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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Surviving the Dreadful Isolation of ‘Silent Hill 4: The Room’

I’ve been thinking a lot about Silent Hill 4: The Room, lately. While I agree that Silent Hill 2 is an objectively better game, and that the series gameplay peaked with 3, The Room will always have a special place in my heart as my absolute favorite horror game (and the only one to have ever given me actual nightmares). Part of my love for the title might stem from the fact that I first played it during a very interesting time in my personal life, but after all these years I’ve also come to cherish the game as a genuine work of art in its own right, regardless of my rose-colored glasses.

Due to recent events that you’re all undoubtedly sick of hearing/reading about, I ended up revisiting The Room during quarantine, replaying the game as an older, supposedly wiser person. Despite all my previous playthroughs, the added context of actually living in a world comprised solely of lonely rooms and windowsills made me appreciate the melancholy artistry behind the game in ways I had never thought possible.

In fact, as I struggled to deal with confinement both in and outside The Room, I realized that I’m probably not the only one who might benefit from revisiting this unfairly maligned classic. So today, I’d like to dive into exactly why I love this game and why it’s even more relevant now than it was back in 2004.

For those who have never played Silent Hill 4, the game puts players in the shoes of Henry Townshend, an ordinary man who finds himself trapped in his own apartment by a supernatural force. After five days, a hole opens up in the bathroom, leading to a series of self-contained nightmarish locations. By exploring these pocket dimensions, collecting notes and encountering other ill-fated characters (not to mention horrific monsters), the player slowly pieces together the disturbing story that led to Henry becoming trapped in the first place, all the while dealing with vengeful ghosts and an undead serial killer. It’s not exactly succinct, but it’s one hell of a scary ride.

Nope, nope, nope!

On the surface, the game still relies on standard Survival-Horror tropes like solving obtuse puzzles and piecing together the plot through fragmented storytelling. However, The Room is quite the departure from the Silent Hill formula, taking us away from the interconnected areas of the titular town and even getting rid of the series’ iconic radio that warns players of danger. In some ways, this is more of a stand-alone spin-off rather than a proper sequel (which makes sense, as it’s rumored that the project wasn’t originally meant to be a Silent Hill game in the first place), but I’d argue that these unique qualities are exactly what make this such a memorable title.

For starters, the game doesn’t even take place in Silent Hill, relegating the action to the neighboring city of Ashfield. Even then, most of the levels are actually nightmarish recreations of places related to the game’s serial-killing antagonist, Walter Sullivan. These areas are all connected to Room 302, which acts as a sort of hub where gameplay and narrative meet to create something special.

Initially, the Apartment acts as a safe haven, containing the game’s only save point and a box for storing items. Here, we shift into a first-person perspective as Henry can interact with the environment while his health slowly regenerates. The outside world is presented as an oppressive urban labyrinth, filled to the brim with some of the franchise’s scariest creatures, not to mention unkillable ghosts that will chase you throughout the levels. These dangers incentivize players to return home as often as they can, creating a ritual of sorts. Players explore the nightmare worlds for a bit and then go home to save, reorganize items and maybe have a look around.

Later on, however, the Apartment itself takes on a much more sinister demeanor, with horrific hauntings literally coming out of the walls to damage Henry. What was once a safe space becomes infected by the horrors surrounding it, and players are left with nowhere to run from the terrors that pursue them. It’s quite a shock for first-timers, and dreading the inevitable loss of your sanctuary is even worse during subsequent playthroughs.

The Apartment is also where we meet Eileen Galvin, Henry’s neighbor who’s initially unaware of the nightmares surrounding her. Over time, players can observe her through peepholes and cracks in the walls, unable to truly communicate until she too becomes embroiled in this supernatural ordeal. The game already borrows heavily from voyeuristic thrillers like Rear Window, so it makes sense that Eileen functions as a sort of Hitchcockian archetype, representing the emotional connection that both Henry and Walter have been denied throughout the story. That’s why it comes as no surprise that all the endings depend on her ultimate fate, with several of them implying a romantic connection between Eileen and Henry.

How romantic!

Henry is also not the usual Silent Hill protagonist, as instead of having a personal connection to the cursed town, his only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some fans have criticized this approach, but I feel that Henry’s role as an unfortunate outsider only adds to the experience, making it easier for players to form a connection with him.

Personality-wise, Henry functions as a (mostly) blank slate that players can project themselves onto, but there’s more to his character than initially meets the eye. The Apartment itself helps to characterize Henry as an introvert, and the fact that no one really cares enough about him to investigate his disappearance establishes just how alone he truly is. These traits actually draw him closer to the game’s antagonist, another outsider who finds himself idolizing Room 302 as some kind of maternal deity after years of abandonment and abuse.

While the story appears to unfold like a standard supernatural yarn, with Walter attempting to awaken his “mother” through a grisly ritual, this is ultimately a simple and universal tale about isolation, featuring broken characters that feel abandoned in an urban jungle. Once the monsters are defeated and the ghosts exorcised, the only thing that can save these lost souls is true human connection, and I think that’s a really powerful message for a 2004 survival-horror game.

Once the doors to Room 302 finally open (if players manage to get one of the good endings), Henry hasn’t just freed himself from the horrors unleashed by Walter, he’s also free of his own inability to connect with others.

Of course, I haven’t even scratched the surface of what makes Silent Hill 4 so damn special, as the game boasts unique level designs with a more urban take on the iconic Otherworld aesthetic, plus some truly disturbing monsters. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful soundtrack, once again composed by the legendary Akira Yamaoka. Every single track contributes to the moody isolation enforced by the story and environments, and I often revisit some of these songs on their own.

Sure, the game has its faults, with some tedious backtracking and monotonous combat (you’d also be forgiven for thinking that the story’s presentation is a convoluted mess), but it’s easy to overlook these issues when everything comes together so beautifully.

While it’s generally accepted among Silent Hill fans that the golden age of the franchise consists of the original trilogy, I feel that the fourth entry deserves more love. I’ve always considered it Team Silent’s heartfelt send-off to their classic formula, and it’s an experience worth revisiting in these troubling times.

After all, there’s nothing like Survival-Horror to remind folks that we can overcome anything by not giving into despair. (And saving often…)



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3624661/editorial-surviving-dreadful-isolation-silent-hill-4-room/

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