The year was 1999. The survival horror genre would never be the same again. The scary but silly antics of the Resident Evil series were well at the forefront of the horror genre when Konami threw their shadowy, profoundly confusing hat into the ring with the game-changing Silent Hill. However, in 1999 I was five years old and still happily ploughing through Crash Bandicoot 2. It was years later that I first came into contact with the terrifying series for me, and it led to a hideous, malformed romance to last a lifetime. With this article, I’d like to take things back to the source, with a look at the game that started it all.
So the protagonist, unlucky everyman Harry Mason, is forced to trawl through the fog drenched streets of Silent Hill after a car-crash on the outskirts of town leads to the disappearance of his daughter Cheryl. Give or take the odd passer-by, the town seems devoid of human life and is instead populated by unspeakable monstrosities who seem bent on ripping Harry to pieces, and here’s where we come to my first major problem with this game, the combat. Now, Silent Hill games have always been characterised by their dodgy combat system, and it mostly makes sense. The protagonist is an average-Joe, not G.I. Joe, and his flailing of a knife should be awkward and inefficient. The monsters should be difficult to kill, and where possible, avoiding fights should always be the best option. It’s true that the game nails the last part, as I often sprinted through malevolent streets, trying my best to navigate my way through the enemies using the feedback from my radio, which hisses into life when baddies get close, and this emphasis on avoiding danger did give the game a fraught atmosphere, but this doesn’t excuse possibly the worst combat I’ve ever experienced as a gamer. Harry has the dexterity of a fork-lift truck, meaning that quick changes of direction and accurate marksmanship or hand-to-hand combat are literally impossible. This wouldn’t be so bad if the enemies weren’t seemingly designed to take advantage of Harry’s poor mobility, diving in for a cheap shot and fleeing before Harry can turn towards the direction they were in ten seconds ago. As I’ve said, I understand that combat needs to be difficult and panicky, but this is just frustrating.
As I stated in the opening paragraph, I didn’t play the game when it was originally released, and I assume that at the time it’s cutting-edge 3D polygon graphics would have impressed gamers, however, graphics technology has evolved considerably since then, so there’s no easy way of saying Silent Hill looks pretty bad, but really, who cares about that? It’s unfair to criticize an old game for not having a fancy future technology. One thing that can’t be deflected with this excuse is the laughable voice acting that has for some reason become a staple of the venerable horror series. I assume it’s because the game was Japanese and the American voice actors were probably quite literally phoned in, but there is no excuse for the excruciating voice acting on show. There isn’t a semblance of emotion in their voices; there’s no fear, no sadness, no anger. Harry responds to witnessing all of a woman’s blood vessels simultaneously bursting the same way he’d respond to spotting a runaway balloon in the park, with a dispassionate ‘what is going on here?’ It does break immersion somewhat when the player is on the edge of his/her seat but the protagonist sounds as if he’s just woken from a six-month coma.
One aspect of the game I love is the emphasis on exploration. The town is an incredibly interesting, and disturbing, place to be, and wandering bleary eyed through its desolate streets is captivating. You’re given a map and a place to be and you’ve got to get there by consulting your map and working out a route through to your desired location, avoiding blocked off roads and dead ends along the way whilst your heart beats ferociously with the tension of knowing that somewhere, cloaked in fog, there’s a monster getting closer with every step. It’s elicits the lonesome fear that is now expected from the Silent Hill games.
The important question that needs to be answered is “is Silent Hill scary?” A horror game can gloss over many of its flaws by being terrifying, as that’s what we’re in this for. This feature is called ‘horror show’ for a reason, and yes, Silent Hill is scary, which is impressive considering the limitations it places upon itself. The soundtrack is phenomenal, being absent just enough to unnerve the player before oozing into life with haunting melodies and hideous sounds at precisely the right moment to have maximum impact. The plot is purposely ambiguous and nothing is explained. Harry never really finds out why creatures are stalking the streets after him, or why the familiar hospital environment shifts suddenly to what appears to be a rusty cage full of pain and despair. The developers understand that the greatest fear of all is fear of the unknown. For the most part, Harry is at the behest of an evil that he can’t see or fight or triumph over, and that makes it scary. Once you flick on the lights and explain what is trying to kill you and why, it loses much of its effect, (incidentally, this is something many horror developers seriously need to grasp), and this is because your imagination is left to fill in the gaps left by the ambiguity, whether you want it to or not, and your own brain knows what scares you more than a developer could, because fear is subjective. However, Silent Hill does ruin this somewhat by introducing an evil cult as the primary antagonists, which kills a lot of the intrigue for me. As the plot progresses, it gets progressively sillier. Harry begins the game desperately searching through hellish environments for any evidence of his daughter and by the end of the game he’s collecting strange, cultish relics to unlock a door, which is a disappointing progression in my opinion.
Possibly the biggest surprise I received from playing the first Silent Hill game is that the zombie nurses, which are annoyingly ubiquitous throughout this series, are actually scary! Unlike the nurses in modern Silent Hill games (and substandard movies), the nurses are realistically proportioned, and are wearing light blue scrubs. They stumble over to Harry with their heads hung low obscuring their faces with a knife in hand. It scares me because it plays on the juxtaposition that comes with being attacked by something that is normally associated with care. It’s just a shame that since then the zombie nurses have become more about arousing the player than scaring them. Listen up developers: if blood-soaked nurses with big tits and high heels were scary, no one would go to Halloween parties.
Despite the many flaws that do dampen this genre-defining game, Silent Hill still stands up to the test of time. Even with its quaint graphics, it managed to scare me. Even with its terrible voice acting, it managed to be emotionally provocative, particularly in one scene which I won’t ruin, but which had me half-way between crying and hiding from the screen as the saddest acoustic guitar chords played through the speakers. Despite the awful, AWFUL combat, it managed to keep me coming back for me. It may have been surpassed by its successors, but that’s how it should be. Silent Hill deserves respect for popularising intelligent, psychological horror.
I’m a huge horror fan and I want to cover as many terrifying games as possible. If you have any recommendations for games that I could include in my Horror Show feature, please get in touch. Either leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter (@thisisajoe) or message me on Tumblr (http://whatsjoebuildinginthere.tumblr.com) or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. I'll happily play most genres on a range of consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I also study Public Relations at Leeds Met and I sell sea shells on the sea shore.