So last week was Gamescom, an annual video game trade fair that takes place in Germany. 335,000 were in attendance at this year’s event. Many upcoming releases were showcased, including a reboot of Tomb Raider and the traditional yearly updates of mega franchises such as Battlefield, Call of Duty and Pro Evolution Soccer.
All of these were to be expected, and frankly are about as exciting as eating beans on toast for the tenth night in a row. I almost yawned as I typed the characters for that opening paragraph; they smack of an industry in need of some revitalization. Thankfully though, there was something to come out of Gamescom this year that provides optimism for the cynical, hope for the lost, a light in the darkness.
However you want to describe it, last week we witnessed something that may very well be regarded in hindsight as one of the greatest masterstrokes this industry has ever seen. Gamers lucky enough to own a PS4 (the console that a great many of us, up until this point, have not found any reason whatsoever to get hyped about) were among the few to be treated to the world’s first Playable Teaser. An unnamed horror experience that, upon completion, was revealed to be a new Silent Hill game being made by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, starring Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus.
Yet that is merely the tip of this iceberg. By the following day, the Internet had gone crazy with speculation about the new game, titled Silent Hills. Various playthrough’s appeared online that showed numerous things; not least that no-one really knew the formula for completing the demo. GameSpot spent five and a half hours playing, before having to eventually give up.
Others were reportedly able to complete it within an hour. Of the various playthroughs I’ve watched thus far (with no PS4 at hand it’s my only current option – but it makes for a nonetheless entertaining experience), no two have been exactly the same, demonstrating the potential for truly dynamic gaming that developers such as Quantic Dream have merely dreamed of before now. On this evidence, any attempted walkthrough for the game may have to be one of the most expansive ever done.
Not that I would recommend a walkthrough for this teaser, though I know many ended up looking for one online when they struggled to complete it themselves. This also became clear as I saw more of the teaser; only patient gamers are going to truly appreciate the game. It is not an experience one can simply rush through.
The teaser gives you a puzzle that needs to be solved in order for you to complete it, and doesn’t spoon-feed you any answers (not blatantly, at least). If you want its secrets, you’ll have to find them for yourself. It requires you to work some of your mental capacities to earn your reward, which for some of the current gaming generation is apparently a big frustration.
For many others it was an exhilarating throwback to the ‘good old days’ of psychological survival horror. I was one of those who thought these days were long gone. I even wrote this article about the genre last year, in which I claimed it was not a bad thing for it to say where it was: in the past.
Only one exception would apply to that rule. Something that acknowledges those days are gone but realises that some form of it could still have a place in the future, if it were to suitably evolve (by using the term evolve in this case, I don’t mean the action-oriented definition that some developers are constantly shoving down our throats in order to sell their next shooter). Should Silent Hills turn out to be anything like this teaser, that’s exactly what it will be: the evolution of a particular series that has only been hopelessly imitated in the ten years since its last Japanese outing.
The first four Silent Hill games were not perfect (although the first two may have came pretty darn close), but were notable because each one tried new things, covered new ground, while retaining their signature atmosphere and the iconic town around which much mythology has been built. This was helped by the fact that no-one – not the characters nor the player – could truly say they knew what was going on. For all the extensive fan theories and speculation that have circulated over the past fifteen years, Silent Hill’s deepest secrets remain shrouded behind a veil.
If the newer instalments of the franchise since Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004) have done anything wrong, it is not only their lack of technical innovation but also a partial loss of this sense of mystery and intrigue. With the series taken over by developers outside of Japan, resulting games became about stories that focused more on their human characters, rather than the inhuman heart of the town and its ominous influence. They tried to explain why things were the way they were, and in the end only succeeded in confusing people. The Silent Hill movie, released in 2006, is one of the prime examples of this.
It all caused a once pioneering series to become stale… until now, perhaps. What impressed me most about this teaser is that people were getting hyped about it even before they knew what it really was. That shows it has at least enough originality to capture and hold our attention independent of the names attached to the project. There were many people playing at first without any knowledge that this was Kojima or del Toro’s work, although their artistic marks can easily be seen within the gameplay mechanics and content.
For example, the elaborate puzzle attached to the teaser (which people are still figuring out) has features of Kojima all over it. To progress at one point, you need to put together a portrait on the wall, pieces of which are scattered along the hallway – yet one of the pieces is hidden in the pause menu, and is only obtainable by pausing the game and zooming in. The speculated final solution to the puzzle is also typical of a game developer who once made us look on the back of a game case and plug our controller into port 2 to solve certain parts of Metal Gear Solid.
Meanwhile, design elements look similar in style to del Toro’s work on Pan’s Labyrinth. Curiously, upon watching the film a few years back, I do recall the thought crossing my mind that the Pale Man would not have looked out of place in Silent Hill. It may slip the minds of some that del Toro’s filmography also consists of creepy horror movies such as The Devil’s Backbone and Mimic. The latter was a film about mutated cockroaches and, furthermore, starred a certain Norman Reedus.
On Reedus’ inclusion, a few have expressed concern. What is such a big Hollywood star doing in Silent Hill, when the series’ best main characters (I hesitate to call them outright protagonists) have typically been ‘everymen’? To that I say there’s no reason why he can’t fill a similar role. I think Reedus will turn out to be a great inclusion, not least for the new generation he will help introduce to this iconic town. For those who worry about the series becoming too ‘Hollywood’, bear in mind that the original Silent Hill actually set out with this aim, and it is partly what made Western audiences so open to this otherwise intrinsically Japanese horror game at the time.
Those Japanese horror traits are well and truly present here too. Seemingly random sound effects, deformities, vengeful spirits, bizarre juxtapositions between laughter and crying, or innocence and the grotesque… This all tells me that Kojima and del Toro are well versed in the series roots, and they plan on doing it justice with their own creative twist.
Ten days later, people are still fervently talking about this new teaser. Heck, they’re still discovering new things in it; this one brief little teaser that really only consists of walking down a hall several times. I would say we should be wary of getting overexcited, but when you consider the hands that are crafting this tale, I think, on this occasion, we have every right to be.
Expect to be pleasantly surprised all over again when the real thing finally hits our screens in 2016. In the meantime, check out my review of Silent Hill 2 to get a small taste of why there is such appreciation for a series that prides itself on making its players feel as uncomfortable as possible.