For a few weeks, Carma spent most of her free time trying to leave a room. There were massive chains barring the inside of the door, and the apartment’s windows wouldn’t open even if she wanted to risk climbing out. The monotony of the sallow walls was broken by the occasional eerie photograph of someone she didn’t know,and she was scared to open the fridge.
She wasn’t house-sitting for an eccentric relative — she was playing Silent Hill 4: The Room (Konami, 2004), the latest instalment in the survival horror videogame series.
It has a unique structure: the entire game, which took Carma about 18 hours to complete, takes place in a one-room apartment. Like many rentals, there’s a hole in the wall of the bathroom — but unlike the ones I’ve lived in, it leads to subway platforms of evil, haunted orphanages in the woods and circular prisons fashioned after the 18th-century panopticon.
And Carma’s braved them all. She told me about her experiences playing the game with the lights out and her nerves on edge and I asked her to show me around. As she pops the game in, she tells me she has to have her husband sit with her through the final segments of the game. “It’s very immersive,” she says.
The option screen has strains of Spanish guitar playing, backed by a low pulse of machinery. It’s a nice change from the blood-thumping tempo favoured by survival horror games. Then Carma starts the game and the room immediately begins spinning. I’m impressed with this unusual start to the game, wondering if my character is hungover, but then Carma switches controllers and the spinning stops. “That controller’s fucked up,” she says.
The introductory sequence, which climaxes with a ghost pushing through the wall to collapse on the floor in a spectral mess, ends with you waking up. “Ah, the old Dallas trick,” Carma says. She explains that for the first part of the game, after you conquer the puzzles and perils of each segment, you wake up in the same apartment. “But usually something’s different,” she says, and loads up a saved game to a part later on. “See, here I was able to move the dresser and now I can see through this crack in the wall….” On the other side is a woman, presumably your next-door neighbour, sitting on her bed. “You see that stuffed rabbit that’s turned away? Later on, it’s staring at you.” She shudders. “It’s creepy!”
Creepiness prevails over cheesy it-was-all-a-dream plot devices and sexist clichés (lingerie, a nurse’s outfit, a rare porn magazine and a riding crop all come into play), aided in a large part by the audio. “It has excellent sound production,” says Carma, who is a producer at CBC Radio when she’s not playing videogames. Silent Hill 4: The Room has a soundtrack of doomed, melancholy music and a vast array of ambient sounds. I find the footfalls of the character to be a little static, more taps than steps, and it’s enervating since you hear it all the time. In some sequences however, such as when you’re running through hallways soaked in blood, foot-squelches are used to good effect.
Visuals are naturally just as important — as much in what you don’t see as what you do. Catching a glimpse of something is often more engaging than a close-up, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in real life: snatches of things. One of my favourite moments is when you look out the window of the apartment you’re trapped in and see the street beyond, lively and normal and just beyond your reach. Across the way there’s another apartment building with its inhabitants going about their day-to-day existence.
Carma has switched the blood colour to purple. “Red’s just gross,” she says as she bashes in the head of a mutant dog and then stomps it dead with a “crack.” “It’s pretty fun to crunch them,” she says cheerily. “You gotta do that, or they get up and come back at you again.” I bring up a post-mortem on the game in Game Developer Magazine in which the Japanese designers explain that the brutal bludgeoning was intended to deepen the horror for the player, and thus guns are less common than melee weapons. “Well, there’s this two-headed-baby monster you have to kill… it’s so awful,” Carma says. “The weird thing is, even after everything that happens, your character never really seems that traumatized.”
I ask her to show me the ghosts, since they were mentioned in the post-mortem as well. They were almost not included because it was thought that they wouldn’t be scary to a Western audience. “The best thing to do with them is run away,” she says as she loads up a section. “You can’t kill them, they always come back to haunt you.” She shows me one, a floating hick that follows you around. “They’re annoying, mostly, but some of them….” She describes how one of the characters we met is killed in front of you and then comes back, wreathed in flames. “That one’s damn scary,” she said.
“That guy dies?” I asked.
Carma shrugged. “Everyone you meet dies.”
~~~Carma also made The Repository For Sad Things.