The series had a quiet end, but that doesn’t change how impactful Silent Hill was on its debut. Sam Brooks looks back at Silent Hill and its impact on video games today.
“The fear of blood tends to creat [sic as all hell] fear for the flesh.”
There are two iconic horror franchises in video games. One of these is regularly releasing titles that sell millions of copies, with a ridiculously successful spinoff film franchise, and as recently as a week ago had a highly anticipated, fully-fledged remake release. It will run until people stop playing video games and instead start hooking themselves up to HAL 9000 or whatever artificial intellectual horrors await us in the future.
The other one is Silent Hill.
I first ventured into the polygonal mists of Konami’s Silent Hill when I was eight, which is far too young to play Silent Hill, especially for someone whose skeleton nearly separates from his skin when a door is opened unexpectedly. My friend’s older brother had rented it out, and I was excited to play the game that everybody was hyped about, because even at the tender age of eight I was hooked up to the cultural zeitgeist.
Silent Hill 1 begins with a moody intro that resembles a music video. It’s essentially a mash-up of pre-rendered cutscenes from the game that slowly sets up the plot, but more importantly sets up the atmosphere. There’s pictures of creepy paintings, an introduction to the dramatis personae (a nurse, a cop, a dude in a suit, a pale girl who fades into thin air, a PS1 version of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest or Piper Laurie in Carrie). Eventually it leaves us at the start of the game: Harry Mason driving with his daughter on a deserted cliff road. A cop drives past him on a bike. A few moments later, Harry drives past the now-abandoned bike. When he turns back to look at the road, he sees a girl in church wear in front of him. He steers wildly to avoid her, drives off the cliff. When he wakes up, his daughter is gone.
The game starts.
Whereas Resident Evil plied its horror trade in zombies and other adjacent mutations, Silent Hill was more concerned with the horror of lingering dread and Lovecraftian monsters. And instead of pushing against the limits of the Playstation One, it used those limits to its favour. Rather than trying to render an entire city full of your protagonist’s inner terrors and insecurities, it simply filled up most of the screen with a polygon-heavy mist. You had no idea where you were going or what was going to jump out at you at any moment.
I remember that terror well, and as an eight year old had no idea that it was simply a result of immense technological limitations. All I knew was that if I took a wrong step, a mutated dog or nurse or whatever could jump out at me, and all Harry could do was beat them off with an iron pipe.
Silent Hill even used the clunky combat as a way to keep you off-guard. Early in the game, Harry acquires a gun while wandering through Silent Hill and reader, he is not good at using it. Granted, this is the Playstation One, so even the most fluid of games handled like a ride-on lawnmower that had run over a fence, but Harry’s clunkiness was even more pronounced. This was a dude who did not know how to use a gun, and so he was at constant risk of expiring.
Resident Evil was the series that made you jump out of your skin in the moment, but it wouldn’t hang around you when you slept. Silent Hill was the game that made you dread seeing another human being in the real world, lest they be a manifestation of your own inner desires. It was the game that dug into your brain well after you’d turned the console off, and unplugged it from the wall just in case the horrors clawed their way out of the disc while you were trying to sleep.
The later games in the series would go further into examining routine psychological trauma – guilt over a wife’s illness and passing, parental abandonment, childhood trauma – with varying levels of complexity. What it lacked in complexity, it made up for in viscerality. There was Silent Hill 2, where a manifestation of toxic masculinity, Pyramid Head, wandered around in a butcher’s apron with a huge phallic knife sexual assaulting monsters. There was Silent Hill 3, where Heather literally gives birth to God. And there was Silent Hill 4, where the protagonist kills the villain with his own umbilical cord. Subtlety was not the main aim of Silent Hill, and it was all the more effective for it.
The one moment I remember from the series comes from Silent Hill 3, a game I watched through my hands while another person played it and dealt with the jump scares. Heather wanders into the library, moody guitar music playing, and runs into a suitably creepy Buffy-esque librarian. The conversation is fairly rote, talks of resurrecting God and other metaphysical horrors. The creepy librarian shames Heather for killing all the monsters in the town of Silent Hill, a town which seems unusually afflicted with both psychological trauma and infestation, and she asks, fairly enough, “Are you talking about the monsters?”
His reply: “Monsters? They looked like monsters to you?”
Immediately afterwards he says, “Don’t worry, it’s just a joke.” But, seeing as this is the guy who was raving about not wanting the birth of God a mere few moments before, you don’t quite believe him. It’s this kind of spookiness that makes Silent Hill special – it’s not what the game does that scares you, the game shows you just enough to scare yourself with.
Unfortunately, the Silent Hill series had a quiet, ignominious fall from grace. Starting with the fourth entry, Silent Hill 4: The Room, the series was plagued by mixed reviews from both the press and gamers. The creeping dread and psychological externalisation of the first three games had been replaced with melodramatic plotting. It spawned a mildly well-received film, and a much less well-received sequel. It had a hastily and shoddily put-together re-release that, rather than re-igniting interest in the series, only made diehard fans angry. The once much beloved franchise had slowly become an also-ran.
Then, finally, its return to prominence was cut off by a company who, on the surface, appeared more interested in making pachinko machines than video games. Nearly five years ago, a playable teaser (too cutely called P.T) came out on the Playstation Store. If you were mentally secure enough to complete these teaser, as I was not, then you would find out that P.T. was a proof-of-concept demo for Silent Hills, the latest entry in the Silent Hill series: a collaboration between mad genius Hideo Kojima and fish-fucking enthusiast Guillermo Del Toro. The demo was downloaded over a million times, and it looked like not only the return of a series, but a genuinely exciting collaboration between two auteurs from two different mediums.
If you have any sense of dramatic structure, you know what’s coming next. Hideo Kojima had a well-publicised fallout with Konami over Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, then Guillermo Del Toro announced that he would be leaving the project, then the primary actor on the project also departed. Unceremoniously, Konami cancelled development and P.T was pulled from the Playstation Store, forever to be a relic of YouTube and ‘what could have been’ lists.
With no updates or news on the series in the past half decade, the book can be comfortably closed on Silent Hill. And while that book is closed, it’s also important to recognise the influence that it’s had on not only the horror genre, but on gaming on the whole. Half the beauty of the series was it used video games as a medium to mess with you psychologically, and the other half was how the games used their own limitations to achieve that. Developers have been working within limitations since the dawn of gaming – if nothing else, video game development is a struggle between technical limitation, temporal limitation, artistic intent and artistic ambition – but Silent Hill did it in a way that felt especially ostentatious and especially brilliant.
It makes you wonder how Silent Hill could survive in a world where the limits of development seem to be how much money and time you can throw at a game, and how many people you can quietly exploit to do it. The beauty of Silent Hill wasn’t what it showed you, but what it couldn’t show you; your mind did the rest. In a world where we’re shown and not told, Silent Hill whispered a few words in your ear and let you fill in the blanks with your own terror.
Rest well, Silent Hill. Cthulhu knows that 20 years on, I won’t.