Full disclosure: Konami sent me a free copy of Silent Hill: Downpour for this article.
I’m lost in Silent Hill, and it’s all Murphy Pendleton’s fault.
The protagonist of Downpour, who has thus far proven his worth on his passage through a haunted diner and an even more haunted mine, has failed at the task his predecessors mastered, seemingly on their own: He won’t update the goddamned map.
"Okay…so if that way is North, then that means I'm being murdered right now."
I’ve always loved the Silent Hill series for its maps. Not for their designs, layouts, or even the “name the famous horror writer” street-identification minigame, but because they, as much as the plots of the games themselves, have told the story of the heroes’ journeys through the cursed vacation town. If you open the map in Silent Hill 2 near the end of the game, just before main character James Sunderland enters the Silent Hill Historical Society, you can use his notations like breadcrumbs to trace his path all the way back to the beginning. His chart is functional and narrative: equal parts navigational aid and journal.
Murphy’s? Not so much.
Get the guy into a building, and he’s your best friend; he has the uncanny ability to mark the smallest details of a room immediately upon entering it. Every missing wall, every ladder or pile of rubble that will grant him access to another floor, and every puzzle-locked door is noted in painstaking detail. When it comes to charting his course through the collapsed streets and monster-inhabited alleyways of the town proper, however, his cartography skills amount to little more than being really good at drawing question marks.
Other than the series’ ubiquitous “this street ends abruptly in a gaping chasm” red squiggly shorthand, the question mark is the workhorse of Murphy’s orienteering technique. It indicates fire escape ladders he can pull down, buildings he can enter and explore, and the starting points of side quests (even the ones he's completed). It all looks the same; his scribbles have no language.
Silent Hill’s fluctuating and mutated nature render the maps as the characters find them useless; they don’t “mean” anything until the heroes start writing on them. Previous Silent Hill leads have employed an array of visual cues including circles, sketches, and written words to wrestle the town's layout into a navigable version of its twisted landscape. While making his way through the Labyrinth near the end of the second game, James charts the area from scratch with no prompting from the player. Silent Hill must be understood to be survived, and without a map available, James creates one.
I guess he brought a ruler along…? I actually don't care because this helps a lot.
An earlier example from Silent Hill 2: At one point, James’ path forward passes through an apartment building. He makes a note of his route, and if you need to backtrack later, his clear red line tells you exactly where to go. Murphy makes a similar bypass in Downpour, but he doesn’t bother to indicate either the entrance to his detour or its exit, so retracing the path later is more difficult. This is primarily a failure of function, but the Silent Hill nerd in me also wants Murphy to engage with his map more and use it to tell the story.
It’s a shame, really, because Downpour feels so much like “Silent Hill’s greatest hits” (and I mean that in a good way) that Murphy’s piss-poor surveying abilities stand out that much more. The series’ maps — and the way characters use them — are among its most unique and interesting elements, and I wish developer Vatra had left them alone.
On second thought, I guess they did.