July 26, 2007 8:08 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]
After last week’s look at symbolism in Silent Hill 2, a lot of feedback asked AG to look similarly at other Silent Hill games, and the most popular request was AG’s take on Silent Hill 4. It’s my pleasure to oblige— please keep the requests coming!
Silent Hill 4: The Room is generally considered the least popular of the series among fans. Let’s consider why this should (and shouldn’t) be the case—and, of course, we’ll visit all the deliciously twisted elements of aberrant psychology that make the Silent Hill series so compelling.
The town of Silent Hill is almost a character in and of itself in each game in the series. It advances to enshroud each protagonist—always an individual on the point of emotional crisis—in a sort of Biblical purgatory, a transient, flexible reality that calls them to account for past sins. And yet, throughout the course of the series it becomes evident that the town is more than a mirror for others; it’s got its own native history, the dark tale of a morbid cult whose disciples abused children, performed occult rituals, and disregarded the fabric of reality. We learn a little more about the over-arching story of the mysterious town in each game, and perhaps no greater quantity of history is revealed in any previous game than in Silent Hill 4.
That can only be a good thing, right?
The use of location as its own living, breathing entity is one of the series’ biggest charms, to be sure. But Silent Hill 4 introduces a new living location—the titular room, Apartment 302, belonging to one Henry Townshend, chained from the inside and from which he cannot escape, even through the windows. Though apartments feature prominently in the previous Silent Hill games, the game’s primary setting is instead the town of South Ashfield. Henry has, however, visited Silent Hill before, as is demonstrated by some rather artistic photos he’s taken and hung on his wall.
One identifying factor of Silent Hill is that it doesn’t seem that one can ever merely visit that place. Those who stumble into it by accident are often compelled back—as experienced by Harry, James, and Heather from the previous three games—when it’s time to account for the past or to play their role in the disrupted reality created by Silent Hill’s cult. The town also demonstrates that its reach extends beyond its own bounds; the summons of Limbo reached James via Mary’s ghostly letter, while in Heather’s experience the depersonalization and disruption of Silent Hill came initially to her own stomping grounds, as if it had followed her from her first experiences there.
This makes the sight of the Silent Hill photos, and the revelation at the opening of Silent Hill 4 that Henry Townshend has visited the fatal site especially chilling. In fact, the presence of the images in the protagonist’s home (by proxy, the player’s “home”) feels like an invasion of ghosts, a rather delicious portent of future danger.
The exploration of that room is the player’s first act in the life of Henry Townshend; armed only with the knowledge that it’s his room and he can’t get out, the peaceable environment feels strangely surreal. We search the room for clues to Henry’s identity—what is his dark secret, what’s his hidden sin? But we find precious few.
One weakness in Silent Hill 4 is that Henry isn’t really the story’s protagonist; he acts as the vehicle for another sinner’s account, that of the murderer Walter Sullivan. And the “protagonist” of the story is not the infamous town of Silent Hill, but Henry’s own Room 302, once the childhood home of Sullivan and now, in his demented mind, the avatar of his estranged mother. As the unfortunate inhabitant of Room 302, Henry is almost an innocent bystander, a voiceless observer to the horror that unfolds.
This is not in and of itself such a bad device, although the purgatory-allegory feel of the previous games make it reasonable for us to expect we’ll get to trace the mysteries of another new protagonist’s madness, and somewhat disappointing for us not to. In fact, the use of the room—one’s own home, and initially one’s only safe refuge as the inexplicable horror begins steadily encroaching—is a stroke of brilliance. It’s always frightening to see Silent Hill transform, to trace the parallels between something that was tolerable by light and horrific when the dread sets in; Silent Hill 3 accomplishes this particularly well, as there are several stages of transition therein and some are deliciously severe. But to see the same gradual toxicity beginning to overwhelm our own home, to see that the horrors on the other side of the quietly moaning bathroom hole that Henry uses to travel between the worlds can follow him inside.
The disembodied ghouls that pull themselves through the walls of Henry’s bedroom, or the grim and fetid relics that hide and threaten in the corners of the living room make the sense of invasion particularly acute. Silent Hill features some theme of rather disruptive pure violation in each game—the robbery of Harry Mason’s daughter from him, the abuse of Alessa, the rape themes of Silent Hill 2, the impregnation of an unaware Heather, for example, and this stealing of your safe place by the fingers of Hell is one of the most arresting experiences in survival horror.
Similarly, in the previous Silent Hill games, the protagonist is also a violator—James’ prior bad acts, or Heather’s rage and vengefulness, for example. Here, Silent Hill 4 stays delightfully on-point. Trapped in the Room, Henry’s only connection to the world outside are the glimpses he can get of others’ business through his back windows, or in a rather pleasing turn of voyeurism, of his pretty neighbor Eileen’s bedroom through a hole in his wall.
Henry always seems vaguely disoriented, dazed. He’s locked in his room for days before the proper story begins, and treats it as a minor, if perplexing inconvenience. When he begins being haunted by the gruesome visions of murders that we later learn are part of Walter’s planned “21 Sacraments” ritual aimed at resurrecting his mother through the Room, it’s rather easy to believe that it’s Henry obliviously committing these acts—shy, unassuming, and trapped in unreality by day, a vicious killer by night.
It’s a disappointment to learn that, uncharacteristic for the game’s usual format, Henry’s a largely innocent party—as if we as players are intended to invest in a guy who essentially moved into the wrong apartment at the wrong time. The potential was there, and the shift of focus away from Silent Hill’s stable core—making the player an accuser rather than an accused, an executioner instead of the condemned—just doesn’t work.
It should be noticed that in its pure horror elements, though, Silent Hill 4 excels, perhaps in areas where the other Silent Hill games sometimes felt irrelevant or disjointed. The cursed ghosts of Walter’s victims who dangle like corpses in the air, bearing the scars of their execution, are enormously frightening, as is the fact that they can’t really be defeated—on top of that, one must get quite near them to immobilize them. The locations are vividly gory, as is the subtle and chronic unraveling of Eileen into a mad juvenile, whimpering into the dark as the numbers that spell her end are scrawled into the flesh of her back. Of particular note is the way that the game’s puzzles were always quite directly connected to its story and action, something that wasn’t always the case in earlier games. While the palette of symbolism in previous Silent Hill games was usually tied, even if abstractly, to the protagonist’s hidden journey (like James being asked to select the innocent from a group of criminals sentenced to hang), the fact that Silent Hill 4’s puzzle imagery always directly correlates to the situation adds a certain nerve-wracking immediacy—even if it comes at the expense of the suspended-reality surrealism that characterizes the previous games more faithfully.
And the puzzles and symbols of Silent Hill 4 ring the knell of Walter’s truths, not Henry’s—if Silent Hill’s relegation to weakest in the series had to be decided by one element, that would have to be it.
Is the thing we enjoy most about the Silent Hill games, then, the chance to be sinners? Is it the accounting for crimes that inspires loyalty to this series, or is it the committing of them? Or is it our sympathy for the devil, our empathy for the traumatized and damned?
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer