Step aside, Tom Cruise. This is the real deal.
The horror genre has always been full of head-to-head showdowns, usually dictated by personal preference rather than any measure of quality. Do you prefer Dracula or Frankenstein? Freddy or Jason? Alien or Predator? How about Resident Evil or Silent Hill? While this January saw the release of Resident Evil 7, let’s not forget that on January 31st, 1999, the landscape of horror games was changed forever with the release of Silent Hill. Now, these two titans of terror aren’t exactly equal, as Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was released the same year as Silent Hill’s debut (not to mention the former franchise has about twice as many games). However, it’s hard to name any other horror series that are anywhere near as iconic- or as contrasting.
Whereas Resident Evil took cues from the more straightforward, B-movie media often associated with the zombie genre, Silent Hill was a new beast entirely. Tasked by Konami to create a game which would be “successful in the United States,” Team Silent synthesized a nightmare that was more Hellraiser than The Evil Dead, more David Lynch than George Romero. Resident Evil coined the term “survival horror,” but Silent Hill proved that a deeper, psychological approach could sell units outside of the occasional point-and-click game. The disquieting industrial atmosphere and uncanny aesthetics provided by Silent Hill would prove unique enough to become a style of their own; a shorthand template for any future games which wanted to evoke a disturbing atmosphere without all the legwork.
All this considered, a question remains: does the franchise’s original installment still hold water? Silent Hill 2 and 3 are considered to be two of the best horror games of all time, and most aficionados regard the post-PS2 entries to the Silent Hill canon as mediocre slop. Where does their originator fall on this spectrum? Is the first Silent Hill a masterpiece equal to the second and third installments, or a gruesome bump in the night overshadowed by its younger siblings? Perhaps the game seems underwhelming in comparison; a stumbling entry which provided the key for future success but can’t tread water eighteen years later? To be blunt, the answer is somewhere in between. Silent Hill is still a truly terrifying title which changed the face of horror games, but as an individual installment, the experience is somewhat hobbled by its age.
With a game like Silent Hill, it’s best to begin at the beginning, especially considering the iconic opening titles. The intro cinematic plays like a half-remembered dream, with characters unrecognized silently acting out events of past and future beneath Akira Yamaoka’s unforgettable theme music. As we careen across time to witness pieces of a puzzle- a man with his wife and a baby, a nurse rebuking a man in a suit, a house in the middle of nowhere- protagonist Harry Mason careens down the road with his daughter Cheryl in the passenger seat. Eventually, the images reach their climax, and so does Harry’s journey as he swerves to avoid a mysterious figure in the road. The car screeches, the haunting music subsides, and we find ourselves at the title screen. Before the game has even begun, Silent Hill has already instilled a sense of mystery: who are these people? What does this mean? The opening lays some of the threads of intrigue which carry players through the game, and establishes a firm tone for the experience. It doesn’t betray the horror waiting within, but instead indicates the dreamy feeling sustained through most of the game.
Pressing “START” on the main menu drops you where the intro cinematic leaves off. Harry wakes up in his crashed car to find Cheryl gone. Collecting himself, he resolves to find his daughter. With no direction and armed only with fatherly concern, Harry steps away from the wreckage of his Jeep and into the foggy town of Silent Hill. As expected, Cheryl’s disappearance and Harry’s search become the central crux of Silent Hill’s narrative, so it’s a shame that the first act which sets this up is almost undoubtedly the game’s weakest portion. Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock of fleeing from sudden monster attacks, you realize you’re just doing a lot of directionless wandering through the fog. The atmosphere is a little eerie, sure, but the experience is tedious, and not at all indicative of the scare level you would expect today from a game as well-regarded as Silent Hill. Thankfully, one major moment helps soften the blow of this lackluster opening.
This iconic sequence from the game’s dreary first act is a brilliant representation of all the elements which make the first Silent Hill worth experiencing. If you’ve played the game, you’ll almost certainly know what I’m talking about, and if not, then I’ll post it below for your viewing pleasure. Not long after beginning his search, Harry wanders into an alley somewhere in the depths of Silent Hill. An air raid siren kicks off, and soon, the sky grows dark. Harry lights a flame and continues on his path, coming across more and more gruesome sights, until suddenly…well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say, even 18 years later, and even when it’s divorced entirely from the game, the sequence is absolutely terrifying. This is thanks to three design elements, all of which blossom fully during the game’s vastly superior second and third acts.
First, there’s the sound design of the game. In this case, the baleful howl of the air raid siren imparts a sense of urgency, making players panic as to why it might be sounding. Soon, Akira Yamaoka’s score appears in prime form, with metallic banging and scrapings layering and layering until about four tracks are piled on top of the sirens at the conclusion. The audio becomes claustrophobic, and the aural nightmare almost unavoidably overwhelms the player. Yamaoka’s haunting, heart-stopping music, even if removed from the game’s context and taken simply as an album, should be considered an absolute masterwork of the industrial and dark ambient genres; almost unparalleled in 18 years. It was recently issued on vinyl, a well-deserved release which was unfortunately limited and has already entered the realm of expensive eBay auctions. It’s also unfortunate that publishers Mondo credit “Konami Digital Entertainment” as the creators of the music instead of the rightful composer, but I digress.
Returning to the point, we also have the camera work of the alley sequence. Until this moment in the game, Silent Hill’s camera is fairly standard for an 18-year-old PlayStation title: obtuse, but inoffensive. To suddenly find it swooping about, squirreled away behind pipes, and making such queasy movements is jarring, especially considering the way it manages to frame Harry. It’s a truly cinematic technique that’s continued throughout the game, with the camera injecting pangs of anxiety by framing Harry as a speck in the industrial darkness or by preventing the player from seeing what’s hidden around a corner. There’s something to be said for the lineage of horror techniques at play here from films like Halloween and The Evil Dead, as the organic, independent motions of the camera convey a sense that maybe we’re not the only ones watching Harry’s progress.
Finally, there’s the sense of escalation at play. Every moment Harry spends in the alley moves up another rung on the ladder of terror by introducing new and worse horrors, and playing off the expectations and anxiety of the player. We begin in a foggy alley, which then becomes a dark alley, then finally a nightmare alley. Every time the scares of the scene seemed to have plateaued, a more frightening element is introduced until we hit the natural payoff of the scene, or as I’d like to refer to it, the Big Scary™. In this case, the Big Scary works as both a bloodcurdling jolt at the end of a long build-up, and as a gruesome preview of what awaits players past the end of Silent Hill’s first act limbo.
I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing this one sequence, but discussing the cogs that make it work is critical to understanding why the rest of the experience holds up so well. The standouts of the game’s second act are Silent Hill’s Midwich Elementary School and Alchemilla Hospital, and the reason these levels are still so memorable and terrifying to this day is because they perfectly fine-tune and play off the same three timeless elements which make the alley so frightening. The game’s third act is scary as well, sure, but that’s largely because it serves as a “Greatest Hits” of portions from the previous levels.
The Midwich level is the section players encounter once they make it through the foggy obstacle course of the game’s first act, and it immediately goes about remedying any notion that the rest of the game will follow that bland formula. En route to the school, the skies grow dark, and Silent Hill grows dangerous. It’s clear upon entering Midwich that when the sun goes down, the evil grows. For about half of your time in the school, you’re treated to an anxious and tightly designed level where Harry must avoid grotesque, knife-wielding parodies of children and solve sinister puzzles. If, like me, you are unimpressed by the game’s opening, the dark Midwich is where Silent Hill begins to show its chops and prove its status as a classic. Then, just when you think this is as scary as things will get, Harry enters the Otherworld for the first time. The school goes from faintly evil to a blood-stained, industrial hellscape, and Silent Hill goes from decently scary to legitimately terrifying.
It’s a brilliant, unexpected escalation, and it’s reflected again later during the hospital level, which is similar in its progression but different enough to still be frightening. Again, the music design, the nefarious camera, and the movement from night to Otherworld do wonders here, as do the possessed nurses, but Alchemilla is notable as where the plot of Silent Hill begins to pick up. We meet Lisa, a nervous nurse who may or may not have a secret. A man called Dr. Kaufmann appears- he might be important later. We watch videotapes, find diary pages, and possibly discover something about a cult and a mysterious girl named Alessa. The question remains: when the game itself is such a visceral experience, does any of it really matter?
It’s hard to say why the story of Silent Hill plays out the way it does, but I think it’s fair to say that the ambiguity is intentional. Questions are raised, and by the end of the game, they’re half-answered at the most or have simply drifted into the fog entirely. Things might have happened, or maybe they didn’t, and the vast majority of interpretation is left to the player’s discretion. There are obvious plot points in the narrative, and important events explicitly occur, but how or why they do is anyone’s guess. The game’s five different endings each throw a certain shade of ambiguity onto the proceedings, and I personally wouldn’t have it any other way. As Harry ran into the night after ostensibly dispelling the evil of Silent Hill, I felt I had witnessed nothing more than a beautiful eight hour nightmare. While some might be bothered by the murkiness of Silent Hill’s plot, I didn’t have an issue.
I also don’t have an issue with the game’s graphics, as I think their retro, grainy aesthetic contributes to the horror and actually get better with age. No, my problems are with how the game is played. While I’m not sure how contemporary reviews felt about the gameplay, I think that actually playing Silent Hill is a pretty miserable experience. This is largely, I suspect, thanks to the dated controls. As frightening as the game is, the scariest part is trying to maneuver Harry in the proper direction without running into walls or furniture. The aiming mechanic is more tolerable than Resident Evil’s point-and-shoot, but it also requires much less skill from a gameplay perspective. This is fine for those who want to sit back and enjoy the experience, and it’s great for getting off shots at monsters in a panic, but it also renders the boss fights in the game almost totally pointless.
Aside from the first and final bosses, both saved by their design and presentation, every major fight feels like a completely perfunctory experience that exists only so the player has an impressive target to shoot at. Sure, they have narrative function, but three of the five bosses (including the final) entail zero strategy apart from standing around and shooting, and, if the player calms down to assess the situation, none of them have any real urgency or terror. On the whole, they’re one of the most disappointing parts of a game which otherwise deserves its reputation. It’s especially sad when you realize that the most terrifying parts of the game are in tight passages and in sudden, desperate situations, not in boss arenas with prep time. The bosses serve purely as points to break up the plot, and not as tests of ability or as intimidating foes. It’s true that Silent Hill might feel too empty without them, but they aren’t as fully realized as they should be.
Thankfully, the bland design of the boss fights is countered by more or less everything else in the game. In particular, Silent Hill’s puzzles still stand as excellent examples of basic, yet well-designed riddles, which are challenging but not obtuse. Old games often cause anxiety over how esoteric the solutions to their brain teasers will be, but Silent Hill won’t have you checking a strategy guide every time you encounter a locked door. The most respectable part about the game’s conundrums are how well they integrate with the surrounding atmosphere- even a simple pattern recognition puzzle near the game’s conclusion feels imbued with eldritch darkness, and the others are vaguely (or outright) sinister enough to keep you from second-guessing their worth. Even when Silent Hill has you crisscrossing through a level to find items, the areas are condensed enough and so consistently tense that it never feels like a drag.
Once you’ve solved all these puzzles, saved (or abandoned) all the characters, and defeated one of two final bosses, the credits roll and Silent Hill is beaten. Much like Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil, Silent Hill offers incentives for multiple playthroughs, including higher difficulties and a shot at the jokey “UFO Ending.” Before that, however, we’re treated to a credits roll that concludes with what’s essentially a “blooper reel.” In a mirror of the game’s opening, the final moments of Silent Hill show the same scenes, but with the characters acting out by laughing, giving thumbs up, and tripping over themselves. Each section ends with the subject looking at the camera, followed by a freeze frame and their name appearing on the screen. It’s all accompanied by a jauntier strain of the title theme, appropriately named “Silent Hill (Otherside).” The whole thing is silly and irreverent, but it’s a good indicator that we’ve come out the other side of this terrifying experience. It also tells us that at the finish, Silent Hill is still one thing above all else: a video game.
By the time I reached this conclusion, it was clear Silent Hill is still a game worth experiencing. Despite the lackluster bosses, dated controls, and weak first act, it’s a title where the artistic whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even the undeniably poor elements of the game are overstepped by the sheer mastery of terror on display. There’s still a lot to discuss in a game like this, but I believe I’ve covered what makes Silent Hill a great title, even if its sequels tend to get more attention. After 18 years, Silent Hill definitely isn’t perfect, but it’s still a crucial horror classic, and it certainly holds water when compared to some other PlayStation titles which have aged even worse. If you’ve yet to take a trip to the town of Silent Hill, I can’t recommend it enough. Maybe just pack some holy water in your luggage.