Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Silent Hill – Shattered Memories (Emulated/PC, 2009, England): Slow, Satisfying Burn

Well, here it is 2012, and I played my first Wii game. (Would that classify as a confession or a boast?) Either way, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t actually play it on a Wii. Instead I used Dolphin, the Wii/Gamecube emulator on my PC. (EDIT: And I realize this game really is not an overlooked, “”bottom barrel” title and hence doesn’t belong here. But playing it in emulation made me want to write about it; I should probably have a separate section, or a separate blog entirely, just considering games in emulation…yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My 16-year-old nephew is the typical COD addict—you know, he goes hog-wild in online matches for 4 months straight, prestiges repeatedly, then drops it like an atom bomb and plays Madden while waiting for the next installment. When I told him I was playing the (at one time) Wii exclusive “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories” on my PC, he snickered and said point blank: “I don’t know how that works, but enjoy the wonky controls and the lack of precision.” He’s a smartass, but he was dead right.

As a longstanding, unapologetic fan of every single SH game (all the way back to watching the trailer for the original in awe before it was ever released), I did not plan on playing the Wii version of “SH: Shattered Memories.” Not owning a Wii (and not interested in owning a Wii), I simply assumed this was one SH game I would not get to experience. But I smacked down the $30 on the Playstation 2 version of the game within seconds after it dropped, surprised that the Wii-exclusive had been ported to the PS2—and even more surprised, frankly, that anyone was even bothering to make anything for the PS2 in the year 2010.

When I stopped coughing (after inhaling all the dust that had accumulated on my fat PS2 console) to play “Shattered Memories,” I was horrified by the visuals of the game. The image was blurry, terribly pixelated—it was so bad I was sure that there was something wrong with my aging console. But no—I tried it on another person’s old console as well—and the image just sucked. This was disappointing, especially after having seen some gameplay footage on YouTube of the earlier-released Wii version that looked pretty terrific (for, technically, a last-gen game). I wondered what the hell was up?

I couldn’t find any real discussion of it on the internets (probably because by the time the Wii version was ported to the PS2 an entire year had gone by and no one was really paying attention to the game). I remembered someone saying somewhere that “Shattered Memories” was probably one of the greatest last games that will ever be made for the PS2. Visually, that comment couldn’t have been more wrong.

But then I think I figured out the issue, though I’ve not confirmed it. Why did the Wii version look so nice, yet the PS2 version look like…shit? Well, the game was actually not only ported to the PS2. It was simultaneously ported to the PSP (Playstation Portable), I’ve come to the conclusion (in other words, I’d bet a paycheck or two) that the developers “Climax” (or whoever was in charge of the porting) used the exact same version for both systems. So what you get on the PS2 is actually the “blown up” version which was made for the tiny PSP. In other words, on a big screen, you get pixellated visual junk. (Though I’ve not played it yet and have it on my shelf, I understand this is exactly what Climax did with the “Silent Hill: Origins” game as well [released just prior to “Shattered Memories”], which was originally only made for PSP but eventually ported (to ugly effect?) for the PS2. We’ll see about that later.)

It was this realization that guided my first foray into using Dolphin, the Wii emulator for PC. I wanted to play the best-looking version of this game I could. My previous experiences with the PCSX2 (PS2) emulator for PC has been relatively good (though, honestly, any emulator’s performance is based solely on how nitpicky a particular title is and how much processing power you can throw at it). But having enjoyed using PCSX2, I was willing to acquire a Wii version of “Shattered Memories” and give Dolphin a try, since the Wii version was head and shoulders above the other iterations in terms of graphics. Overall playing this Wii title worked fairly well on PC, but with some caveats if you plan on giving it a try. I’ll discuss this later.

How the hell can you play a Wii game on your PC, some of you may ask? You can get all of this info at the Dolphin website (Google: Dolphin Wii Emulator, and the free download will appear), but in a nutshell, really the best way to accomplish this is to use an actual motion controller (the Wiimote and the Nunchuk). You need to get a “Wireless Sensor Bar” that sits in front of the TV (uses batteries) for about $20 (you would use this same contraption if you were playing an actual Wii console, but because it’s wireless, it doesn’t actually connect to anything—it just sits in front of your TV and picks up the infrared from your Wiimote). Then, if you don’t already have one, buy the Wiimote and Nunchuk combo controller at about $30 (everything is cheaper if you go used). Lastly you need to be able to get the Wiimote, which uses Bluetooth, to be recognized by your PC. To do this, if your PC doesn’t have Bluetooth already built in, you just need to buy a “USB to Bluetooth” dongle at about $10 (actually ranging anywhere from a few dollars to $30, depending if you get the most current 3.0 USB model or an older 2.0 USB model–either will work). Basically, the dongle just gives your PC the ability to use any Bluetooth device. Plugging the dongle into an open USB port on your PC and booting up the Dolphin program, you can make your PC recognize the Wiimote. Pretty cool. Rip an iso of your Wii game (using something like imageburn), turn on your sensor bar, boot the iso in the Dolphin emulator, and you are playing the Wii without having the embarrassment of actually having to buy one. (Okay, that’s not nice, but you get my drift.) For something that doesn’t seem like it would ever work, it is amazingly simple. Of course, like any emulator, it does require some processing power (both CPU and videocard) to work well, though.

Boldly, “Shattered Memories” returns to the initial events that began the Silent Hill franchise: Bookish fiction writer Harry Mason, driving in a snowstorm in or near the town of Silent Hill, has an accident and wakes up to find his young daughter, Cheryl, missing. (In fact, there were rumors circulating years before the game’s release that an actual “remake” of the original Silent Hill was in the works, but ultimately “Shattered Memories” is not a remake, but is a kind of retelling of the story from a different perspective and a completely different gameplay focus.)

The entire story is actually a flashback; in present time, the player-character is sitting in the office of a gruff therapist, Dr. K, retelling the tale of that fateful night of the accident, the wrecked car, the abandoned creepy town of Silent Hill. As a framing device, the gameplay returns to the player sitting in Dr. K’s office from time to time (this occurs in first-person perspective, whereas the flashback/exploration sequences in town are in third person perspective), and the good doctor speaks directly to you, commenting on the events that have unfolded, venting his frustrations and opinions, and also giving you some psychological tests, which must be completed in order to continue the game.

These tests take various forms: answering a series of true or false survey questions, coloring in a picture, or sorting bizarre photographs. As the bright red “Psychology Warning” screen at the beginning of the game announces: “This game plays you as much as you play it.” Apparently, the way you complete these seemingly harmless psychological tests alter the way the story plays out when the focus returns to Harry searching for his daughter in Silent Hill. From what I’ve read, these changes involve which characters appear, at what location, wearing what garb, brandishing what demeanor, and which of the 5 finales you get to see.  A mechanic like this creates intriguing replay possibilities for those who care.

Or it might not. What I mean is this: I restarted the game about 10 times trying to initially identify the best Dolphin settings to make the game look good and run smoothly [I ended up being able to play the game at 2x its native resolution, which was nice], and so I kept tweaking settings and restarting. The first psychological test [a T/F survey] given to you by Dr. K appears at the very outset. The first time I took the test, I answered carefully and honestly. In this instance, my first encounter in Silent Hill was with the well-known, rough-hewn, leather-boot-and-sunglasses-wearing policewoman, Cybil, who was sitting in a diner. However, on subsequent restarts, when I simply answered all the questions false or true [or whatever just to quickly get into actual gameplay for testing purposes], my first encounter was with an older barmaid in a bar, and the diner across the street [where Cybil used to be sitting] was closed and dark. These differences are interesting, however ultimately the conversations with either woman led to the same conclusion—in other words the story arc did not change and my next objective and destination was unaltered. Take this for what you will.) Also in game you will have choices of whether to enter one door or another, and once you make a choice, the other door will be off limits to you. For example, in an abandoned high school, you can choose to enter an art studio or the planetarium, and each contains a different kind of puzzle you must complete in order to continue. Interestingly, these choices are not “announced” to you ahead of time—they just appear as a natural part of gameplay, and you turn left or right and choose a door on-the-fly and go with it, never really even knowing there was another venue available. However, if you return and try to open the alternate door later on, Harry just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Nah.”

But the bulk of the gameplay is not simply sitting in a therapist’s office taking Rorschach tests, of course. In flashback fashion, most of the game involves navigating Harry through the snowy, unpeopled town of Silent Hill (through mundane locations, like the city’s streets, a bar, a state park, a restaurant, the aforementioned high school, the famous Alchemilla hospital, the Toluca Mall (remember Toluca Lake and Toluca Prison, yes?)—apparently everything is abandoned because all the Silent Hill residents have barricaded themselves in their homes against the storm). Harry is trying desperately to locate his daughter.

Of course, we all know Silent Hill is not an idyllic little town, and things go awry often. Like all the SH games, there are two alternating realities—there is the “waking world” of the snowed-in, mostly uninhabited Silent Hill (which appears in both day time and night-time), and then there are the “Nightmare” sequences where suddenly everything changes into the ninth circle of hell. In earlier SH games, this alternate “ugly” universe relied on black, demonic, cancer-ridden environments thick with smoke and littered with things like torture devices and bloody chain link fencing that Pyramid Head considered his playground. “Shattered Memories” takes a slightly different (and some might say “lighter”) approach to this “Nightmare” world though. In this game, when the alternate universe appears, everything freezes over—a thick, dark ice covers everything and restricts your path.

(SPOILER-ISH: Actually, I’m not sure I’d consider this spoiler material, but as you progress through the game, it becomes increasingly clear that these nightmare sequences are not random or haphazard, and they are linked directly to the story. More specifically, each time the frozen nightmare world appears, it is right on the heels of Harry getting closer to the reality of where his daughter actually is and who he actually is, which creates surprising narrative impetus—and it all ends with the kind of twisty KAPOW that I’ve not experienced in a  game for a while. It stuck with me for a few days after the game was long over, which is always evidence of a great accomplishment in my eyes. SPOILER-ISH ENDS.) Oh, and there’s no Pyramid Head (whose original Japanese name, by the way, is simply “Red Triangle” or “Red Pyramid,” which I kind of like better).

Of course, when the nightmare world appears, this is when other kinds of weirdos show up and the “action” takes place. Notice, I said “action,” and not “combat.” That’s because there is no combat in this game. None. In this case, the weirdos take only one form—a sort of fully grown, yet half-formed, shrieking, flesh-colored person, without a face or any other distinguishing characteristics. To you, they might look like bizarre embryonic versions of people, or weird mummies, or something. Some of them have large holes in their bodies, like donuts. Others have misshapen, rectangular heads. These mutants show up in droves when everything freezes over and the nightmare world appears, and if they get too close to Harry, they latch onto him and he starts to take damage. This is when you take out your shotgun and—

Okay, I’m lying. What exactly is your plan of action when this happens? Well after you shake them off of you using the motion controller (a motion that never felt natural to me)…you run. Yup, you just run…a lot. You run away, you climb a fence as fast as you can, you scale a small ledge, then run some more. You blast through doors, you dodge under staircases, and you can even attempt to hide for brief moments. But, pretty much, you just run away. The point of these sequences is that you are looking for the proper path that will lead you out of the nightmare world and back into the more normal surroundings of Silent Hill. As you can imagine, this takes an incredible amount of trial and error. (An “exit waypoint” is added to your cell phone’s GPS at these moments to help you navigate these areas, but I never had the time to pause, take the phone out, and consult the map—the chase was much too hectic. Stopping running usually means death.) If the weirdoes latch onto Harry too often, he goes down, and it is game over. In other words, if you enjoy hacking and slashing or shooting freaks, this game is not for you. If you are a triathlete, though, game on.

In between these high speed sequences (and in all honesty, they can be pretty tense), the gameplay is much more leisurely. As you carouse the snowed-in, abandoned town in non-nightmare mode, you pick up small audio clips or journal entries which tell snippets of the bereft people’s lives in Silent Hill. Actually, these “collectibles” comprise a significant part of the game—almost to the point where much of the experience reminded me more of an old-timey point-and-click adventure than anything else. These collectibles are found in one of two ways. First, using the sound from your cell phone (hissing tones similar to those produced by the signature pocket radio in the earlier Silent Hill games) as a means of triangulation, you can locate and then trigger a collectible. Second, and more strange, sometimes you stumble across a vague shadow of a person, like a ghostly after image, and if you snap a picture of it with your cell phone camera, this will also trigger a collectible. When you properly locate one, an audio or text message becomes available on your cell phone for you to read or listen to. The whining “sonar” that aids you in finding these items is unnerving of course, and when you trigger one of these collectibles, the screen flashes white, blinding you temporarily, and a sharp sound rings suddenly through the headphones—all of it designed to make you uncomfy, and it works.

What are these collectibles exactly? The game explains it this way: “Echoes” of memories or personalities can become “attached” to objects, especially when strong emotions have been present in the past. For example, you bump up against a filthy couch in an abandoned hotel, and you “find” an audio clip of a girl crying in the background while a clearly older male voice tells her he is sorry that he hit her “because you look so much like my daughter,” and that she should “put the wig back on and let’s go upstairs.” Adult father-daughter sex roleplaying. Sheesh. Or you stumble across a sleeping bag whose corner is poking out of a snow bank, and you’ll get a journal entry about brothers who ventured out into the woods to spend the night—with hypothermic results. Whatever the (completely not explained) reason why you are able to detect these spiritual snippets, these story fragments (which are totally disconnected from the main story) serve one important purpose—they create atmosphere as thick as any Silent Hill fog you’ve ever seen. These people’s stories are never that unique—indeed, they might be considered quite ordinary—but they are never good. Every time I triggered one, I sort of dreaded listening to it or reading it. For example, you find an audio clip of a frantic girl calling her mom to confess she went into the woods to party, but now she thinks “these people are weird and I just want to come home.” Things don’t go well for her after someone slips a mickey into her drink. You listen to a voicemail from a violently irate customer to a photography shop screaming that the proprietors have accidentally taped over her wedding video, and that she will have revenge. In another collectible, you hear one-half of a phone conversation of a married man (who is toting his young daughter [begging for candy] through the mall) making arrangements to rendezvous with his mistress: “Yeah, wear that dress, but nothing underneath,” he says. “Who are you talking to?” asks his little girl. Yech. Fascinating to me, while at the same time these story fragments add considerable atmosphere to the game, they also display some rather remarkable writing talent. Usually within the space of 25 words, or 15 seconds, a whole little story is told, some harrowing (or maybe just gritty and depressing) tale of a Silent Hill resident. This kind of economy of language seriously impresses someone like me who suffers from chronic linguistic diarrhea. I mean look at the length of this post, for God sakes.

On the contrary, walking around in a leisurely fashion to locate and trigger these collectibles also detracts from the immediacy of the story. After all, Harry here is supposed to be frantically scouring this bizarre universe for his missing daughter, not popping casually into empty restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, and high schools to sniff around in the corners for ghostly diary entries accidentally left behind. I understand all of this is a videogame conceit, and I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief, but in this case while I liked the collectibles and the overall narrative effect, I also didn’t like the overall negative effect on the sense of urgency that should be driving the main story and our protagonist. At points, the game turns into a leisurely stroll through a snowy town, which doesn’t feel like Silent Hill territory.

But back to the cellphone for a moment: This is not the first game I’ve played where the character carries and utilizes a cellphone, but this is the first game I’ve played where a cellphone is such an integral part (indeed, a main interface) of the game. In “Shattered Memories,” you can take pictures with your smart phone (actually you are obligated to at some points), you can use the GPS map to reach your objective (it is the only way to access the in-game map), you save your game progress through the phone (again, the only way to save, unless you are using the “Save State” function in the Dolphin emulator, which will save your progress up to the second, wherever you are, in case the program crashes), you listen to and read all your collectibles (as mentioned)…and you can even make and receive calls (imagine that—some puzzle solutions require you to make phone calls). You can even change the ringtone on your cell. My only gripe about all this: Using the well-designed phone, while clever, does take you out of the game’s environment to some degree, but this gimmick does make the game stand out (in my mind). While you use the phone, the game’s action continues, by the way.

Let’s move onto some negatives and a short discussion of how the game behaves in emulation. Technically, I experienced two major issues using Dolphin with this title. There is graphical corruption in the cone of light emitted from Harry’s flashlight. This corruption took several forms depending on which settings I used in Dolphin. For example, if I used the Direct X-based graphics plugin (DX9 or DX11), the cone of light was cut off with what looked like the shape of Harry’s hand (gripping the flashlight) which was appearing in front of the flashlight (yes, bizarre, but that’s the kind of weird thing that can happen in emulation)—so the illumination was seriously reduced, and illuminating dark areas of the game is key to playing. Alternately, using the OpenGL-based graphics plugin, the cone of light was corrupted with dark vertical or horizontal lines appearing across it in varying widths. This, for me, was the lesser of two evils, and so this is how I chose to play the game. The other issue involved a strange slowdown in large areas. There are not many large areas within the game, but every once in a while there will be an open street corner or a warehouse-sized or mall-sized corridor or room. Unfortunately, in these areas Harry would suddenly begin walking in slow motion—really slow motion. The game was not stuttering or crashing, but it just began running extremely slowly. Sadly, this would also happen at times during the frantic “nightmare world” chase sequences, which irritated me. I did find that turning off the flashlight seemed to help speed things up in these selective areas, but that fix was not consistent and not always workable. Other than these issues, the game performed rather well.

Consider the next paragraph the humorless ranting of a motion-controller-novice (a title I don’t mind bearing), but for Christ’s sake using the Wiimote is a MAJOR PAIN IN THE ASS. I guess I’m spoiled, being used to sitting Indian-style on my couch, arms relaxed, holding a 360 or PS3 controller in my lap, basically pushing buttons and moving the thumbsticks with minimal effort and ease. No such ease here. I had to sit up straight, or else bits of my body (legs, feet) would block the line-of-sight needed between the Wiimote and sensor bar (which is placed in front of the TV); I guess I was supposed to be standing up to play—yeah, right; I had to learn to barely, even imperceptibly, move the Wiimote in my hand to get Harry to turn around or move in a particular direction—most of the time, the Wiimote cursor (an ugly, bright white circle floating across everything–I erased the circle in the screenshots here for artistic sake) was frequently off-screen entirely (you can’t move the controller too far up, down, left, or right), leaving the character stranded on screen, motionless (the sensitivity was simply out of control and could not be changed in this title). Of course, trying to reach the buttons on the controller with your thumb to complete certain functions would cause the Wiimote cursor to move accidentally (just because you are naturally moving your hand), and the character would spin about uncontrollably or begin walking in some wrong direction. Just awful. I fought the controls of this game the entire time. I mean THE ENTIRE TIME. Incredibly frustrating, but my nephew warned me. (Actually what occurred to me was this: People who own and use the Wii couldn’t possibly know how easy and comfy it is to use a regular gamepad, like the 360 or PS3 pad—if they did, they wouldn’t put up with this mess for a second.) Anyway, I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that the motion controls were just gimmicky, unnecessary junk, and that I would have just as much enjoyed playing the game with a standard gamepad (and I could have if I were willing to settle for the crappy PS2 image, but nah.) Myth has it that Dolphin (the emulator) allows you to actually use a standard keyboard and mouse, or even a PS3 six-axis gamepad, to play many Wii games. And it’s all true—you can configure just about any controller to work with Dolphin—pretty neato. However, I tried both keyboard/mouse and PS3 controller setups, and all of them were a bit wonky and not quite right—”Shattered Memories” seems to really WANT you to play it with the Wiimote, and so I begrudgingly complied. So now I own a Wiimote, Nunchuk, and Sensor Bar but not an actual Wii console. Story of my life.

Regardless of the irritating motion controls (which constantly and rudely yank you out of immersion in the game), the story itself, and Harry’s situation was absolutely compelling enough to make me doggedly forge ahead. This, like so many of the Silent Hill narratives, just begs for—and wins—your attention with ease. And, as I mentioned, the ending (any of the 5 alternate finales) is a complete knockout, a real twisting, surprising,  heartstring-puller. I am helpless to not pay attention to these people and their various bizarre plights. I think I’d buy real estate in Silent Hill just so I could observe and commiserate with these sad, sad people. And I have a small theory as to why the SH games in general are so compelling. It’s not so much the nightmare world that draws attention, but it is the “normal” people’s lives that are on the verge of weirdness, but not completely sinking into surreality, that grips me personally. For example, the very butch policewoman Cybil—she seems to be helpful at times, but then at other times she just seems like a dikey bitch in leather out to get you. Also in this game you encounter Michelle—a woman in her late 20s who you first meet in the abandoned high school, standing on stage and wearing a pink taffeta prom dress (a little odd for her age), and she sings you an entire song before she introduces herself. As weird as all this is, it is ultimately explained: She is at the school for the reunion, which was cancelled due to weather but she didn’t know, and she’s just waiting for her lawyer boyfriend to pick her up. Frankly, you come across seemingly strange characters in all the SH games who, once their stories are explained, really aren’t necessarily all that strange. But at first glance, watch out! In the case of this game, you also meet a nurse who has had a serious accident and is suffering from a profusely bleeding head wound, but she insists on just taking some pills and lying down on her couch—while also making some slight sexual advances towards you as you assist her. It’s all unsettling, but ultimately the characters hit just the right pitch of “bizarre, but normal enough, I guess.” As part of the surprisingly consistent Silent Hill universe, this is all rather perfect.

One final positive note: This game was apparently the last in the series to include the musical genius of the one-and-only original SH composer Akira Yamaoka. After delivering the music for “Shattered Memories,” he retired from his 16-year-long career at Konami. Needless to say, the music in the game is highly evocative of all the other Silent Hill games—it’s moody and downtrodden, a little triphop, quiet when appropriate, and ugly when necessary. I fear that future SH games simply won’t embody the same essential vibe simply because the music won’t be the same. (The upcoming “Silent Hill: Downpour” says it will utilize music “belonging to the industrial musical genre, but to a lesser extent in comparison to the previous games in the series, which all made more prominent use of such music” (Wikipedia). Hmmm, we’ll see what that means.


PS: I’m putting this as a postscript because it is utterly irrelevant. In other words, stop reading now: Reflecting on how this game integrates the cellphone mechanic makes me want to crawl, shamefaced, into the blogger’s confessional. In real life (whatever that is), I don’t own a cellphone. I know, I know. That’s like saying I don’t own a pair of kidneys. It’s the kind of statement reserved as a bumper sticker slogan for luddites of the highest order. Hell, even my 73-year-old mother has forsaken her land-line in favor of a cellphone-only lifestyle. But yes, I don’t own a cellphone. Lucky for me, my job as a university professor doesn’t require that I have one. My cellphone-free recklessness is a natural extension of living on my own for years, far away from family, while working on my masters and doctoral degrees right before the wide advent of these mobile devices. I lived alone, a kind of graduate student hermit, in communities from which I was generally a disconnected, temporary resident whose time was spent with nose planted firmly in book. Who was I going to call anyway? Today, though I am a bit more connected, that same question still applies. In fact, the only reason I keep a landline is in case I lose a finger or two in some insane typing accident and need to call an ambulance. However, these are not the reasons I provide when bugged by students why they can’t text me their excuses for not turning in assignments. The “public” reason for my anti-cellphone stance seems much more practical (and it’s true as well): I live on the side of a mountain where no cellphone signal of any kind gets through. Friends visit, and I snicker when they try to check their messages and can’t. “You’re in the wild now!” I say in my best “Deliverance” drawl. My partner has a cellphone—a vestige before moving into our little chalet in the mountains—and it sits in the drawer most of the time. But my most honest excuse? I just don’t want the monthly bill.  But I’m sure one day when I run out of gas on the side of one of these completely abandoned, winding mountain roads with the real “Deliverance” folks slathering at me from beyond the tree line (or bizarre Silent Hill mutants chasing me through a frozen landscape), it will all come back to bite me in the ass. Literally.