By Martin Zaltz Austwick
Companion episode: The Most Popular Podcast In The Universe, Tomorrow
Content note: train death
There’s a moment in 2003’s Silent Hill 3—spoilers for an 18 year old Playstation 2 Game—when you’re visiting a creepy abandoned subway station, and you find a newspaper article about the death of a man some four months before.
Fatal Accident At Hazel Street
At about 11 PM on the 4th, a man waiting on the platform at the Hazel Street station fell onto the tracks [and was struck by a train]. The victim died instantly.
I can’t recall the month or the year I played this game (2003 or 2004), but I can recall the day. It was the 4th. The same day of the fatal accident. How do they know? my friend and I wondered. Four months to the day. That’s soooo creepy. Imagine being in that dark and haunted subway station on the anniversary of that death. When his ghost returns to deal with unfinished business [minor spoilers for 2003’s Silent Hill 3], it feels completely inevitable.
We surmised that they game code must be using the Playstation 2 clock, so the first time you read the in-game newspaper article, it checks what day it is today, and dates the article to the same day of the month. So clever. And ever since that night, the 4th of Octember, c2003, it’s stuck in my head that, for certain kinds of storytelling, something happening right now puts you in the action, in the space of the story, in a very specific way.
This was the first episode of Neutrinowatch we created. I’m a recovering physicist, so my approach is to start with the simplest thing, even if that simple thing bears limited relation to reality. When I make something, I hate wasting it, so it goes into the world. For this podcast, I wanted to start with the simplest possible building blocks – the easiest technical challenges – and gradually refine and make more complex with subsequent episodes.
What are the simplest things you can do that vary day by day? Well, one of them is to change the date. To make the story happen today – kind of like Silent Hill 3 did.
Maybe because of the Silent Hill 3 thing, I tend to think the Something Happening Today device / twist works better if it’s something terrible. A podcast about the world ending is scary, but even scarier if you realise it’s happening right now. The comet is bearing down upon us. The meteor was in the house THE WHOLE TIME.
But. When I wrote this episode, we were deep in the middle of pandemic with incompetent, negligent leaders, and I was deep in a lockdown that meant I couldn’t even see my friends or family. A story about the end of the world did not feel like what I needed to write. But a story about the end of podcasting? Well. 2020 was truly the year of the bored celebrity giving it a try. Podcasting had its night of the comet coming.
John Welles – an egotistical, isolated physicist, desperately hoping for freedom and podasting success – was not a stretch for me. But by making the story slightly comical rather than purely tragic, it took the edge of some of those element that reflected real life too much. And by relying on the computer-generated voice to speak the date every day, we started to grow attached to Wendy, a character who’d inform a lot of the episodes in this batch, as well as our choice of voice actor for the Explainer episode.
To come full circle, here’s the thing I only realised this month, watching YouTube playthroughs of the subway scene in Silent Hill 3 to try to definitively discover whether the game developers did use the PS2 clock to tie it to today’s date: in every version I’ve watched and on the Silent Hill wiki – the newspaper says “11pm on the 4th”. In every version. Unless the wiki writers and the YouTubers all played the game on the same day of the month – the game developers didn’t use the clock. It was a fixed date – “the 4th”. It just happened that my friend and I played it on the 4th of the month and scared the hell out of ourselves. Which… is kind of even creepier, to be honest. But it does mean that this episode of Neutrinowatch was inspired not by a great environmental storytelling technique from an incredible game franchise, but… by time. By the calendar. By coincidence.
Oh, also – this episode is what we got the name of the podcast from. We really liked it, so once it was done, we thought “that’s a cool name for a podcast”. But it’s confusing for a podcast to have the same name as its “fake-podcast-within-a podcast”. Ah well. Too late now.