Silent Hill

SH1Boxart

In 1996 Capcom released Resident Evil for the Playstation. Although not by any means the first 3D horror title focusing on exploration and puzzle solving – Alone In The Darkcame out four years earlier  – Resident Evil popularized the survival horror genre as we know it and spawned a wave of imitators. Most of them would make no more impact than a cashew nut on the medium and were quickly forgotten, but one post-Resident Evil horror title would go on to become a legendary franchise regarded by many as the very apex of horror in video games.

In 1999 Konami decided to take on Capcom with their own horror series. Although undoubtedly born in Resident Evil’s shadow and originally conceived as a “Hollywood style” game, presumably to cash in on Resident Evil’s B-movie aesthetic, the development team known as Team Silent created something altogether different, a horror game unlike any that had come before.

I remember the first time I heard of Silent Hill. It was featured in a Playstation magazine that was passed around the yard at my primary school. The other kids in my class joked about how much of an obvious rip-off of Resident Evil it was (which, needless to say, they had all played despite being way too young to purchase it). But there was something different about Silent Hill that was apparent even in the low-resolution magazine images. It was darker, scarier. There was a raw edge to it that Resident Evil and its many imitators lacked. Screenshots showed pitch-black hallways and rooms filled with blood, artwork of horrific pagan gods. I was instantly intrigued.

A while later a demo of the game was included with some other, highly popular release. I can’t remember which one it was, but one of my friends got it and I played it at their house. For about ten minutes, before I got to the game’s infamous alley scene and promptly tore the disc out of the console. Several years later I was ready for another go, this time managing to complete the game. I was instantly addicted. Silent Hill got its hooks into me deep, and my love for the series would persist to the current day.

silent-hill-dog

Story

Six years prior to the events of Silent Hill (which I will henceforth be referring to as SH1 to differentiate it from the franchise) Harry Mason and his wife found a baby by the side of the road and decided to adopt the child, naming her Cheryl. Cut to present day (or 1999) and Harry’s wife has passed away, leaving father and adopted daughter to eke out a quiet existence on their own. This changes when they set off, at Cheryl’s request, on a vacation to the sleepy lakeside resort of Silent Hill, which just happens to be near where Harry found her in the first place. On the outskirts of town Harry crashes while swerving to avoid a person in the middle of the road and is knocked unconscious; upon waking the town is empty, blanketed in fog and unseasonal snow and all of the roads out are gone, terminating abruptly into seemingly bottomless chasms. Oh, and Cheryl is nowhere to be found.

Chasing after a dark figure Harry discovers that on top of being mysteriously abandoned the town is also being stalked by hideous monsters who seem quite intent on tearing him apart. What follows is a nightmarish descent into the dark history of Silent Hill and a hellish alternate dimension, culminating in the discovery that…..

Hmm.

This is where summarizing SH1’s plot or even just talking about the games in any in-depth manner gets difficult. The Silent Hill franchise has a fairly involved universe and back-story and a lot of the core ideas and themes of the series stem directly from it. Which means that yes, you’re about to get a big ol’ nerdy infodump on the Lore and backstory of a big ol’ nerdy game series. I’ll make it quick, I promise.

There’s a lot of guff in Silent Hill’s fictional history involving mass murder and execution and Indian Burial Grounds (yes, really) that may or may not tie into the actual story of the games in any way, but for our purposes all we need to know is that by the time Harry rolled into town the area around Toluca lake (which Silent Hill is situated on) was inhabited by various eclectic religious orders which could to a casual observer pass for insular branches of Christianity but which are actually a blend of pre-Christian sun/harvest deity worship, a particularly nasty strain of fire-and-brimstone monotheism, a tiny smidgen of Aztec/Mayan iconography for some reason and good old fashioned occult elements, all wrapped up in enough human sacrifice and child abuse make a shady Satanic Panic-era lawyer’s toupee spin. The various documents you find lying around the Silent Hill games describe many different, often only loosely affiliated faiths worshiping different beings and Gods (such that a minor figure in one cult may have an entire different sect devoted to it, for example) but the main group of interest and the closest thing the series has to a primary antagonist is a Silent Hill-based group who worship a sun deity referred to as “God” but explicitly stated to be female. For the sake of convenience I’m going to refer to them as The Order. This isn’t technically correct for reasons that are too lame to go into here but it’s shorter than their actual name and has become widespread enough that several spin-off properties and even one of the later games uses it, so I’m sticking with it as well.

Otherworld

Fourteen years prior to the events of Silent Hill a high ranking member of the Order gave birth to a girl names Alessa, who possessed extremely strong psychic abilities because reasons (Silent Hill games appear to take place in a similar world to Stephen King novels, where people sometimes just have psychic and occult powers with no further explanation). By the age of seven she had already been ostracized as a “witch” by her classmates at school and this, combined with the fact that her mother was probably abusing the fuck out of her- implied to not be an uncommon fate for children of Order members- led to an understandable level of spite and internal rage in the young girl. Before she had the chance to go all Carrie on everyone her mother and the rest of the Order hit on the idea that the summoning of their God into the physical realm, an act which they believed would usher in Paradise for an extremely specific and probably apocalyptic interpretation of the word “paradise”, would go a whole lot smoother if Alessa could kind of sort of be the God’s physical vessel and give birth to it.

Thus a ritual was devised to more or less impregnate Alessa with God, a ritual whose main component involved burning her alive (as you may have gathered, this franchise is not particularly what you’d call progressive when it comes to women- more on this in future posts). Predictably the ritual back-fired horribly. The God wasn’t birthed and Alessa was left in a state of waking death, in horrible agony from burn wounds that should have killed her but unable to die due to the influence of the physical deity inside of her. So the Order stashed her in the basement of the local hospital with the help of an unscrupulous doctor and pretended she was dead, leaving her to languish for seven long years. Unknown to them Alessa’s rage and agony was busy manifesting itself in the real world as two separate parallel dimensions- an empty “fog world” inhabited by creatures created from Alessa’s mind and underneath that the Otherworld, a nightmarish hellscape spawned directly from the depths of her pain and anger, literally her waking nightmare made manifest. All this was of course due to Alessa’s previously mentioned psychic powers. Or maybe it was the God inside her. Or possibly it was Alessa tapping into another force altogether, one that had existed in the area long before she was even born. Or maybe none of that is real and the characters are just totally out of their gourds on psychotropic drugs.

If all of this talk of cults and psychic powers sounds like something Stephen King would crank out on a bad day, well, yes, it is a bit hokey at times but for reasons I’ll be getting into later a) the whole thing is presented in a much more intelligent and nuanced way then just stating it outright makes it sound (which is perhaps why SH1 infamously went out of its way to avoid directly telling the player what the fuck was going on) and b) all of this is buried under heaps of of ambiguity and conflicting interpretations such that it’s difficult to tell if this back story is really the driving force for the events of the games. But a lot of that came later so if we’re just talking about Silent Hill 1 then yes, this is what you need to know: cults, little girl gets sacrificed, crazy-town parallel dimensions are created that unwitting dupes like our boy Harry can occasionally stumble into and get trapped in. This origin story only directly informs the plot of three of the eight main Silent Hill titles but the concepts presented here run heavily throughout the entire series, which is why I took the time to explain all of this (there’s one other big metaphysical idea that’s vital to the franchise but it was introduced in the second game so I’ll save it for then).

13_11_36_26

Anyway, it turns out that Silent Hill isn’t quite as empty as Harry thought and he meets up with an assortment of oddballs also stuck in the town’s alternate dimension, some of whom know far more than they’re letting on. Eventually Harry gets suckered by Dahlia, Alessa’s mother, into helping her to restart the whole “giving birth to God” thing and we learn that Cheryl was actually part of Aless’a soul that split off into a seperate body when the ritual was botched seven years ago, and who reunited with Alessa when she entered Silent Hill. At the end of the game Harry manages to disrupt the summoning long enough for the Order’s God to be born in a half-strength bargain bin version, which is happily susceptible to shotgun blasts to the face. There are multiple possible endings to the game depending on various actions the player does or does not take throughout, but the two “good” endings are quite bittersweet in that Harry doesn’t actually manage to save Cheryl but escapes Silent Hill with a baby containing the re-incarnated soul of her and Alessa in one being, the implication (confirmed by a later game) being that Harry is going to raise the child in Cheryl’s place. Other endings include the characters all dying and the entire game revealed to be Harry hallucinating as he dies from concussion after the car crash, as well as a completely bonkers joke ending involving UFOs that would become a running gag in all future installments.

PuppetNurse1

Gameplay

For the gameplay mechanics of Silent Hill Konami didn’t stray too far from their source of inspiration, which is a polite way of saying that they basically ripped off Resident Evil wholesale. In both games the player navigate a series of locations solving puzzles to proceed, usually consisting of either numeric codes or “find object X and combine it with thingy Y” challenges. Cryptic clues and bits of poetry are involved. While the puzzles are nothing new for people who have played survival horror before, Silent Hill’s supernatural elements help contextualize them a lot better. In Resident Evil the puzzles are handwaved as deliberate traps intended to stop people from accessing the hidden bioweapon lab under the mansion the game takes place in (one would think a heavy metal door would do just as well), an explanation that didn’t work quite as well in later games when the action moved to the nearby town of Raccoon City and people started wondering why there was a chess statue puzzle in a police station.

Silent Hill, by contrast, is set in a supernatural mindscape dimension where more or less anything goes, so the presence of strange puzzles and riddles actually adds to the atmosphere of the setting. One section has you cracking open a walnut shell to find a pink rubber ball inside. Why was that there? Silent Hill, baby!

(In the second game you open a tin can to find that it’s full of light bulbs. No, this is never explained)

Enemies can be fought with an assortment of melee weapons and fire-arms and as in Resident Evil management of resources like ammo and health items are crucial to success. In order to emphasize the fact that Harry is an ordinary dude and not a soldier or police officer (which seemed much more novel at the time than it does now) it takes him quite a long time to whack enemies to death and his aim is terrible, meaning that it’s usually best to just avoid enemies if you can.

Helping to facilitate this is the broken radio the player finds at the start of the game that emits static whenever a monster is nearby, a fairly clever conceit that was probably put in to ensure players would keep the sound turned up at all times. Switching the radio and flashlight off theoretically allows you to sneak past enemies, although whether or not this actually works is fairly hit and miss.

The game settles into a repeating pattern whereby the player will explore the streets a bit, head into a location like a school or mall or what have you, solve a bunch of puzzles to progress, cross over into the Otherworld version of the same location, solve a bunch of different puzzles, then fight a boss. Rinse and repeat. The Otherworld concept allows Team Silent to essentially get a two for one deal on each location, as while they look drastically different the basic layout is the same.

All of these concepts formed the basic framework of the next four games in the series, which stuck religiously to the Playstation 1-era design choices through the life-cycle of the console’s successor, an approach that had both a positive ad negative impact on the franchise. It wouldn’t be until 2009 and the jump to current-gen hardware that the series got a shot in the arm and switched up its gameplay systems.

640px-15_14_33_33

The Horror

There’s a word that’s often bandied around by Silent Hill fans when praising the series- “subtlety”. This might seem like an odd description for a game that features rooms covered in blood and torsos hanging from ceilings, but it’s a fair point. In contrast to many games, even in the horror genre, where spectacle and action are the order of the day SH1 immediately established a fondness for silence and understated horror. A good example of this is the transitions into the Otherworld. Characters don’t fall through swirling hell portals to get there. Instead they go down a ladder and inexplicably find themselves back where they started, only now its raining and there’s a creepy symbol on the floor. Or an elevator mysteriously grows a fourth floor button even though you’re in a three-story building, or a door appears at the end of a corridor where there was previously only a blank wall. It’s quiet and subtle, but it reinforces the terrifying notion of the Otherworld as something waiting just below the surface, something that you can just stumble into accidentally. Which raises the obvious question- might there be a whole slew missing people in the Silent Hill area who found themselves doing precisely that? Various notes and offhand comments throughout the game imply that this is indeed the case.

The love of the inexplicable, of things happening for seemingly no reason, strongly permeates the early Silent Hill games. Team Silent seemed to thoroughly enjoy adding a whole lot of weird shit intended just to freak out or confuse the player- what I can Silent Hill’s WTF moments. The best WTF moments come in later games, but SH1 introduced one of the most enduring and mysterious: the siren. Whenever Harry goes to the Otherworld a loud, ear-splitting air raid siren can be heard. There are various fan theories to explain this (the most plausible being that the sound stems from rescue vehicles arriving to the scene of Alessa’s burning) but the games themselves never offer any concrete explanation. It’s just in there to be weird and scary. Note that the series creator went on to launch another horror franchise that also features a creepy siren, so maybe the dude just really likes sirens for some reason.

All Silent Hill games exist on a spectrum between two different types of horror, which I call occult and psychological. For each game I thought it would be interesting to take a look at which aspect was the most prominent in the story, as every game includes both types of horror but emphasizes each of them more or less strongly.

The franchise started pretty firmly on the occult side of things, establishing the background of the town and telling a story full of demons and ancient Gods (if that is in fact what they are). Magic of a sort is firmly established to be real and used several times by characters, although absolutely no mechanistic explanation is ever given for this. Certain people and objects have occult powers, but we never learn where this power comes from or how it’s acquired, whether anyone can do it if they learn the right spell or incantation or if you have to be born with it.

I mentioned in the story section that the back story of Silent Hill isn’t as dumb in context as it sounds, and that’s due to one of the franchise’s greatest strengths: ambiguity. Horror excels in the build up, but even many seasoned veterans have trouble when it comes time to actually play their hand and reveal the full nature of whatever demonic/ghostly/alien terror is menacing the characters (I’m thinking of a particular famous author from Maine here). Silent Hill essentially delays that reveal indefinitely by playing coy about the actual nature of the supernatural forces at work. The Order is definitely tapping into some sort of genuine force or power, but what that power is exactly is never explained. All of the creatures you encounter in any of the games, even those described as “Gods”, act like aggressive wild animals or at best as automatons mindlessly carrying out a simple function with no evidence that they have any particular over-arching motive or even that they possess sentience. This is not a Lovecraftian story of humans swept before a tide of cosmic entities whose machinations reduce us to the importance of ants, but rather of ordinary people stumbling through the rabbit hole into something- some power or place or thing- lying just beneath the surface of the everyday world.

On the other hand, there are clear psychological elements at play. The idea of a character being forced to confront manifestations of the mind is a common enough theme in psychological horror and thriller fiction, and the monsters and the Otherworld being presented as spawning from Alessa’s mind is an obvious variation on that particular theme and further muddles the nature of the demonic entities present in the game.

There’s one other important horror concept touched on in Silent Hill and which, like much else, would go on to be explored in greater depth in later games: subjectivity. At several points in the game people Harry meets in the town claim not to have any knowledge of the monsters wandering the streets even though they’re also trapped in the fog world with Harry. Essentially, two different people are capable of entering Silent Hill’s parallel worlds and experiencing very different things, which leads to some tantalizing questions about the nature of Silent Hill’s reality. Is there actually one concrete objectively true version of the town’s nightmare dimensions, or is it all being generated entirely by the interaction between the human mind and occult forces? This will be explored much more heavily in the next post, covering Silent Hill 2.

Let’s take a look at a few of the monster designs, which I’m going to show you in artwork form because the in-game graphics don’t exactly show them off in their best light.

Monsters

Most horror games at the time tended toward either sci-fi creatures like Resident Evil’s zombies and assorted mutants or riffs on fairly recognised supernatural creatures. Silent Hill bucked the trend somewhat by having an assortment of creatures that don’t draw directly on any established horror tropes and lack an obvious unifying theme, meaning that the player often had no idea what they were facing or what they were likely to encounter next.

The monsters of SH1 established several important series traditions: the presence of a a dog enemy and a nurse enemy capable of wielding weapons (in this game presented as ordinary humans taken over by parasites, a jarringly out of place Resident Evil-ish idea that would never be used again) and the idea that the monsters have a symbolic meaning attached to them. Specifically, various notes and diary entries scattered through the game clue the player in to the fact that they’re symbolic representations of people and things from Alessa’s past- the nurses come from her long and horrific confinement in the hospital, the wicked cool pterodactyl-like Air Screamer was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (Alessa’s favourite book) and the short clawed creatures that stalk the elementary school are representations of Alessa’s cruel classmates. The only exception to this trend is the last boss, whose design was directly inspired from drawings of Baphomet. Also one of the earlier bosses is a giant lizard whose head splits in half, because that’s just how Silent Hill rolls. Later games would continue the trend of symbolic enemies to a lesser or greater degree, although at times it’s not entirely clear if the developers themselves knew what they were getting at

SH’s monsters were pretty cool for the time but to be honest they’re a bit tame compared to the kinds of shit that got put into later games. They are very much still grounded in some sort of basic reality and could theoretically pass for grotesque animals or sci-fi creations grown in labs, whereas later games would feature bizarre, almost abstract flesh puppets that defy any sort of sensible explanation. Team Silent had also not yet developed their obsession with sexual horror themes, which means there’s a distinct lack of phallic and vagina-like images. And that’s just no fun.

10_16_17_25

Development

Some games are made by committee in the best sense of the word- a group of people who are all very good at what they do coming together to craft and polish an individual component of a game. Others are auteur driven, springing from the innovative mind of a lone genius. Silent Hill came about through a sort of compromise between these two methods: it was the product of several exceedingly talented people just happening to find themselves working the right project together who all decided to more or less throw Konami’s original plans out the window and take the game in a different direction, going for highbrow literature where they had been assigned to create B-movie trash (not that the franchise didn’t get monumentally idiotic and goofy at times). I’d like to kick this post off by listing some of the geniuses who gave birth to Silent Hill, all of whom would go on to have varying levels of influence on later titles in the franchise.

Keiichi Toyama – Series Creator

The man who started it all. Toyama worked on several famous Konami titles such as Track and Field and Snatcher before becoming the head designer of Konami’s new horror franchise. He was the scenario creator for the game, which effectively amounts to the head writer. Toyama is probably the person who takes the most credit for deviating from the initial plan to create a heavily Hollywood-influenced Resident Evil knock-off.

Despite being the original series creator Toyama was only actually directly involved in making the first game. He left Team Silent (which as we’ll see was always more of a nebulous concept than an actual group of developers) after production had wrapped to launch a new horror franchise, Siren, which went on to gather a cult following of its own but never quite achieved the legendary status that Silent Hill attained. Interestingly, while Silent Hill was heavily inspired by American horror films and novels Siren was an extremely Japanese game, drawing heavily from J-horror and Japanese literature and portraying lonely Japanese towns and islands with the same meticulous attention to detail as the small-town US setting that Silent Hill became known for.

Takoyashi Sato – 3D Artist

Although not the most influential artist in the series’ history- we’ll be meeting him in the next post- Sato was arguably responsible for a lot of the first game’s public exposure and exemplifies the unusual level of dedication and drive that the Silent Hill franchise seems to bring out in developers. Initially assigned to low-level grunt work (for which he was to be un-credited due to some sort of internal beef at Konami) Sato instead decided to finagle his way into a job as character designer through a combination of hard work and shenanigans, staying in the office overnight to use his colleagues computers as a render farm for a CG demo reel and threatening to withhold training for older staff members in modern 3D production software, being apparently the only person in the company who knew how to use it (this was at a time when many developers were still making the transition to polygonal 3D graphics).

Sato’s CG cut scenes for Silent Hill were mind-blowing for the time. I still remember seeing a photo in a magazine where the weave of a character’s jumper was visible, something that seemed like magic in 1999. These high quality cinematics were used extensively in show-casing the game and cranked up enormous interest world wide, which prompted Konami to put more money into the game’s promotion. He also designed the characters, deciding to give them a more realistic and down to Earth feel compared to many video game characters of the time, something that would become an enduring hallmark of the series.

Masahiro Ito

For the monster designs of their first game Team Silent made the rather unusual choice of reaching out to a traditional artist who had never worked on games before rather than a concept artist- specifically Masahiro Ito, who came to the team’s attention due to his dark and surreal aesthetic sense, which contributed a unique and instantly recognisable look to the franchise that grew stronger with every entry. Ito’s art and design work is a big part of what made the earlier games so terrifying, as later post-Team Silent entries would unfortunately go on to prove.

Ito only did the monsters on the first game, but he was promoted to overall art director for Silent Hill 2 and art director plus CGI editor and “drama camera”, whatever that means, for Silent Hill 3. This is where Ito’s involvement with the series ended, despite special thanks credits in the next two games. He still maintains an active link with the fanbase on twitter and there have been some vague rumblings about him being open to the idea of working on a hypothetical future Silent Hill game, although at this point nothing concrete has been announced.

Akira Yamaoka – Composer

It says a lot about the importance of sound in horror that the Silent Hill composer, more so even than the original series creator, is the one person most often associated with the franchise and easily the front runner for fandom “God” of Silent Hill. Partly that’s because Yamaoka had by far the longest tenure on the franchise out of the original Team Silent members, working on all but one of the eight main console releases. But mostly it’s just because Akira Yamaoka is fucking awesome at making music.

After the initial composer left the project Yamaoka approached the higher-ups at Konami and more or less declared that he was going to be assigned to Silent Hill, announcing that not only was he the best choice for composer but that he was the only person who could do the game justice. This claim becomes even bolder when you realize that at the time Yamaoka was an untested newbie who hadn’t actually done much of anything before. Against all reason (and demonstrating a long-running trend of iconic Silent Hill staples coming about more or less by accident) Yamaoka’s score fit the game like a glove. He opted for an extremely unusual industrial soundtrack that perfectly complemented the rusted metal theme of many of the game’s environment, which would like much else go on to become a franchise trademark, but also busted out some soulful melodic pieces for the more dramatic moments. I’ll be demonstrating some of Yamaoka’s best tracks later in this post, but needless to say Silent Hill’s score was utterly unique and became a major talking point when the game hit store shelves.

As I said earlier Yamaoka would go on to have the longest involvement in the franchise of any of the original development team, composing music for six out of the seven main console sequels and acting as producer on Silent Hill 3 and 4. His work on the series ended in () when he left Konami to go freelance, launching a successful post-Silent Hill career working on a diverse range of games and often collaborating with acclaimed maverick/lord of the moon Suda51.

2498172-53247-silent_hill_(j)-1

While developing SH1 the team made the unusual and somewhat ambitious decision to use a full 3D engine instead of pre-rendering the game’s backgrounds, as Resident Evil and many of its clones had done. For those who don’t know, pre-rendering basically means that something has been rendered on a much more powerful computer and then inserted into the game as a static image. It was used to get around the fact that the hardware of the time was actually pretty shit at polygonal rendering and could produce some very impressive results for the time.

Pre-rendering was a good way to produce detailed or atmospheric graphics in an age when the technology wasn’t really there to to do it in real-time (this obviously isn’t an issue thesedays)  but the drawback is that the game environment is completely static and the camera can’t pan or move at all, forcing the player to move between a succession of fixed camera angles. Team Silent said “to hell with that!” and decided to go for full 3D. They also decided to let the player roam around the fully open streets of Silent Hill. These design choices were, to put it mildly, a bit ahead of their time as the Playstation was nowhere near powerful enough to render a full town in real time. In particular it struggled with draw distance, or the amount of the game world that could be displayed at one time, whenever too many polygons were on screen at once which led to many game environments terminating abruptly into a featureless void whenever developers got a bit too carried away.

The traditional way of getting around this was to throw in a fog effect that would obscure the point at which the draw distance ends, spawning a generation of games whose back stories happened to include villains releasing clouds of mysterious gas into cities for no obvious reason. Team Silent decided to incorporate this into the game’s setting, portraying a town permanently shrouded in fog. This image immediately became iconic and like much else in the original Silent Hill would go on to be a recurring element of the series, even when console hardware had advanced to the point that the fog was no longer needed. As we’ll see when I talk about Team Silent’s inspirations below, the fog also pays homage to one of the sources the developers drew from when making the game.

Airscreamerattackingharry

Inspiration

Silent Hill was developed with the American market in mind, so it’s fitting the game draws from a variety of American horror properties (trivia: all of the streets in Silent Hill are named after famous horror authors).

First up is the film Jacob’s Ladder, which the series has both visually borrowed from and directly paid homage to so many times I almost feel like Konami should be giving the producers royalty checks. The movie’s actual plot doesn’t bear much similarity to Silent Hill- a Vietnam vet who was exposed to a mysterious drug starts having freaky hallucinations years after coming home involving demons hiding in plain site- but the film’s visual style was basically lifted wholesale in the production of Silent Hill. In particular a famous scene (which I sadly can’t find online) where the main character is wheeled through an increasingly disturbing and nightmarish hospital was used as the basis for the Otherworld design that’s been used in almost every entry in the franchise, and was also directly referenced in two separate Silent Hill games. The demons in the movie also have an unsettling habit of twitching their heads rapidly, a feature that’s shown up in more than one Silent Hill monster design.

Another major influence was Stephen King’s novella The Mist, about a small town enveloped by a mysterious fog bank that turns out to contain an assortment of monsters. Apart from the origin of the fog (it’s implied to be the result of a military experiment gone wrong) the set up is obviously remarkably similar. Other points of contact are a scene in which a winged flying creature bursts through a window to menace the characters- more or less directly inserted into Silent Hill during the first enemy encounter- and an old woman who suffers something of a mental breakdown and starts screaming quotes from the book of revelation, who seems to have served as the inspiration for Alessa’s mother. A broken radio in the novella also probably sparked the idea to give the player a radio that emits static whenever monsters are near as a sort of enemy radar, another idea that became a franchise staple. While we’re on the subject I have to mention the Stephen King novel Carrie, whose bullied psychic protagonist with an abusive mother bears more than a slight resemblance to Alessa. In terms of horror authors we’ve also got a (as far as I can tell) fairly little known Dean Koontz novel called Phantoms about a mysteriously empty town that’s been taken over by some otherworldly force; a scene from the movie involving a message written in blood on a mirror is paid homage to in the first game. It’s interesting to note that Team Silent frequently took inspiration from fairly obscure or little known properties rather than going for obvious horror titles that a general audience would be familiar with. This might explain why the game’s approach to horror felt so fresh at the time.

A more surprising source of inspiration came from various famous artists such as Francis Bacon and Hieronymus Bosch, whose weirder paintings served as inspiration for various monsters and locations.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

I can’t imagine why

Most of them are in later games so I’ll save specific examples for future posts.

While Silent Hill drew heavily from American horror it was still a Japanese developed title and also included nods to homegrown horror properties, particularly the work of Junji Ito.

This is just a small sampling of the wide net that Team Silent cast when making Silent Hill- as we’ll see in later posts the games often start to look like an amalgamation of many different previous works mashed together to create something that manages to still retain its own identity- but it demonstrates that the developers were looking at a much broader and dare I say more sophisticated base of inspiration then many games do even now.

Also Kindergarten Cop, for some reason.

2156-01

The Music

Yamaoka’s first crack at a Silent Hill soundtrack attracted a lot of attention when the game came out. It’s not hard to see why since most of it sounds like this:

That whining sound is a dental drill, by the way.

Yamaoka isn’t just limited to producing the aural equivalent of a violent car crash, though. Electric guitars show up frequently in rock-influenced tracks that don’t seem like they’d fit well with the tone of the games but end up synergising perfectly- see the intro video at the top of this post for an example.

To be honest the Silent Hill soundtrack is probably my least favourite of all of them. The industrial noisescapes dominate most of the tracks and are great in-game but don’t for great stand alone listening the way a lot of the later soundtracks do. There is one piece of music I want to call attention to, called Not Tomorrow:

It plays during a character death just as the game has reached its darkest and most messed up point and demonstrates a willingness to get emotional and even sweet that would go on to serve the series well.

Should you play it?

silent-hill-24-1306934413

My intention is that each of these posts will end with my personal review of the game in question and a recommendation of whether someone interested in the franchise should check it out and in what order compared to the series as a whole. For this first post I’m going to be combining the two categories.

It might seem obvious that if you’re getting into a video game franchise you should start at the beginning, right? Well…… maybe not.

Video games from a certain era- after console hardware became powerful enough to render decent 2D graphics but before the jump to polygonal 3D- are like wine in that they tend to age pretty well and can usually be enjoyed just as much today as when they were first released. Games made during the Playstation 1 era when developers were just getting used to the idea of 3D graphics? Not so much.

If you’ve been looking at the screenshots in this post you’ll likely have noticed that Silent Hill isn’t exactly a visual stunner these days. It looks even worse in motion, with textures that jiggle every time the camera moves and a game world that at times seems to be barely holding together. I’d love to say that graphics don’t matter but when it comes to horror they most certainly do, and Silent Hill’s primitive visuals simply make it very hard to feel anywhere near as scared by it as people were when it first came out. The atmospheric location shines through, certainly, and it’s possible to catch glimmers of the old magic, but for the most part a gamer used to modern graphics probably isn’t going to find this game very scary at all.

Which is a shame because if you strip away the horror what you’re left with is a plodding, frequently irritating adventure game hamstrung by technical limitations and once-common design choices that now look archaic. The controls are so clunky and imprecise that just steering Harry through locations feels like a chore and the camera appears to have been designed to deliberately infuriate the player by obscuring as much important information as possible, often showing Harry head-on upon loading a new room and leaving the player to run blindly forward until it decides to swing around and actually show you the location you’ve just arrived in. Fighting enemies is a matter of either wildly swinging a blunt object with no sense of weight or impact at them or shooting a gun in the general direction of their approximate location and hoping you hit something. Due to the aformentioned camera troubles you often end up firing at enemies you can’t actually see.

I happen to think Silent Hill has a pretty great story, but the infamously vague and obtuse method that Team Silent employed to tell it means that it’s not just possible but easy to play through the entire thing and come out the other side with no idea what was going on. I’m all for treating the player like an intelligent human being and employing subtlety and ambiguity, but there are limits. Silent Hill’s story is often needlessly obtuse and obfuscating to a degree that hampers rather than helps the player’s enjoyment of the game.

For all of these reasons I can’t recommend that anyone interested in getting into Silent Hill start with the first game. But does that mean you should skip it entirely? This is where it gets a bit tricky, as two of the later games basically require familiarity with SH1’s story to really understand and you’ll get much more out of another one if you’ve played SH1 first. What I recommend is that you play one of the more suitable “gateway” entries I’ll be talking about in a later post first; if you like what you see and want to play more then read a full synopsis of the first game or watch a Let’s Play to get the lowdown on the story. Only if you’ve gotten a few games under your belt and decide you absolutely need to experience the entire franchise would I recommend you actually sit down to play Silent Hill.

If you do decide to play it it’s not hard to find, as the game is available on the PSN store for cheap. However if you can get your hands on it the PC version might be the way to go, as there’s a high resolution graphics option that dramatically improves the clarity of the graphics (most of the screenshots I’ve been using in this post are from the PC version; the image at the beginning of this section is more representative of what the game looks like on consoles).

Legacy

Silent Hill may not be the best game to play today, but there’s no denying the impact it had at the time. Of the various horror franchises that spawned in the 90s Silent Hill is the only one besides Resident Evil to still be going today. It established recognizable visual, audio and storytelling styles that continue to be referenced, homaged, drawn from and ripped off to this day. “Silent Hill-like” has entered the gaming lexicon as a legitimate concept, which is pretty good for a game that was itself extremely derivative to begin with.

SH1 might have gotten the ball rolling, but it was really just the beginning. It would take the next game in the franchise, Silent Hill 2, to propel the series into the lofty position it enjoyed for the better part of a console generation.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Silent Hill

  1. Pingback: Spooktober 2016: Ring vs The Ring | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Shadowfax

    Your post is one of the easiest-to-read and most-thought-out posts I’ve seen on Silent Hill, ever. I’ve been doing some research, trying to make sense of the plot, and you gave that and so much more. Love your blog and writing style.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s