Ethnology and You (in Silent Hill) 101

It feel like I was a little hard on Cry of Fear last week. I mean, I started off the post by saying it was a pretty decent game, but then I spent the next thousand words stepping on it like an ant with a glowing red kick-me sign (I’ll leave you to determine whether I’m the ant or not). It’s a bit of an incongruity, I’ll admit. On the one hand, I enjoyed parts of the game and even admired their ingenuity. On the other hand, I do sometimes promise to be critical. Yet, on the way to critical, I tend to brush up against hyperbolic, its barely-disguised evil twin. I would consider it this way: out of the (occasionally) many, many games I end up playing in a given week, I only talk about a select few. I hold those few games to a pretty high standard, so anything entering that ring is bound to get a little rough treatment. Okay, the old Silent Hill series seems to get a free pass, but that’s because I use those games to gauge my standards. Someday, for your viewing pleasure, I’ll rip those apart, too. Not yet, though. I’m not ready.

Part of the problem the game had was that it was from an indie developer. It could only do so much with the budget and manpower behind it. That’s fine; I’m not going to begrudge them that. I celebrate it, in fact. However, regardless of where the game came from, it still took hours and hours of my life. By the same token, if I recommend it and you end up spending hours playing because of me, then I have a responsibility to you. Even if the game is free, it still costs time to play. So, I have to cast an equally critical eye on both the AAA industry and the indi-stry. Granted, I’m going to try to keep things in the realm of possibility and context. I’m not about to bust Cry of Fear on the quality of its cut-scenes. That would be counter-productive to the encouragement of fear. The game does fine with the graphics its working with. Like I said, character design was one of the best parts of this game, and that skill reflects equally well in the cut-scenes.

No, no one messaged me to say that I wasn’t being fair to the game. I just felt like I sounded a bit harsher than I meant to. I stand by what I said, but understand that it was still an alright game. Well, would you look at that! Here I am doing a random monologue about Cry of Fear and Silent Hill and I haven’t brought up the topic I know you’re burning to hear about: enemy behaviour.

In my Cry of Fear post, I mentioned that the monsters are a little too eager to give you a flail-glomp of death. This seems a bit counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t more aggressive monsters be more frightening? Of course, that’s a contrived question to move the post along, because I always try to draw a clear line between survival-horror and splatter thrillers. Yet, because of the general weakness of the combat, Cry of Fear never really brushes up against splatter thriller levels of abnegation. You’re thoroughly involved in the combat; the enemies require you to think about and study them, if you’re going to survive. It’s a cool, refreshing approach, not unlike the taste of Nestea. But, I’m still complaining. Why is that?

Well, it would be because I’ve still got my head firmly planted under the skirts of SH2’s approach to monsters. There’s something to be said for choice and conflict in a game. They help to create tension. Think of it this way: When you walk into a room in Cry of Fear, what are your combat options? That’s right: melee or ballistic. The monsters pop up at you, so you’re never really thinking about how to approach them (not combat them, that’s an entirely different thing). They will approach you, and fast, so you’d better have your strongest stick ready. This sort of ruined the whole cellphone flash-light thing for me. In Doom 3, you also had to switch between the flash-light and a weapon, but parts of the game were designed around it. The lantern maze and the general lighting, as well as the value of environmental information, made keeping your flash-light accessible important. You had to be able to see the creatures. You could also dodge them, occasionally, while they try to dodge you, necessitating vision. Now, I’m not saying Doom 3 did this perfectly, because there are plenty of straight corridors where monsters just jump out and the flash-light is nothing but a nuisance. However, I think it approached it generally better.

The Cry of Fear phone-light didn’t see much direct use, because the monsters were always right in my face. Except for the Aborted: those were well utilized. Still, even they floated towards you as quickly as possible. What value does a flash-light have when the ambient light it creates in my bag is good enough to let me navigate and the monsters never try to avoid me? The idea of getting texts was cool, but it felt a little nose-leady after they stopped being used to create atmosphere.

Still, that’s all flash-light stuff, what about the overall monster behaviour in Silent Hill 2? Well, they generally ignored you, unless you provoke them. Then, they’ll follow you for a bit, trying to combat you, until you get far enough away, at which point they go back to kicking around cans and playing hopscotch.

The Most Serious Game of Hopscotch Ever.

The Most Serious Game of Hopscotch Ever.

This leaves you with options: the most dangerous of things. Now, you can choose to avoid the monsters or combat them. Believe it or not, the ability to run away compounds the fear of combat. It’s a different type of player engagement; it offers a different way to think about playing the game. Not only does this keep things tense, but it leaves the player with some uncomfortable truths:

1. They can run away from any battle. Knowing the option is there will make even the combat encounters feel a bit looser, like you could cut and run at any time.

2. They are choosing to engage every time they do. Now, they’re thinking about the engagement, so they can dread it.

3. They’re witnessing the natural behaviour of the creatures.

Cry of Fear’s enemies are on you in an instant, leading you to believe that part of their behaviour is driven by your presence. SH2’s enemies are just messed up all the time. You’re made privy to their strange quirks and vacant wanderings. They become a study in creature behaviour. The weird nails-on-chalkboard creatures under the cars that spit at you. The mannequins that only react to light. These creatures create choices. You can avoid the cars. You can wander the halls without your flash-light on, but there are more threats than just mannequins in the halls. You can run instead of fight, but you’ll risk getting cornered if too many of them start following you in tight corridors. This is exacerbated by the clunky-in-the-wrong-hands controls.

Beyond creating choices, their aloof behaviour hammers home their Eldritch nature. You can hear the abstract daddies dragging themselves around. The crackling sounds of movement from the mannequins. This is their lives. They’re seriously alien. Even more terrifying, this implies that this is how the universe operates here. These creatures are the norm. You are the outsider.

Maybe that all seems a bit abstract, but there is one solid take-away here: “If you can get your players to think about whether or not a fight is a good idea, then you’ve already won the first battle.”

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4 Responses to “Ethnology and You (in Silent Hill) 101”

  1. Nicely done. I admit I was nerdily excited at the idea of monster ethnology. Kudos to you, sir.

    • Thanks! I like breaking down the creatures in the game from a design perspective, but I plan on doing an actual in-universe perspective on them at some point. You can get lost in the Silent Hill mythos so easily; it’s so convoluted.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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