Walking through the derelict corridors of the infamous and deadly Kettenstadt apartment block in Silent Hill: The Short Message, it’s clear that this short horror game will take at least a couple of years off my life.
The short psychological horror story follows a young girl called Anita from a derelict and forgotten small town in Germany, said to be cursed by a vengeful witch. After being lured to the evil heart of the city - the Kettenstadt apartment building - by her best friend Maya, Anita must find a mysterious object to escape the building and the strange monster that lies within.
The Silent Hill franchise has always dealt with mature themes but, unfortunately, does not have the best track record for doing so in a nuanced way. Silent Hill: The Short Message is no different. If you find topics and recreations of bullying and self-harm too challenging to deal with, then I recommend that you give this new horror game from Konami a miss. Even as someone who does not enjoy (but can stomach) darker issues like this, I had a very rough time at the beginning of The Short Message.
Not enough time
Konami has used The Short Message as a test to try out new techniques like live-action cutscenes and a more modern story. “This game started as something like an experimental project – an opportunity for us to try out different things, see what worked and what didn’t, and grow and polish our horror game expertise,” producer for Konami, Motoi Okamoto, said in an official PlayStation Blog post.
This role of this smaller-scale game explains why the story isn’t as well thought-out as the subject matter demands. Clocking in at under two hours, there simply isn’t enough time to set up and unpack the heavy sociological issues of social media, bullying, and self-harm. At times, The Short Message reminded me of the anti-bullying PSA videos that I was shown at school, with the on-the-nose post-it notes with nasty insults covering walls, and the incessant and obsessive mention of social media followers, which are clearly weighed on Anita’s mind. I know what Konami is trying to get at; measuring yourself by how popular you are isn’t a desirable or healthy trait. But, if I were stuck in an abandoned apartment building, I’m not sure my first thought would be to go and check on my Twitter followers. This obnoxiously obvious story-telling falls flat and ends up mishandling the vital message of self-worth and respect.
The writing also left something to be desired. At times, it felt like a dark parody of an anti-bullying PSA. The very start of The Short Message includes a brief monologue from Anita where she mentions that “the strongest animals don’t hang out in groups.” Yet again, Konami undermines a worthwhile message by quickly trying to summarize the issue of how young people distance themselves from their support network to appear strong. The strange sentence left me confused and almost made me laugh while I thought of lions, wolves, and hyenas.
Looking on the bright side
Luckily, it isn’t all bad. The Short Message does manage to get more than a few things right if you manage to get past the first half of it. The story, which was definitely set up in the wrong way, does end by exploring the game's themes in a more complex and exciting way.
It was great to be back in the unknown, uncanny, and terrifying landscapes that the Silent Hill series is known for
We find out that this narrative is more than just Anita reflecting on the hardships she and her friends have faced in this cursed town. Towards the end, we find out more about our protagonist as she reflects on the part that she played in all the heartache. This part of the story was surprisingly mature and ultimately saved The Short Message for me. It was great to see a main character who questioned their own role and innocence while delivering the crucial message of accountability, which many players may be able to relate to.
The location and design of the Kettenstadt apartment block were also a wonderful experience. It was great to be back in the unknown, uncanny, and terrifying landscapes that the Silent Hill series is known for. Wandering through dark and abandoned rooms was terrifying as strange noises echoed from every direction. You never knew when the game’s central monster would burst out of a nearby door to chase you down.
The changes in the world around you were also seamless and fantastic to experience. Just as soon as you’re exploring beautiful graffiti murals in the apartment building, you can find yourself in strange industrial corridors or the hallways of your school. While each location was terrifying in its own way, it was still a pleasure to experience those feelings of discomfort that I associate with the Silent Hill franchise.
Suppose Konami takes anything away from this experiment. In that case, I hope they keep giving us strange and mysterious locations while also putting real time and thought into creating nuanced stories that don’t rush heavy topics. There are lessons to learn here about giving significant issues time to breathe and creating protagonists who are more than just crash dummies to be chased by terrifying monsters.