Silent Hill 4: The Room and Character
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Silent Hill 4: The Room (Konami, 2004), the fourth installment in the Silent Hill franchise. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of Silent Hill 4. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
While horror has its roots in the unknown, the true meaning of terror is different for every individual. What one person thinks of as boring might be nightmare fuel for someone else, and vice versa. Oftentimes, the difference is in the past experiences the individuals have had. A dog running at you might be great if you’ve only ever had positive interactions with dogs, but if you’ve been recently bitten by one, you might not be so excited to get a sloppy kiss from Kujo. These kinds of experience-driven fears can become defining characteristics of people, so it’s no surprise that fears play a big part in character creation. Just as well-rounded characters should have strengths and desires, they should also have weaknesses and fears. Generic aversions can work well enough in a pinch, like a general unease with bugs or darkness, but the most compelling characters are the ones whose fears come from deep within. When characters without such fears are thrust into otherwise terrifying situations, their reactions can feel forced or flat, and the scares don’t land like they should. It’s an all-too-common problem in horror, and it’s one of many problems plaguing the Silent Hill series’ most divisive entry: Silent Hill 4: The Room.
Released in 2004, Silent Hill 4: The Room came on the heels of three successful titles in a genre-defining franchise. To say fans had high expectations was an understatement. Rather than potentially let down those fans with more of the same, the developers at Konami used The Room as an opportunity to take the franchise in a different direction.1 Sections of the game took place in first-person, rather than the traditional third, and the title had far fewer boss fights than its predecessors. These changes were met with a mixed reception, one reflected in a current Metacritic score in the mid-70s.2 Fans were also uncertain about elements of The Room’s story, particularly its protagonist, Henry Townshend. In The Room, Henry is trapped inside his apartment by an unknown force (and a door-full of chains) and the only way he can escape is by navigating the holes in his walls that connect him to an unfamiliar underworld. It’s a compelling hook, but Henry’s flat character limits the effectiveness of the premise. His sparse backstory and flat reactions limit his potential for growth, and as a result, none of the potential outcomes of his story land with any kind of impact. His limited character traits represent a missed opportunity, one that mirrors the uneven title’s place in the series.
The Ordinary World - Backstory
For all intents and purposes, Henry Townshend is a blank slate. The text-provided backstory at the start of the game consists of two lines: “It was two years ago that Henry Townshend moved into Room 302 of South Ashfield Heights, an apartment building in the medium-sized city of Ashfield. Henry was happy and enjoying his new life.” These lines, coupled with an additional note that he’s been having nightmares and stuck in his room for five days, are the extent of the information the player is given about Henry. His age and occupation are unknown, and the titular room shows no evidence of friends, family, or colleagues. While his apartment does contain photographs and scrapbooks as signifiers of his hobbies, those elements aren’t established as important enough parts of his life that they can be threatened. In other words, Henry is a man with nothing to lose—for better and for worse.
There’s an argument that Henry’s total lack of backstory is to The Room’s benefit because it adds to the story’s dreamlike quality. While it’s certainly the case that a blank rate protagonist adds a degree of surrealism, the opportunity cost is a protagonist with attachments and priorities. Previous Silent Hill protagonists all had loved ones they wanted to either find or protect. Those motivations gave their journeys emotional weight as they traversed their surreal nightmare worlds. Conversely, Henry has no friends or family being threatened, nor does he have any history with the people involved in the murders in his building. His biggest problem is that he can’t leave his apartment, but there’s nothing specific outside that he’s trying to reach. There’s no sense of urgency beyond his growing unease, and the only thing at stake is his survival. As a result, the terrors in Silent Hill 4 have to fall on the generic side because Henry has no specific fears. He has nothing to lose, so he’s not afraid to lose anything. For a protagonist in a horror story, it’s more than just a missed opportunity; it’s a strain on the horror itself.
The Descent - Reactions and Personality
A limited backstory isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a character, provided they have enough exciting traits in the present to be compelling. Unfortunately, Henry Townshend does not. His typical emotions range from total indifference to mild bemusement, and his most extreme outbursts are a “What the Hell?” or an occasional shout. If this were a game about a mild-mannered photographer organizing his scrapbooks, that lack of dynamism might be fine, but Silent Hill 4 has Henry following killers, finding corpses, and fighting ghosts. None of these are everyday activities, yet Henry’s reactions make them feel underwhelming and mundane. As a blank-slate protagonist, it’s his job to be the audience’s avatar, but Henry’s reactions couldn’t be more different from how the average human would react in the same situation. He’s indifferent to everything and everyone except for the one person who breathes some life into his character: Eileen.
Although Henry comes into the story with few attachments, he does have a passing familiarity with his next-door neighbor, Eileen. That familiarity grows when he learns she’s a target of the long-dead serial killer haunting their apartment building. She and Henry end up bonding and working together during the game’s latter half. Their partnership gives Henry someone to care about, which brings out his emotions and raises the stakes, but their partnership comes too late in the story to feel meaningful to either character. The game reveals even less about Eileen than it does about Henry, so they’re essentially a pair of blank slates investigating the same killer. Henry’s personality certainly comes through more when he’s working with someone, but the limited history between the two could have been expanded to heighten the tension in the narrative. Strangers can only get so close so fast, even in the most trying circumstances, and their limited interactions highlight what could have been if they’d started with a greater connection.
The Return - Potential Endings
Like most titles in the Silent Hill series, Silent Hill 4 has multiple endings. However, unlike most of those titles, Silent Hill 4’s conclusions are all played straight. Of the four total endings, Henry survives three, and he achieves his goal of escaping his apartment in each one. Unfortunately, that’s about all he does. If Eileen survives, he visits her in the hospital, and her reaction depends on how well the player protected her earlier. If she doesn’t survive, Henry is visibly crushed by her death, but he can still leave his apartment. After that, no one knows; none of the endings hint at what Henry wants to do with his life now, and they all reveal the story problems that came before.
The lack of variety in the endings is the strongest proof of Henry’s weak character. With no history, no attachments, and no personality, there’s only so much room for Henry to develop during the narrative. Hence, his external goal of leaving his room becomes his only defining characteristic, which means the only ‘good’ outcome for him is a successful escape. Even in the endings where he visits Eileen in the hospital, there’s still no hint of how the ordeal has changed him because his character wasn’t well-defined enough from the outset. It’s not even clear if the horrors of chasing a murderer and fleeing ghosts have had any lasting impact on him. It’s unlikely they did since he didn’t seem too bothered by them in the first place, but his flat personality leaves the audience with no way to infer otherwise. For all intents and purposes, Henry ends the story exactly as he starts it; the only difference is which side of the door he’s on.
Silent Hill 4: The Room had big shoes to fill on launch, and few people think it did the job. While some of the game’s innovations were welcome additions to the franchise, the flat protagonist limited the impact of the horror of the story. Writers who want their scares to land with maximum impact should remember to connect them to the individual characters. Otherwise, they have the potential to fall flat.
Protagonists, antagonists, and foils are just some of the characters that feature in fictional worlds.
StoryScan: Far Cry 5 and Character
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StoryScan: Portal and Character
Portal’s AI antagonist keeps things interesting by making the impersonal personal.
1 EGM “Silent Hill 4: The Room.” EGM, 2004, uploaded by 1UP.
2 “Silent Hill 4: The Room.” MetaCritic, 2022.
* Reference Footage: iampanax. “Silent Hill 4: The Room Game Movie (All Cutscenes) (2004).” YouTube, 2020.