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In the 90’s, survival horror began to become an iconic genre that spilled into the gaming market
People all over the world wanted to sink their teeth into something a little more bone chilling than the average shooter, platformer, or role-playing game of the time.
Game consoles of the 90’s such as the PlayStation could support better graphics, and PC gaming had been receiving plenty of its own horror classics for a while. Consoles needed to catch up, and fast. Thankfully, two types of horror franchises lifted from the shadows to meet this demand. Both of these titles hit the ground running, but they were vastly different in nature.
When 1996 came around, Capcom released Resident Evil. The horror title showed gamers just what they could hope for when it came to survival horror. It coined the phrase, and that successful effort would change the social sphere of gaming as we knew it.
Konami was hot on the heels of this new bandwagon, and they jumped into these new possibilities for gaming feet first. They aimed to make a game that could become Resident Evil‘s direct competitor. They knew this would not be an easy thing to do, as Resident Evil had cornered the market fairly spectacularly in the horror genera in one single game.
They wanted to create a cinematic game-play experience first and foremost. With this in mind, “Team Silent” was formed with a ragtag production crew. These were people with big ideas and bigger personalities. They didn’t necessarily fit the creative mold that others in the industry did, and that is why they were chosen. There was only one small issue…
The members of “Team Silent” had no idea how to go about making their new game. Horror games were not the staple that they are today. Survival horror was a newly coined term, and it was unknown territory. The team felt the weight of their task weighing down heavily upon them. They had the skills, but they had no idea how to apply that knowledge to a horror title. These once bright-eyed game enthusiasts began to become discouraged under the pressure.
Like many developers do, they began forging their own path. In the end, they ended up choosing a much more subdued narrative for their story. Something far more contemplative and vague than Resident Evil could ever be. All of their efforts eventually paid off, providing a game that split horror fans down two distinct paths.
Each path worthy in their own right.
While zombie fans had Resident Evil to keep them awake at night, others were hungry for something darker and thematically deeper. These fans had a different game to call a masterpiece. This game was known as Silent Hill.
As a gamer, it’s hard not to have heard of these two powerful franchises. While many consider both games it under the branch genre known as survival horror, Silent Hill is far from it. No, this game is without a doubt a psychological horror series.
Released in the early part of 1999, Silent Hill offered players a different type of experience.
Unlike its zombie infested distant cousin, this game provided a look into unsound minds, and along with it, a compelling narrative that wasn’t so simple to unravel. There are still questions left unanswered when it comes the lore of the game, meaning that new players to the series can still find it enjoyable.
With several games, decades of terrifying fun, and a spin-off movie, Silent Hill is by far one of the most fondly remembered franchises that requires a reboot.
For a while, fans even thought we were going to get that reboot when “P.T. Silent Hills” came out in 2014. It was a terrifying playable demo that has it’s own complicated story to tell.
I only wish to give it a brief mention here, because if I didn’t it would be a huge disservice to my love of the franchise, and everyone who worked so hard to bring fans another taste of the franchise.
Sadly, for many reasons, the reboot just wasn’t meant to be. Still, the legacy of Silent Hill, and the franchise as a whole, is something that should be remembered. Both for some of the best gaming in history, and some of the greatest failures later titles provided within horror as a genre.
Surface Level Shenanigans
It’s hard not to know at least a few fragments of Silent Hill‘s story. It may as well be a campfire tale, spoken with flashlights in hand while eating marshmallows with friends. Even so, the concept is effective for sending chills down any spine. The problem is, most of the story is left up to interpretation, and that’s by design. Silent Hill’s creator Keiichiro Toyama, made sure that the plot is as consistent as it is vague.
This writing style is a great way to spin fan-theories, and conjure about what goes on in the game. Unfortunately, since so much is left up to interpretation, and there are multiple endings, not everyone views the events of the game in the same way.
There will always be debates surrounding Silent Hill, and that’s the way it was designed to be. Just keep that in mind as I gloss over the very basic story.
There lingers a fictional town somewhere along the foggy shores of Toluca Lake. Within this small and seemingly insignificant location, a quaint little community resides here. One that probably fell on hard times and left forgotten about. It’s not likely one to attract a boat load of tourists any time soon, but something about that little town is compelling anyway.
As if the town has a voice of it’s own, it sings an almost sirens call. Unfortunate souls are attracted to this gloomy place. They find themselves wandering through a pit of dark truths, and murky discoveries. That sad, destitute little town, is known as Silent Hill.
You play as Harry Mason, a single father who’s on his way to Silent Hill for a small vacation. While driving at night, Harry swerves his car out of the way to avoid hitting someone that seems to be standing in the middle of the road. After waking from the crash, he notices that his daughter, Cheryl has gone missing. With snow littering the ground and fog thick in the air, he sets out to find her.
While Harry attempts to find his daughter, he wanders into the town. There he meets a police officer who attempts to help him, and eventually finds himself entangled in the dealings of a cult that seek to manipulate Harry for their own goals. As the game continues, players realize that the town of Silent Hill may as well have a life of its own.
However, all of that is only on the surface… The game has a deeper story… A darker one… I shouldn’t have to say this, but beyond this point, there will be spoilers.
A Town’s Sinister Tale
The above summery alone makes for a compelling story, but it isn’t the complete story. It’s not anywhere close to it. Instead, it’s a fabrication, made to lure the player in. Remember, this is a psychological horror game, and the story itself is intentionally vague. Nothing is as it seems.
I am now going to gloss over the actual story of the game, and if you haven’t played it before, you may struggle to keep up. This is not a simple premise, and it was never intended to be.
Contrary to what you might think given the details above, the story isn’t one about a father looking for his lost little girl. Even though you play as Harry, it’s not his story that begins to unfold as the player progresses.
Instead, Silent Hill is all about a little girl named Alessa.
This little girl was born into the town’s religious cult. This messed up collection of demon enthusiasts preach a far different bible story than usual. Apparently, the god they speak about returned to the heavens before the world was done being created. This ultimately lead to a flawed, and imperfect design. This god then promised to return one day.
The cult aim to speed up their god’s return the best way they know how. The crazy old lady, Dahlia is the current leader of the cult. She has the idea to use her own child as a means to do it. Unfortunately for Alessa, Dahlia isn’t just the cult’s current leader, she’s also her mother too.
Alessa has psychic abilities, and Dahlia believes that they can use that to impregnate her with god. Let me say that again. Dahlia, crazy person that she is, thinks that she can get her psychic daughter pregnant so that she will give birth to their god.
Obviously, it should come as no surprise that this plan fails spectacularly. The stress of the ritual forces Alessa’s powers to activate, causing catastrophic damage to Alessa, and her powers. During this messed up series of events, Cheryl is created. Once she is, Dahlia can no longer complete the ritual.
To make this explanation as simple as possible, the cult needs Cheryl and Alessa to reunite if they have any hopes to complete the ritual so that their god can be born. Alessa refuses to let that happen, and does everything in her power to keep the cult’s plan from coming to fruition.
Why does this matter? Simple, because the mechanics act as a metaphor for this story.
Everything in this game has mechanical weight that means something to the greater plot. For example, the story I just detailed above is the explanation for the “Otherworld” which is a commonly visited mechanic in the game.
After playing the game enough times, you can figure out that the “Otherworld” is merely Alessa losing control of her powers and her mind every now and then. When she does, her mind allows the darkest parts of her torment to seep freely out into the world.
The monsters that players see are physical manifestations of this poor girl’s suffering. The puzzles are tied to her intrinsically. When you look at the game through that lens, everything begins to come together and make a lot more sense.
Most of the characters are mechanical in nature too. The side cast carry the weight of monologue heavy diatribes. The few actual characters you run into are unstable at best. Some characters openly lie willingly, and others will merely offer a version of the truth. As I said before, the town itself might as well have a life of it’s own, and it certainly seems that way as each person you meet continually muddies those narrative waters.
Harry himself is merely the vessel the player uses to understand this sordid tale. Cheryl acts as the simple narrative device that new players cling onto as the story unfolds.
Intuitive Design Done Right
It would be easy to assume that since this is a horror title, that it would have game design that felt similar to Resident Evil. That assumption would be incorrect. While they’re both horror titles, the way they display that horror is vastly different.
There are a lot of the same hallmarks to horror series sprinkled in the game. Limited ammo, puzzles, and exploration are all part of the greater whole, but in very different ways.
At the time of the game, clunky controls were the staple for the horror genre. To some degree it is a hardware limitation of the time. They make a reappearance here as well. Thankfully though, it’s not as clunky in this game as its survival horror counterparts. I wouldn’t call them “tank controls” exactly. However, that said, running can be a chore on occasion.
Harry moves decently fast once you get him running, but you can’t always outrun every single enemy in the game. Some of the hallways are too narrow for the usual Resident Evil style bait and dodge. This means being prepared to stand your ground tactically. With this in mind, let’s discuss how to survive.
Weaponry isn’t just limited to guns and knives. There are plenty of objects to pick up and use as well, encouraging trigger happy players to take a different approach when it comes down to selecting weapons. Each weapon has its own “recharge” time, so to speak. Some weapons are faster than others, so learning how to time an attack is crucial to a successful enemy encounter.
Ammo should be saved for the larger fights, while other other items can be used to take down a lone enemy or two. Like Silent Hill‘s survival horror cousin, the best choice is to conserve weaponry and just run away when you can. However, because you can’t outrun everything, the average player will need a good stock of weaponry for those unavoidable encounters and boss battles.
As shown above and here as well, some spaces are tight and claustrophobic.
The camera accommodates this aspect well, adding significant tension to any environment. When it comes to the camera itself, it tends to be smooth and easy to control. No forcefully fixed camera angles here.
This allows for easier navigation, and comfortable coordination while in combat. There’s just one downside, it is a very a slow camera. This means anticipating where you’d like the camera to be is a skill players will come to learn quickly. The camera will move on its own to a decent spot whenever you enter a new area, and sometimes it’s best not to adjust it at all.
The concept of exploration is vast, and feels closer to an open world, at least for its time. It’s not as sprawling as an open world game is nowadays, but Silent Hill is a vast town, with plenty to explore.
The player is able to access a decent amount of the town fairly early in the game, allowing the player to stock up on supplies early and often. This is a double edged sword though. Stocking up early can give the false impression to new players that you will likely never run out of supplies, but it is very possible, and very easy to do so.
The game itself has a rather linear and set narrative direction. No side quests here, sorry. The game won’t let you venture too far from the beaten path. Once you’ve entered a building, that similar horror feeling will come flooding back to any players of Resident Evil. The hallways are dark, the areas are often crawling with enemies. Puzzle solving and key finding are the name of the game.
In general, exploration and backtracking are a bit more linear and laid out. A few doors in some locations aren’t meant to be opened at all. Silent Hill asks the player to traverse many locations around the town, so this “on rails” approach is slightly required. That said, environments can still be confusing to a newcomer. There are street names to remember, and fog to navigate. Thankfully, as Harry walks around Silent Hill, he’ll scribble things down on the town map. New players should check it early and often for clues and hints.
The “Otherworld” as Harry calls it, will crop up from time to time, and the player will have to navigate that too. While it might be the same basic area you’ve been wandering around in already, this world is darker, grittier, and different. Previously opened paths will be cut off from access, and monsters can catch the player off-guard if they aren’t prepared for encounters. Previously safe spaces are no longer safe, and this added element makes backtracking fresh and enjoyable.
The puzzles are difficult, hands down. This is one such puzzle, and one of the most iconic ones. Truthfully, it’s a very common puzzle to get stuck on. Silent Hill offered some of hardest puzzles that a game of its day could provide. They’re vast and several are multifaceted, offering vague hints and very little else. They’re not impossible though.
This puzzle here, is proof of that. It’s all about understanding the words that you read, and applying them to a broken piano.
To make it simple to understand, you just need to know three things. White birds are white keys. Black birds are black keys. Some keys are broken and don’t make a sound if you press them. Pushing the keys in the right sequence is how you solve the puzzle.
Puzzles can be solved without looking them up. The game offers you everything you need in order to figure them out. As an added little bonus, the puzzles actually mean something to the core narrative, so they’re not just made to slow you down. They’re made to progress the story in subtle ways.
Unbinding From Hardware Limitations
Silent Hill was praised for its atmospheric dystopia and unsettling visuals. In truth though, the game was designed this way was because it had to be. Due to the limitations of PlayStation hardware, the fog was added to keep everything from rendering all at once. The same could be said for the particularly dark backdrops. Less rendering meant a smoother experience, and faster loading times.
However, this too, became part of the game’s lore. The particularly dark backgrounds in parts of the “Otherworld” were explained by Alessa’s psychic powers. The thick fog that settled over the town was explained as being a product of the nearby lake. The occasional falling snow ties the dreary world together, and helps to make everything much more believable.
On top of that, for its time, everything looks awesome. The careful quality control of visible details were crucial. The game is immersive thanks to each and every environment. Combat is mostly fluid, and each area is truly a spectacle of what horror can accomplish if it is done right.
Characters feel fully realized, although in cut-scenes there can be odd moments when they don’t look quite right. Enemies are fairly disturbed and the horrifying placement of certain details do enough to make a player unsettled as they play.
When it comes to sound, the music is masterful. To me, it is probably the absolute best thing about the game. It is, in a word, iconic. I hear its music and I’m taken right back to the emotions I had while playing the game. Now later titles in the franchise certainly blow this one out of the water, but they were more advanced games, and had a much more powerful consoles at their disposal. With that in mind, the soundtrack to Silent Hill is everything we could have hoped for from Akira Yamaoka.
The voice acting is good, not outstanding, but the actors do their job. Rather, let me put it this way. The voice acting stands up far better than most in horror games of the time.
The only time characters sound weird, is when they should sound that way. It isn’t because characters have a sudden case of inexplicable constipation. Some of the characters are completely insane, and others just aren’t normal to begin with. The acting lines up with that, and really, that’s enough.
I do not consider Silent Hill to be a survival horror game. That is my passion when it comes to horror games, and I stand by the fact that it is certainly psychological, not survival.
However, with that said, I have nothing but praise for the original Silent Hill. This game is by far one of the most unsettling games to ever launch on the PlayStation. Furthermore, you’d be hard-pressed to find such a deep and immersive story anywhere else for its time. The story holds up to this day, and the music does too, even if the graphics don’t.
There’s only one reason I have for why a person shouldn’t play this game. It strictly falls down to players who aren’t horror fans. If they’re not, the game wasn’t made or tailored to them, and of course they won’t like it. They shouldn’t go near this thing, if that’s the case. It’s nightmare fuel, plain and simple.
Frankly, I’d say that horror fans who simply want gratuitous gore and simple plot lines should avoid this game too. Particularly if you’re a fan of modern horror that holds your hand and keeps complicated questions of morality to a surface level.
There’s real psychological torment to be found in this game. Abusive situations and trauma linger deeply within the core of the story being told. Silent Hill has gore too, but that’s not the crux of the game. It’s window dressing into the far deeper narrative.
For the rest of us, as in those who occasionally like deeply disturbed horror, this game is worth playing. The experience is unlike any other, and I don’t say that lightly. I could say the same thing comfortably about the first three games in this series. They’re experiences that you just don’t find everyday.
If you like a good horror game, this game is for you. If you enjoy going back to experience classic horror titles in the genre, this game is for you. If you are an absolute diehard fan of horror in gaming, these have to be on your shelf, or someplace in your gaming library. These games are unequivocally made for you.
The original Silent Hill is a true psychological horror game. I love it for that alone. Just like it’s survival horror cousin, Silent Hill has a place on my shelf. It’s earned that place, and all of the acclaim it has received over the years. It fully deserves every ounce of praise it receives going forward too.
It’s 2021 now, and it’s time to put that into perspective. This February, Silent Hill turned 22 years old. Think about that. In America, the game is old enough to have a beer if it wanted. As gamers, we can’t let this game slip into the forgotten corners of our history. It’s too paramount to be forgotten, too important to be bypassed and ignored by younger generations. It’ll slip into obscurity without passionate fans behind it, and that would be a crying shame.
My final thought is; play this game. If you even remotely like horror games with a bone to chew on, experience Silent Hill for yourself. Take the time and do it. It’s worth it. It’s that simple.
This has been Kernook of The Demented Ferrets…
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