The Consulting Analyst – Silent Hill Downpour

guilt

[Apologies for the late arrival, readers. Please enjoy this last look into the Silent Hill franchise, and – barring a last minute deluge of voters – prepare to enjoy some Dumas-inspired analysis to take this franchise’s place in the future.]

The final stop on our tour (because at present there’s nothing I can say about PT’s present that hasn’t been covered more adroitly, and it hasn’t been long enough for a real post-mortem; and Book of Memories isn’t part of the mainline canon) is the first draft of a really great Silent Hill game. This was tragically undermined by the fact that it got lumped into Konami’s shortsighted attempt to flood the market with three SH games during its 2012 “Month of Madness,” and the fact that despite getting delayed multiple times the final product was still a bug-ridden mess on top of the arguable conceptual problems. I mean, it came out better than the HD Collection, but desiccated corpses repurposed as compost heaps come out with a better smell of quality than the HD Collection did.

The main protagonist – well, the player character (more on that later) of Downpour is Murphy Pendleton (David Boyd Konrad), a prison inmate who winds up in Silent Hill when the bus transporting him to a maximum security facility crashes at the edge of town. Murphy is pursued by dogged police officer Anne Cunningham, and haunted by the town’s usual bag of head-spelunking hallucinations. You can watch a pretty thorough walkthrough of it here (alas, I’ve never found a version with commentary that particularly appealed).

boogeyman

Structure and Patchwork Feelings

This game is brimming with so much potential it hurts: Murphy has one of the most solid narratives of the latter-day Silent Hill protagonists (I’m excluding carryover like Shattered Memories), and the second-best lead performance after Brian Bloom’s turn as Alex Shepherd. There are a few amazing set piece scenes, and some genuine pathos too. The level design’s fondness for putting Murphy in tight, deathtrap-filled corridors or shimmying along bottomless pits makes for an effective visual metaphor regarding his conflict in the prison, and the water motif is both well tied to the narrative and effectively gloomy. Even the decision to move outside of Silent Hill’s usual locales mostly allows for some unique levels, though it should perhaps be concerning that some of the most unnerving moments are ones that take Murphy out of the player’s control (the mine cart is the best but not the only example).

It’s just a shame about all the decisions holding those good things together.  The monster designs are for the most uninspired, comprised mostly of humanoids with some matter of facial deformity (which can be done well but requires getting much closer to the monsters in much better lighting than the game encourages), and many of them seem to have very little to do with Murphy’s internal conflicts (more on that later).

The nightmare world segments, while initially harrowing in their use of dream logic (the lengthening hallways), eventually become repetitive experiences of literally being chased by nothing until you reach the exit (a gameplay mechanic that was very much the low point of Shattered Memories). And while exploring the town was an appealingly eerie aspect of the first two games that got lost with time, the actual execution of the open-world approach in Downpour mostly results in padding, with the main narrative being forcibly stripped of quite a few characterizing details and looking downright anemic as a result. But if we’re talking fumbles, nothing quite matches up to the last hour of the game.

morgue

Choose Your Own Meaningless Ending

Amid all of the things that don’t work, the unilateral exception is the plot thread dealing with Murphy’s grief over the loss of his son (the fact that this is a thread being part of the Murphy-the-Protagonist problem). The entire orphanage section is a triumph, acted with devastating anguish by Konrad and paced with deliberate sureness in a way that threads in Murphy’s own issues with the town’s surreal monstrosities and even makes the Designated Pyramid Head Stand-In feel warranted. The level goes through the paces of Murphy’s core struggle and more or less resolves them, laying out a small slice of story about the hollowness of revenge and grief.

It’s powerful stuff, and even though this is basically the point where it stops being justifiably Murphy’s story and goes back to infringing over on what should be Anne’s struggle regarding her father, its length is far from a detriment to its effectiveness.

What IS a detriment is that the context of this scene can be entirely undermined by the ending, up to and including the revelation that Murphy killed Charlie himself. The goal in making the endings mutable based on Murphy’s in-game behavior seems clear, another attempt to translate something SH2 did well while potentially building on it. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the SH2 endings functioned at play here, and it very nearly cripples Murphy’s arc unless a player studiously sets out to ignore certain parts of canon.

The facts of James’ story, those being the events which lead him to come to Silent Hill, are immutable. No matter what the player does, it will always be true that James suffocated his terminally ill wife with a pillow. What the player’s actions – neglecting healing items, ignoring or protecting Maria, dwelling on certain imagery – affect is only James’ motivation in the thing that he definitely always did, as well as his ability to gain closure in regards to that concrete fact. Even Homecoming understood this, keeping Alex’s death consistent even when it played around with whether Alex had left the mental institution or not.

But Murphy’s story can involve anywhere from 0 to 3 murders, each with their own gradient of severe implications for the character and each with the power to undermine the parts of the game that do stay the same from playthrough to playthrough. Without a consistent point of origin Murphy is a cipher and his struggles are meaningless as a protagonist. The only way there would’ve been a sliver of a chance to successfully present Murphy as a Rorschach test of a character would’ve relied on the something the game refuses to do: focus on its far clearer choice for protagonist.

anne

Murphy and Anne

The thing about Silent Hill games is that they are all, by and large, one person’s story. That person is not always the player character – Harry doesn’t grow or change much but is a vessel for discovering Alessa’s story, and the same can arguably be said of Henry and Walter – but there is almost always one source at the core of however Silent Hill has chosen to look for its present set of visitors. Even Travis, who shared time with Alessa by the nature of the way the game was structured, more or less had his own through line of monsters and conflict that happened to cross over with Alessa’s past rather than being directly related to it.

Murphy and Anne’s stories, uniquely, are heavily intertwined. Or rather, the fallout of Murphy’s narrative lead to the beginning of Anne’s. If Murphy doesn’t owe Sewell a favor there’s no setup for Anne’s father to get stabbed, therefore no reason for Anne to dedicate her life to a slowly consumptive need for revenge, therefore no prison transfer or drive past and subsequent crash outside of Silent Hill. But by the same token, Silent Hill 3 doesn’t happen without Claudia – her backstory is also heavily connected to Heather’s, and her actions cause the events of the game. But Heather is still the protagonist. It is still a story about her, one that she has an active stake in moving forward rather than simply trying to escape.

Downpour seems to think its narrative structure is a revisiting of SH2, wherein it was clear that something was affecting Angela and Eddie between their various meetings with James. The difference, the thing that ultimately puts Anne closer to Claudia than Angela, Eddie, Vincent, or even the other “lost” souls Murphy sees wandering the town, is that she has agency and goals. She concretely exists outside of Silent Hill (while the other SH2 characters could quite easily be argued as James’ projections), and the monsters reflect her struggles far more than Murphy’s (unlike Cybil, who is likewise a cop but doesn’t have much inner life outside of helping Harry).

The central boss of the prison confrontation, the climax of Murphy’s struggle before he’s literally transformed into the game’s personification of vengeance, involves a Coleridge Murphy would never have seen. It’s the Coleridge Anne describes looking at for years only to see “a monster,” and the colossal effort the player undertakes as Murphy to unplug the monster from life support was likely Anne’s real life agony. So why is Murphy the one facing a nightmare version of it? What meaning does it have to him, when his pain is centered in the moment when he failed to save a good man (who, as far as he knew, died in that moment)?

This disconnect is present in some of the other monster designs as well – one could make a stretch of an argument that the overwhelmingly female monsters Murphy faces down are representative of his wife blaming him for Charlie’s death, say, but it’s far more compelling to connect them to the “terrible things” Anne bitterly describes doing in pursuit of her revenge – but the wheelchair monster is really the bow on top of the entire package. She isn’t even playable in her own final boss fight (in the scene that determines Murphy as monster or man, another reflection of Anne’s struggle), and her ability to embrace forgiveness is tied to Murphy (the player)’s actions throughout the game rather than her own.

To call it baffling is to undersell the state of things considerably. The “first draft” aspect winds up creeping in again, since there might have been a way to experiment with a full-on dual playable protagonist model that incorporated both Anne and Murphy’s contributions to the central strategy. But that’s not what the game is, and the resulting mess leaves its most promising gems just outside of the player’s reach. Poorly handled promise can often be more frustrating to grapple with than an overall bad product with a few redeeming features, and Downpour is no exception. While there’s enough done well to make it worth remembering, the fact that this became the (main) swan song for one of gaming’s most well regarded horror series (especially when it might well have been a great game with more time and more thoughtful construction) is nothing short of a shame. Damn you, Konami.

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