[content warning: discussion of ableism, child abuse, child death. and suicide]
GOD KNOWS EVERYBODY MAKES A MISTAKE OR TWO
Full disclosure, I really like the sidequests in Silent Hill: Downpour. Not only do I enjoy exploring the town, the design of which is one of the game’s strengths, these sidequests subtly add a great deal to the game’s narrative.
Though they vary in thematic significance, almost every sidequest has some connection to Murphy’s character and the overall themes of Downpour. Most of the quests involve helping people. Through these quests, Murphy helps trapped birds, a disabled child, a possibly mentally ill woman, abused wives and children, a lonely elderly person, and victims of theft. Though these sidequests have no bearing on what ending you receive (except the silly E ending), they go a long way toward establishing the kind of person Murphy is. Yes, there are often rewards in the form of ammunition, weapons, or health kits, but since the game’s combat is relatively inconsequential, the main reward for the quests is the act of helping. Of course, almost everyone Murphy helps is long dead, but Murphy isn’t here to deal out justice. As his Otherworld suggests, part of Murphy’s journey is learning the high cost of revenge, not only to himself but to other innocent people. Therefore, these quests rarely allow Murphy to punish anyone. Instead, he offers comfort to the dead, which reveals his capacity for compassion.
In many ways, these quests shed more light on Murphy’s character than any of the game’s Moral Choices. I understand, of course, why these quests can’t contribute directly to which ending the player achieves, as they’re easy to miss and it wouldn’t be fair to those who can’t spend hours running around town, but thematically, they do the job better much better than the heavy-handed decisions presented via giant buttons beside Murphy’s head.
Now, to the quests.
FREE TO FLY
One of the first quests Murphy finds after entering Silent Hill involves releasing birds he finds in cages around town. Each time a bird is released, Murphy has a flashback to a happy memory of himself and Charlie. Obviously, the connection between caged birds and freedom borders on cliché, but freedom is a very important theme in Murphy’s story, freedom from prison and from guilt. The happy memory he recreates each time he releases a bird suggests that he’s learning to move on from his misery, while still holding his son in his heart.
[It’s also interesting that the game references the concept of “augury,” the ancient Roman practice of divining the will of the gods by observing the flight of birds. This can be compared to “haruspicy,” divination through examining the entrails of sacrificed animals, which is also referenced in-game. These practices have similar goals and both involve living things, but they accomplish those goals in very different ways. Perhaps this could hint at the two paths in front of Murphy, one that ends the cycle of violence and leads him to freedom and one that continues it and traps him in Silent Hill forever]
It’s also interesting to note that completing this quest unlocks a gallery picture of DJ Ricks, the character who literally tells Murphy about “the key to [his boat] Freedom” and who often gives Murphy obscure hints and clues via the songs he plays on the radio.
Finally, this quest shows Murphy’s concern for those weaker and more helpless than himself. Each time he opens a cage, he punctuates the act by saying, “Poor little guy,” which while repetitive, shows that Murphy is doing this because he cares, not because he thinks there’s any reward in store. Despite Murphy himself being trapped in Silent Hill (and in his own miserable life), he still takes time to care about these tiny helpless creatures. And though flying free in Silent Hill might not be the safest life, it’s better than slowly starving behind bars. By opening the doors, Murphy gives these birds a chance, the same chance he wants for himself.
In the apartment building, Murphy finds the hanging body of a thief along with his abandoned loot, which Murphy can then return to their owner’s apartments. All of these items have a great deal of sentimental value and include a locket, a watch, a child’s piggybank, and a war medal (specifically a Purple Heart, awarded to those injured or killed in service). Though the owners are long gone, memories linger, a crying woman, a wildly ticking watch, a weeping child, and exploding artillery. Returning each item changes the sounds, the crying and ticking stop, the children start to laugh, and the bombs and gunfire turn to light fanfare. In all cases, returning these items seems to lay these anxious memories to rest.
After completing the quest, Murphy can return to the room where the thief was hanging and find the body gone, leaving behind a new set of clothes for Murphy. It seems that he has laid both the victims and the perpetrator of the crime to rest. The point of completing this quest isn’t justice but comfort. Murphy can’t punish the criminal because he’s already punished himself, but by returning the items, he comforts the victims and softens the guilt of the thief. It’s therefore not a surprise that this quest unlocks a picture of the nun in the gallery, offering forgiveness and redemption as a more productive path than vengeance.
It’s also interesting that Murphy can take the thief’s clothes. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest that Murphy is moving farther from his prisoner existence and his dark past. However, he’s still wearing the clothes of a dead man, an identity not his own, and so will still end up back in a prison uniform by the end of the game.
DYING FOR THE ART
This quest is not as thematically relevant as the others, but it’s still worth talking about. In this quest, Murphy finds paintings scattered around town and arranges them in the art gallery to form a map. The quest itself doesn’t add much to the narrative, though it’s interesting you’re following in the footsteps of a curator who threatened and blackmailed people into selling their paintings, which perhaps explains why this quest eventually leads you to a weapon rather than health items. Though again, because the sidequests don’t affect the endings, it’s hard to say for sure whether any are straightforwardly Bad Choices.
The names of the paintings, however, are worth mentioning: “Despair,” “Sunrise,” “Wonder,” “Certainty,” “Hope,” and “Freedom.” These are the stages Murphy must move through in order to “get his life back.” Currently, he’s trapped in despair, but when the sun (depending on his choices) rises again after his ordeal in Silent Hill, he will wonder at the beauty and potential left in the world, and he’ll finally arrive at the certainty of what he did and who he is. And finally, the forgiveness offered by Charlie and Anne will allow him to hope for a new life in freedom, not just freedom from prison but also freedom from guilt and despair.
The narrative significance of this quest is a bit unclear as Murphy is technically completing the work of a clearly unpleasant person and the reward encourages more violence. However, the names of the linked paintings reflect the game’s relatively hopeful theme.
LIFE OF CRIME
The bank sidequest is a bit shallower. This is the only sidequest that requires combat and in it, Murphy defeats waves of enemies in order to open bank vaults and shut off the alarm. This quest perhaps serves to remind us that while there are immediate benefits to committing crimes, it’s probably not worth it in the long run nor particularly good for Murphy’s physical or mental health.
Moral of this sidequest? Don’t rob banks.
CALLING ALL CARS
This quest calls the Silent Hill police, which seems to be almost entirely staffed by Screamers, off of Murphy. There’s not too much narratively to say about this quest, except that it’s a clue to Murphy’s innocence (in most endings) as he doesn’t really deserve to have the police pursuing him like this. This could explain why Cunningham is the gallery picture unlocked by this quest because she believes Murphy is guilty of a crime he didn’t commit (again, in most endings and yes, this ambiguity is still narratively problematic).
IF YOU TEACH A MAN TO FISH…
In this sidequest, Murphy helps a homeless man who tells him how to unlock the abandoned subway tunnels, which he can use to safely and quickly travel through Silent Hill. Over several encounters, Murphy finds the man food, a coat, and a fishing rod. Sadly, the homeless man ends up dead no matter what Murphy does, but this quest reinforces the theme of Murphy giving his time and effort to help those more in need than himself. And of course, there’s the pretty direct reference to the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” which again points Murphy toward positive action. Instead of the destructive, one-time relief of revenge, which leads straight to prison, this path opens up a myriad of roads to explore.
This is easily the most heartbreaking and narratively significant sidequest in the game. During this quest, Murphy follows the trail of a lost child to discover a dark and horrible truth. Murphy discovers a missing child poster describing Ariadne Johnson. Ariadne is an eight-year-old autistic girl who disappeared on her way home from school (much as Charlie did). After finding Ariadne’s lunchbox and a note from her mother, Murphy follows the same ribbon-marked path she did and discovers that Ariadne’s mother deliberately led her child to her death.
Obviously, this is a disgusting, unforgivable act, but again, there is no punishment to be found here. Ariadne’s mother is long gone by the time Murphy finds her confession. But by walking the path Ariadne walked and discovering the truth of what was done to her, Murphy not only identifies with this forsaken child, but also takes on a parental role for a child whose own parent violently rejected her. It’s too late for Murphy to save Ariadne, but in contrast to Ariadne’s mother, he at least cares enough to seek the truth and express horror at what occurred. After completing this quest, Murphy can enter Ariadne’s room, getting another small glimpse into who this child was, while also finding health kits. Again, Murphy receives a nonviolent reward for showing compassion for a person who was shown very little in life.
This quest unlocks a gallery picture titled “A Boy,” which clearly depicts Charlie, another child who was horribly mistreated and murdered. This sidequest more than any other puts Murphy in a parental role, someone who strives to protect and care for children, especially those who are mistreated or unloved.
Which for the seven thousandth time makes the implication that Murphy murdered Charlie in the D Ending a cheap nonsensical twist that adds nothing to the narrative.
I clearly have a lot of feelings on this subject, so moving on…
CINEMA OF TRUTH (Cinéma Vérité)
This sidequest involves splicing together film reels, entering the resulting film, and finding a golden gun and some ammunition. This quest is interesting but rather obscure. The film Murphy recreates seems to hint at what happened to Charlie, who was abducted and murdered by his neighbor. As I mentioned in my earlier post, by making Charlie’s story a film, it’s made clear that it cannot be changed no matter how many times Murphy relives.
It’s also interesting that the reward for this quest is a weapon (and only after obtaining said weapon do monsters appear in the film to attack Murphy). Perhaps this implies that by seeking violent revenge for what happened to Charlie, Murphy accomplished nothing but hurting himself and other innocent people.
The gallery picture unlocked for this quest is the Postman, a character who repeatedly points Murphy toward the truth, which could solidify the above theory, seeing as the final chapter of Murphy’s journey reveals the true cost of the deal with the devil he made to obtain his revenge.
IF I COULD TURN BACK TIME…
In this sidequest, Murphy uses a gramophone to witness a horrific crime – a father murdering his family with an axe. Murphy then lays the victims’ spirits to rest by destroying the murderer’s portrait. This quest is interesting in a couple of ways. One, we have the concept of “turning back time,” something Murphy very much wants to do but can’t. Even here, Murphy can’t actually stop the crime from occurring, he can only rewind time to see the truth. Two, much like the Ribbons quest, this quest isn’t about justice but comforting the victims of the crime, in this case by removing the memory of the one who hurt them. It’s also almost certainly significant that Murphy drives the murderer’s spirit away through nonviolent means – burning the portrait.
Like in Ribbons, here Murphy protects people who have been betrayed by their protectors. Perhaps it’s becoming clear why I take so much umbrage with the D Ending. Murphy is consistently set in contrast to people (especially parents) who harm those they’re meant to care for. If I’m being extremely generous, I can see how the D Ending could be meant as a Shocking Twist, but there simply isn’t any narrative foundation for it. None of Murphy’s behavior during these quests seems false or forced; he always seems genuinely horrified by the crimes he’s witnessing. Perhaps if he showed some remorse in the D Ending, I could buy it, but his only emotion is his hatred of Sewell. As it stands, I think the game would have benefited by coming up with a Terrible No Good Very Bad Ending that made a bit more sense with how Murphy’s character.
Getting back on track, this quest unlocks the picture of Napier, again contrasting Murphy with the predators who deliberately target those most in need of protection.
All right, this one I fully admit to being stumped by. It doesn’t seem to relate specifically to Murphy, but it must be significant because it’s this quest that unlocks Murphy’s picture in the gallery. So let’s take a look.
This quest involves using light and shadow to form specific sigils on walls around Silent Hill. That idea alone is interesting, needing both light and shadow to see the whole picture. This could hint at the fact that Murphy must both venture deep into the darkness of Silent Hill while also seeking the light in order to uncover the truth and find his freedom. If you stretch the idea even further, perhaps this idea could be connected to the storm theme which permeates the game. The violent storms involve both dark clouds and flashes of lightning. Murphy must brave all aspects of the storm to escape Silent Hill.
The names of these sigils may also be significant: Soul-Eye, Four, Healing, Enlightenment, and Harmony (the symbol of which has been broken into two parts). Now, these names are slightly more obscure than the paintings, but they’re worth discussing. Soul-Eye suggests soul-searching, something Murphy clearly needs to do. Four is very obscure and I’m going to take a lot of shots in the dark here. In numerology (the belief in divine or mystical connections between numbers and events), a common interpretation of the number four is creation, which could reference the Silent Hill Murphy has created in order to lead himself through purgatory to healing, enlightenment, and harmony. Also, (and I fully admit to be grasping here), we also have the Four Noble Truth of Buddhism, which describe suffering, the reason for suffering, and the path to end suffering, which could reference the path Murphy must follow to escape Silent Hill. On the other hand, in some East Asian languages, the word for “four” is very close to the word for “death,” which could hint at the death and suffering Murphy caused by seeking revenge for his son’s murder.
It’s also possible to find the number four in combinations of characters throughout the game. Interestingly, it seems that three characters can exist in somewhat harmoniously before the fourth throws a wrench in the works. For example, we have Murphy, his wife Carol, and Charlie who seemed to be a happy family until Napier tears them apart forever. Then we have the prison staff, Coleridge, Sewell, and Anne who seemed to have existed in uneasy equilibrium until Murphy gave Sewell the tool he needed to get rid of Coleridge. Finally, in a probably less significant example, Murphy, Anne, and DJ Ricks all meet up in the radio tower and at least for a moment seem to be coming to some understanding of what’s happening to them in Silent Hill, but then the “fourth person” (a group Screamers) show up to separate them once more.
The other sigils are a little clearer. Healing, enlightenment, and harmony are all part of the ideal endings. In the best ending, both Anne and Murphy heal from their guilt and despair, discover enlightenment both by learning the objective truth of what happened Anne’s father and the abstract truth about the futility of revenge. Of course, in the B Ending, Anne rejects that final truth and confronts Sewell (though it’s hard to feel anything other than satisfaction at his potential comeuppance, we don’t know what the consequences of Anne’s choice will be, just as Murphy didn’t anticipate the consequences of confronting Napier). Anne and Murphy establish harmony with one another via forgiveness and they both escape Silent Hill.
It’s also interesting that arranging the tokens properly at the end of the quest gets you a demon statue, which Murphy can use as a weapon. I suppose the obvious interpretation here is that the statue represents Murphy’s inner demons and he can either claim and acknowledge them or – quite literally – take them out on others.
But again, it’s vague. It’s certainly very, very vague.
THE TELL-TALE HEART
This quest is a bit more straightforward. Murphy discovers the body of a murdered man, who has quite literally had his heart ripped from his chest. To retrieve the still-beating heart, Murphy must brave an underground maze filled with monsters and receives a first aid kit as a reward. Once again, Murphy risks his own well-being to help lay another soul to rest, this time by literally giving the dead man his heart back. Completing the quest makes the body vanish, much like the thief in the apartments. Once again, Murphy shows concern for a stranger, helping them at great risk to himself.
This quest unlocks the picture of JP Sater, which is intriguing as one of the big Moral Choices involves whether or not you attempt talk Sater out of committing suicide. Though trying to stop him has about as much affect as replacing a dead man’s heart, the emotion behind both acts is very similar; it’s an act of compassion for compassion’s sake. Also, it seems that both the dead man and Sater committed some sort of crime before their death (though cheating at cards is obviously nowhere in the same league as drunkenly crashing a mining train full of children), a crime that caused them great suffering. And like with the thief in the apartments, Murphy shows them a compassion he can’t show himself.
ASHES TO ASHES, DUST TO DUST
This quest also focuses on a small act of unremarked upon kindness. In a house, Murphy finds an urn and a request that the ashes be laid to rest at a special place, something which clearly no one took the time to do. By scattering the ashes at this special place, Murphy receives the code to open a safe which contains a gun. This quest is pretty straightforward narratively. By taking the time to fulfill a last request that no one else would, Murphy once again shows his compassion for the mistreated and forgotten. As with just about everyone Murphy helps, the person inside the urn is already long dead, but by honoring their final wishes, Murphy reveals the gentler side of his character.
This quest unlocks the picture of Coleridge, who though dead, remains very much alive in the minds and hearts of both Anne and Murphy. Coleridge himself showed great compassion for those rejected and forgotten by the world and by completing sidequests like this one, Murphy is, in a small way, following in his footsteps. This also hints that the darker parts of Coleridge’s memory (the Wheelman and Anne’s Bogeyman) need to be laid to rest via the discovery and acknowledgement of what happened to him and who was truly responsible.
MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL
In this quest, Murphy follows in the footsteps of a young woman who lived in fear of the “people in the mirror.” It’s unclear whether these people were true monsters or simply products of delusions (if Murphy takes too long he will be attacked by an invisible Screamer, but again, this is Silent Hill, so who can really say what’s real and what’s not?), but that’s not the point. The point is that by following the woman’s ritual, Murphy show sympathy and respect for her state of mind. And doing so shatters the mirror, ending the nightmare for good.
So not only does this quest help another lost soul find peace but it also brings up the idea of truth, especially the kind not easily seen. It’s therefore unsurprising that this quest unlocks the picture of Sewell in the gallery. Because in the end, it’s Sewell, who hides behind the trappings of authority and respectability while abusing and taking advantage of those weaker than himself, who turns out to be the real monster.
Now, I almost didn’t bring up this sidequest because it only becomes available after finishing the game once and all it really does is earn the amusing but intentionally goofy Surprise Ending. However, since it also unlocks Carol’s picture in the gallery, I figured it deserved at least a little thought.
In this quest, Murphy digs up several Silent Hill artifacts marked by candles. And that’s pretty much it. I suppose the connection to Carol is that she is also a part of Murphy’s past that he’s tried to bury, but since he never actually uncovers her in-game, the connection is weak to say the least. I’ll be the first to say that Carol is one of the most poorly written parts of the game. For all the impact she has on Murphy’s story, Murphy might as well have been a single father. We don’t even find the letter from her until the final section of the game. Yes, the Screamers are apparently meant to represent her, but without deeper knowledge of what kind of person Carol was, this connection is pretty meaningless to the player. In the end, I guess it makes sense that the image of such a superfluous character would be unlocked by a superfluous sidequest, but it’s still a bit disappointing that she isn’t explored in more detail.
So yeah, that’s pretty much all I’ve got on this one. The ending is pretty funny, though. I recommend it.
SO I DON’T THINK HEAVEN’S GONNA HOLD IT AGAINST YOU
In conclusion, despite a few odd moments, these sidequests really add a lot to the themes and general atmosphere of Downpour. Overall, Murphy’s Silent Hill is unusually bright and welcoming. Yes, it’s crawling with monsters and yes, the passing thunderstorms can be dangerous, but in general, there’s an aura of melancholy gentleness not present in any other game in the series.
Now, some would argue this lighter and kinder atmosphere doesn’t fit with Silent Hill as a franchise, but I would argue it perfectly fits Murphy’s Silent Hill. As the games goes on, we discover that Murphy is neither a murderer in denial (well, usually) nor a hideously abused child who transforms their world into an unremittingly dark nightmare. No, as stated before, in most endings Murphy’s main crimes are those of inaction and his guilt comes as a result of not doing enough to protect those he cared for rather than harming them. It therefore makes perfect sense that Murphy’s Silent Hill gives him chances to risk his life in order to perform small services for the helpless and mistreated. These acts of kindness reinforce the game’s overarching narrative by suggesting an alternative to revenge. Murphy doesn’t get to give the lost souls justice. Instead, he acknowledges the wrongs that have been done to them and offers what comfort he can. As the nun in the monastery says, “revenge is a long and treacherous road” and these sidequests, though they demand a good deal of time and risk, offer another, kinder path for Murphy to follow.