Whether by virtue of releasing on the Wii console, lacking any form of combat, or its place as a “re-imagining” of a masterpiece, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories remains the underplayed main entry to the horror franchise. Reasons why it shouldn’t be ignored are many however. With ingenious use of the setting and story, an inspired use of the Wii’s control system (as well as pushing the system graphically), and one of the best stories in the series, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is truly an overlooked gem.
Silent Hill‘s history is fairly strange. The first game dealt heavily in a sort of occult mysticism that went on to play out as a “possible reason” to subsequent events in later games. It wasn’t until Silent Hill 2 that the psychoanalytical approach became the mainstay of the series, not demons and cults. Since then, every Silent Hill game claiming to want to return to previous success usually means the critical acclaim of Silent Hill 2’s.
What made Silent Hill 2 such a critical success was not only its third act twist, but the way it portrayed (though delivered with extreme camp) the various tones of human guilt and shame. Jealousy, lust, murder, frustration. These all appeared in the second game and made proof the sort of mature topics that could be handled with care in video games. The third and fourth game returned the series to its original occult roots but was able to keep the deeply disturbing psychological imagery while tackling to certain extent, the cycle of death and birth, and loneliness respectively. However, it’s no secret that every subsequent Silent Hill game has been living in the shadow of the second title and had tried to repeat its formula; namely through a dogmatic following to Silent Hill 2′s protagonist narrative arc. That is, if you play a modern Silent Hill protagonist, it can be guaranteed that they are 1.) Guilty of something 2.) And not aware of it.
While considered “lesser” titles compared to the original 4 I feel there hasn’t been a particularly bad title in the series; rather unoriginal. Silent Hill Homecoming’s greatest fault was essentially making a carbon copy of this guilty protagonist thinking it would have the same emotional impact upon the reveal (it didn’t) while Silent Hill Downpour thought to shake up the formula by introducing a convict as the hero thereby already establishing his guilt but still attempting to surprise the player in the end (it also didn’t).
But Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is different. It disarmed the player by its premise as a “reimagining” of the first game. Then, after setting up the game as such, essentially went on to make an entirely new version of the game built on the veil of this preconception.
Shattered Memories success lies not in attempting to recreate Silent Hill 2, but taking its key influences, Jungian and Freudian psychology, then building a game based on those principles instead. So while the game doesn’t take much from the existing canon aside from pre-existing characters, it’s not beholden to it either. Another thing it does successfully is create a game with a protagonist that acts in a non-existing mindspace where player, character, and hero are constructed and subverted.
I know it sounds like I just made up that last sentence, but what I’m trying to say is: You, the player, are playing a character (not the protagonist) that is as confused as we are, and that confusion serves a greater narrative purpose. Harry Mason doesn’t exist in the reality we are playing him through, and the world is both real, but also in the true protagonist’s head.
The big reveal that the person in the first-person therapy session has been Cheryl the whole time while Harry Mason has been dead for 18 years isn’t amazing because it acts as a culmination of all the clues and in-game memos and notes, but because it retroactively explains all the cryptic messages and trinkets Harry finds along the way. Only after the reveal do we realize the disturbing and emotionally wrenching hints of a girl’s nightmarish high school life becomes our hero’s disturbing and nightmarish past. Similarly, the title itself lends to the therapy framing device as Dr. Kaufman, clearly a stand-in for a Freudian psychoanalyst deals with shattering Cheryl’s repressed memories. As Harry Mason our job is to make our way closer to the truth, acting as the avatar for Cheryl’s therapy.
Shattered Memories is more a domestic drama than a supernatural thriller. A game more about the fallout of a broken marriage and the monsters it creates in one’s head than any real demons or monsters. And it’s a game that’s filled with symbolism to almost a fault. Someone is either a very devout follower of Freud or read too literally into his works, but the best elements of the game are all focused around the psychological aspects.
Shattered Memories main framing device, the therapy sessions, is where the real game is being made. As Cheryl progresses in her sessions, Harry Mason, the “hero” created by Cheryl to champion her through the difficult process of therapy, also draws closer to the truth. So he revisits areas of her repressed, or traumatic past. Her school, the woods where she was drugged, the mall. He goes there to look for her, the parts of her that were lost or damaged, all to find his daughter. But that’s the narrative she created for herself. Instead it is Cheryl that is revisiting those memories, but it’s too much for her emotional state, so she uses her dad, a dad she created to be her hero.
Shattered Memories is a reimagining of the first game where it replaces the mysticism with the second game’s psychological fixation. Perversion, violence, shame are all present here and are in fact more of a focus than Silent Hill 2. Like the James Sunderland model, the protagonist is guilty of something. But the deviation is that it is a heroine who is guilty of a wholly different matter: Her own psychological self-hatred.
More than a reimagining of the first game, Shattered Memories seems to be more eager to reimagine the whole setting in terms of a strictly psychological profile, to which it mostly succeeds. Not because of the shallow assumptions based on the player’s perversions or tendencies, but rather as a world created by the mind of the psychologically injured. I used injured because this is a wholly sympathetic world. Some complain that Shattered Memories is a very tame game in comparison but I disagree. I found it to be extremely disturbing in its portrayal of emotional violence and psychological damage. And if that isn’t a true Silent Hill title I don’t know what is.