Gaming Classic: Silent Hill
It’s 1999. Solid Snake, clad in a tux, is speeding off into a snowy sunrise with Meryl clasped to his waist. This is my sixth play-through of Metal Gear Solid and – as epic as Snake’s adventure is – even I’m getting a little tired of it.
But with the grand array of five games in my collection to choose from, my options are inevitably limited. It’s with an air of boredom, and only the slightest pinch of curiosity, that I flip open MGS and grab the demo disc nestled in the back of the case.
For me, Silent Hill is that game – THE game. It’s the game that demonstrated like no other the power of interactive narrative, and the terror of interactive horror.
Silent Hill 2 was the first game to make me scream out loud, shout at the screen and burst into tears. Infused with slick, subtle scares and hellish creatures and environments, it’s horror so good that two Hollywood movies have yet to successfully match the franchise’s innate pain, panic and pathos on screen.
Trouble is, this is a series that wears its accolades like a millstone around the neck. Fourteen years ago it was hailed as a masterpiece, and fourteen years later, Konami is still struggling to maintain – or maybe recapture? – that initial malevolent magic.
Whilst the series wasn’t the first to bring horror to home consoles, it was, undoubtedly, one of the most notorious, inspiring many subsequent titles, a comic series and arguably redefining the survival horror genre.
Controversial from the off, the series embraced the foreboding essence of Japanese horror and placed it in a typical American town. This was a horror game that wanted to affect you … and affect us it did.
“Psychological horror” is a term you’ll often see stapled against the Silent Hill brand, and while the words have been rehashed and recycled in reviews and previews over the years, like any cliché, there’s a thin beat of truth pulsing just beneath the platitude.
Silent Hill embodies a unique and terrifying alchemy. Unlike Resident Evil’s combat-heavy blueprint, here was a game that scared not with cheap shocks and overwhelming odds, but instead picked at your insecurities, your confidence, your emotions – your sanity – with a drip-drip-drip delivery of subtle uneasiness and muted distress until you belatedly realise you’re facing an unopened door … and you’re too terrified to open it.
And that’s what Silent Hill does so well. It makes you as afraid of the mundane as much as the creatures shuffling within the bloody confines of Alessa’s nightmare. There is a grotesque beauty along those streets.
Creatures that shudder and squirm, snapped and broken and brazenly out of place against a backdrop of tree-lined streets stacked with anonymous, all-American houses.
It’s the horror set against the ordinary that will trouble you most. As hideous as the town’s alternate/other world is – as rusted and foul and bloodied and psychotic it is – it’s nothing compared to the horror waiting for our Johnny Regular protagonists in ordinary apartment buildings. In the stairwells. The classrooms. In the horrific ruined hospitals, where patient notes litter the vinyl tiles and nurses wait to, ahem, treat you.
But Silent Hill has never simply been a visual experience. Whilst famed for its poignant music and signature themes (how many of us have deliberately idled on Silent Hill 2’s main screen just to watch the cinematic and enjoy the soaring title music?), the sound effects – metallic, industrial, pained – are every bit as crucial in building the game’s gnawing tension. The noises around you sound wrong … yet the expectant, watchful silence is somehow worse.
Silent Hill is synonymous with gore. Pain. Blood. But beneath this lies the beat of real artistic legacy.
Woven between the rusty pipes and steel grating is creature and environmental design so complex that even today, fans are still debating as they unpick the symbolism. Silent Hill 2’s Abstract Daddy? The room where you tackle Angela’s nightmare as a boss fight? It’s grim. Really, really grim. And it’s not even the worst thing you’ll stumble across in the Silent Hill universe.
But as the series developed, so did its ambitions. As Konami moved the franchise away from it’s Japanese roots and outsourced to external developers – Climax, Double Helix, Vatra and Way Forward respectively – the landscape of Silent Hill changed.
The franchise has woven a complex tapestry over the years, seemingly both revered and reviled in equal measures, and rarely able to get everything right in one single installment. Whilst still topping Best Video Game Ever lists the world over, the trouble with Silent Hill is that – like it’s unfortunate cast – it’s damned if it does and it’s damned if it doesn’t.
Take combat. Laughably poor in the original title – with little tangible improvement in the sequel – the original games boasted clunky gameplay with a gentle, simplistic combat experience.
In response to critique that the opening trilogy offered little challenge, Silent Hill: The Room – the series’ fourth offering – seemingly sought to address this by ramping up combat, albeit with unintuitive controls and mind-numbingly tedious backtracking.
Prequel Origins irritated players with degradable weapons and runaway-able foes, whereas Homecoming was panned for being overly ambitious with savvy-soldier combat and an unwieldy, ineffective dodge mechanic ostensibly at odds with the series’ typical Mr. Normal protagonist.
Then Shattered Memories came along, once more turning the series on its head, this time introducing no combat at all, instead forcing Harry to flee from his pursuers in set, nightmare-maze sequences spaced regularly throughout the game.
And the Arcade version? An on-rails shooter with swarming Robbie the Rabbits and yet another guest appearance from series stalwart, Pyramid Head?
Well. Maybe the less said about that the better.
Regrettably, the story, too, is not without it’s issues. Inaccuracies were inevitably picked up by eagle-eyed fans, and both Origins and Homecoming sport plot-holes big enough to drive Travis’ truck through.
To make matters worse, the series has been plagued with unresolved technical issues, with Homecoming, Downpour and the so-bad-it’s-laughable Silent Hill HD Collection exhibiting particularly dire – and occasionally game-breaking – bugs.
What Silent Hill has consistently delivered is crisp, mature and terrifying storytelling with a chiefly under-appreciated lack of complacency. It is a series that has been unafraid of experimentation.
Nine games in (not including the Arcade title) and the franchise demonstrates a willingness to embrace new tech and new platforms, with a Silent Hill for every major console and handheld (3/DS aside), including the iPhone, which offers the bespoke and surprisingly unsettling The Escape.
2009’s Shattered Memories – the Wii’s underrated “reimagining” of the original game – was phenomenal in its ambition and scope, propelling the game back to its puzzle-heavy, combat-adverse roots.
What should have been an epic addition to the franchise fell short owing to pacing problems (no monsters in the daylight? Really?) and the difficulty of rebooting much-loved franchise icons, but the psychologically-savvy title should not be underestimated. Shattered Memories’ unfettered determination to try something new and “play the player” was a bold step forward for the genre…and the series.
You may pick up Silent Hill for the horror, but you’ll stay for the story. The creature design. Those rotting, rusty backdrops and dizzying narrative twists.
Almost fifteen years on, we’re still learning. Like how Team Silent based the original game’s Midwich Elementary on Kindergarten Cop, or how Homecoming, somewhat distastefully, appears to have used real missing people to populate Shepherd Glen’s Missing Persons board. Oh, and did you know Mary’s letter to Laura is Silent Hill 2 actually displays the lyrics to Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory?
Whilst, admittedly, it might not have consistently delivered, Silent Hill lives on as one of gaming’s most effective – and affecting – horror franchises. Sales and acclaim might well be in decline, but don’t write it off just yet; newbie Downpour shows flashes of malevolent brilliance every bit as potent as those crafted by the celebrated Team Silent.
Can’t wait to see what steps out of the fog next.