Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Game Translation: Silent Hill Downpour

Well you've waited long enough so I figure I should actually get around to giving you this Game Translation.  Downpour is a really nifty game and a great addition to the Silent Hill series in my opinion.  It has some genuinely creepy and tense moments that had me sitting on the edge of my seat and there's far less of a focus on random encounters and a lot more time wandering around hoping not to run into one.  I wasn't so much of a fan of the mines section which went on for a bit too long in my opinion but the rest really felt up-dated.  Most of the side quests were disturbing and creepy though there was an occasional shout out (an easter egg you can find includes a poorly rendered room from Silent Hill 4) and arcade-like side quest that didn't really feel like they belonged there (the bank side quest).

The first trick to capture the feel of this particular place is to consider weather patterns and how they might relate to your particular characters.  Silent Hill 1 used fog and snow that was perhaps intended to give a sense of loss, purity, and being lost as Harry Mason was relatively guiltless and he had a mission of pure intent.  Silent Hill 2 that was perhaps used to show the confusion, dissociation and amnesia that plagues the main character: James Sunderland.  The other Silent Hills largely continued with the fog not only to cover graphical sins but to also hide the monsters in the distance.

However, you don't have to include, or focus, on fog to add to your game.  It might even be better if you drew the focus elsewhere.  In my play-by-post, Welcome to Silent Hill, there's been a number of different environmental effects and when the different characters cross paths they often come into a shared world that is somewhere in between the two or otherwise simply neutral and foggy. 

Cecilia - whose suffering from her daughter drowning while she was busy dealing with a suffocating work load - had to deal with energy sapping cold rain that ended up flooding the town. Cole has to deal with giant chasms, quakes, tremors, and piles of bodies that represent his rage and violent history. Murray has to deal with a little bit of everything but pockmarking seems to come up a fair bit (with holey walls and small tunnels or vents to crawl through) to represent his voyeurism and the fact that he almost lives vicariously through the sins of others (being otherwise clean himself). Lily is in a daylit fog which is kind of how she lives her life. The streets to Charles are cloaked in a thick miasma of soot that clogs the streets just like the mess that is his life that clouds his eyes and tries to choke the life out of him. Jack has to cope with everything but mostly his place is foggy and run down. Hope you're enjoying it.

Have fun with the environmental effects.  In Downpour the streets are largely devoid of monsters but over time the streets begin to glisten wetly and then a light rain falls.  Most monsters that are more aggressive begin to show up.  If you stay out on the streets, the rain intensifies and then there is the odd clash of thunder but mostly its the flash of sheet lightning that looks somewhat like the flash of a headlight or spotlight across your screen (which connects to the whole prisoner angle of the main character).  You need to take shelter inside for the storm to clear.  This is all far more atmospheric and new as well as being more personalised to the character then yet another blandly foggy street.

Don't get me wrong, though.  The streets do begin foggy.

While Murphy Pendleton can certainly hold his own in a fight, the enemies are quite hard to kill requiring you to both block and attack numerous times.  This is easy to do.  Just double the enemies hit points but don't make them particularly lethal, generally.  He picks his weapons from the debris - ranging from bricks to sticks to shovels and the occasional gun.  These weapons deteriorate over time before falling apart.  Simply give each weapon a different damage bonus, perhaps even a few special effects (WoD: Armories has a few suggested), and a certain number of use before they break.  If you make up a series of cards with this information, it'll be far easier to keep track of as the players can mark off their uses with pencil and then pass it in when it's done.

Downpour is also not afraid to throw unkillable antagonists against you.  There's a ball of light that saps your health and seems to tear the skin and cloth off your body (or warp space so that it is both on and ripping off your flesh) and you have to run the gauntlet, avoiding traps, knocking down cages filled with quivering bodies, and otherwise just getting the heck out of there.  The fact that it's a ball of light and has no physical form was also a great clue that I really shouldn't go near it - especially since you can warp space around it.  This is an excellent cue for your more action-oriented players that this isn't something they're expected to tangle with.  Some players will try their luck against solid enemies, reasoning that enough damage and lucky rolls might win the day, but they won't try their luck against something they can't hit unless they're feeling particularly obstinate - in which case you have bigger problems.

That's the last time I'll accept a blind date in Silent Hill.

The side quests are, all in all, nicely done.  There are classic haunted houses, terrifying moments when music brings up the past, horrifying revelations of just where those ribbons tied to poles mean and where they lead, and explorations of basements that lead to fleeing for your life before a horde of monsters.  Side quests that are short, sharp and sweet, can make a welcome change for players in a survival horror who might need to feel some sense of completion rather than the constant roaming through puzzles and locations with little to no discernible progress.

Just take a moment to look at your side quest to see if it isn't something out of a more action-packed arcade-style game or dungeon crawl.  There shouldn't be a series of monsters that you need to fell to pick up a first aid kit nor should there be a series of rooms that each have their own monster inside.  Focus on terrifying revelations, simple but interesting puzzles, and the occasional shock.  Some of these side quests might not have any monsters or other confrontations and instead simply provide more clues as to the world they have found themselves in.

Lastly, as always, think deeply into your player characters when designing monsters, developing NPCs, and thinking up puzzles.  Do they really need an icon of rape and masculine dominance such as Pyramid Head to enter their world?  If not, don't include it.  The NPCs should highlight an aspect of the character as their worlds wouldn't collide and they would never meet if there was nothing that called to the other.  A player character who committed industrial espionage might come across a suicidal individual who eventually kills themselves over guilt toward their accidental actions towards a trusted loved one.  A player character who ignored their depressed wife until she slumped into an asylum might meet a manic depressive who is desperate for love and attention.  Someone with anger management issues might just come across a person who pushes their buttons.

Silent Hill is a crucible.  It doesn't lead you gently to atonement.  It might not even want you to atone.  It just wants to give you a shot at it.  It will bloody you, bruise you, put you through the wringer, and maybe, just maybe, you'll have enough in you to crawl out of that hell hole and back into the real world.  You won't be stronger when you get out.  You may even be broken inside.  But you will be wiser.

Silent Hill bears more of a resemblance to Jigsaw's rationale in Saw rather than a vengeful angel.  It tests you.  Maybe you walk out of there.  Maybe you don't.  Maybe you deserve it.  Maybe not.  Sometimes you aren't even the protagonist.  You're just someone else's test.

Bear all that in mind and you should have one epic Silent Hill game.

A campaign based around Silent Hill: Downpour, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers as there is a story in pretty much every place you enter and its fascinating to simply see how a person's psychology and the sins of the past will be reflected in the world around them.  Investigators will be similarly fascinated by these stories and will make a point in trying to figure out the various details of it.  They may want to pause in further explorations just to make sure that they've tried every door and learned all they could about a situation that might have led to this particular moment. 

Communicators will probably get a kick out of seeing their character's psychology through the eyes of Silent Hill as well as seeing how their characters will react to each crucible.  As they're most motivated by exploring their own character's psychology, and to a lesser extent, the psychology of those around them, expect a very realistic series of encounters.  They may decide to hole up someplace.  They may fall apart quickly.  This is fine.  So long as they're having fun this shouldn't be an issue.  You can always find a way to motivate people to leave in surreal horror or even let them fall to the threat if that is likely.  They can then pick up another character and explore that one's mind.

Action Heroes will generally want a more hi-octane ride than the foreboding atmosphere but the fact that you need to kill the odd monster in Silent Hill and run away from others should appeal to them.  Generally they prefer being kick ass and untouchable but if they're a fan of horror they might enjoy exploring a more vulnerable side to the combat characters they more often play.  I have a dedicated Action Hero player who really loves surreal horror because the pacing is fast and fluid, there's always something to see and do, and the game rarely bogs down into finicky issues of consequences and obeying authorities like the Masquerade or hiding from police.

Tacticians will probably like this style of game the least as they innately try to find some sort of goal to work towards and will get frustrated by the meandering path they will need to take to get there.  Your best bet is to simply give them a number of rather clear objectives that can arise organically from the gameplay.  Rather than the Silent Hill 2 style where you randomly try to open up doors and then you're in an apartment building and you mosey around for a bit and then you're following a little girl out of a hospital and into a nightclub, you should encourage the Downpour style.  Murphy wants out so first he needs to get into town via the mines and through his journey he overhears a radio DJ so he goes to meet the DJ who gives him directions to a possible out and so on and so forth.  While there is still a bit of a ramble, there are also clear objectives.

It also helps to reinforce to the player that they should try taking their hand off the steering wheel and relax into the flow.  If they go toward the hospital, then the hospital was where they were meant to go all along.  That way they don't feel stupid trying to plan out where they're meant to go and realise that they just need to do whatever they need to do and deal with what is directly in front of them.
You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Silent Hill: Downpour used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, In Cold Blood, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Silent Hill: Downpour, Castlevania 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or In Cold Blood. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Castlevania 64.

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

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