What separates the good horror films from the really good ones? What holds the genuine shockers apart from the moderate spine-tinglers? I've been thinking about this - for at least two minutes - and I'm pretty sure the answer isn't sharks. In fact, I'm pretty sure the answer is something like ambiguity: a creepy sense of uncertainty, a little bit of leeway for your imagination to work its dark magic.
And sharks, of course. But Silent Hill: Downpour doesn't have sharks in it so let's stick with the ambiguity for now.
Silent Hill's always thrived on ambiguity. It offers you passage into a half-seen world, obscured by mist and rust: a place where abandoned buildings poke out of the fog as you creep closer, and where two conflicting dimensions grind against each other in the shadows, one a landscape of faded fifties Americana, another an ugly and corroding force of entropy.
Downpour's got all of that, of course, but it also takes the ambiguity a little further. This time, you've been dropped into the shoes of Murphy Pendleton, who sounds, now that I think of it, like a brand of open-toed sandal ("Barbecue, darling? I'll bust out my Murphy Pendletons,") but is actually a prisoner being transported to the slammer. Brilliantly, the game's early moments leave you with few clues about why Murphy's been sent down, and that makes for an experience where you're eagerly waiting for clues to your own character as well as to the mysteries of the environment.
The opening cinematic of the game's latest short but fiercely atmospheric demo build works wonders with this notion. Murphy's prison bus crashes on a lonely stretch of highway and we're left with no idea as to whether it was an accident or something far worse. Then, in the blur of action that follows, a state trooper falls to her death from a cliff, and it's hard to tell whether Murphy was trying to save her or was giving her a parting shove.
As Murphy heads into town under your control - uh oh, the town in question is Silent Hill! - you can't help but read things into his appearance and his demeanour. He has a thin, rattish kind of face, like Denis Leary, which can't be good, and he pads through the game slowly, yet heavily, his frame bent forward, as if he has the spirit of a predator perhaps, or the hip joints of a really old lady.
Once he's in town, Murphy's the least of your problems, however. Actually, he's the least of Murphy's problems, too. Vatra Games, the Czech studio handling the latest Silent Hill, has no problem pouring on the derelict backwoods ambience, and things are soon nice and creepy.
A gas station looms eerily out of the mist as you round a corner. There's nobody there, but when you smash open a nearby gate with a crowbar and work your way onto the roof - never look for reason in this sort of game, it ruins all the scares - you discover a wheelchair abandoned on top of a pile of pressed tin plating - and its back wheel is still turning!