Reobserving Observation

Last month, Konami finally revealed a number of new Silent Hill projects after almost 8 years of silence. Among these was “Silent Hill: Townfall,” which could either be a prequel like Silent Hill: Origins or some kind of side-story spin-off. Usually, I’d be quick to write-off this kind of project coming from Konami, but it’s actually being handled by No Code, the team that brought us the wonderfully mind-bended Observation just a few years ago. So, I thought it’d be nice to take another look at that game, examine what made it good, and try to see if any of that could apply to this new Silent Hill project.

Observation follows Dr. Emma Fischer, an astronaut living on a apace station orbiting Jupiter at some point in the not so distant future. I do mean “follows” too, as players aren’t playing as Emma, but rather the space station’s AI: “ S.A.M.” All is going well until Emma and the other crew members spot an anomaly in relatively close proximity to the station. From there, everything goes topsy-turvey. Emma and S.A.M. must work together to survive malfunctioning equipment, crazed crewmates, reality-warping events and the very gravity of Jupiter itself. All the while having to grapple with the natures of reality, intelligence and existence.

It might sound too high-minded to fit into a believable and interesting story, yet that’s exactly what No Code had accomplished with Observation. I’d even go so far as to say that it nears SOMA in terms of the story it tells and the success with which it presents and explores its ideas. I can’t give any more details without getting into potential spoilers, so suffice it to say that it’s all wonderfully compelling.

Video from YouTube channel: DevolverDigital

Of course, having ideas and good dialog isn’t enough to create a story that is both compelling and believable. It all has to be presented in just the right manner and sequence, and I hope No Code’s skill for that is what will transfer over to Silent Hill: Townfall. From the outset, Observation limit’s player’s perspective to just what can be observed through the station’s cameras and those of the mobile unit. Those restrictions gradually grow for a time too, creating reasonable explanations for why they couldn’t know certain things until later.

Playing as an AI also means that the player gets no internal monologue; we don’t necessarily know what S.A.M. is thinking all the time, and we certainly don’t know exactly what’s going on with Emma. We get plenty of hints at both over the course of the game, but even stuff that’s explicitly stated cannot always be trusted to be wholly true. In the end, we’re left with a situation that feels very much like real life, albeit shown in a very fantastical situation.

What I mean is that, just like how we cannot truly understand neither ourselves nor the people around us, so too are we left unable to truly understand Emma and S.A.M. Heck, it’s not even truly clear what’s happened to them by the end. Despite observing them both through the whole ordeal, we as the player are nonetheless left on the outside all the same. We get some answers, but not for the deepest, most important questions.

Video from YouTube channel: GameSpot

Silent Hill has always had an existential aspect to it, with a particular focus on the horror of knowing oneself. The town has always acted as a sort of twisted mirror for all those unfortunate to stumble into it, and its greatest terrors have always come from the moments of clarity that put everything into perspective. The last few teams that worked on the series seemingly forgot this all-important aspect of it, and the results have spoken for themselves. Now that we have No Code working on it, a team that obviously knows how to explore these kinds of ideas properly, perhaps we can finally get a new Silent Hill game that presents the town as it’s meant to be. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Have you had a chance to play Observation? Does it have you feeling hopeful for Silent Hill: Townfall or kind of pessimistic? Think you’ll give either of these games a try some day?

Image from PlayStation Store page