Articles, Rants and Explorations
Current Jennilog for 8 / 9 / 2003: Spankin'
SPOOKY STORIES AS ART
I just recently bought the Playstation 2 survival-horror game Silent Hill 3, from the fine folks at Konami. I have been long waiting for this game, mentally drooling at the thought of returning to a most favorite of locations in the realm of fantasy. I never expected that I would end up feeling the gamers equivalent of being forcibly anus raped by what came out of that box. The only thing scary about Silent Hill 3, is how such a brilliant series can be augered into the dirt.
Let me tell you about Silent Hill 2, and about the horror genre, about what makes something powerful in this genre, and also define for you, along the way, what makes the classic television series The Twilight Zone utterly different from it's counterpart, the Outer Limits.
The big secret of horror, is not in what you see, it is in what you do not see. Author Stephen King once put this to the effect that if a filmmaker makes a movie about a giant 50 foot spider that eats people, this may scare the audience initially, but that after the movie -or worse, even durining it- a viewer may well, once the monster has been fully revealed, immediately imagine a 100 foot spider, and cease to be scared anymore. Whatever horror is imagined, the second it is defined, a greater version of that same horror can be imagined, reducing the perception of the original horror to an obstacle.
This understanding was implicit in Silent Hill two, a game which began with a man who recieves a letter from his wife, asking him to meet her in the lakeside resort town of Silent Hill. One problem: the man's wife has been dead for three years. An intiguing setup to be sure.
On arriving, the protagonist finds that the resort is apparently abandoned, and what is more, as he moves farther into town, it is shrouded in a thick blanket of fog. Not any ordinary fog, either, this is Hell Fog...it swirls and writhes and forms vague demonic faces that might just be tricks of the light, it seems to hide moving shapes that are not really there, it clings and sneaks and muffles and strangles and crawls through and over and inside of everything. It is brilliantly marvelous fog, the very best ever in any media, console game or otherwise. No motion picture has ever had such truly disturbing fog.
The man has a radio. It's broken. But...it starts screeching static from time to time, a strange, mournful static, and this static becomes louder as he approaches the literally indescribable things that shamble through that hellish fog, barely seen, and sometimes lethal. He is armed, if he is fortunate, with a stick or a shovel, and only eventually gains a gun, for which there are always too few bullets. But the point of Silent Hill 2 is not combat. He is better to avoid the shambling monstrosities if he can, for he must find an answer to this place, for space has begun to fold in on itself, and there is no longer an outside to the resort, and no road that leads away.
It is noteworthy, that when beginning the game, the player can select a mode where no actual monsters ever show up. Ever. There is nothing out there. This works because the impression that there is always something 'out there', lurking, is so total, that really, the actual monsters in the game are not even really needed: the mind makes them even when the code does not. I would venture to say that Silent Hill 2 is easily the most truly frightening game ever made, and the reason for this is that the game is not really horror, so much as it is suspense.
Where in Silent Hill 2, we have a grieving widower following an impossible dream, from roadside to ever deepening mystery, in Silent Hill 3, we have...
A music video. Seriously.
Silent Hill 3 starts with a slash-metal MTV-styled music video that features bits from every last cut scene in the whole damn game, leaving nothing to mystery, and essentially telling the entire plot to metal guitar riffs. Then, after this little treat, we begin the game with an ordinary teenage girl suddenly appearing in an abandoned, rotting amusement part, filled, I might add, with creatures reminiscent of those from John Carpenter's The Thing (which was a brilliant, brilliant movie), and this suburban girl is inexplicably armed like Rambo.
After a bit of wandering, and a few machine-gun fights using an inventory of unexplained heavy ordnance, the girl is railroaded, literally, off of a cart track.
It was only a dream, she awakes from dozing in a mall coffee shop. Whoopee. Now we have seen the monsters, and the blood, we can try to work on that little detail of story. This is given to us in the form of an aborted attempt by a detective to talk to the girl, who runs to a bathroom, and escapes out a window, where all too predictably, the events of her daydream start increasingly coming true. Now she is fighting the same lumpen monsters and devil dogs in the mall. Yahoo.
So we have Resident Evil now, only with an inexplicably arms-capable teenager instead of the police force of Raccoon City.
Which brings us to the difference between the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits.
You know how the original Twilight Zone series, the black and white Rod Serling series, was so frikkin' brilliant, yet the two seperate updated remakes of the series (with the exception of the brief first series first season executive produced by the golden age author Harlan Ellison) all sucked, sucked and sucked worse until they died a canceled death? Same with the Outer Limits update remakes?
The reason they sucked is because the people doing them (except for the aforementioned Ellison) had no clue what the series were about. You know there is a huge difference between the classic Twilight Zone and the classic Outer Limits, yet...can you identify it? I can, and will for you, right now.
Justice versus Triumph. That is the difference.
The Twilight Zone is a series about cosmic justice. The Outer Limits is a series about humanistic triumph. What they are not, is 'weirdy shows', 'spook shows', or 'horror shows'. They all have spooky, horrific and weird elements in them, yes, but that is not what they are about. Because they are actually about something, other than just being weird for the sake of being weird, the spooky qualities are actually spooky.
In the old, good Twilight Zone, whatever strange thing that might happen, happens as an agent of cosmic justice. A good person, treated badly, is rewarded. A weak person is punished by fate. An evil person is delivered to a hell suited specifically to them alone. Human failings are their own downfall, and human nobility brings elevation. Test almost any original Twilight Zone story, and you will find this to be true. Cosmic justice.
For the original Outer Limits, always the stories, however tragic, however many monsters in them, the ultimate conclusion was that the spirit of human curiousity and discovery was worth it all, and in the end, would always triumph. In the remakes, all of this was lost, and the two series just became blended, blurred messes of 'weirdy stories', empty of anything powerful. But originally, this was the difference between the two series. In effect, the original Twilight Zone was Justice Porn, and the original Outer Limits was Humanism Porn. The mind could wack off to these heady concepts, and thus the series were such successes. No I use the porn metaphor for a reason, as you will see...
Let me say this: if you have killed one monster, you have killed them all. They all go down the same. You pump them full of lead, or burn them with fire, or pray them to oblivion, or magick them to another dimension, or laser them into vapor, but they all die in the end, and if you can pack the heat, you can spank the monster. A shooting gallery is not the essence of horror, and neither is just being gobbled right and left, or surprized with a sudden 'boo!'.
Real horror, real anxiety comes from waiting. It comes from expectation, from suspense. In the meeting with a monster, either you win, or you die. You beat the monster or it beats you. This can be drawn out, or samurai quick, but it is the end, the climax. The thing that makes the monster is the foreplay before hand. Sex and death have always gone together in most human cultures, and one reason is that they work the same...foreplay and climax.
So, for a work designed to be good horror, or good suspense, or good weirdy, you need a point, a purpose, a justification, and you need to dish out the story slowly, in a way that, like good foreplay, builds to an astounding climax.
Silent Hill 2 was Twilight Zone. The man looking for the hope of his dead wife still somehow being alive finds cosmic justice, and along the way, the player is gradually seperated from the comfortable world of the real, and immersed deeper and deeper into the world of nightmares. The payoff is some dozen or so alternate universe endings, all very different, all based on what the player discovers and does during the course of their time in Silent Hill. The effect is art.
But Silent Hill 3 just sticks some gore in your face, gives you too many guns, and lifts the dog leg of indifference as it pees all over you. One second you are fighting monsters, and the next you are expected to dismiss those monsters as a dream, as though the copy did not say 'horror survival game' on the package. Of course there will be monsters, that is why the game was bought in the first place. Tease me a little before you stick them in my face! Give me a reason to want to fear them, give me a reason to bother, and best of all, make the monsters more than arbitrary: make them my own demons of guilt and shame, or make them my character's fears externalized, or make Silent Hill purgatory and suggest I may have died and have yet to realize it, or make the monsters angels, and offer that I am too damned to see them as beautiful, or make it turn out that there were no monsters, and I am the monster who just slaughtered a mall filled with innocents; twist me, turn me on my head...basically...bother to write, dammit. Bother to tell a story well.
If Silent Hill 2 was classic Twilight Zone -and it was- then Silent Hill 3 is...a Troma film. George Corman at his worst. The New Outer Twilights Limit Zone series at it's worst. Silent Hill 3 just comes off like a poor Resident Evil rip-off, and frankly, I cannot imagine not being damn tired of the Resident Evil series by now. Oh look, a Devil Dog Zombie. Shoot Shoot. It's dead. Yay. Rinse, repeat.
The worst possible way to do horror is to give everything away at the beginning, and then try to backpedal. The second worst way to do horror is to give the protagonist a powerful arsonal of useful weapons, and the skill to use them well. Then, all that horror, just becomes...another bug hunt.
Real horror is about what you cannot see, yet which stalks you, and over which you have no real power to defend yourself. It is being stalked by an indescribable enigma, armed with a stick, shrouded by darkness or fog. Limited senses, an unknown adversary, and no way out. Horror is to be helpless, running to put off the inevitable for as long as possible, struggling to retain some hope of winning after all. Hope is definiately an ingredient...without some illusion of hope to cling desperately to, there is no point in running.
You see, all horror, is really a metaphor for mortality. Sex and death. The struggle of animal life. We live, clinging to useless hopes, running from something we really have no power over, and no way to effectively fight. In the end, we all die, but it is how long we can put that monsterous climax off, that makes the horrorshow of being alive so rewarding.
If my life had started out with a crappy music video featuring scenes from the entire rest of my life, giving every plot twist away before I even begin to suckle my first teat, I think I would have powered down the machine in disgust there, too.
Konami lost the fog, and lost the story, to give us a Silent Hill sequel that plays like a really, really bad made-for-MTV television show. In losing the fog -both actually, and metaphorically- in Silent Hill, Konami is thoroughly ...ducking the fog.
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