The Little Town Down the Road: How Silent Hill Homecoming Hid a Gem in a Trainwreck

[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]

Silent Hill Homecoming was always going to have a rough time of it. Already dismissed by fans as one of the post-Team Silent games, it tried to strike out on a plot distinct from the titular town only to crib the story beats from Silent Hill 2 instead. Worse, it was buggy, short, and decidedly more combat-oriented than the series was known for, and is to this day thought of as the nadir of the franchise. Which is precisely why it’s fascinating to revisit — basically no one talked about it after the initial release and disappointment, in stark contrast with the mountainous pile of theories that usually surround a Silent Hill game. And in the process of giving it a second look, I’ve become a bit fond of the game, or at least the story, this might’ve been. While there’s no saving it from a gameplay perspective, narratively it offers an unexpectedly compelling protagonist.

A quick plot summary for those whose memories are foggy (or who skipped this one altogether): Alex Shepherd is returning home (allegedly from military service) to the sleepy town of Shepherd’s Glen, neighbor to Silent Hill. He goes home only to find his little brother Josh missing, along with many of the town’s children, and sets off across the mist- and monster-infested streets on a hellbent quest to find his brother. You can watch a full walkthrough here.

Let it be known that SHH is far more tolerable as a watched than a played experience, which is quite the damning sentiment for an interactive medium. As mentioned, the game’s crawling with technical bugs: from framerate issues to clipping to objects glitching through the map and each other, to a few that just make the game plain unwinnable (like missing a certain QTE during a boss fight); all of this layered on top of excruciating loading times and combat that flows acceptably in one-on-one battles but is seated in a game that often throws lots of enemies at the player in close quarters.

But all of that is quite well-documented and hardly worth defending. So, how about the narrative? Well…The game has no clear sense of identity: it takes the broad strokes of its narrative from Silent Hill 2, the tropes of its secondary characters from American action movies; and most damningly, not just the visual aesthetic but the multitude of unnecessary characters from Christophe Gans’ 2006 film adaptation. It never really recovers from this, and despite the shining bits of potential I alluded to, it fails to gel into something that can stand on its own two feet.

All of this becomes a greater shame in light of the one unambiguous positive the game has going for it: an absolutely stellar lead actor. Like its contemporary Resident Evil, Silent Hill has had a history of sometimes campy, sometimes odd voice acting. This has usually been a part of its charm, and in the best cases added to the sense of the town’s uncanny atmosphere. It’s not going to win any awards, but it’s always fit the series’ needs.

SHH goes one step beyond in hiring Brian Bloom, a very talented actor occasionally allowed to take roles both Troy Baker and Nolan North have passed over. Bloom’s performance as Alex gives the impression of a fully formed character and injects the actual pathos that the piecemeal writing is largely missing (the fact that he is allowed to emote in response to monsters is a whole new world for the series). In fact, Bloom’s work on its own is so strong that it’s worth watching the game at least once just to experience a solid performance trying its very best to eke out an emotional arc from a game with some serious narrative issues.

The decision to focus the latter half of the plot on cult machinations, and more specifically to have a whole bunch of movie cultists wandering around, is the one narrative element the game just cannot survive. I’ve said it before while dissecting the film, and I’ll say it again here: Silent Hill stops working when you have too many people around. The few existing NPCs in past SH games were always somehow untrustworthy or somehow disconnected from the protagonist and reality, turning what should be a reprieve of human contact into something unsettling. Even the games that did focus their plots around cult shenanigans always expressed it through one or two individuals who gave only small glimpses into the plot by way of thoroughly untrustworthy viewpoints.

SHH, by contrast, has a whole league of cultists, an entire bevy of higher ups for Alex to chew through on his journey, a big old sacrifice chamber, and a fairly cut-and-dried implication that the spooky rituals were working in some respect before Alex. Really, the image of how the game misuses franchise iconography is pretty neatly summed up by Shepherd’s Glen itself: a little town that moved just down the way from the real one and carries on its traditions out of some belief they’ll help or just plain fear of striking out on their own (but without really understanding them).

The amount of certainty in both plot and characters removes a big chunk of mystique that was crucial to the series. Neither Wheeler nor Elle are inherently awful as characters, the fact that their mere inclusion speaks to the game’s attempts to Westernize itself aside, but they stick out like open sores. They’re too well adjusted, too reassuring and helpful, to keep up the unrelenting sense of horror and helplessness that the series relies on. Never is this more clearly demonstrated than that first meeting with Wheeler, when he out and out confirms that he not only sees the monsters but is seeing the same ones as Alex, undoing a crucial level of ambiguity (which, hey, if you’re going to base your whole plot on an unreliable narrator you’d better hold onto that for all you’ve got).

And then there are the game’s dreadful pacing problems, most troublingly in comparison to the game it so clearly wants to be. Silent Hill 2 sprang the revelation of James-as-murderer far enough from the end of the game (there are two whole boss fights and a fair bit of wandering after the videotape) to give both the character and the player time to sit with it and form a reaction, SHH just springs the whole drowning thing for a shock chord and then dumps the player straight to credits with little to no fanfare (aaaaaaalmost but not quite saved by Brian Bloom’s performance).

There’s no chance for Josh’s death to have any meaning in that context, not when we’ve only seen him as an observed character (separate from Alex) and taken Alex’s devotion (which seems a lot more bitter in the end) on the faith of the fact that it technically drives the plot. The various elements never feel like they’re truly coalescing into one big moment.

If all of this is true, then it begs the question: why bother with this game at all? Why not simply consign it to the quiet realms of errata where all failed sequels go? To answer that, we need to talk about alternative readings of texts.

When we talk about reading a text, most people go back to their high school English class — that is, that there’s one way that is the Single, Correct Way to read the text, usually in line with the author’s stated intentions. And unless a person goes on to study criticism or analysis further, that’s pretty much where they stay. But that’s a highly restrictive way of looking at a text, especially as it starts to age. Eventually the author’s going to die, after all. And how about works that are part of a collaborative creative vision? Who’s word do you trust — the director, the writer, the actor? It’s a pretty limiting scope.

That’s even more true when it comes to readings the look for representation in a text. Because popular texts have not only failed to include underrepresented groups but outright erased them when given the chance (see: casting of Caucasian actors in Gods of Egypt or rewriting a male love interest as a female when adapting Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned to film). With those kind of roadblocks as a day-to-day reality, the ability to take evidence from the text and read it in a way that reflects them (something we all seek on some level in our media) is one of the most powerful tools available.

In other words, what the creator intended is far less important than how the audience interacts with a text, with the caveat that intent and also the time when something was made serve as important context and parameters for what can be drawn out of a text (i.e. many people have argued that Lord of the Rings is allegorically talking about World War II, which had a huge impact on Tolkien’s life whether he consciously included it in the books; but you couldn’t say it was actually about Vietnam, because the latter hadn’t happened). And all of this is especially relevant to a series where the creators shrugged their shoulders and said “ALL of the endings to Silent Hill 2 are canon.”

To that end, I would posit a reading where the protagonist, Alex, is a trans man. This is a fairly common theory, as such things go — enough that it’s something you might run across multiple times were you inclined to dig deep enough. The appeal is evident, given that it adds a lot of depth to elements like Alex’s last name (given the series’ love of meaningful surnames, the connection to Matthew Shepherd seems unlikely to be coincidental), an extra level of justification as to why Alex would be the “rejected” child, why he might have been kicked out of the military (where trans issues are still poorly handled even after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was rescinded), and why the monsters have elements of monstrous femininity to them.

As we meet Alex he’s returning home from the mental institution, ostensibly because of the breakdown he had in the wake of Josh’s death. Like his name, this is imagery that’s connected to a powerful history of oppression, in this case regarding forced institutionalization and processes like electroshock therapy and lobotomies visited on queer patients in particular all the way through the mid-20th century. He’s also chosen to recreate himself as a soldier, which lives in his mind both as the unattainable masculine ideal his father represents (and thus living up to it would earn his father’s approval) and a kind of “superhero” identity that will allow him to save those he cares about (particularly Josh).

Alex the soldier, the pinnacle of (male) strength and masculine achievement, is Alex’s ideal. It’s what he wants the world to see him as. To be associated with icons of “maleness” in every way…and, maybe, to get as far away from his designated sex as possible.

Additionally, “Alex” is a gender neutral name, and one more often given to females; when Josh is given the ring his father asks him if he wants to grow up to be like Alex — and what’s the typical goading mechanism in society for young boys? “Don’t be a girl.” It likewise seems strange to choose a first born (by a good margin, looking at their age differences) as the sacrifice if they were a son who could carry on the family name (and even if Alex identified as masculine from a very young age, there’s no doubt he would’ve been pushed to try harder for that extreme “ideal” if he saw biological-boy Josh getting the kind, special attention he himself had always been denied).

Then there are the monsters. Pyramid Head (“the Bogeyman,” whatever; don’t unzip your pants and then tell me it’s raining, Hewlitt), our masculine monster extraordinaire, is never once a threat to Alex during this game. He’s almost an avenger, showing up while Alex is lost in the nightmare hospital in the place where Alex needs to go next, and slaying Alex’s primary childhood tormenter. The antagonistic monsters? Pretty much all, as I mentioned, the monstrous feminine — they reek of a sense of dysphoria, of Alex’s loathing of his biological features and fears of how he is perceived. The Nurses are faceless sex objects, Scarlet is a doll puppeted by others, and the Siam is able to move and attack with its male half while the withered female attachment is dragged along behind.

The Amnion, not coincidentally the final boss, is a horrific vision of swollen, distended pregnancy who births out the “real” child when it’s slain. Josh, yes, but also a boy being freed from a parody of the “expected” function of a uterus-bearer. Alex is both put face to face with the memory he’s denied, and granted the figurative image of closure in seeing the last of his monstrous “mirrors” put down. He leaves both his pain and his insecurities down there in that tunnel, able to start anew not as a hypermasculine parody or a self-imagined dysmorphic monster, but just as a man.

The strength of this thematic narrative makes it even more tragic that Homecoming fails so abjectly as a game to be played. It isn’t just a more combat-oriented departure from previous entries or an attempt to cash in on the relative success of Gans’ film but truly broken, with numerous bugs that simply make it impossible to progress, and enough frustrations to that point that there’s no good reason for a player to feel compelled to try again. While the prevalence of Let’s Plays allows more and more games with unwieldy controls and compelling narratives to be enjoyed by a broader audience (see: The Last Guardian), Homecoming has too many other issues to overcome to be worth recommending even for Bloom’s genuinely compelling performance and the possibility of a queer-inclusive reading. And that’s just a little tragic.

Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; they have solved the soup cans. You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, listen to them podcasting on Soundcloud, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.

Images taken from here: