Silent Hill 2 has six endings, but the only one I’ve seen is called ‘Dog’. In this ending, James Sunderland – the game’s protagonist, who’s come to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife and experiencing all manner of supernatural bullshit – uses a ‘Dog Key’ to open the door to the Observation Room in the Lakeview Hotel. Behind the door, James finds a Shiba Inu manning a control panel, barking into a headset. The Shiba’s having a real good time. James points at the dog, moans, “So it was all your work!” and collapses to the floor. The Shiba Inu barks a cute carnival tune as the credits roll.
I’ve never experienced the Dog ending first hand; I skipped the PlayStation generation and never got around to Silent Hill 2. But I watched the Dog ending probably a hundred times on Youtube when I was a useless teen. You can still watch the video that I probably watched, published in 2006, right here. The reason I mention it now is because it was the first thing I thought of when I finished Giraffe Town, the eccentric new game from indie developer Samer Khatib.
The Silent Hill series is a pretty big influence on Khatib’s games. One of his earlier games, Potato Thriller, opens with a lengthy riff on the endless, looping corridor that forms the backbone of PT, Kojima Productions’ notoriously spooky teaser for the ultimately-cancelled Silent Hills. Giraffe Town is even more obvious about it: you play a Giraffe with slippery feet who lives in a town called ‘Samer Hills’.
Giraffe is depressed. He’s depressed about his slippery feet, which make it next-to-impossible for him to control his movement, so he mostly stays inside and watches TV. But he’s inspired to leave the house when his idol, a pop star-giraffe named Love, says that she’s going to be meeting her fans on The Other Side Of Town. Giraffe resolves to walk to The Other Side Of Town and meet Love in person. “Why not?” he says. “Why can’t I go? What’s holding me back?”
The odyssey that follows is often horrific. Threatening figures call Giraffe at his house and tell him to stay home to prepare for “the portal of the beast”; giant billboards hang in the nothingness warning of a Giraffe Murderer; every Game Over is punctuated by a pretty cheap jump scare. Even Samer Hills gets hostile, growing foggier and foggier as Giraffe gets closer to The Other Side Of Town. It’s a design choice I recognise not from the Silent Hill games – again, we were a Sega Master System house – but from the extremely underrated 2006 Silent Hill movie. It was spooky then, too. But Giraffe Town drinks deep from the same well as Silent Hill 2’s Dog ending, though, complementing – and sometimes undercutting – that horror with absurdity.
Giraffe meets a series of quirky characters as he walks through Samer Hills: a clown named Tunnelz who has an ulterior motive, a small, weirdly human-shaped dog named Big Dog, a man who proudly proclaims he has “the only character in this game with different facial expressions.” With their uncanny designs and long, drawn-out pauses between each line of dialogue, Khatib sets you up to expect that this character is going to be the horrific one, the one that makes you jump or does something really really horrible.
Instead, these characters give Giraffe helpful information and useful tools. They give him pep talks, too, telling him to never give up and that he deserves to find Love and happiness. These scenes are incredibly sentimental, but earnestly so; they wouldn’t feel out of place in Toby Fox’s Undertale or Grace Bruxner’s small ‘museum games’ like Alien Caseno. They turn Giraffe Town into a charming, sincere story about a giraffe navigating his depression, finding ways to deal with his lack of self-worth and fear of the world around him.
Khatib translates the support that these characters provide into the sections of Giraffe Town that you have direct control over. In the first section, you have to edge Giraffe along thin sections of road dangling over nothingness, judging each push of the analogue stick so that Giraffe doesn’t slide over the edge and lose his chance to meet Love. In later sections, Giraffe’s verbs change with the tools and confidence-boosts he’s received – he can run, then he can jump, then, in a strange late-game twist, he can shoot.
That Newgrounds comparison stuck with me throughout Giraffe Town’s final hour. Giraffe Town loses its focus during that last stretch. Late-game puzzles, like a maze full of faceless, endlessly-respawning ghosts that took me an hour to beat, can be so capricious and exacting that they really test our interest in Khatib’s interest in exploring the value of perseverance and getting back up when you fail. I couldn’t even get past the final boss battle. I watched the game’s grand finale on Youtube.
That grand finale wraps everything up in an overly cute way, too. A couple of tidy, wink-wink callbacks dominate the action, and the whole thing has a Newgrounds-era edginess to it: animals with guns, swearing and fighting creatures with gross Jhonen Vasquez-esque designs. Both elements sit uneasily alongside the emotion-driven storytelling that came before.
Giraffe Town fizzes out at the end, but it’s still a surreal, oddball collage of genres and influences. It’s a fascinating work from a fascinating new developer, switching restlessly between Silent Hill atmospherics, internet-culture glibness and an off-kilter, unexpectedly honest character study. It’s the perfect game for Halloween 2018, small, spooky and destabilising you at every turn. It’s totally one of a kind.