What talk of horror in video games would be complete without a visit to the town of Silent Hill? It also makes sense in light of the release of the second Silent Hill movie this weekend. While Silent Hill 1 was a Resident Evil clone and the game is technically survival horror, it shares few actual traits of the genre, and later instalments share very little in common with the Resident Evil series. While Resident Evil, as a series, created tension though its gameplay mechanics, Silent Hill’s terror does not come from inventory management, or even its creatures. Silent Hill is a much more psychological game, and it uses its environment, the eponymous town of Silent Hill, to create most if not all of the horror. This also makes the game very different from Day 2’s look at Slender, whose horror came entirely from the antagonist and the feeling of being hunted. Unfortunately, the series has been losing popularity in recent years among fans; although, its mainstream appeal is still very strong. So why is the town of Silent Hill so scary, and, perhaps more importantly, why isn’t it scary anymore for so many gamers?
|Yeah, its ok if you’ve never played this one.|
For me Silent Hill represents two things: 1. the biggest horror series that has not abandoned horror in search for more profits, and 2. a fanbase so bad that it rivals that of Final Fantasy. To clarify this last point, nobody will deny the greatness of Silent Hill 2, and few will deny Silent Hill 3, but this is pretty much where the goodwill of the Silent Hill fanbase goes, with many despising the series when direction transferred to American developers after Silent Hill 4. Going back to the first point, pretty much any series that gets big enough starts catering to increasingly wider audiences. For Resident Evil this meant becoming increasingly action-based and toning down the horror. Other series refuse to change and often just fade away into obscurity, like the Fatal Frame series. Silent Hill is the only major horror franchise that has maintained a focus on actual horror. Whether it is successful all the time is another point, but the fact that they have maintained this focus makes them special in this niche genre.
|Fatal Frame 4 happened on the Wii, unless you live outside of Japan in which case the series is dead.|
Silent Hill has minor inventory management and scary creatures (More on them later), but the real star of the show is, of course, the town itself. There are very few games series, or even individual games, that nail atmosphere as well as the Silent Hill games do. Even the worst Silent Hill game has an atmosphere that is much more dread inducing than the scariest Resident Evil. The town is perpetually covered in a dense fog, making it difficult to see enemies even during the daytime. This requires you to rely on your radio, which blares static every time an enemy draws close. Indoor areas are equally creepy, all seemingly abandoned from hospitals to elementary schools. Dark and tight corridors rule the day in these environments, forcing players to deal with threats as they appear.
|Yay! A trip to the amusement park!|
Of course many ghost stories revolve around similar locations, taking a slice of Americana and perverting it in some way. The abandoned streets of a small North American resort town definitely fits into this description. What pushes Silent Hill past comparisons to these types of stories is its otherworld. The otherworld is basically a hellscape version of the various locals. So a quiet abandoned apartment building could have its walls stripped and replaced by chain mesh and rust, while the floors get covered in blood and bile. The otherworld’s appearance is different in many Silent Hills, being a ice covered world of darkness in Shattered Memories, or particularly wet in Downpour; however, the traditional appearance has always been full of rust, fire and blood. Turning a mundane, perhaps even safe environment into a literal living hell is one of Silent Hill’s great accomplishments in the field of horror.
|Nope, nothing weird with this apartment. Nothing strange at all…|
Then there are the creatures. Every good horror game has to have some form of enemy, even if there is only one as in the case of Slender, and the creature needs to be terrifying. Silent Hill, traditionally, has gone very far with its enemy designs by tying them to the themes and, more importantly, the psychology of the protagonist. The most famous Silent Hill creature, Pyramid Head, is a great example of this. Pyramid Head is a huge man with a horribly cumbersome and painful pyramidal mask, who wields a giant “knife” the size of a man, and has a penchant for raping the denizens of Silent Hill in the second game. This creature represents the sexual frustrations of the protagonist. The huge phallic sword being called a knife, and thus relating to insecurity and impotence is no coincidence. The same is true with the early bout of rapesy (Real word) that Pyramid Head deals with early in the game. Pretty much all of the creatures of Silent Hill can be analyzed in this manner, which is half of the fun of the games, and it sets the series miles ahead of most games in terms of enemy design.
|Oh yeah, they’re creepy looking too.|
Nowadays, Silent Hill has a very unhappy fanbase and has been increasingly considered not scary. What has changed? In reality, not too much. None of the newer games reach the height of the second and third instalment, but there have been some strong entries since. No, the real problem lies in overexposure. The same way that its hard to make Jason Voorhees seem scary after the seventh time he’s stalked teenagers, it is hard to scare people with the same old haunted town schtick. This doesn’t demean the games, but there is very little in terms of surprise from Silent Hill anymore. The otherworld was amazing, but we all expect it now. The enemy designs are a little too familiar, and the general plots of penitence are normal. We all expect our protagonists to have a dark secret, and we expect the horrors of Silent Hill will extract it. This doesn’t mean that Silent Hill isn’t still great or that it should retire, but it does mean that it is an old series now, whose fresh ideas are forever trapped behind all of the conventions of the series.
|Still creepy, just maybe a little predictable now.|
Silent Hill is probably the only horror series that still puts out a consistent product, without any concessions to the action crowd. It is a shame that the genre is full of so many one-offs that this is so, but with the expense of making games this generation combined with the niche genre of horror, it is really hard to get your money back without a big name behind your work. Silent Hill, as a horror game, operates by creating a constant, hopeless feeling of dread and tries its hardest to get into the head of its players. In this way, Silent Hill is one of the most sophisticated of horror experiences. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but when it does, Silent Hill can provide a very memorable experience.
– Mistranslation for the Modern Gamer