kilter. You can almost picture set pieces that go wrong and distorted dream versions of action game staples. If not scary, it would at least be clever.

Instead, “Homecoming” focuses its combat on being as fun as possible without the aggression behind it to match. If the dogs that follow you across the map are interesting ideas, they are botched by plain monster design and too much competency once the player learns their moves.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a similar betrayal to “Homecoming.” On its surface, the lack of combat fits the game’s narrative and what it’s communicating to us perfectly.

Harry, in this game, is a wimp. A stereotypical writer character. We are even led to believe he is currently in therapy for the events in Silent Hill and that we are playing what traumatized him, although that turns out to be false due to a “plot twist.”

Now, the game seems to be on to something that half-works. The puzzle emphasis placed on personal effects, trinkets, and messages both written and recorded contrasts well with the emptiness of the world. It vibes with the idea that Harry is moving through a recording, i.e., a memory. The falling snow isolates you. It is easy to imagine yourself "lost" in this world.

But it all falls limp: partly due to the writing and voice acting, partly due to something else.

“Shattered Memories” drops combat. What “Shattered Memories” does is rob us of flight or fight. Even Clock Tower, a game based around the idea that you are a normal person against a Jason Voorhees style super killer, offer you a pan to smash into your pursuer's face to temporarily take him out. That’s not combat, per se, but it’s conflict and violence. Forcing players to slow down is more conductive to a horror game, whereas "Memories" hopes you keep running--it wants to thrill you, not scare you.

 Violence. That's at the core of combat in games. The importance of what Chris Hedges says in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (present in its title) should be remembered by both game designers and game players. Violence and doing violence is a central tenant of human life, the importance of which critics need recall in judging narratives: less action—less violence—is not more “artful,” as the developers of "Memories" and Heavy Rain think.

“Action” is a central tenant of film and games, of visual storytelling: what they came out of, history-wise, if we trace our lineage back to The Great Train Robbery. Action is meaning as much as dialogue and often present stories within themselves.

Combat in games is action with agency. The camera angles are (sometimes) free, but the movements, path, and animations of combat/action are pre-programmed messages that communicate narrative as much as a line of dialogue or scenery design and need to be taken as such.

No more running away.


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