Go to your local game store and you can find quite a few creepy video game worlds to explore. But since 1999, the various gamemakers behind the Silent Hill series have worked hard to make sure that their version of creepy earns a very clear set of italics. And get bolded, too.
When you enter the virtual burg at this franchise's core, you find much more than just a dilapidated ghost town full of black shadows and ghoulies ripe for a shotgun splattering. The ghoulies are there, sure, but they're wrapped in a fever-dream that tugs you back and forth between a crumbling, grungy real world and madly delusional netherworlds. The latest game to embrace the resulting demons? Silent Hill: Downpour, the eighth title in the series.
Butcher in the Bath
The game stage is set with an opening scenario in a communal shower room of a state prison. A corrupt guard arranges a clandestine meeting between prisoner Murphy Pendleton, who steps in on one side of the steamy room, and his paunchy near-naked target, who waddles in on the other. You're then instructed in basic game mechanics as you go about pounding, stabbing and slashing at your whimpering victim—smearing blood and gore around the tiled room and bringing to mind a butcher shop. Or maybe a barber shop … if it's run by Sweeney Todd.
As much as that dreadful intro might seem to tell us all we need to know, the game proceeds to hint that there may be more going on here than just a gruesome prison killing. Was this an act of vengeance for an innocent's unjust murder? Was Murphy forced by the corrupt guard to do the bloody deed?
Questions like those create just enough morally ambiguous wiggle to nudge the door open for the hope of redemption. And then the prison's transport bus runs off the road on the outskirts of a seemingly desolate town, leaving Murphy stumbling about in a fog- and rain-shrouded place called Silent Hill. The possibilities mount as you begin to shape your guy's story and its resolution through the good and bad choices you make along the way. An example: Will you reach out to help a female guard who's stuck on a rocky ledge? Or leave her to tumble to her death?
Your hero tries to make sense of the torment that's assaulting him in this bizarre place—collecting clues as he goes. And it's that searching and questing that gives this game its puzzle-solving twist. Some of the puzzles are basic stabs at making sense of gathered pictures or numbers. Others are more elaborate.
Nightmares for All
Staging a scene from the play Hansel and Gretel, Murphy finds the necessary items in a dilapidated middle school. Following a set of stage directions, controlling the lights, music and sound effects for the performance—suddenly, with all the elements working together, the set pieces become real and he finds himself transported to a stormy forest with children screaming and shadow-crouching beasts afoot.
It's a good example for this review, because in the heat of its moment, just like in so many others, you use Murphy to grab at any makeshift weapon you can find—bricks, pipes, axes, rakes, an occasional gun—to hack and blast away at your foes. And cutscenes reveal other brutal deaths, even one off-camera killing of a child whose neck is snapped by a terrifying bogeyman.
Because no matter which of the handful of possible endings you play toward, getting there is always a swirling nightmarish experience with shifting realities and scores of shrieking, wall-crawling demonic things to fear. In the end, the game feels like an insane chase through someone's visceral vision of hell itself. Profanities spew (f- and s-words, uses of "d‑‑n," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑"). Confusion swirls. Blood spatters. Body parts and corpses pile. This Silent Hill certainly earns its emphasized and darkened descriptor creepy. And it earns a few others besides: obscene, outrageous, egregious, grubby and gross.