The Consulting Analyst – Silent Hill Homecoming

in a nutshell

It’s not uncommonly said that Silent Hill Homecoming is the worst Silent Hill game on account of it stealing the basic twist from Silent Hill 2 while also having an overabundance of terribly programmed combat. That is not (solely) true. Homecoming is the worst Silent Hill game because every uncovered gem of promising storytelling is almost immediately drowned in a mire of vomited detritus emerging from the fumbling mouths and hands of the development team. And in the process of revisiting the game, I’ve become a bit fond of the game, or at least the story, this might’ve been.

A quick plot summary for those whose memories are foggy (or who skipped this one altogether): Alex Shepherd is returning home (allegedly from military service) to the sleepy town of Shepherd’s Glen, neighbor to Silent Hill. He goes home only to find his little brother Josh missing, along with many of the town’s children, and sets off across the mist- and monster-infested streets on a hellbent quest to find his brother. You can watch a pretty good Let’s Play here.

Now, let’s knock those not-inconsiderable negatives out of the way first, and then get to the meat of the thing.

A mere taste of the care and craft we’re in for

Pacing (and Other Great Sins)

Let it be known that SHH is far more tolerable as a watched than a played experience, which is quite the damning sentiment for an interactive medium. The game’s crawling with technical bugs, from framerate issues to clipping to objects glitching through the map and each other, to a few that just make the game plain unwinnable (like missing a certain QTE during a boss fight). And I hope you are real good at dodging, because there’s pretty well no avoiding combat (the monsters are faster than Alex, and quite plentiful – particularly in confined spaces).

But gameplay isn’t my area of focus, generally speaking, so let’s move on to the plot problems. While you can always see the skeletal structure of a fairly sound, basic story idea, it’s surrounded by a Frankensteinian monstrosity of shoehorned references to Silent Hill as a franchise (we’ll come back to that), the most obnoxious elements of the Gans film, and clichés that manage to work completely counter to the series’ particular tone and MO of horror.

The decision to focus the latter half of the plot on cult machinations, and more specifically to have a whole bunch of movie cultists wandering around, is one of the cringiest choices. I said it when I dissected the film, and I’ll say it again here: Silent Hill stops working when you have too many people around. Civilians in past SH games were always somehow untrustworthy or in some way disconnected from the protagonist and reality, making what should be a reprieve of human contact into something unsettling. Even the games that do focus their plots around cult shenanigans always expressed it through one or two individuals who claimed to be working for some greater good with only the thinnest rationalization as to why what they’ve said might be, maybe, true.

invisible elle
Poor Elle is so inconsequential even the game engine forgets her

SHH, by contrast, has a whole league of cultists, an entire bevy of higher ups for Alex to chew through on his journey, a big old sacrifice chamber and even a fairly straightforward indication that the ritual was working before Josh’s death (in that it seems to be post-drowning that the fog, the monsters, and the kidnappings to Silent Hill itself start back up in earnest). Really, the image of how the game misuses franchise iconography is pretty neatly summed up by Shepherd’s Glen itself: a little town moved just down the way from the real one and carries on its traditions out of some belief they’ll help or just plain fear of striking out on their own (but without really understanding them).

In fact, the loss of that uncanny element amongst its human characters harms the game more than just about anything else. Neither Wheeler nor Elle are inherently awful as characters (aside of how painfully archetypal to American action movies they are), but they stick out like open sores. They’re too well adjusted, too reassuring and helpful, to keep up the unrelenting sense of horror and helplessness that the series relies on. Never is this more clearly demonstrated than that first meeting with Wheeler, when he out and out confirms that he not only sees the monsters but is seeing the same ones as Alex, undoing a crucial level of ambiguity (which, hey, if you’re going to base your whole plot on an unreliable narrator you’d better hold onto that for all you’ve got).

But all of those would be….okay, they would all still be sizable irritating factors, but they’re all lesser beasts in the face of how poorly paced the game’s story is. It starts strong with the sequence in the house, it has a hectic and stressful ending from the death of Alex’s parents through the final boss battle, and almost everything in the middle is bloated beyond recognition. The spikes of major interest (the other founding family boss battles, mostly) feel like they should all follow closely on one another’s heels for a sense of building dread and momentum, only to have been chopped up to add an arbitrary amount of gameplay and running time to the proceedings. Elements of Shepherd family intrigue go hours without being commented on, but the characters’ reactions play, from a scripting standpoint, likewise like they were originally paced much closer together. It feels, in short, like the story was warped to fit what the producers (a dubious shoutout to you, Tom Hewlitt) felt the expected nature of a Silent Hill game was, rather than building the story from the ground up and letting the structure reflect those themes and that mentality.

Not to mention that while SH2 (the game SHH’s third act very badly wants to be) sprang the revelation of James-as-murderer far enough from the end of the game (there are two whole boss fights and a fair bit of wandering after the videotape) to give both the character and the player time to sit with it and form a reaction, SHH just springs the whole drowning thing for a shock chord and then dumps the player straight to credits with little to no fanfare (aaaaaaalmost but not quite saved by Alex’s performance). There’s no chance for Josh’s death to have any meaning in that context, not when we’ve only seen him as an observed character (separate from Alex) and taken Alex’s devotion (which seems a lot more bitter in the end) on the faith of the fact that it technically drives the plot. The various elements never feel like they’re truly coalescing into one big moment, and that’s nearly the killing blow all on its own.

designated victim

The Lost Family Drama

All of that aside (and I do realize it is a very big aside), the core story of the Shepherd family is a compelling one. We have an adult protagonist from a broken, abusive household who was singled out for neglect by his parents while his sibling lived a fairly normal life (that sort of situation got real famous with the memoir A Child Called It, but it’s a tragically common situation); because his sibling is missing, our protagonist is torn between his resentment (the lake scene really didn’t feel like Alex and Josh had a good relationship, did it) and his feelings of duty to family and how he thinks he “should” feel about his brother while also struggling with his own trauma and mental health issues. That very real, traumatic emotional core is then surrounded by monsters (Harmonix gets a 0 for thematic relevance in most cases, but in the abstract this game has stellar boss design) and an environment that respond to the emotional intensity of the situation, becoming more dangerous as the protagonist nears personal revelation and potential closure. Is that not a game you want to play immediately?

Isolated from the game at large and strung together, the Shepherd family moments honestly work in a lot of cases. Alex’s mother sitting in the living room, alternately apathetic to and irritated by his presence, is heartbreaking. The bits surrounding Alex’s father’s military service (on the nose though that Otherworld puzzle might be) come the closest to working of any of the game’s ongoing themes, and the process of convincing themselves that dehumanizing Alex was for the “greater good” has a wealth of potential for disturbing exploration. And of course, there’s the fact that Alex, as a character, is gifted with the best damn vocal performance in the entire franchise. His suffering, anger, and confusion feel rooted in the dilemmas of a real human being, which is (let’s face it) a way higher bar than the series as a whole has had to play with. Even years and years before Bioware fans would come to know him as Varric Tethras (yeah, that guy), Brian Bloom does not disappoint.

And while the game probably would have been more comfortable exploring its possibilities free from the yoke of the franchise name, this kind of story really is within SH’s wheelhouse: abused children facing the choice of whether to forgive or take vengeance was the staple of Alessa’s story (I imagine this was the original intention of those deeply unsatisfying endings). The concept of the town’s ability to materialize nightmares might’ve served the game quite well, but never really gets used in an impactful way that means something in regards to Alex specifically.

Observed: a young man of blurry, uncertain identity
Just couldn’t keep that level of subtlety up, could you game

Reading Alex as Trans

While I’m sure you are not a one surprised to find this section here, it’s actually not an uncommon theory (probably even more so than the closeted reading of James). There’s the Matthew Shepherd connection with his last name (and oh how Silent Hill loves pulling names from historical figures), the potential reasoning as to why this would make Alex the “rejected” son (an utterly arbitrary choice between two children justified by the most arcane and damaging tenets of a religion, said tenets still mostly followed out of fear)/why he was out of the military (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell still being in operation at the time), and why the monsters have an overt “monstrous femininity” element to them (pulled these basic pointers from over here, by the way). Which, fair enough (aside of some raised eyebrows re: the femininity thing, since that whole “terror of women as connected to male queerness” thing has always rubbed me the wrong way. But what intrigued me more was the tossed off idea of Alex as a trans woman. That one stuck. But the more I thought about it, the more Alex makes sense to me (a lot of sense) as a trans man. Follow me on this.

As we meet Alex he’s returning home from the mental institution, ostensibly because of the breakdown he had in the wake of Josh’s death. We have no reason to doubt that that was a part of it, but let’s remember too that electroshock was also given as a treatment way into the 20th century as part of conversion therapy to “cure” queer individuals (I believe I’ve talked about that before too). He’s also chosen to recreate himself as a soldier, which lives in his mind both as the unattainable masculine ideal his father represents (and thus living up to it would earn his father’s approval) and a kind of “superhero” identity that will allow him to save those he cares about (particularly Josh). Now, the soldier thing has been offered as a sort of posturing thing for a cis-gay/trans woman Alex, but that doesn’t quite track to me. If it were a façade he made up just to please others, it wouldn’t be so devastating for him to have it questioned. It wouldn’t be who he aspires to be even around strangers (i.e. Travis), people on whom he could theoretically try out a more ideal identity. And that’s just it: Alex the soldier, the pinnacle of (male) strength and masculine achievement, is Alex’s ideal. It’s what he wants the world to see him as. To be associated with icons of “maleness” in every way…and, maybe, to get as far away from his designated sex as possible.

A few quick side points: “Alex” is a gender neutral name, and one more often given to females; when Josh is given the ring his father asks him if he wants to grow up to be like Alex – and what’s the typical goading mechanism in society for young boys? Why, “don’t be a girl,” of course; and it seems strange to choose a first born (by a good margin, looking at their age differences) as the sacrifice if they were a son who could carry on the family name (which, even if Alex identified as masculine from a very young age, there’s no doubt he would’ve been pushed to try harder for that extreme “ideal” if he saw biological-boy Josh getting the kind, special attention he himself had always been denied).

Then there are the monsters. Pyramid Head (“the Bogeyman,” whatever; don’t unzip your pants and then tell me it’s raining, Hewlitt), our masculine monster extraordinaire, is never once a threat to Alex during this game. He’s almost an avenger, showing up while Alex is lost in the nightmare hospital in the place where Alex needs to go next, and slaying Alex’s primary childhood tormenter. The antagonistic monsters? Pretty much all, as I mentioned, the monstrous feminine – not Alex’s fear of women, but his loathing of his biological features and fears of how he is perceived. The Nurses are faceless sex objects,  Scarlet is a doll puppeted by others, and the Siam is able to move and attack with its male half while the withered female attachment is dragged along behind. The Amnion, not coincidentally the final boss, is a horrific vision of swollen, distended pregnancy who births out the “real” child when it’s slain. Josh, yes, but also a boy being freed from a parody of the “expected” function of a uterus-bearer. Alex is both put face to face with the memory he’s denied, and granted the figurative image of closure in seeing the last of his monstrous “mirrors” put down. He leaves both his pain and his insecurities down there in that tunnel, able to start anew not as a hypermasculine parody or a self-imagined dysmorphic monster, but just as a man.

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