Silent Hill: The Lost Message struggles to modernize a sensitive series

Anita holds a phone in Silent Hill: The Short Message.
Konami

I had some expectations for the Silent Hill series going into PlayStation’s first State of Play of 2024. Chief among those, I assumed we’d finally get a release date for Bloober Team’s Silent Hill 2. That didn’t happen, as a newly revealed combat trailer didn’t even drop a hint about when we might see it on PS5. I didn’t leave the showcase empty-handed, though: Konami would surprise-release a whole unannounced Silent Hill game to make up for it.

Silent Hill: The Short Message, available for free on PS5 right now, is a playable “experience” that reintroduces players to the world of Silent Hill. It’s largely a tech demo showing what Konami can do with current-gen tech, but the 90-minute horror short serves a more important purpose. It reimagines how Silent Hill can speak to younger audiences and the problems they face, bringing some newfound relevance to a series that was dormant through a key decade of mental health discussion.

The end result is already proving to be polarizing. And that sets the stage for what’s sure to be a tough comeback story for a series that’s always dealt with sensitive topics.

Clearing the fog

Silent Hill: The Short Message centers around a teenage girl named Anita who wakes up in a dilapidated apartment complex. When she comes to, she begins searching for her friend Maya, an artist who focuses on representing women’s multifaceted nature through a cherry blossom motif. It all plays out in a first-person walking simulator that mostly sees players marveling at Konami’s technically impressive environments.

While The Short Message primarily has players observing trash-filled rooms and reading newspaper snippets that tell its story, it does gesture at some gameplay ideas that I imagine the series will build on going forward. A cherry blossom monster stalks Anita in tense chase scenes through metaphysical hallways. One unsettling sequence has me rediscovering her mother’s pattern of abuse as my perspective shrinks, eventually putting me at a child’s height. Imagery like a twisted hallway or a hallway full of blinking eyes shows the psychological tricks a modern Silent Hill game could provide. It’s a suitable proof of concept more than a compelling standalone game.

Where The Short Message gets complicated, though, is in its approach to heavy topics. As a content warning before the game begins suggests, the story goes to some typically dark places for the series, touching on bullying, family abuse, and suicide. The story gets into some modern problems facing today’s youths, touching on social media addiction, Covid anxiety, and a general distrust for adults that have destroyed the planet. That’s not new for a series famous for visualizing trauma (Who can forget Silent Hill 2’s “Abstract Daddy?”).

What is new is the social landscape it’s launching in, one that’s much more keen to see historically mishandled subjects approached with nuance and sensitivity. It’s very clear that Konami was cognizant of that when crafting The Short Message. It’s more careful not to demonize characters suffering from trauma. Every scene that depicts a suicide is quickly followed by a splash screen directing players to mental health resources.

Its heart is undeniably in the right place, but it’s all very clumsy. Melodramatic sequences, like one where Anita moans about losing “followers,” are laughable. Several players on social media platforms like X have compared it to 13 Reasons Why, a polarizing Netflix series that deals with similar topics. Both are on the nose in their delivery, with The Short Message especially landing as a hokey anti-bullying PSA in the end. It’s always well-meaning in its approach, but there’s a notable eagerness to tie it all up in a neat and hopeful manner that doesn’t leave its hero lost in the fog.

Anita stands in a hallway full of post-it notes in Silent Hill: The Lost Message.
Konami

That’s the biggest departure for the series. Classics like Silent Hill 2 are raw depictions of trauma, not pulling any punches. They want players to understand the psychological horror that its characters live with. There are rarely happy endings in Silent Hill; even when our heroes escape the fog, it’s still a looming reality that never truly goes away. The Short Message, by contrast, blows it away and puts blooming flowers in its place. It’s careful in its optimism to the point of feeling contrived.

I can see why Konami would want to go that route, though. With media literacy seemingly on the decline, it’s fair that any game dealing with sensitive topics would want to hold players’ hands and spell everything out for them. The last thing you want is to become the discourse of the day on social media. I get the sense that The Short Message is as much a way to imagine what a modern Silent Hill game could look like in 2024 as it is a low-stakes way to see how a young audience will react to its handling of such heavy subject matter. It’s a messy experiment, one that shows that Konami might have an uphill battle ahead of it.

Silent Hill: The Lost Message is available for free now on PS5.

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