This has been brewing for a while, and the recent announcement of yet another new Silent Hill game has pushed me over the edge. Silent Hill 2 is perhaps my favourite game ever… it’s by no means perfect, but there are so many facets of the game that I love. Every element of the game supports every other: the environments, the characters, story, gameplay and game structure, are almost all interlinked and meaningful in ways both obvious and subtle. This is a game that tells a story, in every way that it can.
So for me, gaming isn’t about cinematics, or stats systems, or combos, or physics systems, or clever control schemes, or addictive mini-games, it’s about immersion. If any of the elements I’ve just listed contribute to the player’s immersion, and support the overall shape of the game, then they belong. If they’re implemented clumsily, or to fulfil some ideal that dictates how a game should be, rather than how this game should be, then they jar, like poorly matching parts of a jigsaw puzzle. I hear a lot of developers and critics talking about “choice”, and “in game freedom” as if that’s all that makes a good game. It’s like they seek to make a game the ultimate Role-playing experience, an open environment with a particular theme where the player acts as a free agent, making their own choices and “being” a different person. It sounds great in principle, but it’s not really that simple, even if such a game of infinite choices existed.
True role-playing takes skill, and the deliberate effort to imagine ourself out of our mind and into another. I’ve tried pen-and-paper role playing, and despite a good imagination and making a living being creative, I’m not all that great at it. I’m willing to bet that the average gamer hasn’t even tried. Good graphics and design help, but until we have picture perfect VR (and perhaps even then), people will always be aware of the fact that they’re playing a game, and ultimately, when presented with a choice, most will be thinking “what does the game want me to choose?” not “what should I, acting as this character choose?”.
It takes great skill for a director to immerse a player without the player having to make an effort to be immersed.
Here’s a brief illustration of what I mean… The night after I played Heavy Rain I played the opening of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and both games contain a scene early on in which I search for a lost child.
In Shattered Memories, after a brief cutscene showing a car crash, and my daughter missing, I ran through a town, figuring out which doors I could open and which paths were blocked, solving puzzles and yelling my child’s name whenever I pressed the action button (normally inappropriately and amusingly at a wall or object I wanted to examine that couldn’t be examined). I had a lot of freedom of action within a large environment, I could examine objects, open cupboards, pick up and shake cans, shine my torch in any direction using the wii-mote, turn the torch on and off, run, walk and leap fences, but I hadn’t gone more than a few minutes of gameplay before I’d lost the urgency of finding my character’s daughter. She was just magically gone, and I had no idea where I was or where I was going beyond the fact that the level pointed in that direction.
In Heavy Rain, I pushed frantically through a dense crowd, barely keeping a red balloon in sight, as I yelled my child’s name, feeling helpless and panicked (actually, me, feeling just as panicky as the in-game character). I could only “do” two things: move in any direction, and yell my child’s name by pressing a button, but it was enough. For a brief period of time, I was that character and my son was lost.
In one game I really had choice, and had to figure out what to do and how to act. in the other I had the illusion of choice when in fact I couldn’t do much at all, but it was the illusion that was more compelling because it was better crafted. Choice comes from reflection and introspection. It requires us to contemplate the limits of the options at hand, and their context, and so true open choice in a videogame forces us to contemplate the game’s limits, the artificial boundaries of the level.
In that Heavy Rain sequence, I didn’t choose exactly, I reacted because it was necessary, like I would if engaged in the same event in real life. I never questioned the game, only myself, and when I made a decision (like stopping to pay the clown who sold me the balloon after I knew my child was already out of sight), it was one that was carefully choreographed to keep my mind in-game, and in-character.
What we need is not choice, it’s the feeling that we’re acting purposefully. This can’t be done by letting us do everything and anything, only by carefully choosing what we can do and when. I’ve heard people call Heavy Rain “just an interactive movie” as if that’s some sort of criticism. I’d agree with them, but think that it’s an incredible achievement. In 9 hours of gameplay, there was not one moment when I didn’t make my actions AS the character I was playing, fully immersed in the story.
Returning to Silent Hill, I think Shattered Memories has a good go, but in the end, it is in itself a shattered game: a collection of concepts, each a great idea and well executed, but all standing apart, unsupported by each other. It’s telling that during the making of the game, I remember the creators saying that one of their goals was to “create the best in-game flashlight ever”. I think they actually succeeded, but they forgot to put it in the best game ever.
Silent Hill Homecoming & Origins suffered from a similar (if somewhat less contrived) piecemeal construction, and this is why my heart fell when I heard about yet another Silent Hill game in the works. Here’s hoping that the new developers realise that unless they’re burning to tell a story to which the franchise, the game and its structure is subordinate, it’ll be the same old mess again. And here’s to developers dropping endless franchises, and making NEW games for once.