It seems to me that people in person as well as those reading this blog are generally dismissive of discussion of video games. No matter what strides the medium makes, people cannot help but to connect it to adolescent power fantasies – an immature notion of control in an otherwise uncontrollable world. By and large, it is true. Walk by any Game$top and find images of larger than life men holding larger than possible weapons, not to mention promises of quests that can only be completed by saviors. Despite these things, I urge people to give the medium another chance. Only with additional consumer input can it reach its potential.
I know that I am not the only one that sees what the potential of the medium is, but it feels like even those involved in the industry are still trying to figure out what toys they are playing with – along with being unnecessarily focused on a narrow audience. Games can be more than fantasies for asocial, weak-willed males. Games at their best are simulators conducive for problem-solving, not to mention an untapped source for interactive fiction. I long for the day when video games are integrated into classrooms for more than just game studies. I long for the day when the latest story craze is found on a console or computer first.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an example of the latter. The problem-solving is a moot matter. The game merely expects the player to think intuitively about interacting with common objects to find keys or open doors. (One of the last keys in the game is found by unvelcroing (not a word) the neck flap on a jacket, pulling a chain out of a shirt pocket, and then grabbing the dangling key.) The storytelling in the game, however, is above and beyond most other games. It does not take much, but I put this up there with Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid 3.
The game begins with a psychological advisory explaining that the game will be mining the player for data which then gets integrated into game play. After a short video, the game begins with a psychiatry session, the framing device of the story, and the player has to fill out a true-false questionnaire. Then traditional game play occurs after the psychiatrist asks you to start from the beginning. Your player avatar, Harry Mason, loses control of his car on an extraordinarily snowy day, crashes, and then starts searching for his missing daughter who was sleeping in the backseat. The adventure begins, and the only actions you have are shining your flashlight on objects and calling your daughter’s name.
To be honest, I was not a fan of the objective and projective tests employed by the psychiatrist, nor was I a fan of the choice of a psychiatrist over a more traditional therapist. After completing the game, having a psychiatrist makes sense. As for the tests, they could have been made to better resemble actual tests rather than exist to communicate bland binary data that can be deciphered pretty easily once the player knows what it affects.
But the effects of the data is pretty amazing overall. Decisions made at the very beginning of the game affect the atmosphere as well as Harry’s personality. The answer to “Does alcohol make you feel more relaxed?” will litter the world with soft drink or beer cans. Providing different opinions on sex will make Harry either an extremely nice guy or a pervert who comments on every picture (or mannequin) he stumbles across. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as even thematic elements of the story change, resulting in completely different endings.
Maybe I my background is too heavily littered with Choose Your Own Adventure books, but I have been waiting for a game that changes based on user actions. Sure, many games have multiple endings. Sure, many games have branching dialogue trees. Few games, however, broaden both elements out and then make the multiplicity make some sort of sense in the end. (Eternal Darkness, I must say, brilliantly interwove its three endings together. That game still needs a sequel…) I just cannot get enough of Shattered Memories.
I hate to put up a subtle spoiler warning, since people might complain otherwise, but the greatest strength the game has is how the ending weaves the framing device and traditional game play together. Harry Mason makes his way to the lighthouse clinic where he finds his daughter in session – except Harry is not there. He died 18 years ago, but his daughter has not been able to let him go. Harry and the world are a reflection of how she wants to see and remember things. When she sees him, he tells her to let go. She is not cured, though, as the psychiatrist notes that further sessions will be necessary. As will starting back at the beginning.
Proudly, this is one of the few games out there that actually deserves a mature rating from the ESRB. Unlike most games that wear the M proudly as a badge for its juvenile approach to violence and sexuality, this game gets there by actually being mature. Well, that and some of the darker subject matter that gets explored, but what else do you expect to find in the psyche of a girl who is discussing the loss of her father figure?