Ratio: Silent Hill – Shattered Memories

December 19, 2010

Not marketed by its publishers, ignored by Alan Wake-hypers and too different from its origins to be loved by old fans: That would be the most fitting description of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, at least when you´re looking at only its surface and its surroundings. What Shattered Memories actually is would be one of the most immersive, engaging gaming-experiences that have ever been created. That doesn´t mean that this 2010-game is flawless, but what it did was spectacular. Why Silent Hill: Shattered Memories shouldn´t be missed out by any fan of rich, detailed virtual worlds – you´ll find out in the following review.

The game starts out very abrupt, showing how Harry Mason, the game´s protagonist, and his daughter are having a car accident. Harry loses consciousness only to find out that his little, cute girl is gone when he finally reawakens. The game then switches over to a psychologist´s bureau, who welcomes you and eventually starts asking you questions about the accident … which apparently has happened in the past. You can look around the room while sitting still in your chair, but be careful: that´s already part of a vital segment of Shattered Memories´ gameplay. The psychologist´s questioning divides the game into several chapters, though it doesn´t break up the game flow by suddenly changing you previous location. It´s just a narrator-function in that way, changing between past happenings and your current session with the psychologist, though it is important in its own way. Probably the most popular game mechanic of Shattered Memories is the actively changing game content, depending on not only the way you answer to the psychologist´s question, but also how you perceive the environments of Silent Hill. This goes from houses or persons that you encounter having different colors, to enemies and persons looking different, all the way to scenes playing out completely differently, leading to up to five different endings. It´s these interactive changes that at least partly balance out the game´s biggest flaw, which would be its short playtime of about six to seven hours. But don´t be deceived: These few hours are packed with atmosphere and tense situations.

I have only played the Wii-version of this game, but nonetheless do I believe that it is the best way to experience this title. Other than the intriguing change-mechanic, the motion controls really make this game the unique blockbuster that it is. Using the wiimote´s pointer-function as your ingame-flashlight is but the most obvious use you will encounter, yet it is undoubtedly implemented in a very fun way, made even better by Shattered Memories´ fantastic lighting effects. Each object or person that you point your source of light against will realistically cast a shadow, changing its form depending on angle and distance. Often times will you find yourself just playing around with what kind of silhouettes can be created. It´s redundant to mention how much these effects add to the creepy atmosphere that will never leave you for the whole trip. Besides the clever flashlight-mechanic, you´ll use the wiimote´s built-in speaker as your mobile phone, holding the controller against your ear to listen to phone calls. Which you can make yourself by finding new phone numbers scattered all over the city of Silent Hill, simply by looking at advertisements or posters on walls or otherwise written down numbers. The game doesn´t expect you to call anyone, but it´s exactly that kind of optionality that makes it all the more endorsing. On other occasions you will use the pointer-function on minigames that are realistically put into the game, like opening a locked door by guiding different parts to their right position. The most action-focused motion control-mechanic will be defending yourself against nightmarish creatures. Often times, people complain about how the shaking off-mechanic doesn´t work that well, thus resulting in failure, but as far as I´m concerned, it works perfectly fine. When one of those creatures jumped on your back, simply follow the on-screen icon and shake the wiimote in the exact same way. Or even less complicated: Act like you would in real-life. When a creature hangs on your right shoulder, raise your hand to the left and hit it down to the right. No science, really.

Mentioned creatures will only attack during pre-defined nightmare-scenes where your one and only goal is to reach a certain place. On this run, without any option to fight back, numerous of the horrifying monsters will run and jump after you. To gain distance, you can throw over objects to slow your enemies down, or sometimes find and activate a torch which temporarily holds off any attack. These chase sequences will make you lose your head and set you into an incredibly panicking state, the only thing on your mind left: Where the hell do I have to go?! And you´ll lose your way many times, that´s for sure, but it isn´t a problem due to the beginning of each chase being a check point. What helps you finding your goal are blue marks on doors or fences that indicate interactivity, as well as your mobile phone´s gps-map. In terms of Shattered Memories´ creepiness-factor, a lot of people argued that due to the knowledge of the absence of enemies during non-chase sequences, the rest of the game is boring. Can´t say I agree with that claim .. at all. It is true that your ingame-character´s life won´t be in danger outside of the chases, but at least on your first playthrough, you don´t know when the world around you turns into the scary nightmare-version of Silent Hill. And it can happen any time. Sometimes you pass one of the many doors and suddenly find yourself in the ice-nightmare, sometimes the streets transform before your eyes, not hiding the mystical happenings. Even outside of the chases, the environments are so well-designed and dark and little inviting that most gamers that get into the virtual world of Silent Hill will find themselves playing a true nightmare.

What pushes Shattered Memories beyond its great story and great visuals is the incredibly interactive gameplay. Where other games focus on some parts and dismiss others, developer Climax managed to successfully deliver a complete experience. Exploring environments from a behind-the-shoulder view with a directly controlled flashlight, using your mobile phone to call people, read messages, look at a map or take photos, opening doors just a little to peak into the next, unknown room, smoothly climbing over obstacles or hiding inside them – it all comes together more than nicely and is one of the very few games that don´t leave you wishing “awww, if only I could somehow interact with that“. Visuals and soundtrack are masterful and probably around the best the Wii-system has to offer. Not only are there these convincing lighting effects, it is the textures that will take you by surprise. Instead of the usual blurry mess that most non-HD-games make use of, Shattered Memories lets you actually read anything you can see and thus creates a higher sense of exploration. The weather-effects are superb, too, really adding to the atmosphere when snow starts falling.

I didn´t talk much about how exactly the story unfolds or what changes your own decisions can and will make. And I won´t do that. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a masterpiece, a truly immersive experience that should be undergone without any detailed knowledge, spoiling fun and interesting scenes. To add this: I hate horror-games since I´m a scaredy cat, but the gameplay possibilities and atmosphere convinced me to give this game a try, and damn, do I not regret that decision. Shattered Memories will suck you in and keep chewing on you until the very end. And then you´ll want to play some more, since you remember all the places you could have tackled in a different way. Thanks for not marketing this game, Konami, you brought gamers the most unknown treasure of 2010 (or 2009, if you´re from the USA). No, seriously, add in a dialogue-system like Mass Effect has and it´d be the best video game, haha!

GMotY-Awards 2010

December 2, 2010

The year 2010 is approaching its last days and it´s time to look back at the best stuff that video games offered over the course of these 12 months. However, don´t be mistaken: This is not a game of the year-entry. Rather, it is a gameplay of the year-award, mentioning gameplay mechanics that made for terrific experiences. Even in critically well-received, hyped games, superb gameplay is often something not to be found. The following games went beyond the means of hype and scores and delivered certain elements of gameplay that made me give them this special mention. Of course, I´m only going to mention games that I played myself, so don´t take this as a “these and ONLY these entries are worthy!!1”, but rather give these games a second chance if you haven´t played them, yet. Also, I´d love to see some comments from you about which mechanics you loved.

These are the gameplay mechanics of the year-winners:

Metroid: Other M for its satisfying combat. A game that got mixed reactions, ranging from best to worst. Personally, I loved the fluid, smooth movement of heroine Samus Aran. What especially stood out, though, was this game´s combat. I´m a big fan of the Prime-games as well as the Zelda-series, but both these franchises have obvious weaknesses to their respective combat. Battling enemies in Prime 1-3 boiled down to tedious non-stop shooting, slowly lowering the foe´s health points, whereas in Zelda-games, each boss-monster has to be hit three times (or four, if Nintendo decides to surprise the player!) and that´s it. Engaging in boss-battles in Other M is like the sweet-spot between both of these concepts. It feels more like an actual fight like Prime-series´  bosses, but without the frustrating large amounts of health points. And it has you on the look-out for special weak points, without divulging into feeling more like a puzzle than a fight. It´s also balanced out by having Samus die quickly as well. Together with the auto-evade function, this created a super-fun, dynamic combat mechanic that felt like no other game this year.

Mass Effect 2 for interactive story-telling. Games as a medium are unique thanks to one simple fact: They´re interactive. They let the player change stuff that happens in all-virtual worlds. But while gameplay mechanics regarding character-movement are nothing special, granting the player freedom in terms of story is even moreso. Personally, its predecessor was even better in that it gave you more big decisions, but Mass Effect 2 is one of the few games that actually tackles an interactive narrative, and that over the span of a 30 hours+ title. In a time where games get shorter and shorter, more like watching a movie with in-between action-scenes, Mass Effect 2 is the definitive cinematic experience and handles story-telling just the way a video game should do.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for most immersive experience. There a fun games, games that are a great time-waster, games that are all about the “epic scenes”. And then there´s games that try to create an environment so incredible, believable and logical that it pulls the player deeper inside that world. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for Wii did a fantastic job at exactly that.  It´s probably the most tragic bomb on the Wii-system, even moreso because of Konami actively deciding not to advertise the game. Shattered Memories makes such perfect use of the wiimote´s pointing-functionality and combines that with impressive visuals, all one-upped by the terrific lighting effects. When the Wii launched, people thought that Luigi´s Mansion 2 would be a great fit for that, but Konami was faster than Nintendo and proved how great this control-style suits a flashlight-featuring game. Unfortunately, the game is only six to seven hours long before you see the credits-screen, but everything that you explore within that  never boring, never filler-ish time is immersive gameplay at its finest. On top of that, Shattered Memories gave another example of interactive story-telling for games that are not meant to be grand role-playing games. A special mention goes to Fragile: Farewell Ruins of the Moon, which achieved a similar rich atmosphere and only fell flat due to its less smooth, old-fashioned character-environment interaction.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 for Flip Out Galaxy. Admittedly, this is a title that´s surely going to be mentioned in a lot of goty-lists, but I wouldn´t have put it up here were it not for that one level. I got a little over 100 stars after getting the game on release-day, but then let it rest on the shelve. Some weeks ago I finally decided to go for “all” 120 stars and that´s exactly the only way to see this galaxy. It´s the last one. The final galaxy in the game that you unlock last. So, what´s so special about it? One simple fact: It made my mind go all “they didn´t really do that, right? They can´t! That´s … absurd!“. This level was not like the rest of the game, where although not easy, you always felt like playing a typical Mario-game. This one galaxy, however, was like one of those self-made 2D-Mario games you can see on Youtube. Not all the way like it, but search for “asshole Mario” and you get a feeling of what I´m talking about. That galaxy wasn´t nice, challenging Mario. It was “look, consumer, you complained about lack of difficulty in our games? Suck it!” And how I did! At one point I was close to crying, especially since I wanted to get that medal, too. Getting the medal quickly became really easy, but then there remained the last section of the level: By shaking the wiimote, blue and red objects would switch between back- and foreground. In that final part of the level, you had to wall-jump in-between several red and blue walls, each only being touchable by the player´s tightly chosen controls. Of course, missing a wall or activating it too late would result in a fall to death, no floor underneath. That was the single finest piece of level-design I´ve ever encountered in any video game. And guess what was that galaxy´s second star-mission? The same level, only now chased by shadow Marios that follow your very steps and hurt you when coming in contact. Damn!

Legend of Guardians for Flying. A rather odd choice, I realize, but not a wrong one either. The license game about owls is nowhere near being a special game, a must-play, so to say. But it manages to do one thing very right. That one thing being the feeling of flying through mid-air. A lot of video games that take place in the sky exist, but only a vast minority gets “it” right. Legend of Guardians made it, and has you experience overseeing gigantic areas from high above, rushing downwards at enormous speed, only to make a sharp turn upwards to glide over the ground. It combines a satisfying feeling of being up there with gorgeous environments (that, unfortunately, lack interactivity). I really hope to see the day where a big, epic action-adventures includes a fun, dynamic, rich flying-mechanic. Until then, Legend of Guardians does a great job at giving you that.

That´s it. Sure, I played a lot more games this year than just these five, but these five examples of gameplay mechanic stood out the most to me. Maybe I forgot something, then I won´t hesitate to update this article. Either way, I hope to have shed some light on games that did something very right and maybe you feel like wanting to share your own GMotYs in the comments. Thanks a lot for reading The FlyingFisch and merry christmas and a happy new year!

True Freedom in Games – Non-mandatory content

March 7, 2010

A lot of gamers love games that allow for a lot of freedom. Freedom in choice, freedom in where to go, freedom in customizing the ingame-avatar. All the concepts indeed help to make a game experience more open, putting the player into the game as if it really was his personal adventure. But there is one aspect that developers (or publishers?) are either too afraid or too unwilling to take on. There exist obvious counter-arguments to using the following concept, but it really goes against the sense of freedom within a video game. I´m talking about mandatory content.

Mandatory content means that no matter what you choose to do, you WILL see said content. One example would be old point’n click-adventures, where you have more than one solutions for a puzzle, but in the ends it will lead you to the same goal. Another example would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where you can decide if you want to tackle the shadow temple before the spirit temple, or the other way round. It gives you that choice, increasing freedom within the game, but at the same time it doesn´t matter, because no matter how you decide, you WILL see either temple. There are more, much more examples, but almost every modern game that, at some point, gives you the choice to decide where to go, is doing the same.

So what is that true freedom that this article´s title points towards? That true freedom is not about having the choice to go to or do whatever you want. It is the choice not to do something, full stop. There are two recent games that greatly demonstrate that concept, even if it could be much more expanded. One is Mass Effect 2. Of course, you´ll find your typical mandatory scenes that you have to see. But depending on how you decide, you will not see half of the game. Or even less, if you consider sidequests. Some people will finish that game in under 20 hours, whereas other gamers will take well over 30 hours. It is totally up to your own decision of how much you experience. The other recently released (in Europe) game that shows of the concept of non-mandatory content is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The game uses a very fascinating psych-profile where, depending on your answers, the ingame-content changes. To give a harmless example from the very beginning of the game: Depending on your answers, you´ll either enter a diner and talk to a police officer, or, you will visit a small pub and talk to some middle-aged woman. However, you will not see both. That´s because either the other building isn´t there at all or its door is locked. There are many more of such content-altering choices, but the point is: You will not see all the game´s content in just one playthrough.

These superior concepts for freedom in videogames are, of course, a tough choice to make for developers. That is, because these guys basically have to put effort into creating assets and scenarios that many gamers will probably never see. It is both stressing on a personal level (“man, there I created this beautiful piece of story, and not everybody will see it. Why create it at all?!“) as well as expensive on a financial viewing (“why pay someone to create something that won´t be seen by everyone?!“). That is also exactly the reason why it almost never happens. The only non-mandatory content you´ll often find are smallish sidequests that bear no relevance to the overall plot. But non-mandatory content that heavily inflicts the main plot of a game? Very rare.

It is a pity that so few developers/publishers take the risk of creating this true sense of freedom, as it makes a gaming experience much more meaningful. It feels completely different when you know that you explored something by free will…or chose not to do so. I talked about a rather futuristic solution for that concepts problems, but it really is possible even today. It just takes the will to create such a unique experience. Until we get something better, you´ll come closest to true freedom by playing Mass Effect 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

A message to third party-developers on Wii

December 8, 2009

I often browse the NeoGAF-boards, killing time and having good laughs about people claiming Ocarina of Time being the best game ever is nostalgia´s fault and so on. Now, i read something that I think should be noted by every third party-developer out there that´s developing for the Wii. The following was posted by user Effect in the context of Konami announcing the Silent Hill: Shattered Memories won´t be getting any kind of advertisement. I´ll let it uncommented, just take a moment and think about it:

If the publishers/developers don’t feel the game is worth trying to push themselves, because it’s on the Wii, why should I or anyone else actually spend money on it in the end?