It All Began With… Silent Hill

February 25, 2010

Think of legendary Japanese survival horror games and you’ll think of… well, Resident Evil, if you’re anything at all like me. But the Silent Hill franchise is a very strong contender to Shinji Mikami’s crown, and with the seventh game in the series, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, due for release in the UK tomorrow, infinitecontinues dusted off the original PlayStation title, turned the lights down, turned the music up and settled down to ascertain why Silent Hill was so worth re-imagining in the first place. (Warning: there may be spoilers in this article for those that have never played the original.)

“There are violent and disturbing images in this game.”

Booting Silent Hill up now, a decade after its release, you could be forgiven for thinking the mature content warning was a wry comment on the aesthetics of the game. PSOne titles have not aged well, and Silent Hill is no exception. Characters are low-poly affairs, enemy animations are laughable, environments drab and uninspired and the ever-present fog, which admittedly is not out of place in a survival horror game, hides brutal texture pop-in. But such is the luxury of time; with videogame and TV tech developing at such a blistering pace, it’s easy to look back on titles such as these with a snide comment or two. PSOne games have aged particularly badly as they heralded the first mainstream attempts at 3D modelling; sprite-based affairs on older 16-bit consoles aren’t nearly as jarring as this.

With the shock of the graphics subsiding, the next major barrier to entry is Silent Hill’s control system. Although survival horror titles seem to obey an unwritten rule to feature characters that control like rusty tanks, blame can also be apportioned to the slick dual-stick control systems of current titles as to why I struggled so desperately to even move Harry Mason in the direction I wanted to go. Pushing up on the analogue stick moves Harry forward, into the screen and the fog, much as you would expect. Flick it backwards to go in the opposite direction, as you would expect from 99% of third-person action games of recent years, and Harry will very, very slowly begin to walk backwards, whilst still facing in the same direction. When there’s a mis-shapen lump of flesh with wings swooping down behind you, this particular stance isn’t exactly conducive to eliminating said winged menace; and for the first hour of my playthrough, I was cursing under my breath at the sheer belligerence of the controls.

Any deeper analysis of Silent Hill, beyond its aesthetics and controls, requires a little context. Released three years after Kamiya’s Resident Evil, Silent Hill is obviously inspired by its contemporary, certainly in terms of gameplay if not thematically. Resident Evil is more traditional B-movie horror shlock, relying often on sudden shock tactics and the unrelenting zombie assault. Silent Hill delivers more subtle scares, instilling a sense of foreboding and insidious terror in the player throughout, achieved with oppressive environments, indescribable creatures and a chilling soundtrack. Even a cursory glance at the titles released in the same year as Silent Hill will give an indication of how different this offering was, thematically, when comparing it to 1999’s other notable releases including Mario Party (N64), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (PS), Everquest (PC), Donkey Kong 64 (N64) and Unreal Tournament (PC).

Ironically, it’s the inclusion of an item designed to help you that causes the most panic – the player picks up a pocket radio at the beginning of the game, and when it emits a shrill alarm, danger is close. With the fog obscuring pretty much everything, the sudden insistence of the alarm can be terrifying, as it’s almost impossible to ascertain which direction the creature is coming from. Coupled with the tricky controls which make aiming at mis-shapen monsters flying in to claw off your face nigh on impossible, the radio alarm is often an excuse to turn tail and leg it down the street and hope against hope that your assailant isn’t faster than you.

Despite these moments of terror, often encountered in the streets of Silent Hill, indoor environments usually spawn enemies sparingly, allowing the player to sink their teeth into the real meat of the game; exploration and puzzle-solving. It’s in these sections that Silent Hill draws the most obvious comparisons to Resident Evil. Essentially a glorified scavenger hunt, you have to guide Harry Mason around these buildings in search of keys to open up further doors. Elevators are often not working, requiring a generator to be powered up to function, and you’ll be amazed at just how many doors can be jammed in a single building. These dead ends turn Silent Hill into a very linear adventure, but Team Silent’s emphasis on set-pieces and creating a foreboding atmosphere mask this linearity well.

Why are you in this situation in the first place? Well, Harry and his daughter Cheryl are driving to Silent Hill on vacation when a figure appears in the road which causes Harry to lose control of the vehicle, resulting in a crash. When he comes to, his daughter is missing, and Harry then sets off into the fog in search of her. The opening of the game is one of its strongest points, essentially comprising of a nightmare sequence set to the chilling background noise of an air-raid siren, in which Harry is ‘killed’ by horrific creatures at the end of an alleyway. He wakes up from this nightmare in a police station, where he meets police officer Cybil Bennett, who can’t shed any light on his missing daughter but gives Harry a gun to protect himself in Silent Hill. It’s here where Harry also picks up the aforementioned pocket radio, and his adventure begins in earnest. The opening sequence is one of many sections which take place in the Otherworld, a seemingly alternate dimension in which Harry’s normal surroundings are replaced with brutal rusted metal and almost impenetrable darkness. This dual-world mechanic works really well; it not only paints a picture of the underlying evil that has nested in the town, but also hints at the declining state of Harry’s mental condition and stress at the continued disappearance of his daughter. It’s also a clever mechanic for introducing some of the secondary characters, the best example of which is the nurse, Lisa Garland, a character Harry only ever sees in the Otherworld and who eventually confides to him that she believes herself to be dead. She is also the focus of a particularly gruesome FMV sequence towards the end of the game in which her whole body begins to drip rivers of blood.

These are mature themes, then, and the game’s central narrative of demonic possession and devil worship is enhanced by a truly fantastic soundtrack. If Silent Hill’s aesthetics feel like the product of another (seemingly distant) age, then its music and sound effects feel as fresh today as they did ten years ago. The game constantly frightens throughout. The thudding clanks and high-pitched squeals of the Otherworld set nerves on edge, and the tortured groans and inexplicable noises from Silent Hill’s more twisted denizens make the blood freeze. Brash shock tactics are few and far between, in fact I can’t recall any being used here, but Silent Hill is a masterful exercise in applying layer upon layer of dread over time. The fog in the real world, and the darkness in the Otherworld, restrict the player to focusing on his very immediate surroundings and the soundtrack hints and teases as to what horror lies just beyond the edge of Harry’s torch light. The game’s short length (I completed it in around 5 hours) means that you won’t be subjected to such insidious terror for too long but it’s commendable how a decade-old release with very dated graphics can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck so consistently.

Clunky controls and a ten-year period of retrospection aside, it’s easy to see why Silent Hill spawned such a successful franchise. In an era when others were pursuing a burgeoning FPS scene or still riffing on the ground-breaking platforming precedents set by Super Mario 64 a few years earlier, Silent Hill dared to break new, unsettling ground. Resident Evil’s breezy B-movie horror aside, Silent Hill was the first truly successful attempt at tackling mature themes, the first suggestion that the videogame industry was ready to start coming of age. The fact that the vehicle it used to bear these themes looks so outdated when revisiting it now can and should be overlooked, and championed instead for its naked ambition for bringing something unique to the table. A landmark release then, and one that still spawns sequels and re-imagings to this day. You can turn the lights back on now.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is released tomorrow, 26th February, in the UK.


2 Responses to “It All Began With… Silent Hill”

  1. Tony Goff Says:

    I only ever played the second game, loved it though. Quite possibly the most…unnerving game that I’ve ever played.

    • I have that in the ‘collection’, along with Silent Hill 4: The Room. Still got the others to buy. Although I did, inexplicably, drop £17 on the Silent Hill soundtrack CD on eBay last week.

      I’ll get around to the others eventually. I hear Silent Hill 2 is regarded as the best in the series.

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