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silent-hill-4Games seem to have little room for a home base. A hub space in which no gameplay tutorials are offered or any narrative exposition is being dumped is a hard sell for a medium dominated by experiences of high momentum. Shooters are too busy moving to each action set-piece to use anything more than a loading screen disguised as a mission briefing , and everything from racing to puzzle to platform games require so little between bits of gameplay to merit anything more than a standard set of menu options.

From a design perspective, a hub in which to place the player in between levels is usually viewed as a disruption of flow. Why construct a wholly separate area; complete with its own art assets, walking areas, and logic; when a simple over-world map or succession of save points would suffice and require 1/10th of the manpower?

Long-form games like RPGs have long made best use of the mechanic, often compensating for the ebb in action by allowing for user customization, or by having an open enough world to allow for a wide variety of slower paced activities. The fact that Bethesda even produced DLC like “Hearthfire” for Skyrim is indication that there is a market for playing domestic. But a fully rendered and programmed home space, one made not for sticker decorations but for tone or narrative, is a feature still coming into its own.

sh4-apartmentWhich is where Silent Hill 4: The Room comes in. While it has been rightfully panned for its shoddy combat system and tenuous connections to Konami’s survival horror franchise, the largely optional apartment space given to protagonist Henry Townshend is the most interesting new mechanic at play in the sequel. It’s also a strong case for the design potential of a centralized and recurring diegetic game space within a larger game narrative. Henry’s Apartment Room 302 was a year before Sega explored the Yakuza underworld in the fictional Tokyo neighborhood of Kamurocho, and three years before anyone could board the Normandy.

Functionally speaking, Room 302 (the sub-titular “room” in Silent Hill 4) includes the game’s sole save point, a storage compartment for excess inventory items, and a few interactive hotspots with other characters. It even heals a portion of Henry’s health, a figurative balm against the effects of the outside world. From the very beginning of the game, it becomes clear that Henry’s apartment is also an active and evolving character with the story. Setting time spent in Room 302 in first person (a first for the series, and a direct contrast to the third-person Otherworld segments), definitely aids in crafting a feeling of intimacy and immediacy suitable to such a domestic space.

The prologue to the game casts the player in the role of the apartment’s previous occupant, journalist Joseph Schreiber. Completely covered in Silent Hill’s trademark rust and blood decor, Room 302 is completely inescapable and possessed by vicious spirits. Once the prologue ends with Schreiber collapsing in front of a spirit crawling out of a wall, we shift to Henry Townshend, years later and in the same apartment, now clean and banal in its normalcy. All save for the chained up front door with an ominous message (“Don’t Go Out – Walter”) scribbled beneath the peephole.

The layout of Apartment 302 was based on the more common blueprints of the average Japanese apartment of the time, but is still readily familiar to anyone that ever upsized from a silent-hill-4adorm room. Apartment floorplans appear to be universally bland across cultures. From the chained up front door we have a brief walkway connecting some closet space and a full kitchen, which looks out to a living room with a couple of windows. Following the walkway from the door curves the player into the main apartment hallway, with doors leading to the bathroom, bedroom (with more windows) and a permanently looked third door.

It’s in the bathroom, like Silent Hill 2’s public rest stop, where the plot of the game begins. After a hole appears next to Henry’s toilet, the mild-mannered protagonist can enter into various Otherworlds inhabited by gruesome creatures and awkward combat. While several tunnels back to the apartment will appear across each Otherworld, the game only forces a return to the apartment briefly as a transition from the end of one level to the beginning of another. Players wanting to avoid as much time in the apartment as possible could survive the entire first half of the game with only a few narrative pit stops, a couple saves in the living room journal, and an inventory puzzle item from the fridge.

For those wishing to embed themselves further, several interactive hotspots are established early on in the game, and provide an evolving reflection of the player’s progress in the Otherworld. Peering through the peephole in the front door throughout the game will activate cutscenes featuring other tenants. Another point of contact is a hole in the wall that opens a view of your neighbor Eileen Galvin’s apartment, complete with a stuffed Robbie the Rabbit toy. Initially coming off as just a pervy voyeur spot, the secret opening holds a much more sinister purpose in the latter half of the game.

Looking at the apartment in this way, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to what is referred to in Japan as a hikikomori. A more specific case of what can otherwise be called a “shut-in”, hikikomori are young Japanese adults that barricade themselves in extreme isolation – usually within their apartments or other living spaces – and shun most or all social interaction with little to no psychological motive . Prior to the start of the game, Henry Townshend had been locked in his apartment for five days, and his neighbors can occasionally be heard remarking on how he was an introvert before then. Henry hasn’t reached the six-month mark usually required of the hikikomori designation, but what little we know does cast him as a socially removed (and awkward when in forced contact) and professionally and personally listless. While Henry’s confinement within his apartment isn’t initially voluntarily – given his regular attempts to make contact with neighbors by banging on the front door –the player’s evolving relationship with the apartment is one resembling that of a person suffering from acute social withdrawal.

sh4-bedroomYour returns to the apartment act as chasers to Silent Hill 4’s harsher environments. Dramatic reveals and horrifying murders are often just a loading screen away from waking up in your bed, the drone of your fan and creak of your doors an infinitely softer and calmer sound mix. Even when your adventures in the otherworlds leak into the “real” world, they are decidedly removed from the safety of your apartment at first, exposited through your phone or radio. Your chief interaction with a larger world not infested with monsters and crazy people is through one-way observations, viewing the minutiae of your fellow tenants’ activities through a fish-eyed lens or a man-made spy hole.

Much like real life, the separation of gameplay mechanics encourages a certain routine. After the player establish which points in the apartment offer different interactions; windows in the living room, windows in the bedroom, the phone (if you collect numbers from around the Otherworld), the peephole in the front door, and the secret peephole into Eileen’s room; it becomes a natural extension of your time in the apartment to check each one of them after completing a stage. The placement of the inventory store box and journal outside the bedroom in which the player wake up encourages regular romps through the apartment layout to that effect.

It’s this relationship and routine that the game slowly begins to take advantage of in the latter half of its runtime. As your adventures in the Otherworld become longer and more intimately involved with the apartment’s past, your interactions within Room 302 become more surreal and often frightening. A decapitated head will float randomly up your window, and a group of bloody handprints that seemingly only Henry can see on the wall opposite his peephole will increase. You’ll stop seeing your neighbors shortly before they begin appearing in the otherworld, their presence around your apartment either disappearing entirely or replaced with grisly visions of a zombie Henry or the smiling visage of serial killer antagonist Walter Sullivan. And as your supporting cast start to become victims of this serial killer, a few subtle trends further blend the worlds of Silent Hill and your apartment.

Unlike the first two games in the series, Silent Hill 3 and 4 are not about characters that seek out the titular haunted town, but about the horrors present in that tourist hamlet reaching outward. Silent Hill 3’s Heather has a solid, familial reason to eventually make a trip out to the hamlet, but Henry’s connections to the cursed town are circumstantial at best. A connection to an orphanage not even within the town’s limits and his presence in a rather special apartment appear to be, at least at first, his only ties to the horrors that surround him. Silent Hill is, at this point in the series, a villain no longer restrained by its cultist roots in the Pacific Northwest.sh4-bathroomhole

When NPCs start turning up dead, a set of increasing numbers cut into their corpses, the bloody handprints outside your front door increase in kind. Little by little your interactive hotspots, your only glimpses of the larger “real” world, begin to hint at dangers formerly only present in the Otherworld. Everything outside the safety of your apartment becomes an extension of the ethereal terror you suffer when entering into the bathroom portal. This view of encroaching danger outside your lone safe haven is a common association made to hikikomori, a literal (at least in the gameplay sense) threat to your life acting as metaphor for the potent anxiety of a shut in.

And it’s at this point that the game begins to play with the ultimate fear of anyone with social anxiety, the dissolution of your safe space. At this point in your game, you will have noticed that the child version of murderer Walter Sullivan, himself supposedly long dead, shows up towards the end of each Otherworld stage and points to characters that will be his next target. So far, his appearances have been limited to the Otherworld, but following the reveal of Sullivan’s 19th victim, he will appear across the street in your living room window, pointing to your next door neighbor Eileen Galvin’s room.

Every interactive hotspot but one has now been re-contextualized as part of the larger Otherworld. But your secret peephole into Eileen’s room has remained pure and boring. For now, she has merely disappeared, swallowed up by the Otherworld. If you had been adopting the wall-peephole into your apartment routine after each return from the Otherworld, you would have been witness to Eileen performing a variety of banal household tasks. A creepy, one-sided intimacy, but the only significant relationship you have with another person outside of the Otherworld.

creepy-terrifying-robbie-the-rabbitHer disappearance marks the final leg of the game, the last part of the invasion of the Otherworld into your apartment, and possibly the game’s most effective scare. Once you return from Sullivan’s attempt on Galvin’s life, there is no sign of kid Walter pointing out the next target in either the Otherworld or outside your window. Looking into your peephole to Eileen’s room, however, reveals the stuffed Robbie the Rabbit that had been in her room since the beginning: covered in blood and pointing directly at you through the hole in the wall.

This threat against Henry’s life is also the final symbolic penetration of the Otherworld into the apartment, a direct infection of Silent Hill into the realm of the comfortable and familiar. Room 302 is by now regularly haunted by ghosts oozing from the walls (similarly to the game’s prologue) and other possessed entities, all of which now drain Henry’s health. The same space that once provided the balm of health restoration is now just as much a villain as the rest of both worlds. By game’s end, you learn that Walter Sullivan had been holding on to his own demented association with Apartment 302, since he was kid Walter, building up in his mind a gross exaggeration of the power the room had. A perverse reflection of the safety we all mindlessly associate with four walls and a carpet just because we pay its rent.

Tonally, this serves to withdraw the last bastion of narrative stability and mount momentum for the final act. But it’s also playing to what may be the root of the hikikomori condition: that too much interaction with the anxiety-ridden outside will destabilize self-made barriers and demolish the person’s only escape from paralyzing neurosis. Henry wandered too deep and too long in dreaded areas outside his comfort zone, and as a direct result polluted his safe environment with the very dangers he had been fighting against.

We may not all be shut-ins, but the fear of the destruction and invasion of our private lives is a deep one. Prior to Silent Hill 4, there always existed a slight removal from the actions we participated in horror games by the return to our non-corpse littered lives after play. We could be scared, downright terrified by games, but as long as the action took place at a haunted mansion, secluded resort town or supernatural prison, the banality of real life was a comforting conclusion to the equation of survival horror play. Silent Hill 4’s Room 302, so carefully crafted to mirror the exact layout of Japanese apartment life (and managing an eerie approximation of practically any bachelor pad) sought to bring the horror to a more personal level.

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While the combat was clunky, the inventory system tedious, the story uneven and the enemy AI occasionally infuriating, the use of Apartment 302 in The Room was an early testament to the design potential for the use of an in-game home space. As games continue to become more expansive and varied in their scope, it’s a safe bet to assume the home base will factor in more and more attempts to expand a narrative into a personal space. Because of course, home is where the rotted umbilical cord is.