Scary stories done right: Play Novel Silent Hill

I’ve recently been able to get my grubby mitts on Corpse Party: Book of Shadows; the PSP visual novel sequel we weren’t sure we wanted but got anyway. I’d been really looking forward to it as I loved both the original Corpse Party: Blood Covered and Corpse Party 2: Dead Patient (what little there is of it at the moment, anyway) but after playing it through it felt like… how to phrase this… a complete waste of time – and it certainly wasn’t scary (I found myself more repulsed by the gratuitous “fan service” than any of the genuine attempts to scare). My main issue though was that the change from a free-roaming RPG-like adventure to visual novel had removed all the tension from the game – you never  felt you were in any personal danger even with all the potential WRONG ENDs floating around.

So it got me thinking – how do you do a good horror visual novel?

Silent hill GBA video

As you’ve hopefully guessed from the unsettling gif above, not to mention the flippin’ title of this blog post, Konami (remember when they weren’t self-destructing?) got it spot on in 2001 on the relatively humble GBA with Play Novel Silent Hill.

The game opens with some reasonable-quality FMV set to a recognisable albeit weedy rendition of Silent Hill’s iconic theme tune (blame the GBA’s sub-par sound capabilities for that), and as you play you’ll find there’s more than a few FMV sequences, moving screen-filling enemies, and animated backgrounds in there. These all work very well, occurring often enough to breath some life into the locations but still held back enough that when you do see them you feel something significant is happening.

As I mentioned above music has never been the GBA’s strength, but while the opening theme isn’t the best the rest of the tracks made specifically for the game (if memory serves, anyway) suit it well and do help create a more frightening experience for the player.

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While the graphics and audio do help to create the atmosphere a visual novel is nothing without its text, and thankfully Play Novel Silent Hill’s very well written. The plot is unfailingly to the point, leaving out the fetch-and-carry gameplay of the original and replacing it with a tightly focussed experience that’s all about forcing you into as many unsettling situations as possible and then describing them to you with enough creepy details to make for some uncomfortable reading.

There are a lot of route variations in this game – some are minor and only effect a few lines, but others create sudden and seismic shifts in the plot. Even better, those who have played the original to death will still find plenty of unexpected twists and turns in here as there are far more alternative possibilities and endings than can be found in the Playstation classic.

But how do you keep track of all these branching paths?

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That’s easy – by using in built-in flowchart! This incredibly handy menu lets you see exactly what chapter you’re on and where you are, and you can even hop around at will to try a different route. This makes ferreting out alternative scenarios and endings a piece of cake, and has the added bonus of stopping you from permanently committing yourself to a path you really didn’t want to take.

What makes a lot of these choices especially interesting is that instead of using a typical -

“Harry finds himself [place], a [thing] is on the ground.”

“Harry…. A)<picks it up> B)<leaves it alone>”

- structure some choices effect exactly what’s going on before your eyes, reading more like this -

“Cybil reaches out her hand and finds… A)<Thing A> B)<Completely different Thing B>”

These choices make the game feel not only more unpredictable but also more interactive, changing the player from a mere reactionary observer to an active participant in the story. The combination of the plot pulling you along and you pushing against it when you can rather suits Silent Hill, don’t you think?

Oh yes, did I forget to mention that you can also play as Cybil in an all-new side story that directly ties in with Harry’s adventures? You’d think that revealing exactly (possibly) what Cybil was (could have been) up to would ruin some of the mystery and allure of the main game, but as it turns out such fears are completely unfounded. Cybil’s adventures go off in all sorts of interesting directions; some could work perfectly as a compliment to Harry’s Playstation scenario, others go off on unexpected but not illogical tangents that still manage to offer a new insight into the lives, personalities, and problems of Silent Hill’s small character list.

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But even with all the thoughtful extras I’ve already talked about Konami still weren’t done dishing out goodies – a third scenario starring Cheryl’s seven year old neighbour Andy was made available exclusively over the long shut down “Mobile GB” service. It appears that these four short chapters (titled Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) were actual real downloads and not squirreled away behind a cheeky digital key, which means you’re not getting at them on a real cart without a Japanese mobile phone, a GBA->Jp phone adapter… and a time machine. I’d love to tell you more, but it looks like nobody anywhere ever actually used Nintendo’s Mobile GB service, leaving details of this extra story currently lost to time.

Once you’ve reached an ending (there are fourteen possible outcomes between Harry and Cybil) you’re rewarded with a few “digital trading cards” – these are rather underwhelming art cards showing a person, place, or object of some significance to the plot, although they’re so small there’s the distinct impression that the title on each of them was added to aid identification more than anything. It’s not all bad though – as they’re all tied to specific endings they soon add up to a nice (probably not the right word, considering the subject) photo album full of horrific images and they serve well enough as an in-game marker of your achievements and progress.

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Play Novel Silent Hill does everything right, and stands up well as both an unsettling GBA horror title as well as an excellent expansion of the characters and themes in the original. Just for once I’ve got some good news on the language front too! You can find a flowchart complete with fully-translated text (and accompanying images!) here - and if you’d like to have a go at playing the game in English yourself there’s a reasonable approximation here - It’s not perfect (the creator makes a note of some issues/bugs/missing items on the same page), but it’s still a damned sight better than anyone else has managed.

If you’ve played it or plan to play it leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!