VOLUNTEERING

Honouring a great videogame tradition, this week’s RESTLESS DREAMS was repeatedly delayed.

Contrary to some of what I’ve already written in this book, videogames are arguably very adept at inculcating their players to the mindsets of their characters, but typically this is enabled owing to the simplicity of the characters and the purity of their actions: it is easy to feel like a proficient, morally unambiguous killer when all your character is able to do is proficiently and morally unambiguously kill. We are not expected to fully empathise with James –- particularly after the game finishes and the extent of his past has been revealed, I think we are supposed to judge and to renounce him –- but the beginning of Silent Hill 2 proper is an attempt to unify our thoughts and behaviours with certain aspects of his own. Once we collect a map of Silent Hill from his car and proceed out of the car park and down (as metaphor, presumably, for James’ descent both into realisation and emotional kind of masochism, physically venturing downwards is something that we will do in the game repeatedly) towards the town, so begins an extended, repetitive and uneventful sequence of travelling, five or ten minutes or so of holding down square and a directional button to run along a mountain path. Videogame openings are usually constructed around two objectives, teaching the player the rules and mechanics of the game and inducing them to continue playing. If you look at some other big-budget releases from 2001, the year Konami released Silent Hill 2, using a big budget, you can see this discipline in action. Halo: Combat Evolved starts with a huge gunfight on-board an exploding spaceship, with text pop-ups and the Commander Keyes character telling you how to shoot, switch guns and throw grenades; a tutorial on how to use items, read the radar and aim weapons using first person welcomes players back into the role of their favourite character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2; instructed by the character 8-Ball, the first thing that you do in Grand Theft Auto 3 is learn to use a car and the mini-map in order that you can speed away from a crime scene. Play any game in the year 2020, and you can tell that this practice of integrating the practical with the spectacular to create an efficient and memorable game opening has only been further refined. Silent Hill 2, insofar as it doesn’t directly tell you how to operate it, and subjects you to this visually uneventful, mechanically kind of attritional running sequence, contains a videogame opening that I might describe as an anti-videogame opening. Then again, although it’s lacking the common attributes of how a videogame starts, and according it seems to the majority of major game-makers ought to start, it’s an opening that has nevertheless been constructed around a similar lesson for the player, of convincing and equipping them to play and understand the game as intended. The opening’s contrariness and deliberate inversion of other game openings is in large part how this is achieved. As a disclaimer, I know that forensic discussion like this of how a game has been designed threatens to rob the game and also this book of emotionality –- “explaining a joke is like a bored school student dissecting a frog: the student doesn’t learn anything and the frog dies”. Although some of this book will talk about manufacture and articulation of a game in this semi-scientific, diagnostic sort of way, and I apologise, I think Silent Hill 2 differs from most games in the sense that although it’s been meticulously and communally designed for efficiency, rather efficiency of mechanics or enjoyment or being in some way thrilled and engaged, it’s for efficiency of expression, expression of emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological experience. It’s engineered using the same tools and disciplines as most games, but with those tools and disciplines set to different purpose.

As in, although the opening is designed to teach you something, what it’s teaching you is how to think and feel like James does. It’s already established, through the fact you can’t leave the car park in the opposite direction in the beginning, when you Examine Mary’s photograph, James’ dialogue, that there is nothing else left in James’ life than his –- very dubiously motivated –- search for Mary. Especially as someone who regularly plays videogames, the opening of Silent Hill 2 may almost seem “broken”, like something should be happening but it isn’t. Its exception from standards of videogame openings creates a more pronounced sense of empty- and nothingness; the longer the walking sequence goes on, the more absurd it starts to feel that you’re even bothering to keep on going, because nothing being discovered or told appearing to challenge you. But at the same time, you know there isn’t anything behind you, nothing to pick up or Examine or to do back in the car park or elsewhere either. So like James, with zero left except this futile and delusional search for his dead wife, you continue anyway, because this is all there is. It’s long and unsatisfying and, in the sense that it tests your patience and has you doing the same button presses over and over again, arduous, but there isn’t anything else anywhere else, so you carry on. This is one version of the tutorial as it’s used in Silent Hill 2, a playable sequence that inculcates or starts to inculcate you on how to understand and access the game. But what you’re being inculcated to access is the game emotionally and metaphorically. You’re doing something impassive and interactive but which impassiveness and interactivity reflects the thoughts and feelings of your character: same as James, who at some level that will later be unearthed knows he killed Mary and that trying to find her here is desperate and insane, but cannot bear facing that fact, despite various instincts telling you that this isn’t right you know and feel like you don’t have any other choice, and so keep walking.

Next: Head pain while saving

I have a Patreon dedicated to getting me to finish writing RESTLESS DREAMS. The offerings are pretty scant right now but more are coming in the near future.

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