I did manage to have a quick look at the Silent Hill 2 HD remake. It was a very quick look indeed. Someone was playing it at the Mana Bar and I glanced over their shoulder to look at the shiny new graphics. Couldn’t even hear the audio because the bar music was on. It was enough for me, though.
I haven’t picked up the HD collection myself and don’t expect I will because I still own the PS2 versions and PS2s haven’t gotten any harder to get hold of. It’s still one of the world’s most popular consoles with still the best third party game library in gaming history. It was a massive disservice on Sony’s part to abandon backwards compatibility in the PS3. They could’ve always just duct taped a slimline PS2 to the top.
All of which illustrates the pointlessness of it all. I mean, sure, maybe an HD remake of something like Goldeneye was justified because the original Goldeneye looks like the cast of the film were all trampled by horses, but Silent Hill 2 always looked fine. The realistic graphics were really good by PS2 standards because the fog and the low visibility allowed for better quality models without stressing the processor too much. An HD remake could never really have made it look any better.
It can demonstrably make it look a hell of a lot worse, mind. Before I saw it for myself someone told me that the fog had been taken out, and I thought, that can’t possibly be right. Taking the fog out of Silent Hill is like taking the shark out of Jaws. It’s worse than that, it’s like taking out the celluloid the film was printed on. I thought he had to be mistaken, but sure enough, the fog effects don’t appear to be there. There was still low visibility, but the scenery just sort of abruptly stops about twenty feet from the protagonist, and it looks awful. The other thing that struck me was that the colors were markedly more vibrant than I remembered. So they either redid all the textures with higher saturation or some kind of filter was taken off. Either way it goes against Silent Hill 2‘s grim, dismal atmosphere. This was a game where the save points were plain red squares because any vibrant colour stood out a mile against the miserable grey decay.
So the HD collection fails to faithfully preserve the classic Silent Hills for future generations, which is the only possible justification it could have had for its existence. It’s upsetting, because I’m starting to feel that it might be functionally impossible for the triple-A game industry to produce a game like Silent Hill 2 anymore.
Silent Hill Downpour, then. I had a couple of other gripes about it I couldn’t fit into the final video. For example, as with many Silent Hills your actions throughout the game affect the ending, and in this case you’re judged as “evil” if you execute monsters. I only found this out after researching the other endings afterwards, and it struck me as terribly unfair. Of course I executed the monsters. In previous games if they were still visibly breathing they had a tendency to get back up and smack me about some more. I mean, stamping on a fallen beastie’s head-like extremity is almost as iconic a part of Silent Hill as the fog, tell me I shouldn’t be doing it and I might as well take the next bus out of town.
My main problems with it were a general lack of focus and its inability to make me cack my pants appropriately. While it is difficult to pin down exactly what makes things scary, it’s not that difficult. Amnesia: The Dark Descent did it. Limbo has the right kind of atmosphere. I was playing I Am Alive on the XBLA and was struck by how at times with its eerie silence and dust-shrouded streets it feels more like a Silent Hill game than any actual Silent Hill game has lately. And these aren’t even big-time triple-A releases with full-on resources and veteran designers behind them, these are all indie (or at least downloadable).
There we reach the nub of the matter, do we not. Perhaps this is, in truth, a case of “because” rather than “in spite of”. The standard machinery through which triple-A games are developed ensures that the final product is incapable of subtlety. For example, I have never been in favour of the process introduced in the Silent Hill movie (and repeated in all Silent Hill games since) wherein the real world transitions visibly into the dark, symbolic Otherworld by way of decay spreading out or paint flaking off from a single starting point. In the earlier Silent Hills it tended to happen when your back was turned, between room transitions or after the protagonist suddenly succumbed to an unscheduled naptime. It gave it a greater sense of mystery, placed firmer question marks over whether you were imagining it all, a sense of “Wait, was this like this before?”. Yeah, maybe sometimes you’d shine your torch past rusty grating X or Y and get the impression that the gantries go on forever but it’s too dark to tell. There was nothing like the massive cathedrals of madness Homecoming and Downpour demonstrate. Silent Hill 2‘s Otherworld wasn’t even that crazy, there are times when you could think that the filthy run-down Otherworld is reality and it’s the clean, welcoming original world that you’re conjuring from your imagination.
No one in triple-A development knows how to embrace their limitations anymore because they no longer have any limitations. No one put in that overblown world transition sequence or those giant rotating rooms because they thought they’d be really scary and atmospheric, they’re in there to look good. In an age when the marketing for a game starts when the programmers are still defining the first few constants, you’ve got to have amazing spectacles to put in the announcement trailer and the first few leaked screenshots for the fans to dissect exhaustively on the blogs.
And then there’s all the hundreds of people working on a triple-A game, every single one of whom wants to have their own visible mark. So the environment artist who’s building his portfolio puts all his effort into an extravagant set piece concept and everyone’s all like “ZOMG Get that shit modelled sharpish!” and responsibility is so divided that no one wants to argue that it doesn’t suit the tone. Maintaining an eerie mysterious silence is unheard of because the sound guys needed shit to do.
So I guess I’m resigned to always being disappointed by triple-A horror because horror demands subtlety and triple-A development utterly precludes it. It’s not so tragic a situation, ‘cos there’ll always be indie development. Failing that I could always start that murder spree I’ve been thinking about.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.