Before Amnesia: Silent Hill Homecoming and the Near Death of Survival Horror

Horror, both as a genre and as an emotion, is a complicated beast. What frightens one person will fail to make another feel anything. It could even make them laugh, or be sad, or anything else. Like many genres, the Horror genre has become increasingly complicated in its forms and definitions. Is a work part of the meaninglessness-confirming Cosmic Horror group? Or the blood-soaked, chainsaw-bearing Splatter Horror? What about the dark shadows and long halls of Gothic Horror? Or the experiments and test tubes of Sci-Fi Horror? But we’re here for one beast, the most famous of them all, and arguably the first to appear in video games: Survival Horror.

Survival Horror is about desperation. It is about someone being placed in impossible, deadly circumstances. It is about humanity outmatched and outgunned. You cannot fight the monster under your bed, there are few if any weapons to bring to bear against it. None that will stop it from brutally killing you, anyway. There is no escape.

This particular brand of horror died down a bit for a few years in favour of its long-standing rival, Action Horror. The release of games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender: The Arrival (yeah, survival horror has a thing for colons) helped to change that, but not before plenty of bland, violent “horror” games were released. Survival Horror is now popular, and, more importantly, profitable.

But why am I telling you about this, instead of talking about the game you clicked on this article to read about? Well, context. You need to know the environment this game was made in, if you want to understand how this thing came to be and why it went so badly wrong.

Silent Hill is, along with Resident Evil, one of the series most commonly credited with the creation of modern video game horror. It wasn’t the first – that award probably goes to Alone in the Dark – but it was certainly one of the series to put the genre really into the mainstream. Silent Hill 2 and its sequel Silent Hill 3 show up on not just “Top Horror Games” lists, but Top Games period. It’s an amazing series and I and thousands of others love it to death, even as it makes us ruin our pants.

But this game wasn’t made by the people who created those games. The publisher, Konami, in its infinite wisdom, decided to dissolve that group and have them work instead as app developers. Instead, they gave development rights to Double Helix games, a new studio, as opposed to the brilliant people responsible for the first four instalments. It should be indicative of what was to come that Double Helix’s most notable creations afterwards were Killer Instinct and the Green Lantern game.

It didn’t need to suck so hard. There is potential in this game, but the execution is so botched you don’t see any of it.

In case you’ve come in the wrong door, Silent Hill is an evil, haunted town that acts as a sort of proving ground or trial for people – usually sinners – to overcome. It draws people to it and uses their past traumas and regrets against them, conjuring symbolic monsters and twisting itself to personally torment the person. If the individual can successfully overcome their own guilt and failings, they will leave Silent Hill both stronger and happier for it. Those who succumb to their vices? Well, death isn’t the worst this town can do to you.

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Our main character is a man named Alex Shepard, recently discharged from the Army and returning home for the first time in years – hence the odd subtitle of the game. Now, in a better Silent Hill game, we would have the town draw on, for example, his PTSD and survivor’s guilt. The town becomes a battlefield, with gunmetal, fallen soldiers, and military symbolism galore. This never happens.

Worse, Alex doesn’t even go to Silent Hill until the very end of this game. He’s in some place called Shepard’s Glen, which is close to Silent Hill (geographically), but with literally no in-game reason to do so. This is especially strange when the Glen is almost identical to Silent Hill from a visual standpoint. It’s got the customary fog, the grey, dilapidated buildings, and even the massive sinkhole barriers!

Alex isn’t interesting. He’s got no personality, no memorable quotes, nothing. He’s an ex-soldier with daddy issues and a bit of an obsession with his little brother. And that wouldn’t be so bad – the other Silent Hill protagonists have tended to have relatively bare personalities – but every other character in the game is the same. The childhood friend/damsel in distress. The suspicious leader. The evil mechanic guy. None of them seem to have any reason for being here or relation to the main character.

The story gets worse. There’s the running subplot about Alex looking for his younger brother Josh that leads to the most conventional, derivative conclusion ever. You’ll figure it out about an hour or two in, pray for a red herring and a twist, and be very disappointed. It’s the twist from Silent Hill 2 minus all the pathos.

The backstory behind Alex and his family is equally as bad, and equally as boring. Remember the Order – that creepy cult from 1 and 3? Well, they’re here, and acting completely different from how they were before. Suddenly they’re this great military force operating out of the mines beneath the town. They wear gas masks and lose the mystery and ominousness that made then interesting villains. Silent Hill itself behaves differently from every other game. Unlike the others, Alex is not causing Silent Hill to come after him. Hell, Silent Hill has no interest in him, and the entire plot happens because of some pact the town had with the Order or something. Actually, that’s a better subtitle than Homecoming. “Silent Hill: Or Something”.

All of this spits in the face of the original games. A game in this series should be frightening, and it’s not. The one thing with the potential to be truly frightening in this game is the idea that Silent Hill is spreading, that its malign influence is growing bigger and starting to affect the areas outside its bounds. But this idea is never addressed or commented on in game, and you only realize it – if you think about the game at all – in hindsight.

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Then there’s the gameplay. This game doesn’t feel finished. The combat system is dreadful and clumsy. The combat systems for the original four games weren’t exactly the best, but there was a reason – You were playing as a writer, a secretary, a teenage girl, and a hermit. They’re not combat professionals. The entire reason they made Alex a soldier was to make the combat better and in doing so they fail in the worst way possible. The knife is the best weapon you can use, but not for intended reasons. It’s not programmed to be stronger than the axe or gun, it’s simply that the game is so poorly tested, they didn’t notice that the game will endlessly stun-lock any enemy you start attacking with it, making them unable to react as you systematically chop them into mince.

The enemies don’t behave intelligently or have interesting symbolism or concepts. The sexy nurse demon from Silent Hill 2 is back, but she doesn’t have a reason to appear that way. She represented James’ repressed libido, and has no meaning to Alex. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that yeah, Pyramid Head is in this game. One of the most terrifying monsters in the entire library of Horror Games is back and is just embarrassing. He only appears two or three times, never outside of cutscenes, and like the Nurse has no reason to be there. Pyramid Head is only meaningful to James, in the same way the Missionary is only meaningful to Heather, and the Boogeyman to Murphy from Downpour. But Alex has no monster that is meaningful to him. Even the bosses are meaningful only to side characters, who typically die after roughly one scene.

Okay, I need to talk about something good before I hurt someone. A soldier suffering from PTSD is a great concept for a Silent Hill hero, with lots of potential symbolism and themes to explore. It’s not used at all properly, but it’s introduced the idea and done well could still be cool.

Additionally, there are a couple of enemy designs that are surprisingly well done. The first is Scarlet, a tall, thin doll monster with a sharp, gaping mouth, and whose body slowly breaks as you attack her, making her more monstrous as you continue. The other is Asphyxia. The basic image here is a line of women strangling each other. Add that to the Human Centipede (actually, she predates the Human Centipede by a year, so some royalties might be owed). But even an image that good suffers from not relating well to the character, thanks to being in Double Helix’s hands.

This game is dreadful – there are no other words. It’s not fun, it’s not scary, it doesn’t add anything to the Silent Hill mythos. Despite easily being the goriest game in the series, it never brings the dread, fear, and disgust Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 make you feel. It fails because it represented the mistaken belief that true survival horror was dead, and that everything had to take the Resident Evil 4 route of marrying the genre with action. Capcom managed it – Double Helix couldn’t. Had they waited another year or two and seen the success of the new indie horror games, something good could have come of Homecoming, but as it is, it is a pointless, boring, and frustrating misstep of a game. Try to forget its existence. Or, if you’re a masochist, it’s available for PlayStation 3 or on Steam.

Do you feel that Homecoming is actually a masterpiece of terror? Want to kill the person who decided to cancel Silent Hills? Well, leave a comment below.

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