CONTENT WARNING: This game deals with issues of abuse, bullying, self harm, and suicide.
Last night, with no ceremony and only a few hours notice after announcement, a new Silent Hill game, The Short Message, dropped on the Playstation store for free, the first official release since the infamous P.T.
The Silent Hill series, now more famous for the game that never came out than the classic titles from the PS1/PS2 era, is a difficult one to know what to expect from. Indeed, being a fan of the series over the past 20 years has mostly meant setting oneself up for disappointment.
But, after several new concepts for the IP and a remake of the beloved Silent Hill 2 being announced last year, there's been a lot of renewed interest in the series. Guarded interest, suspicious interest, skeptical that Konami and the new creative teams will be able to recapture the magic of the originals, but interest nonetheless. In this environment, Silent Hill: The Short Message carries a staggering amount of weight, needing to work on its own merits, but also as a proof of concept for what's to come. Doubtless, thousands of nervous fans dropped what they were doing last night (very much including myself) to play through the 3-hour game and discover if this was going to be another disappointing year or if Silent Hill had finally found the sauce it has been missing since the early 2000s.
Set in a fictional town in Germany (not the eponymous Silent Hill), The Short Message puts players in control of Anita, an 18-year-old girl exploring an abandoned apartment building to find her friend Maya, who asked her to come find her there via text. Through increasingly surreal interactions with the environment, Anita experiences and confronts the myriad of trauma, guilt, and depression plaguing her life, from feeling invisible on social media to being left behind in a dying town.
The premise will have long-time fans of the series nodding their heads, recounting the similarities between Silent Hill 2's James Sunderland and 3's Heather Mason, and the comparison isn't just surface level. Like James, Anita is hunted by a manifestation of her trauma unique to her and her vision of the world and, like Heather, her journey is heavily influenced by the abject horror of female adolescence. Moreover, more recent fans familiar with P.T. will immediately recall the familiar tension of deliberately walking down narrow hallways in first person, the evergrowing paranoia someone is right behind you mounting until, eventually, it comes true.
So, it's clear The Short Message is operating from a place of familiarity with the series. But referencing other media is easy, what does it bring that's new? And, you know, does it have "the sauce"? Is it any good?
I'm going to start by saying that The Short Message starts out a bit rocky, quickly establishing that Anita suffers from anxiety over social media, suicidal ideation, and bullying in the most blunt and unsubtle ways possible. Survival horror lives and dies on subtlety, on a building and mounting tension that remains believable even as it becomes more extreme. When the game presents serious topics the same way CW shows do, it strains that credibility and makes the horror less immersive.
However, the game shows a surprising amount of restraint in other areas, like the off-kilter walking animation and speed of traversal that captured the real-life feeling of carefully looking around corners in an unfamiliar space. It also integrates technology and modern events into its narrative in ways that feel believable and true to the themes of the series with COViD-19 and the financial crash explaining the urban decay of the setting and Anita's phone working both as a convenient way to integrate dialogue and get outside information and as a stand-in for the radio, which famously created white noise when an enemy was nearby. These gave me hope that this early stumble was a consequence of the short run time and just needing to get through these surface-level problems to get to the interesting bits. And I'm happy to report that giving the game this much credit paid off tremendously.
If Silent Hill is known for one thing it's the atmosphere, most famously in its fog, but also from the lighting, rust, and ambient noises in the environment, and I quickly found myself deeply absorbed in The Short Message's atmospheric and appropriate grimy apartment complex. The dilapidated concrete and uncertainty in the corner of my eye around every turn mixed with the quiet sounds of despair only really picked up by going further down an unnecessary path drew me in and I realized what I was feeling was the same dread I experienced descending into the Graveyard for the first time in Silent Hill 2.
Eventually, I was able to even get wrapped up in the personal drama of Anita and her friends which, to its credit, gets more subtle and engrossing as the game goes on. What starts off as a shallow inferiority complex told to us by dialogue turns into a deep resentment and complex fear of abandonment that manifests as increasingly volatile environmental details, like the hallways full of post-it notes with eyes drawn on that shift and laugh as you run for your life.
For the record, I am not and have never been a teenage girl, but my wife (who kindly watched me play the game) pointed out that the intensity of the anxieties as they were present and psychosexual contradictions of adolescent female friendships were the most accurate portrayal of adolescence and early womanhood she'd ever seen in a video game.
So there's that.
By the end of its short playtime, the game was firing on all cylinders and I wasn't asking myself how it compared to the original games or how it might indicate a direction for the future of the series, I was screaming my head off running through what looked like the inside of a furnace from a twitchy monster made of cherry blossoms, trying to find a bunch of photographs to unlock a door that might lead to safety (if you were wondering if the puzzles were still cryptic and weird, yeah, it gets that right too).
Silent Hill: The Short Message may take a while to get going and suffers from some on-the-nose exposition in the opening, but to answer my original question, it has "the sauce" in abundance. Survival horror is a wildly misunderstood genre that many games attempt and very few actually get right. Even great games like the Resident Evil 2 and 4 remakes (which, make no mistake, I love dearly) can get the aesthetics and language and gameplay down, but never achieve the elusive atmosphere of dread and genuine terror that Silent Hill 2 was able to achieve with some fog and a radio. Likewise, games that get the terror just right, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (also a game I love) and Outlast often lack anything of value to say, patting themselves on the back for creating an atmosphere and not filling it with anything to chew on.
The Short Message doesn't just scare for its own sake or use triggering imagery to shock and awe; it asserts itself with an urgent and important message for an audience it expertly uses horror to reach. It is a thunderous and unexpected return to form that understands what makes a game scary and what makes a scary game worth playing. And I cannot wait for what comes next from the team behind the new Silent Hill games, which is a sentence I never thought I would get to say.