Welcome to Silent Hill
by Crono Maniac



The year is 1996, seventeen years after Ridley Scott's Alien, sixteen years after Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and sixty years after the publication of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and a number of Konami staff members are preparing to leave their company. All of their previous projects have failed, and they each feel that they are not being allowed to realize their own ideas. Among them are writer Keiichiro Toyama, programmer Hiroyuki Owaku, artist Takatoshi Sato, and composer Akira Yamaoka.

Konami executives want to make a game that will be successful in the United States, and they request that these disgruntled staff members make a game with a "Hollywood-type" atmosphere. They all get to work, and rapidly get frustrated. They don't know where to begin, and they still feel like outsiders in their own company.

1997. Resident Evil has just been released, very likely the result of Capcom executives making a similar demand that their programmers make a "Hollywood-type" game to appeal to American audiences, and both the public and critics are raving. "Team Silent" looks hard at the game to see what it can teach them, both as a tutorial on what to do and what not to do in the making of horror. They opt to borrow the tank controls, combat engine, and inventory puzzles (much of which were originally present in 1992's Alone in the Dark), but they drop the cheesy, convoluted storyline in exchange for something far more psychological, and the ugly pre-rendered backgrounds are replaced with full-3D environments.

Team Silent decides to ignore their superiors' original plan. Instead of looking to Dawn of the Dead or Black Hawk Down like their compatriots, they look to Jacob's Ladder and Eraserhead. Instead of impressing with explosive spectacle, they want to twist the player's emotions and disturb them on both a visceral and a psychological level. They decide the central theme of their game to be "fear of the unknown."

1998. Team Silent's game, now christened "Silent Hill," has just debuted publicly at the Electronics Entertainment Expo to an enthusiastic reception. Konami includes a demo of the game with the Japanese release of their flagship stealth title Metal Gear Solid.

January 31st, 1999. The North American release date for Silent Hill.



Silent Hill is an extremely important video game, mostly for how incredibly different it is from other horror games of its time. A segment from one of H.P. Lovecraft's numerous essays on horror perfectly details the difference between Silent Hill and its compatriots.
[Literature of cosmic fear] must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author's knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Silent Hill is a true weird tale surrounded by campy parodies and pulp tripe, and aside from it's sequels it's the closest thing gaming has to an H.P. Lovecraft story. Other horror games of the era had premises like "Zombies are attacking!" "Dinosaurs have escaped!" or the occasional "Our organelles are using their pyrokinetic powers to take over the world!", but Silent Hill was about a man looking for his daughter in a town covered in fog and filled with bizarre monsters for seemingly no reason. Silent Hill wants to make the player feel isolated in an inexplicably terrifying environment. It's such a simple concept; hell, Another World had it down pat in 1991, and Metroid was scaring the pants of kids all the way back in 1986. So why do so few horror developers understand it?



Characters

HARRY MASON

"I don't want to think about it, but maybe this is all just going on in my head..."

A single father from an unnamed city, the intro cutscene has Harry Mason taking his daughter on vacation to the resort town of Silent Hill. He crashes his car after seeing a strange girl in the middle of the road, and the game begins proper with him chasing his daughter through the fog. From there, he searches through the town for his daughter and gradually unveils a terrible conspiracy involving satanic cults, drug trading, abusive parents, and impractical door locks.

Horror games before Silent Hill like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, or Parasite Eve typically focused around a group of military commandos or police officers with training in a wide variety of different types of combat. By contrast, Harry Mason is an everyman, a writer with no combat training. Most of his weapons are improvised: a kitchen knife, a steel pipe, a construction hammer. What guns he acquires he is not proficient with, often missing his target altogether. There's a profound sense of vulnerability present in Harry that projects itself onto the player.

The downside is that Harry has very little in the way of personality. Most of his dialogue consists of him either making wild interjections about the bizarreness of his situation or questioning passersby on the whereabouts of his daughter. The developers wanted the players to be able to project themselves onto Harry's character, but making the lead as boring as possible isn't how you go about creating immersion.

Harry's most interesting moments are when he is questioning his own sanity. Like any real person, he doesn't understand how the events of Silent Hill could possibly be taking place, and he often wonders if it's all some strange hallucination. This subplot is actually pretty understated, but it adds a lot to his relationship with Cybil, and it has a great payoff in the game's "worst" ending.

On a fairly creepy note, the Silent Hill 3 strategy guide indicates that Harry was originally supposed to be named "Humbert" after the protagonist/villain of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Either Team Silent put very little thought into their literary references or Harry's character takes on an extremely sinister undertone.

How the movie screwed him up: According to Christopher Gans, director of the Silent Hill movie, the fact that Harry loves his daughter and is willing to travel through a haunted town to find her is a uniquely feminine quality, and as such the film replaces him with a female version of same character named Rose de Silva. In addition to being incredibly sexist, this decision should give you an idea of how much thought Gans put into making a faithful adaption of the game.


CHERYL MASON

"Daddy, help me! Daddy, where are you?"

Cheryl is Harry's adopted daughter who shows up at the beginning of the game and then acts as the McGuffin to drive the plot forward from there. The only real interesting thing about her is her relationship with Alessa. She was also originally going to be named Dolores after Humbert's adopted daughter, which is still really, really creepy.

How the movie screwed her up: See for yourself. Also her name is Sharon instead of Cheryl because Roger Avary doesn't know how to spell. The Silent Hill movie isn't very good.


CYBIL BENNET

"Now listen to me; before you pull the trigger, know who you're shooting. Don't go blasting me by mistake, got it?"

A very competent police officer from a neighboring town assigned to investigate Silent Hill. If this were any other horror game, Cybil probably would have been the main character. She has a motivation to be there, she has a weapon, and she's kind of like Jill Valentine, in an era when ripping off Resident Evil was the dominant horror format (oh hi there, Parasite Eve 2.) The fact that Team Silent opted to go with boring ol' Harry speaks a lot about what type of game they were trying to create.

As it stands Cybil is at her most intriguing when she's forcing Harry to question his own sanity and when she's trying to shoot him in the face. The second to last boss fight in the game is against a mind-controlled Cybil, and depending on the player's action, Cybil may or may not die shortly before the game's conclusion. If she does, it's one of the more emotional moments in the game, as up until that point she was the only character in the game besides Harry that could be considered normal.

How the movie screwed her up: Whereas the game had a heartwrenching, emotional death for Cybil, the movie has her burned at the stake by a bunch of crazy cultists for no reason. She's also a huge bitch and tries to arrest Rose for no reason.


DAHLIA GILLESPIE

"My daughter will be the mother of God!"

The head of an ancient cult in Silent Hill that worships fallen angels and keeps afloat by selling drugs to tourists, Dahlia Gillespie is the game's main villain, and keeps her daughter alive in constant agony for seven years so she can use her as the vessel to summon her evil God.

Dahlia and her cult represent the story's greatest flaw. She is a villain in a game that never needed a villain. Silent Hill the town is a terrifying, Lovecraftian setting, and attaching a human face to the town's evil only dilutes the horror of it all, to say nothing of her daughter....

How the movie screwed her up: Gans renames the character to Christabella and then changes her appearance to be much younger. Perplexing, he introduces another character named Dahlia who shares absolutely nothing in common with the game's version aside from being both Alessa's mother and really ugly.


ALESSA GILLESPIE

"But Mommy, I just want to be with you. Just two of us. Please understand."

Dahlia's daughter and the purveyor of strange powers from a young age, Alessa is turned into the vessel for the cult's demonic god. Like Cheryl, Alessa is mostly a nonentity made to move the plot forward. Her powers are what caused the Otherworld to invade Silent Hill, and her pain is what summons Harry and Cheryl to the town in the first place. The story of her torture at the hands of her mother is heartbreaking, and it's slow reveal over the course of the game almost makes all the problems the cult introduce worth it.

But only almost. The key flaw with Alessa is that she explains Silent Hill. Look again to H.P. Lovecraft: no one ever explains C'thulu. All of the Old Ones simply exist, no explanation necessary. Leaving something's history more ambiguous makes it far more threatening. It's why Alien is scarier than Jaws, it's why Ledger's Joker is more interesting than Nicholson's, and it's why Lavos and Jenova have no history attached to them aside from arriving from space a long time ago. Silent Hill and the Otherworld don't need to be "the psychic emanations of a child's nightmares" or any nonsense like that. Silent Hill should just be.

How the movie screwed her up: If I remember correctly (it's been a while since I've seen the movie,) she got turned into the pretty standard horror movie creepy kid. I don't remember her ominously singing nursery rhymes in a minor key, but I wouldn't be surprised if she did.


LISA GARLAND

"Stay by me Harry, please! I'm so scared. Help me. Save me from them..."

The nurse in charge of keeping Alessa alive in unspeakable agony for seven years, eventually turning to drugs to stay sane in the face of her horrific task. You only ever see her in the Otherworld, and always in the hospital where she works. She makes several remarks about feeling similar to the nurse zombies/monsters walking around. In her second to last scene, blood starts running down her face, her body starts to degenerate, and she screams desperately for Harry to stay with her. If you can figure out what all that means, congratulations for being smarter than I am -- I didn't get her character until after two playthroughs and a read-through of her wiki article. She's also the most interesting character in the game, assuming you can decode her fascinating past from Silent Hill's labyrinthine storytelling.

How the movie screwed her up: I had to check the Silent Hill wiki to remind myself if Lisa actually was in the movie, and she is, but only to function as Alessa's nurse. All that extra interesting stuff was probably deemed too good for the movie by the writers.



Silent Hill has a strong, if flawed story, but how it actually tells that story is just as important as its content. Silent Hill's director Keiichiro Toyama stated that he intentionally kept the story vague and occasionally contradictory so as to give the player pause to reflect on the parts left unexplained.

This vagueness is both Silent Hill's strength and weakness. Far too many games are overly verbose and spend too much time explaining things players already know. Metal Gear Solid, Metroid Other M, Final Fantasy from 8 onward, and pretty much any JRPG from the last decade are obvious examples, but this problem is present pretty much everywhere in modern gaming. Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Portal, are excellent counterexamples, but Mother 3 and Shadow of the Colossus show that cutscenes can be present and still balance well with gameplay.

The thing is, Silent Hill might actually be too vague. I played through the game twice and still didn't know half of what was going on until I read through an online plot synopsis. There's nothing wrong with a story that forces you to think to comprehend its deeper meanings (FLCL and Serial Experiments Lain aren't exactly famous for their explicitness after all), but Silent Hill doesn't have any deeper meanings. There's no central message about the human condition present in Silent Hill, it just doesn't tell you shit. And this isn't like Half-Life 2 or Final Fantasy VI and VII where the game has some obscure details hidden to reward the diligent explorer; important plot points are conveyed entirely though newspaper clippings in some far off room, or words scratched into a school desk. This is preferable to the alternative (the Silent Hill movie has Alessa lock Rose in a room for fifteen minutes and explain the entire story to her,) but the story still would have been drastically improved with some simple exposition.

And all of this isn't helped by the cutscene presentation. It's a good thing that Team Silent stayed away from Metal Gear Solid's bulbous verbage, but they certainly could have learned a thing or two from its cinematography. Cutscene camerawork in Silent Hill is static and uninteresting, and the writing is littered with redundant dialogue. As is standard for the time, the voice acting is pretty bad, but as it isn't anywhere near Resident Evil/Mega Man X4 standards of awfulness it can at least be taken seriously.

Silent Hill has an excellent story, even if the inane conspiracy means it's not quite as great as it could have been. A Silent Hill purely about the town's effect on a set of tightly realized characters, with a story easily understood on the surface but still laced with depth, would have made for a vastly better game.


Ahem.


But again, if the biggest problem with a video game story is that it makes you think too much, in an era where most video games are content to rip off the same handful of movies over and over and over and over and over and have an entire miniseries worth of cutscenes, then they're really isn't much to complain about.



Atmosphere

If Silent Hill was only a good story, than there wouldn't be any need for it to be interactive, and it would have been better suited as a book or a movie. Apparently several people out there with money and time thought so, resulting in a Visual Novel (on the Game Boy Advance of all things), and an overdone movie which completely missed the point of the entire series.

What Silent Hill does better than any other game series in existence, and better than the vast majority of horror films for that matter, what makes it a good game, is atmosphere. Other film and game companies think horror just means scary looking monsters, orchestra stings, and lots and lots of gore. Team Silent knows that these things are important, but it understands the vital nature of subtlety and pacing.

Let's look at one of the greatest horror films of all time, Ridley Scott's Alien. Ripley and the rest of the cast are alone in a hostile environment, vulnerable to an antagonist that is all the more horrific for its sheer inscrutability. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and suffocating. The tension is masterfully built up and released just as well due to H.R. Giger's chilling creature design. These are the key ingredients present in all lasting works of horror.

In the whole of the two-hour-long movie, there are exactly eight scares: the face-hugger leaping out of the egg, the chest-burster, the first kill, the second kill, the third kill, the fourth and fifth kills (same scene), when Ripley sees the alien from around the corner, and finally when the Alien reveals itself in the escape pod. Most of these sequences last less than ten seconds. The entire rest of the film is focused purely on building up the tension and atmosphere. THAT is how you make a scary movie.

How many monsters do you fight in one two hour segment of Parasite Eve, a game that ostensibly markets itself as horror? A hell of a lot more than eight. What about Dead Space? What these developers don't understand is that you don't build atmosphere with monsters, you build it with the moments leading up to monsters. "Atmosphere is the all-important thing," without which Alien turns into Aliens, Resident Evil turns into Resident Evil 4, Condemned turns into Condemned 2, and Team Silent Silent Hill turns into Double Helix Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is one of the few games that understands the importance of silence, but that isn't the only thing that makes it terrifying. Alien built up its tension using claustrophobic set design, a subtle soundtrack, and eerie cinematography. What does Silent Hill use to enhance the atmosphere?

Certainly the art design, which is absolutely central to the experience. Silent Hill is one of the most inspired setting in video games, from both a story and an artistic perspective. The ordinary world looks better than it ever has on the Playstation hardware, and the Otherworld aesthetic of rusty metal and decay is hauntingly brilliant. The monster design will stick with the player long after the game is over, usually when he's in bed trying to get to sleep. Head Artist Takayoshi Sato took a front role in the game's development, physically living in the office for its two-and-a-half years of development, and the amount of love and care he poured into making Silent Hill look as horrible as possible is evident in the finished product.

Also of note is the iconic fog. Everyone knows about how Steven Spielberg ended up cutting around the shark in Jaws because it looked so bad, and ended up with a classic because of it. Silent Hill's short drawing distance was a result of Team Silent wanting to push the Playstation graphics hardware to its limits, and in doing so they created something amazing.

And the music, good God, the music! Akira Yamaoka is one of the great composers of the medium, even if most of his work isn't exactly something you'd plug into an MP3 player. Yamaoka wanted to give his music a cold and rusty feel to match Silent Hill's visuals, and as such the soundtrack is very reminiscent of industrial metal, alternating between subtle and unnerving, and loud and terrifying. There's usually nothing in the way of melody, but when he tries he can make something so beautiful it might make you cry.

Time to be frank: Silent Hill is fucking terrifying. At the time of its release it was the scariest game on the market, and it's still more frightening than nearly any other horror game out today. And since being scared is fun (why else would horror be such a pervasive genre?), Silent Hill is one of the most entertaining games ever made.



Gameplay

"The fear of blood tends to create fear for the flesh."

Horror games, by their very nature, have always had to uphold an incredibly delicate balance in their gameplay design. If the gameplay is too obnoxious, we get games like Resident Evil, Siren, and Clock Tower which, while somewhat frightening, are so annoying to play that few players will put up with the mechanics to get the horror. But the gameplay can't be too good either. This may seem counterintuitive, but it isn't really -- games like Eternal Darkness, Parasite Eve, and Resident Evil 4 are exquisite feats of game design in nearly every respect, the only problem being that they aren't scary in the slightest. Good gameplay is about making the player feel totally in control. Good horror is about making the player feel helpless and vulnerable.

Here's the thing: there has never been a good, genuinely scary horror game that would still be fun if you took the horror out of it. Silent Hill is no exception. With all the atmosphere and story stripped away, Silent Hill is nothing more than a somewhat competent adventure game with an extremely clunky combat engine.

But at least it would be somewhat competent, which puts it leaps and bounds above other survival horror games on the Playstation. Silent Hill's gameplay might not be great, but it's definitely more fun than corrective dental surgery, which is more than can be said for Resident Evil.

Gameplay in Silent Hill is wisely focused on exploration and puzzle-solving, two mechanics that do little to intrude on the atmosphere or (vitally) the player's sense of vulnerability. And these two mechanics are actually executed pretty damn well; filling up a map in Silent Hill is just as much fun as in your average Metroidvania, and some of the puzzles give a very Myst-like rush upon finding their solution, arcane though they may be. The series unfortunately got increasingly linear from Silent Hill 3 onwards, and none of the other games have puzzles nearly as intricate as the ones here, so in many ways Silent Hill 1 has best gameplay in the franchise.

But regrettably, Silent Hill has combat. Herein lies the limits of Team Silent's genius: they could not figure out a way to make engaging level design and threatening enemies without having some sort of a combat engine. And, since it's a horror game that is actually scary, the combat isn't fun. At all. It's sticky, annoying, and it's difficult to have any sort of encounter without taking damage. The "true" final boss fight consists of little more than mashing the fire button and chugging Health Potions after every hit. There's no two ways about it -- Silent Hill's combat sucks.

Even so, it's not entirely without merit. One thing Silent Hill's combat has over other games is how visceral it is. Slicing an enemy apart limb by limb in Eternal Darkness is fun in its own right, but it feels like sliding a knife though butter. Beating a nurse to death with a metal pole in Silent Hill feels far more real than any other "good" combat engine I can think of. The swinging sound as the pole cuts through the air, the sickening crunch when the hit lands, the enemy scream, the subtle vibration in the controller, it all comes together in such a way that the player feels like Harry Mason, clumsily fighting for his life against creatures he has no hope of understanding. As bad as it is, Silent Hill's combat couldn't have been much better without intruding on the atmosphere, which in the end, is far more important to the gameplay experience.

That being said, Silent Hill has one more problem, and it's a fairly substantial one: its consistency. Silent Hill starts out with a bang -- after the unnerving intro and a short exploratory segment to familiarize the player with the mechanics comes the school and hospitals levels, both of which are some of the best dungeons in the series. The atmosphere is palpable, the scares are meticulously constructed, and they introduce Silent Hill's trademark dual world mechanic, done here better than in any of the Zeldas that invented the concept in the first place. From there the tension just gets built up higher and higher before reaching either an exceptionally well-done boss fight (in the school), or a cutscene that introduces the game's most compelling character (in the hospital.) The first two or three hours of Silent Hill are some of the most fun you'll have with your Playstation, bar none.

But after that, the game begins to sink. Following the hospital is a brief, limp mall level, a waaaaaay-too-long sewer level, a short trot along some boat docks, another sewer level, and then a carnival with no puzzles and one ride. These segments take up about half the game, and they aren't nearly as fun as what precedes them or what follows. They're all still entertaining, but another level structured more like the school or the hospital wouldn't have been remiss in livening things up.

After that though, the game picks right back up again for the awe-inspiring last dungeon. "Nowhere" is just as labyrinthine as the school and hospital levels, has the hardest puzzles in the series, utilizes non-Euclidean level design, and has no map (!). It's challenging, lengthy, utilizes all of the game's key mechanics to their maximum potential, and it's where all of the game's storylines come to a head. In short, it's absolutely everything a final level should be. If the game had kept up the high quality of level design present in Nowhere and the first two dungeons, Silent Hill could have been the true masterpiece it's aching to be.


Aside from improving the level design, how could Silent Hill be made better? Ditching combat certainly seems like the best route, but could the game still work without a way to directly confront the enemies? I haven't played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but I'm certainly looking forward to seeing how it handles the same subject matter without the twin ball-in-chains of the cult and the combat to drag it down.

But the best example of how to improve Silent Hill is in the first third of the acclaimed indie-platformer Limbo. Before it drops all the atmosphere and devolves into a decent physics-puzzler with a neat aesthetic, Limbo is quite possibly the greatest horror game ever made. There's no combat, just monstrous creatures, neat puzzles, and an oppressive atmosphere. And yet the generously-placed checkpoints and the tight but realistic controls ensure that the experience never gets frustrating. This is the essence of the perfect horror game. Team Silent's main flaw is that they weren't ambitious enough to reach this level, but it's hard to blame them when no other studio on the planet has even come close. And besides, Silent Hill as it is probably would have been far better than whatever experiment they might of come up with.

Basically, Silent Hill, when it tries, is the best possible game it could have been without figuring out some way to remove combat all together. It's sad that it's only on its A-game half the time, but it's hard to complain when its B-game is still better than any other horror game on the Playstation. No one argues that Silent Hill doesn't have a good story and peerless atmosphere, but it's gameplay deserves far more credit than it gets. For all its kinks, it's still of the greatest horror games of all time.




Conclusion

Silent Hill should have been revolutionary. It exchanged the survival-horror genre's devotion to campy B-movie shlock for a startlingly psychological story that compliments the atmosphere instead of clashing with it. It took out the jump scares and senseless gore and replaced them with subconscious terror and beautifully grotesque imagery more reminiscent of Francis Bacon or H.R. Giger than George Romero. And it turned the genre's gameplay on its head with its consistently engaging exploration and a combat system which, while far from fun, doesn't make the player want to down a bottle of cyanide pills.

Silent Hill should have changed everything. But it didn't. Praise God for the occasional game like Fatal Frame or Amnesia that actually understands what makes Silent Hill tick, but for the most part gaming has followed in the trails of Resident Evil, either making barely playable monsterpieces that still don't understand basic pacing or decently fun games like Dead Space that are so laughably un-scary that their marketing teams should be sued for false advertising.

But enough whining. Perhaps games like Silent Hill are miraculous in and of themselves, not to be mourned for their scarcity but celebrated for the fact that they exist at all. For every complaint about its flawed story, schizophrenic quality, or sticky combat, Silent Hill does about a hundred other things really, really right. If it isn't the best horror game ever made, it's only because it has to compete with other Silent Hill games.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown." Team Silent comprehended the feeling children have when they gaze into the darkened corner of their bedroom, the apprehension adults endure when they contemplate their own inescapable mortality. What they saw, deconstructed, analyzed, and then put back together into the best possible game they could make, is the fear of what we don't understand.

Welcome to Silent Hill. Enjoy your stay.




Note: All images taken from From Earth's excellent Silent Hill Let's Play on LPArchive.org.







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