The key to a survival horror game is simple: do not explain anything. Obfuscate, obscure, occlude; do whatever you can to keep players disoriented and disempowered. Let them scrape by with a shotgun and a handful of shells, a plank crooked with nails, a combat knife, a German Shepherd, or a supernatural camera … but always keep them in the dark.
The incomprehensible monster designs, the clunky controls, the thick haze of grain filters: they all stem from that overriding mandate. We’ve gone too long without a true rager in this style, but, like a misshapen torso-thing stumbling through the fog, here comes Sylvio. Appropriately, Sylvio is a game of analog textures rubbing each other raw: the hiss of a tape machine, the snap of a lit match. It blows up the oppressive murk of Silent Hill 3’s Lakeside Amusement Park to massive size, choking the player with hazy terror.
Like that game, Sylvio is anchored by an indelible protagonist. Juliette Waters speaks in a Bjork-like coo, a soft scratchy whisper. Reading a book in an abandoned subterranean office, she’ll hum to herself as if nothing can hurt her here. She won’t let it, instead greeting each new, malevolent horror with quiet determination. Her voice is like the tinkling piano in Resident Evil’s save rooms: a constant companion, a reliable salve.
Waters is a ghost hunter. She lugs about a clunky reel-to-reel and records the moaning static of the beyond at every opportunity. The player combs through these recordings for intelligible speech. She can fast-forward, slow down, and reverse in addition to normal playback. Some spirits will screech, their words piled up like a derailed train, requiring the player to slow the tape down. Some spirits speak in a pitched-down drone, their words waiting to be whipped through the playheads.
Everything Waters transcribes is a cry of lament. The player may not catch what the spirits say, but once she scrubs past the pertinent part of the recording, Waters automatically writes down their words. It’s a nice touch. She’s letting you come along for the ride, but make no mistake: she’s the professional.
If I tell you that Sylvio features a gun with which to shoot, broadly, monsters, I would not be surprised if you check out right there. After all, swinging the pendulum toward gunplay has steadily weakened survival horror games since Resident Evil 4. Horror needs that perverse imbalance between the player and the game, and a fully-stocked arsenal tips the scales much too far.
But Waters, thankfully, doesn’t have an arsenal. She has a sort of shotgun, powered by air canisters, loaded with whatever objects she can find nearby. Shooting potatoes allows the player to solve physics puzzles; shooting screws allows her to defeat the monsters.
These monsters are black orbs that bear mindlessly forward, or giant humanoid figures that roam in circles, coagulated clots of postmortem anguish. Shooting them is no challenge. They don’t dodge projectiles or return fire. They simply float toward the player, clipping through the level geometry as if they truly don’t belong in this space. When destroyed these shades explode in a scream, distorting the screen and leaving behind a storm of buzzing static. The player can record this static to pluck out a few words. These words are always brief, vivid sketches of pain and suffering and sadness and lonely ends.
“Do you see it? Began. The end.”
“Gas. No light. Black.
“Strapped down and buried.”
There is also a little yellow car available to traverse the world, the player’s cute escort around a sparse, hellish expanse of trees and fog (always fog). While driving the car a song plays through the car’s speakers. It’s similar in style to the rest of the soundtrack: languid, melodic bass and plaintive synths weaving an indelible mood.
Akira Yamaoka’s work on Silent Hill 3 was a woozy trip-hop soundtrack that sounded half-drawn from its young protagonist’s mind and half-escaped from the game’s Otherworld. Yamaoka drew from Angelo Badalamenti’s immortal work with David Lynch, heavy on the suspended chords and airy synth pads, but often added his own industrial edge: “Angel’s Thanatos” from Silent Hill 2 is all nu-metal guitar plod and pinging snare, while much of the first Silent Hill’s soundtrack is an abrasive squall. It’s in this lineage of dreamy melody cut with harsh noise that Sylvio places itself. The former adds emotional heft and a sense of progression to the nitty-gritty of backtracking and puzzling over clues. The latter blends diegetic sound and sound effects into a chaotic din: static, moaning, and whispers, washes of ambient-or-is-it noise that smear the game with dread.
Seances are a pillar of horror fiction. They tap into the audience’s intertwined hopes and fears that something of us persists after death. A group of people huddle around a table, cluttered with some manner of cross-dimensional communication. Tension clogs the scene; every creak, every draft of air is a potential message from beyond the veil.
Eventually, the spirits make themselves known one way or another. The medium, though a seasoned explorer of the realms beyond death, will of course herself be shocked by the events that occur, shaken by their severity.
This cues the audience that, in the diegesis of this story, shit has gotten real. But Juliette Waters is never shaken by her conversations with the dead. She lights a candle, asks a question, and offers her microphone to her invisible companion.
The player is not forced into these sequences. In fact, she has to go out of her way to find them, locating the locus of supernatural energy through a combination of luck, clues, and an oscilloscope. And the first question does not railroad her into a second, nor the second into a third. The player learns as much as she wants to learn. Or as much as she can stand.
How much the player can stand is an open question. Sylvio is deliberately off-kilter. It’s as oneiric as Cocteau or Fulci, the sort of art that feels less like a straightforward story and more like a transmission from the id. Sections of the narrative simply fade together, eliding connective tissue like a series of vignettes strung end-to-end, snapshots hung on a clothesline. Seances end without a satisfying answer. People are dead and they stay dead. Are you even helping them? Sylvio succeeds at every single thing it wants to do. Games don’t do this kind of hermetic horror often, and Sylvio makes zero concessions. The car, the gun, the reel-to-reel, the black blobs: they’re all secondary to Juliette Waters and her journey through the abyss.