‘These people are your responsibility!’
Homecoming was the Hollywood take on Silent Hill. All crisp and clean, with a Jensen Ackles-type in the lead, and a straightforward plot that paid more homage to Dean Koontz’s Phantoms than Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water. What was once opaque and foreign was now transparent and insular. Homecoming didn’t have much to say as a game or a story, nor about the series itself. But it did, as product, tell us how companies like Konami were struggling to compete with big-money marketing of its Western competitors.
Silent Hill was popular, but hardly a blockbuster franchise. They needed to be smart for the HD generation. Outsourcing and middleware took care of rising developmental costs, while other companies would foot the bill for brand awareness. Movies and comics were the licensing answer, and looking back on 2008 and how rushed it was, Homecoming now comes across as an afterthought in its own major push.
Still, giving oneself wholly over to another market or another gaze doesn’t necessarily make for a terrible game. In Homecoming’s case, maybe its problems lay in the fact that all the best stories had already been told.
Homecoming starts with an intentional bang; no dreaded slow burn, no setup, giving away all its secrets within the opening cutscene. The sounds of war give way to the harsh clatter of gurney wheels and slamming double doors. Alex Shepherd demands answers and receives a gory rebuttal, before waking up on a hitch-hike back home, after many years away. The déjà vu of Alex’s search for his missing brother is just too familiar, caught up in this mandated movie tie-in veneer.
Homecoming’s biggest sin is that it’s sketchy. Not purposefully vague, just sketchy; from its supporting cast to its sparse locations and even loose endings. Whereas Silent Hill was fully imagined in its first appearance, Shepherd’s Glen is completely faceless, hard to differentiate from the infamous town during Homecoming’s final act. Despite Josh’s disappearance being a key motivator, Alex only has two memories of his brother – one good, one bad – and the rest are doled shown, oddly enough, without his presence. A sign of numerous redrafts, if we’re being honest.
It’s never enough to make you care, busy as it is with telling certain events with biased awe. Pyramid Head makes a fleeting appearance, spied on like a creature in the wild. Later, Deputy Wheeler talks about Silent Hill with mystical reverence. Gone are the days where the town was just an unassuming name on the road map, somewhere you wouldn’t think twice about passing by.
Especially with concerns to the latter, Homecoming showed how Silent Hill’s fundamentals had radically changed under the Western gaze. It’s still a Silent Hill game at heart – any accusations can easily be applied to previous efforts – but one that looks inward at its own country’s history of horror. It’s all there in the way Alex and his companions stick together, make plans over the radio, survive sieges, and get too close to the truth.
Yes, it’s insular, but one shouldn’t be critical of Homecoming’s influences for not being Eastern or spiritual. America produced some amazing horror tales in the ’70s and ’80s; a reaction to cinematic stereotypes, increases in violent crime, and the scars of Vietnam. Homecoming tries to at least update those themes with its protection of small town values and allusions to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alex Shepherd is seen as this well groomed soldier with a flashy fighting style, which at first plays well towards the critics of the game. Despite his all American values, it’s really his jacket that lends us this weight of authority and self-made heroics. But keen eyes will notice that the jacket doesn’t really fit him; too long on the arms, a little broad on the shoulders. When the twist hits, we learn Alex is merely living up to his father’s legacy. That symbol of duty, their only connection, is really just a reminder of their estrangement.
Duty and sacrifice are prevalent themes in Homecoming. Even the title itself recalls more to do with warriors than prom queens, especially in this day and age. The self-preservation of Shepherd’s Glen is a ludicrous compromise, where an unbridled fear of those across the waters (in this case, Toluca Lake and the Order of Silent Hill) ruins more lives than it saves. Heinous acts are committed by those in charge, fearful of religious retribution.
And when the balance is finally upset, a reactionary Otherworld returns at its most vengeful. Shrieking monsters with impotent forms feverishly scale fences and walls, only wanting blood. The town’s sacrifices are reimagined as furious deities; their porcelain skin fractures and drowning lungs a reminder of their once frail former selves. They do lack the macabre, tumorous puzzles of Masahiro Ito’s designs, but we must remember that Homecoming was Silent Hill at its most casual.
But more importantly, this was a Silent Hill title that lacked the time to go deeper. Even if it did, with the story it had, where exactly could it have gone? When you look at the games, post-The Room, they’re all variations of stories told; parental fears and domestic worries, a coming of age and religious interpretation, suburban loneliness, all filled in with mistakes and regrets. Nearly everything that Homecoming picked up on was already said in Silent Hill 2 and 3. It’s a cherry picker of ideas, hoping the best ones fit together.
And maybe that’s why, beyond the more obvious debate of Eastern vs. Western quality and the terrible plot holes involved, Homecoming has a division of fans, rather than outright hatred. It’s a B-movie horror film within a B-tier game, nothing more, nothing less.
As for the future of the franchise, we would never hear from Shepherd’s Glen ever again, but the past was worth revisiting. Silent Hill would take centre stage, once more. Though it would be very different from the one buried in our memories.