Purgatory is a state of being, an existence where the soul must undergo purification before an ascent to heaven. It is a point from which the soul can be cleansed and redeemed – an openly offered hand that guides towards redemption if the choice is made over a refusal and relinquishing of salvation. Silent Descent is a game which features the player taking on the role of a man whose soul is in purgatory.
Or perhaps wishes they were…
[in Catholic doctrine] a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven.
‘all her sins were forgiven and she would not need to go to Purgatory’
‘the punishment of souls in purgatory’
1.1 mass noun
mental anguish or suffering.
‘this was purgatory, worse than anything she’d faced in her life’
The confusion starts with what would put a person in this state? Which definition of purgatory are we bound by? What would be considered a mortal sin and would it consign a soul to purgatory? As far as I’m aware there isn’t a distinct list that says what is a mortal [major] sin, compared to a venial [temporal/minor] one. There are distinctions made of “grave matters” which could then be inferred as being mortal sins. Among these would be murder and suicide – the actions of the player character. To the best of my knowledge these would not be considered venial and would not allow a soul being in purgatory, their seriousness making redemption all the more harder. Teaching however differs between different sects of the church over what the nature of purgatory is, what would put someone there or provide them with a path out, even what it would be like – existing physically or metaphorically. Exploring the theology of the matter is something in its own right and this, I don’t think is the place for it – not to explore it as an issue in its entirety, I suspect it would be something beyond me also.
Which is quite helpful when making not a theological study, but a piece of entertainment which – after all, Silent Descent is. With the references made in the game’s marketing it is tempting to draw the theological definition of purgatory as the one which acts as the game’s basis, perhaps for the sake of working sympathetically with the game it may have been more advisable to have based the game on the secular definition instead – at least until the v1.03 release.
When it comes to our iconography and visualisations of purgatory or hell it tends to be more from the arts, than from scripture that our representations are drawn. The paintings of Hieronymous Bosch with their twisted hellscapes contrasting with idyllic scenes of paradise, the writing of Dante Alighieri – the famous “Divina Commedia” – Eng. Divine Comedy from which a great deal of our impression of hell comes from, a tiered labyrinthine descent through circles of sin, separated by gravity of offence. This continues all the way through to the films of Clive Barker and Guillermo del Toro, hell and its denizens re-imagined for contemporary audiences; cenobites and anti-heroes. Hell’s power within the social consciousness has been blunted from what it was and instead given a perverse attraction embodied within media, a desire to become the anti-hero, influenced by our most basic drives. Each work informs the image we have of hell as a society, clumsily tumbled through a religious filter and settling in our collective consciousness as a twisted fiery domain of pain and anguish or limitless hedonistic delight – at a cost. The scriptural references are by comparison quite limited, a consistent theme of fire does feature though.
furnace of fire… wailing and gnashing of teeth
Matthew 13:50 [KJV Edition]
Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
Mark 9:48 [KJV Edition]
It is also perhaps telling that the human fixation and fascination is more with hell than heaven, perhaps owing to the internal struggle that is part of being human and a desire to absolve ourselves of responsibility. Aspiration to heaven requires devotion and sacrifice. Hell, for humanity, is so much easier. This becomes an interesting aspect of the protagonist’s actions and route taken within the game – something that ties into notions of free will, desire and redemption.
and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:
Revelation 14:10 [KJV Edition]
As well as being a journey through one man’s purgatory, Silent Descent is also an awkward but well meaning tribute to Silent Hill [as a series] tangentially, and more directly – to the bordering on notorious 2014 P.T. [playable teaser] demo for what would have been Silent Hills. The shadow that has been cast over gaming by Silent Hill as a series cannot be understated and would be more suited to an article of its own. It has and had at the time of development elements that put it in direct competition with Resident Evil as a series and in many ways superseded it, despite the low expectations of Konami prior to the initial release of Silent Hill in 1999. It has become across genres, a go to source of inspiration for its achievements in sound, music, narrative and design. It has also to some extent become a millstone around the neck of those that would look to emulate it, to incorporate its style and appearance or to pay tribute to it – whether directly or inferred. Allison Road seems to be in a state of flux as of February 2018 with a troubled and confusing development though the more direct tribute – the Alchemilla mod for Half-Life 2 was decidedly more successful in that it was released, and to a quietly appreciative reception.
There have already been direct recreations of P.T. within the Unity and Unreal engines, something not surprising given the confluence of events and circumstance: a readily available game engine, a rabid desire for continuance of a property and the exclusivity of loss once P.T. was withdrawn, so it was with some trepidation that I found myself approaching Silent Descent. I cannot help but be of the view of: why recreate what already exists when you could create something new? It is Silent Descent’s own identity that suffers each time it utilises and incorporates aspects of Silent Hill beyond the point of reference and instead functions as recreation to its detriment.
The home environs that the game principally takes place in have been brought to life in the Unity engine without overt fanfare, but with a quiet attention to detail and its in some ways subtle decoration have helped to create a natural yet compelling environment that draws the eye to the slight changes and dramatic shifts that create a sense of place and discomfort when the familiar becomes different. It is when you start to notice personal items and draw connections between them that you start to in some way inhabit the player character’s personal torment. It is this which makes the game feel more like a personal hell than a purgatory. The connections that are made are quickly torn asunder and we join the player character in his descent, again an odd choice given the purpose of purgatory and raising issues of agency and motivation. Ever more the game stands by its title and based on initial appearances withholds the potential for either repentance or redemption, until getting to the v1.03 changes.
The very structure of P.T. has been emulated within Silent Descent with the player moving through a series of loops taking place in an initially fixed location. The more the player discovers, interacts with and explores the environment, the further they will proceed through the puzzle, unlocking areas and uncovering new elements to the environmental puzzle that they find themselves locked within. The necessity of making that same a compelling environment for the player to explore and look to understand as they carry out the process of navigating through it has been attended to with care and consideration, and for myself has been the main strength of Silent Descent – to a point at least, and indicative of the issues by comparison I have with the game.
There are moments where the loop will shift or distort into a siren heralded otherworld, similar in appearance to Silent Hill’s rust drenched plane. Why a state of purgatory would have an otherworld I don’t know. Why Silent Descent’s otherworld retains the torch fire and metal grill work of Silent Hill’s alternate plane, outside of the obvious tribute is also lost on me. Why it was deemed necessary to change the tone of the game so drastically and to then chop and change between these states – I don’t know. Particularly given the effectiveness of the gradual shifts in the environment and the unsettling effect it has. There could be an argument that it was included partially because it was a feature of Silent Hill, despite the effect – positive or negative on the experience of Silent Descent. As Christian theology collides with the style and motifs of Silent Hill the fractures start to widen. Where Silent Hill would invert expectations and understanding with the sometimes focus on the town’s religious cult, Silent Descent is at its strongest when it maintains its own character as opposed to acting as a vehicle of tribute for other titles – the other issue is in terms of the foundations that the game has to work with. While Silent Hill has an expansive repository of fluff to call back on, Silent Descent is introducing a new world, story and characters which is no small challenge when looking to engage the player in a fiction.
The basics of the game are displayed through a prologue text on the game’s website and a briefly shown newspaper report during the game’s introduction. By dropping the player into the loop with little detail to go on, we – instead of having the benefit of a deep understanding, inhabit this place and situation with him in his mentally challenged state. We go through the ordeal together as we learn what happened as he relives it. From this position of relative ignorance the game could choose to then move in any direction it wishes, instead it is to some extent hamstrung by the desires of the market and from its own devotion to its inspirations. Despite this however, I want to state here that I think you ought to give Silent Descent your time and attention for what it does well and what it shows the developer: Deceptive Games Ltd can do and I hope will continue to. It’s not easy creating convincing worlds. I’ve spent enough time in level editors, making textures and editing sounds to recognise the time and effort that goes into creating compelling worlds. At this the developer has a gift for the subtly effective and it is worth experiencing on its own merits. The time and situation that it has been created within though, I think have been a burden to it.
The ecosystem and community that is Youtube is something of a mixed blessing. It exists and functions as a low investment, potentially high return marketing tool for a product. It also unfortunately comes with baggage. To gain attention and traction within this community and the gaming market as a whole currently, it is necessary to fulfil the terms of supply and demand which means jump scares, screeching presenters and my developing a headache. As part of this, Silent Descent does feature jump scares at a relatively early stage of the game. They are momentary enough though that I wasn’t able to hit the print screen button in time on their first appearance – which is a good thing, it didn’t have the opportunity to outstay its welcome [at this stage]. The issues develop where the built up tension of the psychological horror and mental investment of the player is dissipated and the player is able to see far too much of what physically torments them, to the point where it must be actually evaded. Physical torment in the real world doesn’t face these challenges, within a piece of entertainment or art though we are required to perform a suspension of disbelief. I was concerned if the game would be able to recover from these changes in motivation and tact. Being tormented mentally or physically are very different. Whenever I would return to the looping process of looking for variations in the environment, uncovering more of the sequence of events and occupying the player character’s mental state, then what I would recommend you experience the game for – returns. As a dog chases its tail however there is a return to the physical, the tension is lost and it then must work even harder to recover its strongest points once more. The game is in conflict with itself to its own detriment – or merely my interpretation of it is.
What was especially frustrating for me was to walk down the same path that I did when playing System Shock 2. A stunning [then and now] setting had been created, as a player and a character I grew familiar with its twists, turns and changes in state. It was towards the end of the game where the location shifts to within the organic mass of “The Many” – fitting in terms of narrative but one in which the tension dissipated, the tone shifted for the worse and the game almost ran out of drive, too much new and unfamiliar was introduced too soon. Something similar for me happened with Silent Descent. When inhabiting the domestic setting with its familiarity and recognisable features, it was unsettling when they would be slightly changed or manipulated. The sound and visuals worked together in concert to create a successfully realised atmosphere. Noticing the addition of personal items of the player character’s wife would create cruel reminders of actions and regrets – the work was being done in the mind. The dashes of colour provided by a flower vase or the light catching the gold gilt edges of furniture created a sense of hollow warmth, never being able to truly settle in this location.
The already mentioned transitions to a Silent Hill type otherworld introduce some awkwardly included puzzles, the existence for which I’m unsure outside of a loose expectation but the game just about maintains its mood in these situations – particularly when the environments blend together. Where the experience really suffers is it’s own version of “The Many”. Walking through organic corridors just didn’t work for me. The psychological was sacrificed for the readily physical. An overt, touchable threat was introduced that turned the dynamics of the game on their head – to its cost, and the simple effect of the presence of a pair of shoes and the associations that can be drawn from them were lost in an unwarranted arms race of jump scares. What was working subtly and smartly was lost in favour of a crude cudgel that lost its effectiveness before it was even deployed. Silent Descent was starting to get under my skin, then it lost interest in doing so and instead wanted to simply flay it.
And then there is the issue of V1.03 of the game… something which I am happy to see turns the game on its head. I’ve already mentioned that I believe you ought to give the game your time for various reasons. Another of those is that the developer has put the time, effort and consideration into expanding the game and has communicated with kindness and curiosity. I would rather have developers that maintain excellent relations with the players as they continue to evolve as game makers and artists than disinterested developers that see no reason to connect with their players but manage to ace everything they do. Exploring, experiencing and supporting this game is a part of supporting an industry that is as invested in its players as the players are with it.
V1.03 tackled head on my main issue with the game and for that I am very happy. To myself it now has an internal consistency and the game can wryly watch the player knowing how it can toy with them a little more mentally. If the player’s character is trapped in purgatory then based on a theological argument it is possible for the soul to ascend – out of purgatory. Now there are the issues of the graveness of the sin carried out – in this case murder/suicide and how it would be unlikely that such a soul would find its way to purgatory. If we accept and go with this basis whereby such a soul is in purgatory though then things get interesting. The player character killed his wife for the sin of adultery – another “grave” sin. He then committed two further sins himself of a “grave” nature. It is possible for the player to leave purgatory and ascend to heaven and I think on reflection it was handled in a wonderfully simple and very effective way. We are trained to the point of putting lab rats to shame when it comes to participating in the systems that make up games. If the player character’s wife committed the original sin [in this instance] which set the series of events that took place prior to the start of the game in motion, and free will took them to their disastrous conclusion, then by understanding what is asked of the soul then it should be understandable what is needed to ascend and what we are doing by entering the loop.
By allowing the player to make these distinctions and act on them in regards to free will and personal responsibility then the idea of purgatory is maintained. The descent that the player and the character they control makes becomes a lot more clear and internally coherent, more affecting and ultimately more memorable. I still struggle with the change from an individual dealing with their own actions to the shift towards a third party pursuing and punishing the player. The relationship between free will of an individual and an authority determining what is acceptable and what will be punished becomes more complex when it ties into the win states of a game and the real life process of coming to terms with our own actions. It is perhaps an unfortunate but necessary compromise to have that third party push us the player on sometimes, I cannot help but think that it was done too overtly in the later loops of the game however. A literal chase sequence changes the nature of the experience, divergent paths may have helped in the case of what the individual is being chased towards or escaping from. The again unfortunate reality though is that divergent paths take time and money to produce.
It may be worth mentioning also that the game features elements that I’m still not sure what the relevance of them was or why the choices were made: A radio plays garbled number sequences as from P.T. In a nod to Silent Hill 4, eyes are mounted in walls, pushing the tone of the game in directions too fast and too different. Victorian style portraiture with a distinct P.T. Barnum, blended with occult theme occupies spaces around the house. In certain loops, blood coats the walls to the point of exaggeration. The player can open draws with a direct input but must walk into doors and other objects passively to interact with them. There are a range of odd choices and inclusions that when noticed would draw me out of that subtle looping process that had been so effective. The way that I can approach this and rationalise to where I can accept certain inclusions in Silent Descent is from an outside of the game’s perspective: it is tribute to influences. From an inside the game perspective: purgatory is limited to the very first location you start in – everything else from that point onwards is something else you would need to define for yourself – by making this leap, the subsequent tonal shifts and excesses have a free hand.
Silent Descent is an interesting mix of influences and perceived intentions. I would recommend that you try it as I believe that it contains elements that will appeal to a relatively broad range of players. It will I suspect have shifts that then run counter to what you are hoping for – whatever that may be. However overall it is worth playing for what it tries to do, the attitude of its developer and what it points towards them making in the future. I would hope though that there is something of a moratorium on direct P.T. homages within the industry – P.T. is gone, when chasing a visage it is likely that disappointment will be met when finally catching up with its reality.
Where there is skill, drive and talent there will be new experiences and stories. Silent Descent begins to take steps in that fresh direction in much the same way that Layers of Fear did. I look forward to seeing where they go.
Disclosure: This copy of Silent Descent was provided, free of charge by the developer and as of this time of publication the game has been played for just over three hours with a 100% completion of achievements.