Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Game Translation: Silent Hill

The Silent Hill series is set in the titular town which has the ability to mutate according to the guilty secrets (or in some cases the will) of some of those who enter it.  A few cults have sprung into being having noted the malleable nature of the town and there are implications that it can sometimes be a paradise for those chosen few - though perhaps their interpretation of paradise is a little off. 

The protagonists are generally weak and vulnerable though not altogether helpless.  The protagonists are also always new to the area, though in one game (Homecoming) the individual used to live in the nearby town of Shepherd's Glen before going away for undisclosed reasons (it gets disclosed toward the end of the game).  The protagonists aren't always the only ones caught up in their internal melodrama as sometimes others are trapped there and destroyed by their own guilt (especially Silent Hill 2 and Homecoming).  Occasionally you get to meet them and learn their sordid, or simply tragic, histories. 

Sometimes, such as in Silent Hill 4, it's more of a case of wrong place and wrong time as the enemy is a madman intent on wreaking his will on the world and drawing the essence of Silent Hill into yet another location - in this case an apartment block.

The Silent Hill series is predominately a survival horror game and that is relatively easy to run though it requires a certain amount of player buy in.  The characters have to be vulnerable and if they have been powerful up to now than they have to be made vulnerable.  Players may be okay with having their characters weakened in this way if they know its temporary and is even across the board.  Hitting your Pathfinder players with a powerful curse (perhaps akin to Amnesia) where they lose the majority of their levels and are sent reeling back to Level 1 or 2 is okay. 

Simply removing their magical powers is not as it significantly disadvantages the mages.  You could also make them into glass canons by dropping them all to 2HD and reducing their saves accordingly while retaining the rest of their powers.  Remember that player buy in is essential.  It should seem like a new experience and not a punishment.  Also take care that while their characters come under threat and appear close to dying that they don't simply die from a bad roll or a trap too high for their new CR.  If they die after all their hard work because of a house rule you've used or because they trusted you with the level drop, there may well be hard feelings.  It depends, of course, on your players.

On that note, the secret truth of survival horror is that character death generally defeats the purpose.  This creates a bit of a duality.  Tension is best served when the characters keep drawing close to death (and then getting the odd safe points) but an actual character death is a solution of sorts and one that removes the problem.  At best, the attached players grieve over their loss but grief and tragedy can fade into futility after a few deaths occur.  At worst, the players either shrug it off or get angry with you over that loss - though you can mitigate that if the deaths aren't real and simply bump them out of the odd reality (only tell players of the deceased characters that this is so).  Besides, what is the player of the dead character going to do now? 

Run your NPC for you?  That's hardly ideal as they have no investment as that NPC though they may be attached to the NPC while you play them.  They'll find it hard enough to grapple with someone else's mindset (one you've created) and that'll reduce the tension for them generally.

Create another character to stumble onto the party?  Better, but the player has no real attachment to that character yet and you can't do this too often or it seems awfully convenient.

Force the player to go home or watch?  This can work in one-shots or in the last session of the adventure but generally doesn't work out in the long term.  Besides, watching players can easily grow bored and become distracting.  Roleplaying games don't play out as smoothly or as quickly as a movie and there's a lot of 'wasted time' that just aren't interesting for observers.

Boy, I've just wasted a chunk of this article about de-powering characters.  All right, let's get into the next big issue.  Guilty secrets and dark histories.  This is a necessity to roleplaying games.  While not everyone needs to have a terrible past (Henry Townshend is just unlucky enough to live in that apartment and Harry Mason is just unlucky enough to be Cheryl's adoptive father), most players would want to get in on the spotlight of having their sins come back to bite them. 

If they're creating characters from nothing this can actually be more difficult as most players like to develop character histories as they've played them and a one page document doesn't really give much of a sense of what's going on inside their own minds.  Besides, the character can soon develop in a wildly different direction that suggests a wildly different background.  Also, a character's history should interweave with their personality in the impact they have on the psychoreactive world.

If these are characters from earlier adventures, it can be a bit easier as most characters have shown flaws (binge drinking, callousness, etc.) or been involved in things they aren't proud of.  If you just sit down with them to knock out a bit more back history about parental connections and first relationships, you're bound to get plenty of usable clues.  The trouble with pre-existing characters, though, is that they've picked up bad habits (read: genre conventions) from the earlier adventures.  Characters who are used to running and gunning will take some time to figure out that stealth is the best option so you'll need to clue them in - perhaps by revealing what happened to the last lot who runned and gunned.

Silent Hill is apparently conducive to naps.
A lot of the tricks of other horror games are also important here.  Notes left behind by mysterious other people (often now dead), mutilated corpses, clues to other people's misfortune, obscure puzzles, strange sounds (which you could play at intermittent intervals), creepy or discordant music, torchlit game tables, and written props that you can hand around are all useful.  Make bullets matter by keeping track of each shot fired.

You can actually include puzzles where you collect objects from around the floorplan so long as you a) create a floorplan, b) highlight the importance of the items in such a way as they seem obvious (i.e. only thing in a room with a flashlight on it), c) allow improvisation to a certain extent, and d) ensure each room they can enter is interesting enough that they're moved to go room by room.  As this is a survival horror, this shouldn't be too tricky.  Just put the odd clue or horror trope in the occasional room and spring a monster whenever they get complacent.  Also, think about how much movement you're going to restrict and how that plays in, or against, the players' skill-sets.  Silent Hill has doors that can't be lock picked or broken down which makes a high Larceny skill useless.  Will you allow doors to be picked?  Some doors?  All doors?  Can windows be shattered?  It's really up to you.

Be prepared to improvise.  Silent Hill is a psychoreactive world that responds to the mental state of the characters.  Since this is an imaginary world you're creating it doesn't have to be based along the IF THIS THEN THAT mentality of videogames.  If you've put a lot of effort into building up a few key locations then throw a few chasms around to nudge them along certain lines but it's also a good idea to have a few maps of obvious locations (hospitals, police stations, shops, apartment buildings) and then see where they lead.  They run to the hospital first?  Remove the Big Boss from there as it's not the end of the campaign yet.  They explore that random house?  Consider making it matter with clues or threats found within.  Not every location they enter needs to matter but some do.

Also bear it in mind in the locations and resist the temptation to attach monsters to certain rooms.  Sure you can have a few set piece encounters but if the big bad is in the basement and that's the route the players take first then consider holding it back.  Perhaps when they later explore the other floors you could either have them repairing the elevator mean that entering it brings them into a nastier form of Silent Hill (with the beastie still in the basement) or you could have it that the baddie is in one of the later places they check - the Emergency Ward.  This makes you seem prescient as the enemies are always in the right places and keeps you from having to railroad them.  Your own world is far more malleable than your players' decisions so, where possible, improvise so that the game sculpts around them in an organic and hidden manner.

Bear in mind the great benefit of the survival horror game.  It doesn't have to make sense.  It just needs to be coherent enough to feel like it could make sense if only the players had picked up a few more clues or looked at it in just the right way.  Create an underlying reasoning behind it all but don't worry about it all fitting sharply within that definition.  It really doesn't have to do so and, in fact, is better if a few angles don't quite mesh well together.

A campaign based around Silent Hill, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers because its about as strange as they come and therefore full of thrilling challenges.  Explorers can go almost anywhere and each room is a new experience just waiting to unfold for them.  What's not to like about that?  Investigators may adore the unfolding plot, especially if they enjoy a horror game, and will be eager to explore the locations as fully as the Explorers to ensure that they gather every clue and get as close to the answer as they possibly can.

Action Heroes will generally hate it unless they're Explorers at heart and able to enjoy the locations and seamless set pieces.  You can certainly draw them into to being fans of survival horrors if you're clever and they have a high level of curiosity.  Be quite obvious that the big scary Pyramid Heads of the world aren't to be messed with but include the odd weaker monster that can be crushed.  Turn the Pyramid Heads into an event, as well, so that they don't just need to hide from it but need to run, jump, and throw smaller monsters in the way.  If you have one of these players in your game, keep it as fluid as you can.  While Explorers and Investigators may be happy enough to see pre-established scenery and, well, investigative games often require a somewhat railroaded approach anyway considering the amount of clues that are required, Action Heroes tend to really hate restrictions that bite into their cool ideas and hi-octane thrills.  Giving them a certain degree of flexibility within certain parameters means that they can still get their kicks out of beating the odds while still maintaining a solid horror approach.

Tacticians can enjoy it if they're given the same sort of flexibility as Action Heroes but might never quite enjoy the game as much because they like to think that there is a right way to go about things.  Survival Horrors aren't big on the best-laid plans being all that successful and while clever tactics are always useful it won't always be clear whether it helped or even what the objectives themselves should be.  Stress to the player that the game will unfold around them to an extent and that if they feel directionless, like there's something they SHOULD be doing, its generally an illusion.  If it's not an illusion than the direction will become clear.  After all, much of the Silent Hill games involve a lot of wandering between seemingly unconnected locations and if it weren't for the chasms and the road blocks most of the locations would never have been visited.

Communicators will find plenty of scope for roleplaying and character development but might get distracted by the lack of clear objectives and lose steam and motivation.  Why?  Because most people thrust into an insane world are likely to simply try to hole up somewhere and sit tight until its over.  These players are keen on playing out all of the intricacies of their character's mind so it goes against the grain to act out of character simply to keep the story moving.  Oh, they'll do it when necessary but their definition of neccessary is different to most.  Ensure that they have a clear external motivation such as a missing child or wife to keep them motivated. 

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Silent Hill 2 used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Project Zero, Forbidden Siren, Gears of War, Mass Effect, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Dragon Age 2, Borderlands 2, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Borderlands 2.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.


  1. One thing that struck me while playing Silent Hill 2 was that it got away with all the gamist stuff like finding medallions to open doors and so on -- the stuff that Resident Evil gets mocked for -- because the setting is explicitly artificial. Raccoon City is supposed to be a real place so it's absurd that to open a door in a police station you have to turn a statue to the west, but because Silent Hill is a psychological-supernatural construct, that kind of artificiality isn't a problem.

    1. Which is one of the benefits of surreal horror in psychoactive landscapes. You can get away with the 'Rule of Cool' or, rather, the 'Rule of Scary' because anything could happen. In more realistic games those tactics just seem like lazy thinking.