8.12.2010

Religion in Silent Hill

I feel like writing about this all of a suddenly.

From a short comic by Ito that came with the SH0 soundtrack. PH, who I think is named "White Hunter" here, skewers the Angel because he has been "programmed" to do so, but does not know why. He has been waiting on that pillar for who knows how long to fulfill this duty. The Angel, then, exists specifically to summon the man with the triangle head. It's a self-defeating prophecy, and is my favorite part of the entire religious mythology of the Silent Hill series. It just wraps everything up so well.

So I finally finished Shattered Memories after a 6 month break related to a horrible glitch that erased my entire save file ('M' has snuck into the Otherworld). I loved it, and it would have been my third or even second favorite of the series if it wasn't so embarassingly unfinished. I also finally got a PSX emulator working and beat the first game a few months before Shattered Memories came out, so it was really fresh in my head when I began playing SHSM. Because of this and other reasons, the first games inferiority to everything else became really striking. Let me explain:

I was really interested in the series since 2000, when I first heard about the experiences people had while playing it. I was never too big on Playstation back then, and I really couldn't care less about Resident Evil back then, so it just sort of never stayed on my radar long enough for me to get into it at the time. By the time the second one came out on PS2, I still wanted to check it out, but it was so not happening then. I was all "what the hell? just put it on Gamecube!" Oh well. It was around 2005 when I found out there was a third one and even a fourth one, and since I actually had a PS2 when I found this out, I jumped on the horse. SH2 and SH3 were everywhere, so I got 'em both for like $30 (that's combined), and a few months later I found SH4 lying around at an EB. I looked for the first one all over town, but it no longer existed, apparently, and it took me four years to get a Playstation emulator to work.

Because of the almost hilariously broken market of video games, you can only but games that are less than 4 years old, and so by necessity SH2 became the first one I played and finished. I was working on 2, 3, and 4 at the same time, but finished each in order. Needless to say, I was completely blown away. Silent Hill was easily one of the best games I've ever played, right up there with Primal Rage, Cubivore, and Let's Win Forever. The best part about it was that, like the end of Godzilla vs. Destroyah, now matter how many times I play through it, I become a sobbing mess from the last Pyramid Head fight until the end credits.

SH3 is... eh. It's every bit as cool, wierd, and disturbing as 2, and if anything the oppresion and isolation are even stronger in 3 than in 2, but I had no fucking idea what was happening, and there was no build up to the dad's death, and we don't even see him alive. The whole time playing the game I was just like "I DON'T CARE!" I can feel sympathy for someone losing their father, but how am I supposed to know if that was real or just something Heather imagined? It didn't even look human.

The last I'll say about SH3 other than it made much more sense after playing the first one (and since I played 2 first, my impression of the series dictates that a direct sequel is automatically the worst idea, hence 3 is near the bottom of my list) is that I really liked the idea of the Otherworld being created by blind faith rather than guilt and sadness. Here, all the monsters have roles and titles, and we see ceremonial monsters that never attack Heather but are important to the framework of the religion which created them. I also REALLY like killing God with a shotgun at the end. SH3, for all it's faults about requiring familiarity with a previous game, does save itself with a really kick ass utilization of the forces of the Otherworld and subjective reality.

Plus, that fukuro lady is hot as hell.

And of course, SH4 went back to the normal SH formula of not being a direct sequel, but making alot of sense in context with the others, not that it needs to because it's a very personal story to begin with. Not a fan of breakable weapons and the whole charging thing, and I nearly got killed by a Rubber Face, and still can't manage to get anything other than the absolute worst ending, but it's all good.

So then the movie came out. Since it was sort of an adaptation of the first game, I figure I'd let it fill me in on the details about the first game so that the third could make more sense. Bad idea. My opinion of the movie was way too high, and it completely ruined the first game for me. In the movie, we have the same basic framework of the first game with Alessa and everything, and it uses the idea that instead of personal issues of the main character, the Otherworld is created by the blind faith of the religious people in the town. Unlike SH3, the religion is much more overt with it's characters, and is quite proud to be dusting off, of all the myth cycles in all of history, the christian "God," which is much more refreshing and understandable than the isolated nature of the... well, I'll just say it, the cult from the games.

The film is quite clearly about large religions and the maddening effects of blind faith and insanity. It also envelopes Sharon's mother and Cybil Bennet the cop who specializes in busting pedos, which is a statement in it's own right about the old myth that says a mother could lift a car over her head to save her child. Rose gets put through the fucked up subjective reality that the religious people have chosen to live in, and she does it selflessly to protect her child. It's awesome. Plus, Sharon and Rose never get out of the fog world... hmm...

It's one of the best monster movies ever, in short. I could go on and on about how Tatopoulos fully redeemed himself and how it's amazing that a greek guy who nearly killed Godzilla is actually on the same technical level with Eiichi Asada, but I want to move on.

In 2007 I bought a PSP a week before 0rigins came out because I was... excited. In the intervening year I became really engrossed in the mythology of the series, and now had a much better idea of the differences between the film and SH1. I even saw a let's play or two. So I thought I was totally prepared for everything that would happen in SH0. I wasn't. SH0 is exactly like every other Silent Hill game, and as such it has the same gameplay, themes, art style, music, and every other aspect is duplicated perfectly. So if you liked 1, 2, 3, or 4, you'll love 0.

Everything was going fine in the game. I save Alessa from her batshit insane mother who still clutches religion like Charleton Heston's cold dead hands and enter into the "Ash World." I wind up at Alchemilla hospital (which is new to me) and meet Lisa, nurses, and lying fig... whoops, I mean "straight-jackets." Then Alessa shows up and I pick up this fucking weird triangle thing. I don't get it.

The game progresses like this with me fighting me repressed personal demons and at the end of each level I fight a boss and get another weird triangle. Well, Travis, meaning both me and the fictional Travis I'm playing as, is not stupid and together us Travises are getting tired of being strung along in some stupid game. I was willing to pull Alessa out of a fire to save her, but when collecting trinkets involves me fighting my dead dad who hung himself when I was 8, that's way out of line. To date, I have never sympathized more with a protagonist in any game than Travis Grady. And that's not just because we have the same first name. See, what I began to discover is that I was playing two games: a Silent Hill game where I fight my own tangible psyche, and a Zelda-like game with giant bosses, fetch quests, and a fantastical back story involving literal interpretations of mythical creatures.

I just want to point out right here that Silent Hill 0rigins is still my second favorite of the series, right after SH2. I don't really feel like I need to explain this any more than saying "Artaud Theatre," and you should get it. There are, of course, many other factors that effect my opinion of this game, but even if it wasn't up to snuff in any other way, the Otherworld library set, and really the whole stage at Artaud Theatre would cinch it. I cannot express in words how much I love the fucking theatre level.

And one of the other reasons I love this game so much is the way it handles this completely mood breaking idea that there is a literal psychic battle between physical Gods in the real world happening at the same time. Travis, of course, doesn't give a shit about any of this. Dahlia is an incomprehensible madwoman, so we aren't going to get an explanation from her. Kaufman is a doctor and is only in it for the money, though, so when he starts saying crap about splitting souls and casting magical summoning spells, my heart sank through the floor. What the fuck happened!? Alessa was the only person in the town I could fully trust, and she bought into this crap as much as Dahlia.

When the final level comes around, I finish constructing the "flauros," which fucking floors me. Flauros? What the fuck is Flauros doing in purgatory and heaven? If the game uses the Order to manifest the Otherworld, then the creatures inside it must reflect the religious beliefs of those who see it. Flauros is a FUCKING GOETIC DEMON, not an angel, and NOT A FUCKING TRIANGLE!

I knew then, of course, that in SH1 Dahlia mumbled something about Sammael, so the first thing I figure is that this is some sort of mythological misdirection intended to either confuse me or make me believe Alessa is responsible for the Otherworld. As myself, I already know that the Otherworld isn't physically real and only exists because I believe it does. Travis Grady, then, by witnessing his father's death over again, can't possibly think the Otherworld is tangible. He never lets us know for sure, but judging from his actions, it's pretty much assured that he not only isn't falling for Dahlia's crap, but he can't even understand it.

So why does Alessa want a triangle named after a Goetic demon? In game, the rationalization for retreiving the object is to make Alessa's psychic powers stronger so that she can take control of the Otherworld and turn it on those who had hurt her... just like in the movie, but this time it's turned into a quest to find the Triforce to slay Gannon. It's fucking retarded.

Now, I beat the game (Travis sneaks into the secret headquarters, is gassed, and then kills God, who was hiding in the "Flauros," apparently) and I come up with a theory: the triangle is a fetish object that has no real power. Alessa's psychic abilities are part of the Otherworld manifested by Dahlia, who sees her daughter rebelling against the ceremony as the devil's work. Lisa and Kaufman are gullible and scared out of their minds. In the film they mention Alessa's psychic powers, but there is doesn't even need to be rationalized away, as it is simply a non issue and a cop out buzzword thrown around by clueless characters who cannot comprehend whats actually happening to them. In SH0, it is a fetch quest, and all the memos in the Otherworld library in (Antonin) Artaud Theatre are essays about psychic abilities. Here, it can be rationalized away, but the notion that they were trying to say Alessa LITERALLY had the superpower of Telekinesis has always bothered me.

Now I finally play the first game. Oh my god is sucked soooooo bad. We can't even get to the hospital before Dahlia start yapping about some incoherent nonsense nobody gives a shit about. This game disobeys ever law of the franchise that has been set since it was released. Here, it is made explicitly clear that the Otherworld is a REAL TANGIBLE place you can drive to in your car. It was created by Alessa with telekinesis, and she really did SPLIT HERSELF IN TWO. Nothing is figurative. The closest we get to a good Silent Hill game here is the line "the Otherworld, a world of someone's nightmarish delusions come to life." But this doesn't mean subjective reality, this means that the monsters have literally come to life. Like, they are every bit as real as dinosaurs and cats. Real, living, breathing creatures. Created by a girl with Telekinesis.

Surely I need not explain why this is fucking retarded. But here's the thing that bothers me: SH2 came after SH1. Every other game in the series makes it quite clear that the Otherworld isn't nightmarish delusions "brought to life," but simply the nightmarish delusions in and of themselves. SH3 is a direct sequel to the first game, and even here we see subjectivity work itself into every aspect of the design and story of the game. SH0, as I just discussed, starts at the very beginning, and at the first manifestation in 1973 the Otherworld is created by Travis's rough past, Dahlia's madness, and Alessa's ordeals. The psychic powers and physical artifacts that control the Otherworld are brought into the story, but, as I said above, these do not explain themselves very well and are far easier to comprehend as Dahlia's manifestations of her blind faith in religious symbols than any actual psychic or physical battles taking place.

So why then is Silent Hill (1999) so wildly different from it's sequels? The game itself is as good as any other SH title, and the part about Harry not giving a shit about the craziness and just wanting to find his daughter that translated so well in the movie is still there. So... what happened?

And I don't have a real answer. I've though about this for a long time now, and I can't figure it out. There is simply too much that we can't ignore to make sense out of it. For example: I'd known for quite a while that the first game revolved around Cheryl and Alessa, who were "split" from each other. The film used this as well. But up until I played through the game, there were any number of ways to explain this. In Silent Hill, you see Alessa and Cheryl in the same room, with a visible age difference, and in two endings we actually see the infant Heather, who looks exactly 17 in SH3. There's just not a way to fudge it. The Otherworld in SH is not a result of blind faith, it is the result of Alessa's fears and psyche. The religion actually triggered her to create the Otherworld, which contradicts what we see in SH0 where the Otherworld uses Alessa, Dahlia, AND Travis to define itself, and Alessa and Dahlia merely battle for control over it.

And then there's God. Now, I really like that they brought God back from the dead. I think there is kind of a stigma in Western cultures that bringing God back in a modern interpretation is kind of dumb or not wise or uninteresting or something like that. I mean, we just don't see her/him that often. You could say that this has something to do with people who still believe in God, but few of those people actually exist, and theres no good reason to give a shit about them anyways. Throughout history, God has been one hell of a monster who has influenced the real world in ways completely beyond the capacity of any other mythological figure in history, so to me bringing God back is a really, REALLY cool idea.
On top of that, the way that they brought back God is downright inspired. Due to the nature of Silent Hill, God only exists as an antiquated belief whos followers are so fanatical they can make the monster appear in their image as part of the Otherworld. The first time God appears, though, is in SH1, where it is said to be exactly that, a real monster with real powers that can really affect the natural world.

In this iteration, God is the product of man (a much more fitting origin story), when a man and woman offerred a snake and a reed to the sun, God was so moved that it was born to these two individuals. This means we have a creator deity and a sun diety that openly acknowledges within it's own mythology that it was born of a man and a woman. Yet it is still worshipped as a creator. The religious parts of Silent Hill mythology are full of contradictions like this, and thats what makes them so wonderful.

Other beings in the religion are agents of God. There's Lobsel Vith and Xuchilbara who are supposed to lead people in obedience to God. Xuchilbara is more elaborated on as it is also the angel of resurrection and is either synonmous with or employer to Valtiel and Pyramid Head. Valtiel is responsible for shifting to and from the fog world and the otherworld and watches after the fetus of God to ensure her birth.

Pyramid Head is really interesting in the mythology of the series because he one of the main figures of the pantheon who actually becomes a very personal monster for everyone who sees him. His introduction in SH2 has him being a historically accurate and ceremonial garbed executioner from the town's past, when he is really James' personal punisher created by the guilt he has regarding his wife. In SH0, PH (now the Butcher) is much more extraverted and works with a blind rage not seen in any other version (he is also the only version to alter more than some minor cosmetic details). The Butcher is associated with roadkill and Travis's repressed anger about his parents. In the bad ending of this game, Travis actually gets "recruited" as the Butcher, but for most of the game his status as judge jury and execution is simply abused, as he rounds the town slaughtering monsters out of rage rather than any real reasonable punishment.

PH also appears in the arcade game and Silent Hill: Shit-cuming, but here he's just there to be there, he has no signifigance.

In the aforementioned White Hunter comic, Pyramid Head is shown blindly obeying the will of whoever happened to manifest him in that way (it is stated not to have anything to do with 0rigins, so it isn't Dahlia or Alessa). Here he has only one victim to punish, and he has no idea why, and he simply stands on a pillar rather than pursue it. The Angel in the comic is one of my favorite Silent Hill monsters ever, if only because he has a trumpet that shoots bullets. It's hard to read much into the Angel, but it's easy to assume it gets it's orders directly from God, Xuchilbara, or Lobsel Vith. If the orders were to send it to PH, then I'm guessing it follows Xuchilbara, who is the immediate boss of Red Pyramid, hence the Red part. Xuchilbara probably resurrects his one Angel over and over, sending it to it's doom. It accomplishes nothing, but it's awesome.

Also Lisa. Lisa Garland is unique because she at first appears to be a normal human who has become stuck in the Otherworld, but later realizes that she is actually one of the monsters, and the real Lisa Garland is already dead. We don't see her monster form until Fukuro and SH3, and it's hot as hell, and all she really does is twitch around while Valtiel does... something. I'm not sure, but it has great significance. So Lisa matters in some way to the overarching mythology, but I can't quite figure out how. I'm only bringing her up because she's so hot.

One thing I've always wondered is how the religious people in Silent Hill explain the non-religious monsters. The closest to an explanation we get is "they've come to see paradise" or whatever the line Claudia gives in SH3, and in this game the monsters are just cultists, so Claudia doesn't seem them at all anyways. But what about Dahlia coming across a Groaner or Air Screamer? It had to happen, right? How do you suppose she handled that? If she believes the Otherworld is the work of God or Alessa's psychic powers, what does that make the abstract representations of a little girl's fear of big dogs running around the town?

Whatever. Last thing I'll do here is write down my list of favo flavos. This is the order in which I prefer the Silent Hill games, and also the order in which you should actually play them.
1. Silent Hill 2
2. Silent Hill 0rigins
3. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
4. Silent Hill 3
5. Silent Hill 4: The Room
6. Silent Hill
...and that other one isn't a real Silent Hill game, it's a fighting game, and not the good kind.

P.S. I'm an extremely optimistic fan for most things most of the time. The one time I had a fanboy hissy fit prior to the release of something was when I heard they were going to make King Ghidorah a good guy in GMK. That movie turned out pretty good, so it all worked out. Homecoming was something I was totally prepared to like, and was really behind those guys even with all the fans pissing and moaning. I thought "combat isn't a strong suit for Silent Hill, so I guess it could be tweaked to make it a little more fun." I didn't realize that they would add the dodge manuever that destroyed fighting games, and made it mandatory to learn the special moves. In a SH game, the pushoverness of the enemies combined with the unlimited ammo and the natural fear of the monsters means that you never, ever die once in any of the games. I died once in SH0, and then I ran, and things worked out. In SHV I was killed by a fucking nurse because I didn't dodge. Good thing I didn't pay for it.

So I'm not really enthused about Silent Hill "8" (it's either 7 or 9 depending on what you count), and this is mostly due to the music and the trailer. The music is fucking terrible, even though Akira Yamaoka has said he's totally fine with continuing the series even though he no longer works for Konami, and even if he doesn't come back there are plenty of people out there who can actually do even better than Akira, industrial, trip-hop, and all his styles are actually pretty easy to get right. It's called "Broken Notes," and it's amazing. There is no excuse for a terrible soundtrack. But more than that the trailer is really fucking boring. I find it almost impossible to care about whats happening.

I hate to say it, but this time around I really am one of those pissy fanboys who you can never please. Sorry, but Silent Hill is too easy to do right for me to be forgiving about this.

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