Silent Hill: Ascension
A horror show
Silent Hill: Ascension is an interactive TV show set in the Silent Hill horror franchise, made using computer graphics (CG). Each day at 9pm ET, three 1-3 minute video clips stream live, during which players help characters in “endurance scenes” by tapping buttons and swiping the screen. After a livestream concludes, players vote on decisions, with results reflected in future clips.
Voting on “Decisions” like “What will Astrid do with evidence of Karl’s guilt?” costs Influence Points (IP). You begin with 2000 IP and can spend upwards of 100 IP on any of the three choices (in this case, “turn it over to the police”, “put it back”, “destroy it”). Oddly, it’s possible to vote on all three choices simultaneously.
Decisions are open for at least a day and sometimes several days so you don’t have to watch the livestream to participate (9pm ET is 2am in the UK). During the voting period, you can see the total amount of IP spent on each choice, which makes it perfectly clear how insignificant your own 200 IP contribution is compared to the 20 million IP spent by others.
You get extra IP by:
Participating in endurance scenes
Claiming Daily and Weekly Rewards for watching a video (200 IP), voting on a decision (200 IP), logging in (200+ IP) and, bizarrely, earning 400 IP (200 IP).
Playing minigames (100+ IP)
Directly, e.g. 6000 IP costs £4.99
Via the battle pass-like Founder’s Pack for £19.99. Buyers progressively unlock extra IP, stickers for the game’s chatroom, and clothes for their avatar as they earn experience points (XP) from puzzles, minigames, and daily rewards.
A chatroom is open at all times, not just during livestreams, though it was disabled a day after launch because they were unable to moderate it. Currently, only stickers can be posted there.
Player avatars are lightly customisable with two body types, a few faces and skin colours, and lots of clothes and haircuts. They have zero purpose unless you’re selected for a cameo in the story, at which point they appear as a minor character. Because players have predictably weird usernames like “BIGBADWOLF Jadeshishi”, this makes for distracting viewing:
I normally reserve judgement on games until I’ve played them for a decent chunk of time, so it’s unusual for me to write about Ascension only a week in, but I’m making an exception because:
It’s catastrophically bad and I can’t see any way for it to recover
I don’t want to be left out of the dunking
The best way for you to understand how bad Ascension is to experience it - but I won’t put you through that, so you can read my diary instead:
After registering on the website, a short, creepy montage video plays: monsters, people intoning bad things like “I didn’t kill my son”, and so on. It means nothing to me, though the CG looks decent as video game cutscenes go. Next, a too-fast 4 minute video explains how the game works. The same information is subsequently presented in a slideshow. Pick a lane, lads!
Since I’m playing several hours after the first livestream, all three video clips from the first day are already available. I can watch them in any order, and they’re all around 8 minutes each:
1 – The End of Joy: A man is making a creepy toy house. We cut to two women, Rachel and Joy, doing some kind of ritual to “cut the blight” out of Joy, involving a knife and bloody arms. The two actors unfortunately sound very similar. A monster appears outside a window. There is much shouting about oaths. Joy is killed by the monster.
Cut to Norway. Karl Johansen is with his daughter Astrid and his grandson Orson. Karl’s wife, Ingrid, is bed-bound and ranting. The camera keeps moving to bizarre angles, with perspectives from his wife’s foot. The music is strange and distracting.
Karl goes outside with a rifle to handle a wolf. An armless monster appears and chases him. He runs into a grimy dreamworld hospital full of monsters, then wakes up in his house to find Ingrid dead.
I am utterly baffled. None of this is holding my interest. There have been no interactive components at all. I wonder if it will get any better.
2 – A Blessing or a Curse: We’re back with Rachel in Pennsylvania. Two members of her cult, the Foundation, are investigating what happened. Rachel’s partner, Eric, worries that Joy’s husband, Toby, will be mad when he finds out she’s dead. This is the first of many moments in the story when characters fail to express normal human emotions about death. In Norway, Karl’s daughter, Astrid, arrives and asks where Ingrid is (um, upstairs, as ever?!), becoming upset when she discovers the body.
3 – The Syringe: Karl has called an ambulance. Astrid discovers a syringe with a painkiller in it. Toby gets a voicemail from Joy in a creepy bar bathroom. Eric appears and tells him his wife is dead. Rachel sees a monster dog – but it’s in a vision! Various cultists call it “the pestilent” and also talk about “the purifier”. None of this is explained, but apparently Rachel is special.
And that’s it! So far, Ascension is less a story than a series of moody visions and jump scares and dream sequences. If there was an “endurance scene” minigame in any of these clips, I didn’t see any evidence of it.
There are three Decisions available. The first is “What will Astrid do with evidence of Karl’s guilt?” The description notes that the syringe she found may not, in fact, be evidence of Karl’s guilt, but what’s a poorly-framed question between friends?
A total of 64 million IP has been spent across the three choices for this Decision in the space of a day. The default spend is 200 IP, meaning there could be up to 320,000 individual votes – but some users have spent 57,000 IP, so the true number of players is likely 100-200,000.
It’s probably exciting to vote in Decisions right at the start, when it’s not clear which choice will be in the lead, but it feels utterly pointless when your default vote contributes 0.0003% of the total votes so far and one option is tens of millions of IP ahead of the others. I briefly consider whether this is the worst audience decision-making system I have ever seen in my thirty years of playing games.
There are four puzzles and one minigame available in the “Arcane Library”, but all of them require a Season Pass (part of the Founder’s Pack) to play, except for the Lockbox.
This is the worst lockpicking game I have ever played. It doesn’t correspond to any mental model of locks I have ever encountered. After I fail, it asks if I want to spend 15 IP for a hex key to make it easier. I do so (it’s not a lot of IP, to be fair) and still fail. I curse, loudly. Maybe this is the true horror.
I end the day by collecting a reward for mistakenly spending 1500 IP on Decisions. It is a “legendary” grey jacket for my avatar.
I begin by collecting my two-day login streak (250 IP, 375 XP) and settle in to watch three new clips, each 2-3 minutes long.
1 – Karl’s Statement: Police arrive at Karl’s house
Karl: “I loved her, detective. I shouldn’t have to prove that to you.”
Detective: “I guess I’ll take your word for it… for now, anyway.”
A normal investigation!
2 – Shadows Creeping: Rachel has another vision of monsters, why not. She decides Eric and their daughter, Faith, should live at the Foundation.
3 – At the Bottom of the Bottle: Drunk Toby wanders the woods and sees a vision of dead Joy. She says Rachel killed her and tells him burn everything down.
Once again, there’s no way for me to see the result of the interactive endurance scenes. Thanks!?
Two new decisions are available:
“How will Toby respond to Joy’s Death?” 8.6 million IP have been spent on the choices so far, a fraction of the first day’s votes. At 200 IP each, this would equal 43,000 players at most.
“What will Rachel tell her frightened daughter?” 6.2 million IP has been spent, i.e 31,000 players.
The Arcane Library has unlocked a Codebreaker puzzle for everyone; it is an exact clone of the Mastermind board game, and just as uninteresting.
There’s also a “mindfulness” guitar minigame to help improve Rachel’s “hope”, designed by someone who obviously hates Guitar Hero. I have to tap groups of notes on a guitar’s fretboard for 1 point each. The result sounds like a mess because you can tap them in any order. The notes mostly appear and disappear so slowly there’s zero challenge, but at times they vanish so fast it’s impossible to get them all. Maybe you could do better on a touchscreen and memorised the patterns, but I would be extremely worried about such a person.
I ended up getting 2/3 stars, the same as the community average. This causes Rachel’s hope to go down – and mine.
My three-day login streak yields 300 IP and 450 XP. I queue up today’s three clips, all 2 minutes long.
1 – Mother’s Medicine: Astrid is in a dimly-lit lab examining the contents of the syringe; apparently this is her job, or something. It’s morphine, and Ingrid wasn’t prescribed it. The fact that Astrid still has the syringe is a result of an earlier Decision, but I don’t care and I don’t think anyone else does, either. She gets a call from a teacher saying Orson, her son, has bitten another kid. Astrid’s colleague says Orson should be disciplined.
2 – Where Do We Go: Karl is looking after Orson at home. Ebbe, Astrid’s daughter, is here; her mom kicked her out and she wants to stay with Karl. Ebbe says she used to get into fights too. Karl finally tells Orson his grandma is dead. Orson says he’ll play with Zane, “the man in the fog”. I’m meant to find this intriguing but given that practically every main character sees monsters, I’m left cold.
3 – Someone to Watch Over Me: Faith doesn’t want to go to the Foundation. Rachel tells her a story from the cult to calm her down. She tells Xavier, a Foundation member, that she saw “the purifier” again, and worries she’s in danger.
There’s only one new decision, on how Astrid reacts to her son biting another child. 2.5M IP has been spent in total from, at most, 12,500 players.
One new puzzle is unlocked, Hashi, where you connect coins according to the number on them. This is a pretty decent! After solving it, I’m awarded a paltry 1/3 stars, for reasons I cannot discern.
Two new mindfulness minigames are unlocked. The first is a sliding tile puzzle to improve Astrid’s hope. I hate sliding puzzles, as do all reasonable people, so I skip this. Astrid will have to go without hope today.
There’s also a guitar minigame for Toby. I turn off the sound and listen to a podcast as I play. I get 254 points – as good as is possible on a trackpad, in my humble opinion – but am still awarded a mere 2/3 stars. Nice knowing you, Toby!
I unlock another reward thanks to all my IP spending on votes. It’s an “Awesome” sticker for the chatroom.
Another day, another 350 IP and 525 XP for logging in. The videos are only 1-2 minutes long now.
1 – The Bite: Orson plays with toys. I can barely make anything out because the video is so dark. Astrid says biting people is bad and hurts yourself too. Orson mentions Zane. After Astrid mildly chides Orson, Karl says “I think that’s enough”. Thanks Karl!
2 – Astrid’s Accusation: Karl praises Astrid’s parenting. Astrid says the syringe was filled with morphine. Karl gets mad and red lights appear in the kitchen. Karl says Astrid doesn’t know how horrible Ingrid was. An imaginary monster appears; Karl throws a frying pan at it, narrowly missing Astrid. She’s mad and leaves with Orson.
3 – Promises to Keep: Faith plays an arcade game in the Foundation. Rachel sees a monster, but I can’t see anything because it’s too dark. She tells Eric she can’t say what happened with Joy because that would break her oath. I’m not sure what there is to tell?
Today’s decision is about how Karl will react to Astrid keeping Orson from him. 3.4 million IP has been spent, more than yesterday, though everyone has way more IP now – I have 15.8K, meaning I can spend several times as much on votes as I did at the beginning, and there’s nothing else to spend IP on in Ascension.
A Stones puzzle has been unlocked unlocked, a match-3 game apparently coded in the 90s. I complete it within the two minute time limit with 38s to spare. I get 2/3 stars.
There’s a guitar minigame for Karl. I refuse to perceive this offense to game design.
There’s also a Shapeshifter minigame for Rachel. It’s match-3ish – you draw lines through three or more symbols, but they don’t need to be in a straight line. It poses zero challenge. I get 2/3 stars.
I’m now at Level 3. If I buy the Founders Pack now, I’d unlock the following items:
White high curls for my avatar
A Colourful Glass frame from my avatar picture
This is the last day I’ll describe in detail, though I’ll keep checking in case something extraordinarily good or bad happens. My login bonus is now at 400 IP and 600 XP, and the videos are 1-3 minutes long.
1 – Choosing Sides: Astrid looks for something in Ingrid’s bedside drawer, or puts something there, I can’t tell because it’s too dark. She welcomes the detective in and shows her the morphine syringe, suggesting it could’ve been a lethal dose.
2 – Stay Buried: Karl looks at the carcass of an animal outside. The detective says Astrid might have given her the evidence she needs to put Karl away.
Detective: “Look, just save us the trouble and admit you killed her. Denial won’t hold up against evidence.”
Karl: “The evidence you don’t have.”
A very normal investigation!
3 – The Elders’ Judgement: Rachel meets the cult’s Elders. Joy’s dead body is there. Rachel insists she performed the ritual correctly but “something” killed Joy. The elders are mad Rachel is implying they don’t know everything. One elder, Barbara, says a ritual of clarity is required. Others think this is extreme, but Barbara says “the withering” must be stopped. She says the withering is happening because Rachel has had visions of monsters. Rachel needs to choose someone strong and trustworthy to do the ritual with. Conveniently, three names are mentioned.
There are two new Decisions available: “What will Karl tell the police about Ingrid’s death?” with 5.3 million IP in votes, and “Who will Rachel ask to perform the ritual?” with 3.8 million IP.
The despicable Lockbox is playable again, which I ignore, along with a Tiles minigame to help Astrid. I only play the Shapeshifter minigame for Toby, because it’s the least worst.
Unlike its puzzles and minigames, which are so bad I can’t find anything interesting to say about them, Silent Hill: Ascension is not the worst TV show I’ve seen in my life. With more time, the characters might become more interesting as we learn the backstory for how Rachel and Eric joined the cult or how the Johansen family have struggled with their history of violence. It’s amateurishly directed and is frequently too dark to see anything, but its CG imagery means it should ably handle more fantastical elements later on.
Most TV shows, however, don’t incentivise their audience to watch in six minute chunks every day. Yes, you can watch Ascension in longer weekly episodes, but the entire game is designed around livestream and daily viewing. The story isn’t especially slow-paced given how much has already happened in just 49 minutes across five days, but it feels slow when you watch it this way.
I find it hard to believe Ascension is that much better if watched live, either. The endurance scenes seem to be incredibly basic – just swiping the screen or hammering a button at specific moments – and, of course, the chatroom has been disabled. Voting in Decisions might be a bit more fun at the start, I suppose, when the outcome is less predictable, but it’s not the pull the designers think it is.
So much of Ascension is about the audience steering the story. That’s why it’s made in the Unreal engine, so scenes can be tweaked quickly and cheaply. The big mystery is why anyone thinks that collective decision-making is a good fit for a TV show in the first place. Interactive TV and full-motion video (FMV) games have a storied history that goes way beyond Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, but they’re almost all based around individual viewers or households making decisions. These more personal experiences don’t necessarily have great stories either, but at least the outcome of decisions plays out instantly and are entirely under your control, unlike Ascension’s mob rule and sluggish pacing.
Underpinning all of this is Ascension’s monetisation strategy, which is simultaneously offensive and ineffective. Games have to make money somehow, but selling unlimited votes makes a mockery of the “collective” in collective decision-making. Judging by what I’ve seen online, the only reason it won’t hurt the Silent Hill franchise as a whole is because fans are already inured to poor treatment. As it is, I would be amazed if even a fraction of the dwindling playerbase bought a Founders Pack.
The only way to understand this is that Ascension is built on Genvid’s Massively Interactive Live Events (MILE) platform. Genvid has raised at least $166 million since it was founded in 2016, with $113m coming in 2021 when everyone thought game revenues would keep growing at their COVID-boosted rates. MILEs supposedly combine the best of video games and TV shows, with this proposition:
Have you ever wanted to influence what happens to your favorite characters while you watch something? If you join a MILE, engage in the community, play games and activities…you can!
I would submit that people do want to do this, but only if by “community” you mean “me and my friends” rather than “a million strangers,” and even then, I don’t think Rachel and Karl and Astrid count as anyone’s favourite characters. The point being, no-one wants MILEs. No-one ever did.
So how did Genvid get the money? I imagine their pitch deck includes audience reaction videos from MCU movies and Game of Thrones, along with Twitch Plays Pokémon, and promises that MILEs will be engineered to be bigger and better, but this has things backwards. People didn’t like Game of Thrones because they saw it in a cheering crowd – the cheering crowds only came because the story was entertaining. Likewise, if you want to give people control over a story, or at least over how it unfolds, you need to scrub Black Mirror from your mind and play games that take that responsibility seriously, like those from Inkle or Sam Barlow.
I like it when people try new things, especially in video games. There are so many possible game ideas that have never been tried, with more coming every day as technology progresses. But the best new ideas are seldom truly unique, instead drawing upon hard-won lessons from past games and art.
What makes Silent Hill: Ascension so disappointing is that it has learned nothing from games and nothing from TV.
Thanks for reading Have You Played?! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.