It should come as no shock to people who are familiar with my taste in video games to know that I absolutely adore P.T., the precursor to the ill-fated Silent Hills. I’ve written at length about what makes it such a gem: the manner in which it constructs an endless space as claustrophobic, its method of telling a story through audiovisual cues, and its unabashed commitment to shattering the fourth wall. A first person noncombat experience, P.T. builds horror with an ingenuity that surpasses any Silent Hill game before it – with one critical exception. And no, I’m not talking about Silent Hill 2.

Amidst the eight major installments in the series, Silent Hill 4: The Room[1] is something of a black sheep. The last installment to be made by the franchise’s original developers, Team Silent, The Room[2] was met with a middling reception upon release, with a Metacritic score of 76 compared to the 85+ scores of its predecessors. It would mark the series’ slide into poorly reviewed irrelevancy, with future installments marred by clunky narratives, plodding gameplay, and horrendous glitches. While not quite at that level of all-out disaster, Silent Hill 4 nonetheless bears many early warning signs of decay: its combat and controls fail to meet the already low bar set by the series, its characters are flat and unmemorable, and even at a relatively tame nine hours, it feels unbearably long, with repetition of areas and enemies run amok.

Yet, for all its many failures, Silent Hill 4 succeeds in the one area it really needs to: its titular room.[3] The central premise of the game is thus: Henry Townshend, a smug looking everyman with the charisma of Jim Gilmore, awakens one day to find that he is incapable of leaving his apartment and, furthermore, that he cannot make contact with the outside world. His only method of escape is through an increasingly decrepit hole in his bathroom wall, which leads to the hellscape of Silent Hill. While the Silent Hill sections of the game play in the series’ standard third person style, these moments in the room[4] unfold from a non-combat first person perspective. Sound familiar?

silent-hill-4 room

The first person perspective allows players to experience Henry’s room with a heightened sense of intimacy: we are not a voyeuristic third party, coldly watching a trapped man as if he were on a security camera feed. Rather, we share Henry’s perspective and, consequently, his sense of isolation. As far as our view is concerned, there are no signs of human life in the room[5], to the extent that we are not even able to physically locate Henry’s body; the player will find nothing if they look down where Henry’s feet should be. As with P.T.’s hallway, Silent Hill 4’s room wants us to believe that nothing exists outside it.

Paradoxically, the room isn’t as terrifying as its desolate appearance makes it seem. In fact, players quickly learn the room is actually a safe space. The outside world of Silent Hill 4 is brutal, both thematically and in terms of gameplay. Monstrous enemies are fast and strong, and Henry, with the reaction time of an inebriated frat boy on Saint Patrick’s Day, is woefully ill-equipped to fight back. The game’s combat is essentially Dark Souls, sans the masterful nuance that allows for a fair fight. The room serves as a much needed reprieve from the hostility of Silent Hill, and, upon returning to it, Henry’s health is fully replenished.

SH4-11

Drawing a hard line in the sand between the constant threat of the outside world and the impenetrable walls of Henry’s apartment, the room becomes the ultimate home base for the player to regroup and reevaluate their plan of action. In addition to acting as an instant health regenerator, the room offers an inventory chest to store valuable items, and grants players a space to piece together the narrative of the game. When the player decides that they can no longer stand waiting around in the confines of the apartment, they can venture into the outside world once more in search of freedom. This dynamic creates a cycle of scares and safety that is almost soothing in reliability, granting players the ability to ease into any potential scares or danger on their own terms, all the while knowing that a way out is never too far away.

And then it all goes to hell.

As the game nears its halfway point, the room takes a sinister turn. Creepy faces begin to grow out of the walls, the room becomes host to a cacophony of awful noise, and most damningly for the player, Henry’s health no longer regenerates. In fact, as long as the demonic faces stay in the room, it actually decreases dramatically. In an instant, the most tranquil spot in the game becomes its most hostile scene, and only the most self-loathing of players would dare spend more than the bare minimum of time in the room.

room ghosts

By pulling the rug out from players, Silent Hill 4 shatters the player’s sense of safety and blurs the line between safety and terror. We come to realize that we never had any control over the situation; any power derived from the security of the room was illusory, and it is the game’s monsters that have the undeniable upper hand. It’s a smart translation of the same technique that many horror films, most notably Paranormal Activity, have used to great effect. In that film, audiences are led to believe that the titular activity can only occur during the night, while the dawn provides a protective cover for the film’s characters. This proves to be false when the supernatural beings start acting out in broad daylight, leading audiences to realize that a sudden scare could occur at any moment. In a video game, where the player is inherently forced to play an active part in the narrative, this realization can be far more paralyzing.

Horror games have historically offered differing viewpoints on how best to limit the player’s sense of strength. Some, like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, limit the player’s access to weapons, while others, like Amnesia and Outlast, deprive the player of any way to fight back altogether. Silent Hill 4’s method of instilling powerlessness is far more insidious and far crueler. By granting the player a power fantasy and then removing it without warning, the game perfectly captures that moment in the diegesis of a horror tale where the protagonist realizes that things are not only bad; they’re life threatening.

It’s unfortunate that much of the gameplay surrounding Silent Hill 4’s central premise is woefully inadequate and, in many places, outright awful. The game’s nature as a terribly paced and painfully repetitive clunker obscures its tremendous ambition when it comes to shaping the player’s sense of agency and, ultimately, their sense of absolute frailty. Even P.T., brilliant though it may be, does not recapture this subversion of player expectations. Hidden underneath its more cumbersome mechanics, Silent Hill 4 sows the seeds of a brilliant horror game, seeds that will hopefully one day grow into a tall, gloriously twisted tree of mindbending terror.

_______________

[1] You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!

[2] I did naht hit her, I did naht.

[3] Oh hi, Mark.

[4] Hi doggy.

[5] Everybody betray me, I fed up with this w–you know what? I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

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