Silent Hill: Failure of the Gods
Gentle raindrops pattern across the windows of a lonely car as it speeds down the highway. All sights are obscured by a pixelated framing of twisted trees. Entombed in that worn-down automobile, a teenage girl makes a teary confession to a grizzled old man. The man is reluctant to believe her story despite the macabre horrors and absurd scenes that have plagued them both. He doesn't want to trust in the unfolding nightmare.
The game is Silent Hill 3. The girl is Heather Mason, recounting her past as Akira Yamaoka's beautiful but melancholy soundtrack plays in the background of the scene. Heather is revealing a past of violence, a past her father experienced before her birth. Heather Mason is one of many whose lives have been upended and stained bloody by the gods of Silent Hill. She knows that all those entangled in the brutality of the cult called the Order are never again the same.
Heather's father, Harry Mason, experienced this pain and torment nearly two decades before Silent Hill 3. The culmination of his efforts to both save his daughter and Alessa Gillespie resulted in not only the killing of a resurrected god, but escaping Silent Hill, cradling a babe, the effect of the Order's meddling. This new child, Heather, was the reincarnation of both his adopted daughter Cheryl and of Alessa Gillespie. And Heather, like the player clutching the controller behind the screen, is determined to kill a god.
"No, I'm just trying to remember," Heather says to the man driving the car. "My childhood. Something terrible happened in Silent Hill seventeen years ago. A woman named Dahlia, she tried to summon the ancient god of the town."
As Heather recounts her past, her accidental partner Douglas Cartland is in many ways representative of the player themselves. He's been duped. Like the player, Douglas has been brought into Silent Hill by a determined lie. A member of the Order, Claudia Wolf, hired him under false pretenses in order to manipulate Heather. And like the player, as Heather tugs at our heart strings with her sad narrative, we are determined to risk it all to not only save her life but to prevent another inhuman catastrophe from entering the world through the swirling grey fog of Silent Hill, Maine.
Their car speeds down a rain-slicked highway. Heather finishes her sad exposition, a regurgitation of everything that has happened before, a symbolic foreshadowing of the vomiting up of a god that will occur only hours later. Douglas, and the player, are determined now. I'm determined, I think. We've sworn to save Heather Mason and stop the evil from spreading out from the gore-strewn hellscape of Silent Hill's Otherworld.
This is the task of every human being that has ever picked up a video game controller and turned on their console. We are adept at killing gods.
Silent Hill 3 ends without the Order's goals succeeding. Claudia Wolf, in all her efforts (including swallowing the bloody remains of the reincarnated child-god that Heather vomits up), fails. Their plan is a failure, their god is a failure. By extension, all those machinations and plans spanning decades fail once again.
At least for now.
I watch the credits roll, and all other players with me. I feel hollow, and sad. Somewhere out there the Order is planning their next atrocity, their next summoning of a long-dead god.
As a player, I have willfully stepped foot into the fog of Silent Hill. I know what waits for me—and yet I want it. I crave it. The Order has me, as it has the many souls that gravitate into the brick and mortar hellscape of Silent Hill, its ashen silhouette crafted by out-of-business bowling alleys and empty gas stations. The Order knows that I'm as hungry for bloodshed and pain as they are. I want to see a god as much as I want to destroy one.
What is it that the Order seeks? What is this iron determination that drives a doomsday cult to shred thin the humanity of Silent Hill, to rip apart the reality of all places connected to those fog-strewn streets? Their followers number in the hundreds and thousands, their omniscience showcased by the ever-watchful crimson symbol of the Halo of the Sun. Their designs are older than the games' histories, spanning back to a time before humans ever worshiped bloodied gods. But what is this degenerative, self-destructive aspect that drives humans toward their own immolation?
After Alessa Gillespie's abuse at the hands of her mother and the Order, Silent Hill transformed. Its grotesque changes were a release of Alessa's awesome psychic powers, the stagnant grey fog covering the town an eternal presence of Alessa's malaise. This was the first result of the Order's ugly schemes, their torturing of a young girl creating the twisted landscape of Silent Hill as it currently stands. The Otherworld that exists as Silent Hill's hell is a mirror dimension of madness and bloodshed, a place borne of that same manipulation. What god could possibly be worth all this horror? What goal could be worth the Order's many years of terror?
The entity the Order refers to as God falls under vast speculation. She is depicted as an ivory skinned temptress with fiery hair, draped in crimsons robes and drafted in oil paintings evocative of the works of William Blake. Despite her oft messianic design that might give the impression of Christian influence, the Order's god is not based on any individual real-world religion. The design of her and her followers pulls from Native American, Mayan and Aztec influence, and the Paradise they wish to usher in is not a heaven, but a dubious oblivion brought on by blood.
The Order's god is known of many names, a sun goddess whose inner circle holds dear the Books of Memories that contain cultish truths. Kwekwaxawe, the true name of God, is as forbidden and strange as the deity herself. Her dimension was a world before religions and gods were known to humankind, a place that knew only pain and hatred. The Order's desire to bring forward their new Paradise is strangely empathetic; they wish for a world without pain a suffering, one that can only be ushered in via extreme pain and suffering. This pre-history existence was one without death, a nightmare landscape where a cycle of pain went on unbroken. During this pain, a single man and a single woman together begged the heavens for release. Their desperate desires birthed a god of liberation. A god that knew only the pain and suffering it was born into.
This god realized she could not enact her will alone. Kwekwaxawe created lesser gods and angels, beings of assistance that could reincarnate into the fog of Silent Hill at will, to add to the tapestry of terror that might help the Order manipulate minds and resurrect God for good: Lobsel Vith, the Yellow God. Xuchilbara, the Red God. Valtiel, also known as Closest to God, an unholy angel whose incarnations include the horrific and beloved Pyramid Head. These entities, so entwined with God's desires, are worshiped by the sects of the Order as well. They bless the town with their twisted visitations, enacting their wills of bloodshed and torment and emotional pain. The gods often work together as a single but multifaceted creature, and the monsters who walk Silent Hill's streets are representations of their terrible wills.
We, as the players, have slaughtered enough of these monsters to know they mean us nothing but harm. And they have slaughtered us in turn.
So how does a cult designed to worship a nightmare god, seemingly unified in their desire to project doomsday, achieve their goal of reincarnation and Paradise? In answer, they don't. The true legacy of the Order is one of mistake and failure and meaningless bloodshed, of incestuous designs and orgasmic revelations. The Order through its nefarious High Council does not manage a singular head but is a hydra, its sprouted appendages appearing as ordinary, well-meaning folk. Those more fanatical in the Order—like our Claudia Wolf from Silent Hill 3 or Alessa's mother Dahlia from the original Silent Hill—seem to enact their wills single-handedly. They bring on the desires of the Order without help of others in the cult, pushed forward by their fanatical determinations. It makes the player wonder, does the Order truly care at all about the result of Paradise, or is the resurrection of God and all its resulting bloodshed enough to satiate the cult's seemingly unquenchable thirst?
We return to Silent Hill, again and again, determined to find out. First, we must survive.
The balance of failure and success is a difficult thing to understand outside of result. In Silent Hill this is further muddied. Those drawn into the foggy landscape of this small Maine town are summoned because of an ideal required of both tormentor and tormented. Upon answering Silent Hill's psychic call and stepping foot into the brickwork landscape of billowing mists, characters like Harry, James and Heather quickly realize that it's not only the desire of the town that called to them, but their own nightmares that created a disparate siren's song. It is the haunting of the past that has drawn all into bed with the cult.
What will exist as failure or success is not determined by the protagonists. It is the abject opinion of the player. Each and every Silent Hill game is rife with seemingly innocuous, invisible choices that lead to myriad endings, from the good to the bad to the bizarre. Failure and success are two hands on the same body. The perception of Silent Hill is cyclical, created by the perception of both protagonist and player, manipulated by the desires of the Order, its gods—and Team Silent.
As the credits roll on each game we are left with the feeling of incompleteness and dread. Each small and major victory is balanced by incredible loss. Each creature killed and every soul saved is marred by the brutality we have endured. For every grand revelation there is another bloody epiphany. The brief victory allowed to us by the final boss fight and the end theme is only allowed to the player as they think on what it is they finished conquering. Perhaps the player thinks of the endings unseen. Perhaps they think they should have spent more time exploring the town. Perhaps that feel sad that it's all over.
Perhaps, after witnessing James's discovery of a bitter truth or Heather's victory over God there is little left to feel but a profound emptiness for all left undone, all threads left loose, all evil allowed to still squirm within the roiling mists of Silent Hill.
This uncertainty, this dread is the crux of not only the games but of the Order's values. After Konami unceremoniously decapitated Hideo Kojima's Silent Hills, after the dip in quality of the games, after the disbanding of Team Silent, maybe we will never see the Order's designs actualized. Or, perhaps, this destruction of the team that created these breathtaking games is the more literal result of the cult's design. This burning of everything that leaves us with a bitter incompleteness lets us wallow in sadness as we await our own coming Paradise.
Cyclical is our return to the town of Silent Hill. We play these games over and over again and glean new meaning. We see the world in the way the Order sees it: a place of unending suffering, pain, and hatred that can only be cleansed by a greater being who can appreciate the totality of human existence and the nightmares we gleefully inflict on one another. It's only within the safety of Silent Hill that we, the players, can revel in such brutality.
The failure of the gods in Silent Hill, it seems, is owed to a unique kind of perception. One that is different, and yet the same, for each and every player.
"Looks like God didn't make it!" Heather proudly shouts after vomiting up its remains. She moves to stomp out the last smear of gore that represents this incarnation of God—only to be stopped short by Claudia Wolf. The games don't want us to ruin god completely. They want us to want it. They want us to come back. They want to dangle success over our heads.
We inflict this pain on ourselves, see. We return to Silent Hill over and over again as we seek our Paradise. To find within the sleepy burg that same thing the Order seeks, a God that will ruin us as we thank them for it. Because the self-inflicted wound is always more gracious than the unexpected one, and our own god is that which we have taken a part in.
I can't speak for every player who has ever slid a Silent Hill disk into their Playstation, but I find a perverse joy in plunging headlong into a world of psychological terror and living nightmares. The Order, and Team Silent, understood this. Their desire for an empathetic god borne of pain and suffering is reflected in the rush felt upon being chased by gruesome creatures and cut down by bloody demons, from seeing entrails gleaming in the candlelight while orgasmic moans of pain bubble out of undulating stone walls.
We've stopped the Order's plans again and again. The Order continues on. We remain, a reminder to the Order of their failure. God has not returned. As players we are harbingers of the end. But Valtiel, Lobsel Vith, Xuchilbara, and the sun goddess Kwekwaxawe remain in that transcendental place just out of reach, the creatures bearing their wills still shuffling through the billowing fog. They await us in that darkness, for the moment we choose to return. The Order waits with them.
They dream of our return, wreathed in blood and madness.
A return, perhaps, that marks their failure. Their success could only come upon that day when we choose to no longer return to Silent Hill. When we let our controllers gather dust and forget why we sought Paradise to being with. When we walk away into the darkness unfulfilled.
"But in the end, that god was killed by a single person. My father, Harry Mason," Heather says to Douglas, rain running in rivulets down the car windows. "I guess it wasn't much of a god if it could be killed by a human being."
Brandon R. Chinn is the author of the Kognition Cycle series and the epic poem the Mistake of the World. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, and immensely enjoys anything nerdy. He works on too much at once. You can check out his work at theKognitionCycle.com and see him on Instagram as brandonrchinn.