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Silent Hill: Ascension, live now, is a free-to-play disaster with some promising ideas

Restless dreams

Silent Hill: Ascensions key art, showing hands reaching out of a splitting headful of BRAINS.
Image credit: Konami

Mobile-based interactive drama Silent Hill: Ascension is quite the thing, and is getting quite the reception. The cleanest summary I can manage is that developer Genvid and publisher Konami have launched a very bad streaming service dedicated to dunking on Silent Hill, with microtransaction-fuelled voting mechanics and a chatbox awash with 10 years of pent-up fan resentment and confusing references to James Sunderland's genitals.

The project is essentially a CGI TV show broken into daily Twitch-style streams that follow the fates of characters around the world, who are being haunted by various Hilly apparitions - dudes wrapped in barbed wire, ash falling from the sky, you know the drill. Viewers can vote on major plot choices from episode to episode using a currency called Influence. You'll earn a bit of Influence by signing in daily, or by completing puzzles of the match-the-glyphs variety, separate to the main game. You can also gain Influence by participating in the Until Dawn-esque action sequences that cap each episode, in which players follow touchscreen prompts to collectively dictate the action. Or you can buy Influence with cold hard cash, much as in reality.

Influence points can also be spent to enter your player avatar into a cameo contest. The winner of this contest will guest-star in the subsequent episode, custom haircut and all. There's a second currency called Hope, earned by completing puzzles, which characters need if they're to survive certain bigger story moments.

You'll probably need plenty of Hope yourself if you're to make it to the end of the season. In the course of 24 hours on Google Play and the Apple store, Ascension has become a sort of gaily spinning disco ball of offensiveness, shooting agonising laser beams into the eyes of several audience demographics simultaneously.

Can't abide predatory monetisation? One of the first things you see, launching the game, is a promo for a season pass, which auto-completes puzzles and bestows exclusive stickers for use in the aforesaid chatbox. Like your horror game UIs nice and minimal, for maximum atmosphere? Ascension's frontend appears to have been designed by the US Air Force. Miss the intricate psychological dynamics of Silent Hill 2? Ascension's puzzles are labelled "Mindfulness" exercises, making the whole thing queasily synonymous with a smartphone self-help app, and one of the aforesaid stickers reads "It's Trauma!" in rainbow comicbook font. Dislike classic survival horror tank controls? Rejoice, for they have now been replaced by crowd-sourced QTEs.

A screenshot of Silent Hill: Ascension's interface, with the chatbox down one side and various percentage buttons along the bottom.
Image credit: Konami

The thing is, I think Ascension is onto the germ of a good thing. The game's character fates follow three colour-coded paths, determined by player-voting - Redemption, Suffering and Damnation. If Ascension itself were a character, its Redemption arc would basically be "MMO Until Dawn". It would take the sofa-level conviviality of the Supermassive game and find a way to do the same thing in a Twitch chatbox: there are the seeds of that in the ability to "rally" other viewers to vote your way. It would look at how horror streamers play along with their audiences, becoming characters within the experience.

Perhaps it'll pull all of that off, assuming Konami don't shitcan the thing after reading the reactions on Reddit. This isn't a framework I would ever have thought of with regard to Silent Hill, the archetypal tale of abject loners losing themselves in the fog, but now that I've pumped all the relevant bullet points into my head, I'm quite... intrigued? The sheer contrast with the original Silent Hill games is appetising, next to the milky sort-of-reimaginings of the PS3-era unnumbered spin-offs. But any promise is being suffocated. The pushy monetisation systems (which Genvin have now defended at length, as you can read on Eurogamer) spoil the sociability of Ascension's chatbox and voting mechanics, and the Tom Clancified interface robs the already-bland CGI art of all charm. What I've seen and heard of the actual writing is nothing remarkable, but these are early days.

I should throw Genvin the additional bone that, where Silent Hill is concerned, anything short of utter brilliance won't be enough for fans right now. Konami have spent years failing to do anything worthwhile with one of the great old survival horror settings - they have, in fact, actively removed the game plausibly argued to be Silent Hill's finest hour from sale. That mess isn't of Ascension's making, but Ascension is certainly adding to it. Fingers crossed that the other Silent Hill reboot projects can pick up the pieces.

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