Silent Hill has never been the most commercially successful series, but it's hard to overestimate how important it has been to games - and how highly regarded it is by its fans. By ignoring B-movie zombies and endless cheap shocks in favour of an extraordinary atmosphere, memorable characters, oppressive, grinding music and a creeping sense of dread, it crafted a horror experience that was both clever and deeply unsettling. The series reached its narrative peak in Silent Hill 2, but the first game already showed the talent behind the team's storytelling. The mystery behind Silent Hill may have been occasionally mind-bending as it unravelled, but at heart it told a story about fanaticism, suffering and revenge which worked beautifully.
It's paragraphs like that, waxing lyrical about just how memorable and even - whisper it - important Silent Hill was, which probably give the Climax team in Portsmouth sleepless nights. Charged with "re-imagining" the original Silent Hill game on the Wii, the studio has the unenviable task of updating one of the most fervently adored games of the PlayStation era.
Climax at least has pedigree with Silent Hill, having created the solid if somewhat workmanlike Silent Hill Origins on PSP and PS2. Origins was pretty traditional in its structure and approach - in fact, it was criticised for being so obvious, a blatant piecing together of fan-favourite bits from the series with little attempt to innovate. Of course, the same fans who snootily dismissed Origins on that basis would go on to crucify the more recent Homecoming for straying from the formula...
Given that background, you might expect Climax to approach Silent Hill in a similar way to Twin Snakes, Silicon Knights' GameCube update of Metal Gear Solid. Nicer graphics, updated controls, better cinematics - job done.
It's arguably to Climax' credit, then, that it's not prepared to take the simple approach. 'Arguably', because fools rush in where angels fear to tread. While keeping the core story of Silent Hill intact, Shattered Memories (is that a sensible subtitle, actually?) is a radically different game to its progenitor. The team recoils from the word "reboot", on the basis that it implies throwing away what came before, but the even more controversial "re-imagining" is thrown around a few times during our discussion.
Once I'm actually playing Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, it's immediately apparent that this is a very different game. Certainly, I'm playing Harry Mason again, and I'm exploring a strange, largely abandoned town in search of my daughter, who went missing after a car crash. I'm doing so to the strains of Akira Yamaoka's fantastic soundtrack - the fact that he's once again providing the music will be enough to sell the game to many fans.
However, almost everything else is different. Gone are Silent Hill's occasionally dizzying cinematic camera angles - now, I explore the town in a conventional third-person viewpoint. The controls have been radically reworked for the Wiimote, which essentially functions as a flashlight. Harry is moved around with the nunchuk analogue stick, predictably enough, while the Wiimote pointer shines his flashlight around his environment, with a button press to zoom in on anything of interest. It works remarkably well - your movements map nicely onto the flashlight, with no perceptible lag, and everything in the environment casts a realistic shadow from the beam, which lends quite a lot of atmosphere to the rooms you move through.
As to combat controls - there aren't any. One of the most radical changes Climax has introduced is to create a survival horror game without any combat - you don't pick up weapons or beat up monsters. Instead, when you encounter enemies, you run like hell. Despite flying in the face of a decade of survival horror design, the justification is obvious and hard to argue with. This is, after all, what "action" consists of in almost all horror fiction - you don't find a crowbar and beat the supernatural foe to death, you run. Chase sequences are at the heart of horror, from movies to our own nightmares.
So, in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, when the town around you changes into the nightmarish otherworld, you don't pull out a gun. Instead, stalked by the town's creatures, you run. The sequence I played through had a "rat in a maze" sense to it - Harry legs it through various parts of the town, twisted into their otherworldly forms, pursued by occasionally glimpsed foes. You slam through doors and clamber over ledges, searching for the door that will bring you back to the normal world. In a neat move, there's a button to let you look back over your shoulder without actually stopping running - so you can see exactly how close the creatures are to your heels.
They're clever little buggers; an overall AI, we're told, controls these chase sequences, so monsters will intelligently flank you and try to cut you off. If you have a moment's respite, you can hide somewhere - under a bed, or in a wardrobe - and hope that they'll lose your trail and return to patrolling the area. Miscalculate that one, and you'll suddenly find yourself being pulled out from under the bed by your feet, only to be devoured by ravenous, sharp teeth. It's every childhood nightmare you ever had, all wrapped up into one nasty, tense action sequence.
It's fairly intense stuff, but it's hard to judge on the basis of this short demo whether it'll be enough to support the whole game. Potentially deal-breaking flaws aren't hard to imagine - if the levels are too complex, players will simply get lost and frustrated, stuck in a maze of twisty passages, all alike, rather than experiencing a blood-pumping chase sequence. Developer comments about players dying a few times but learning more about the maze each time are far from encouraging - trial-and-error gaming is anathema to most gamers and critics alike - but on the other hand, the team does acknowledge just how important and challenging it will be to get the level design right. If it's too linear, chases will be boring; if it doesn't gently guide the player to the exit, chases will be frustrating enough to make people put down the Wiimote. It's a tough balance to strike, and Climax understands the importance of getting it right.
The otherworld itself is likely to raise some eyebrows among Silent Hill's fans. Gone are the chain-link fences, rust and fire which have defined the otherworld in the franchise to date. Instead, Shattered Memories' is characterised by ice - with the town deformed under the weight of a thick ice sheet that covers every surface. If Silent Hill's otherworld was claustrophobic and hostile, Shattered Memories' is cold, barren and lonely.
This change does, we're assured, have strong roots in the new storyline and the characters who inhabit it. It does fit the Silent Hill canon - every character has always found their own personal hell in the otherworld, after all. Another thing that has generally changed from character to character, though, is the monsters - and that's one aspect which Climax refuses to talk about. The demo uses just one monster, a nondescript looking pink horror that resembles a boiled chimpanzee - but when I ask about monster design, even the most innocuous question sees a PR person suddenly interject to prevent the developers from answering.
At a guess, I'd say that's probably because Shattered Memories' monsters are tied to the game's other major innovation - the game's relentless profiling of the player, and continual tweaking of the experience to match your psychology. This is more subtle, but arguably even more important to Climax' vision of reinventing the horror genre than the chase sequences.
The central conceit of the game, and the reason for its subtitle, is that Harry is reliving the events that transpired in Silent Hill from the comfy leather sofa of a therapist. Every now and then, the game will drop you out of the world and back into the therapist's office, where you'll talk about what has happened, and perhaps play some simple psychological games. In fact, one of the first pieces of interaction in the game will be to fill out a short sheet full of very personal questions ("Have you ever cheated on a partner?" springs to mind).
The trick, the developers say, is that it's not actually the therapist sequences which the game uses to assess you. They're just there to make you aware that you're being watched and evaluated, and the answers you fill out don't have the kind of direct impact you'd expect. Instead, the game watches how you play - what you look at, how long you spend doing various things or exploring places, how you approach problems - and builds up a profile of you which it then uses to change the game, often in dramatic ways.
Even in the short demo which I played, this was an extremely important part of the game. How I played and responded to the game changed which routes were open to me, and which characters I could meet - it even changed whether those characters were hostile or friendly. The developers reckon that a hundred players going through Shattered Memories would each have a unique experience. Each one would have some shared experiences, of course, and many key plot points remain the same, but each one would also experience at least one part of the game that none of the others did.
This, I suspect, is why we're not hearing about the monsters - because Climax is working on taking them to their logical conclusion. Silent Hill's monsters have always been based on the psyche of the main character - Climax, it seems, may be aiming to base encounters with monsters on the player's psyche, working out what kind of player you are and subtly changing the beasts you'll encounter based on that. If that's the case, it makes the profiling system even more interesting. Either way, the idea of watching the player and manipulating the game based on their approach and personality is a fascinating new direction for survival horror - assuming, of course, that it works.
That's the caveat which dogs Silent Hill: Shattered Memories all the way. For all that I love it, Silent Hill is a franchise that's pretty much dead in the water at the moment. The original development team, Team Silent, no longer exists; when Climax wanted to talk to the original Silent Hill 1 developers about the game, they found that the team members have scattered around Konami or moved to other companies around the world. Only composer and producer Akira Yamaoka remains directly involved with the Silent Hill franchise. The franchise needs an update, and a team willing to take bold, radical moves without being bound by too much reverence for a game designed by a long-dissolved team.
Climax thinks that it's that team, and it's willing to risk the ire of Silent Hill fans by reinventing and rethinking many of the systems at the heart of the game. It's bold and brave, for sure, but as I departed sunny Portsmouth, I had no clearer an idea of whether Climax' new vision of Silent Hill would actually work or not. I'm reassured by their confidence and willingness to innovate, but worried by the enormity of the task they're taking on. The wait for Silent Hill's rebirth continues, excitement tempered by trepidation.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is due out for Wii, PS2 and PSP this autumn.