There's been an ongoing debate over the past few years whether or not a videogame could ever truly become art and reach the level of more straightforward narrative forms like movies, novels, and television (not that there aren't other art forms). Will there ever be a videogame equivalent of, say, Citizen Kane or Ulysses? The debate has made it all the way up to the celebrity level of Roger Ebert, who has come down somewhat against it.
A few years ago I would have sided with Ebert. These days, with the advent of games like BioShock and the newly released Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, I'm beginning to rethink my position.
Shattered Memories is being sold as a "reimagining" of the original game, but it's far more than that. First of all, there's the gameplay. The team at Climax Group have done an extraordinary job integrating the particular strengths of the Wii console into the title. The flashlight, seminal to other versions of the game, is controlled in this game through the Wii remote, adding a fantastic layer of verisimilitude. This gets further enhanced by having your character receive telephone calls throughout the game that come through the remote's speaker, causing you to hold the remote up to your ear as though it were an actual cell phone. It truly helps make the entire experience far more immersive.
The story itself has also changed. The cult elements have been removed and replaced with a more compelling psychological focus. In fact, part of the game takes place within a therapist's office. The therapist asks you questions and gives you tasks that allow the game to fit itself to your particular personality. The ways in which you answer the questions will also affect the game's finale. The questions the game asks aren't particularly deep, and you can tell which directions things are heading easily, but if you really let yourself get into it, the therapy sessions can also be creepily effective at getting you into the game.
As the game progresses the main character's psyche becomes more and more fragile, which becomes reflected in the world of the game. The nightmare scenarios at the beginning are fairly straightforward renditions of the world of the game, only iced over and colored in hues of blue instead of the typical red and rust of the previous installments. The further along in the game you get, the more unusual the nightmares become, until towards the end of the game they get abstract to the point of surreality, indicative of the fragmenting psyche of our protagonist. There are a couple of stellar set pieces, including a repeating room and a long fall down the side of a building, that are haunting and, in their own way, oddly artsy.
The story is one of a father's desperate search for his daughter. The themes of reconnecting and grappling with the past run throughout the game. They can be seen with scenarios like a high school reunion and the receiving of "echo messages" on your cell phone which seem to come from overheard family vacations, tender moments, and family disputes. Not all of the many threads weave together particularly well, especially in just one pass through the game, but they help create the atmosphere of loss, regret, and a sense of both wanting to confront something while also being unsure of what exactly that something is, or how to approach it.
One of the potential drawbacks of the game is that the combat elements have been removed entirely, the only possible tactic for dealing with the creatures who haunt Silent Hill is evasion. This can be a drawback for those who enjoy a good bloodletting, but thematically this is entirely appropriate. This game is, in many ways, about a man running away. This man would not face up to the creatures, and knowing that there's nothing you can do to stop them except run lends the game an urgency and an unsettling air that is arguably much greater than if you could simply turn around and whack the creatures with a hammer.
Shattered Memories also benefits greatly from another fantastic score by Akira Yamaoka, whose atmospheric music works even better here than in previous installments. The music, including a spooky rendition of the Elvis staple "Always On My Mind," lends a texture and nuance to a game that focuses more on feelings than on frights.
The game has some definite drawbacks though. It's a fairly quick play, which depending on your preferences, can actually be a bit of a relief after so many games that require a commitment usually not seen outside the bonds of holy matrimony. The direction of movement in the game is controlled by the direction the Wii remote points Harry's flashlight. This can lead to difficulties during the chase sequences, where you can also attempt to shake off an attacking beastie by moving the remote. If you play videogames like I play videogames, which is to say with the poise and grace of John McEnroe in full tantrum mode, the Wii remote can occasionally go off signal, which strands you for a bit while you regain the connection and leaves you vulnerable to attack.
All in all the game is pretty spectacular. My first time through I tried to answer all the questions as earnestly as possible and garnered the "Lost Love" ending, which I found to be a surprisingly emotional reveal. Or perhaps I was just relieved I didn't get any of the other, much less flattering finales. Regardless, I was amazed about how engrossed I was in the story, and found myself talking about the game with friends for days afterwards. This one comes highly recommended. Play it with the lights on, and it might help to have someone you care about close by, as you may feel the need to reconnect after playing.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence. This game can also be found on: PS2 and PSP