Horror as a form entertainment is a fascinating and bizarre construct. First of all, it’s likely going to be something you either love or hate. There isn’t often a middle ground when it comes to the genre – especially in games, given the interactive and participatory nature of the medium. However, for those of us who love it, why exactly do we enjoy artificially inducing feelings of fear, shock, and disgust? It sounds like a terrible idea, and yet it’s an activity that millions of people around the world indulge in every day, whether that be through film, television, books, and, of course, video games. As an insatiable fan of horror myself, this is something I’d like to better understand about myself too, and to do this, I wanted to delve into one my favourite survival horror video game series, Silent Hill, and why exactly I enjoy it.
When examining horror, I think there needs to be a clear distinction made when it comes to video games. There are primarily two different types of games: those which set out to increase adrenaline by frightening players using scare tactics, and those which are much more slow burning and aim perpetuate feelings of anxiety and dread. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and we could break the genre down much, much further. However, for I want to discuss, I’ll keep it relatively simple. In the first type of game, you’re not necessarily going to be disempowered while playing but rather placed into a series of horrific situations. In the latter, however, you’ll more commonly find yourself in the shoes of an average person with no special abilities and with limited resources to survive the arduous trials ahead.
Silent Hill, as you probably know, falls into that second category as a survival horror – a genre I think it’s fair to say was first popularised by long-running franchise juggernaut Resident Evil. While I have a separate love/hate relationship with that series, why I specifically want to focus on Silent Hill is because it aims tells a much more intimate story. It’s not necessarily about the evil forces you’re physically confronting but rather those we struggle with internally. Silent Hill 2, in particular, is predominantly an exploration of the main character’s psyche. It’s easy enough to grasp why people love conventional horror: by exposing the brain to fear in a controlled environment, we can enjoy a flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine. Basically, it feels good. Games like Silent Hill, on the other hand, take it a bit further I think.
My first exposure to Silent Hill was in grade school via a demo disc which accompanied the original Metal Gear Solid on PS1. I had played games such as Resident Evil prior, so the concept wasn’t entirely alien to me, but there was something distinctly different about the game. I still recall being taken aback at first by the warning that flashes up every time you boot it, a message which reads: “There are violent and disturbing images in this game.” Naturally, as a young male, this meant I absolutely had to play it, as well as show it to all my friends. To this day, the original theme accompanied by mandolin is one of the most beautifully haunting songs I’ve encountered in the genre. I also think I can confidently say this is one of the most memorable demos I’ve ever experienced. The escalation is simply superb!
The demo I played opens with protagonist Harry Mason standing in an abandoned street. It’s snowing, there’s a thick fog as far as you can see, and his daughter Cheryl is missing. As you begin to explore the environment, it’s not long before spot a figure in the distance that looks exactly like the missing girl. Of course, you’re naturally inclined to chase after her, and this leads you to an alleyway where it’s immediately clear something is wrong. The fixed camera angles start to make you feel uncomfortable as you push forward. It gets darker. You can hear raid sirens in the distance. The world is transforming around you to one of metal, rust, and blood. Wait, is that a human corpse!? Before you know it, creatures overwhelm you, and you’re dead. Or are you? You awake suddenly in a diner… Was it all just a bad dream?
At its core, Silent Hill is much like any other survival horror game. You’ll collect keys, solve puzzles, unlock doors, conserve ammo as you navigate your way around terrifying monsters, and basically just try to survive as you unravel the mysteries of a densely layered narrative. What sets it apart, however, is not in its formula but the way in which its world and characters are presented. The town of Silent Hill itself is just as much a character as those who are trapped within it. It’s a place where the worst parts of ourselves can manifest in physical and horrendous ways. It’s never clear what’s real and what isn’t, and, unlike conventional horror, the game uses a slow psychological burn that messes with those fears that sit uncomfortably in the pit of our stomachs as opposed to those which evoke a fight-or-fly response.
I think a good way to understand what made Silent Hill so successful is to take a closer look where it fell off the rails, because, sadly, the series never fully found its feet again after Team Silent, the original Japanese-lead development team, were disbanded and the games started being outsourced to external studios. From its inception, Silent Hill was designed to have player’s question reality as well as their inner-selves – either directly or through the perspective of the game’s focal characters. While many of the games were built upon an underlining narrative involving cults, demons, and those directly affected by the mysterious town, and did it very well, it’s Silent Hill 2 which truly encapsulated the powerful storytelling potential of Silent Hill by using the town as a sort of purgatory without all the usual religious beats.
Human beings are flawed, complicated, and irrational creatures. Even at the best of times we struggle to understand ourselves, let alone those around us. Most people during their lifetime are also said to be afflicted with some sort of mental health condition, such as depression, anxiety, or, at the very least, grief. Highly complex mental states which can be extremely difficult to fully comprehend, much less work through. Now imagine a place that exists outside of reality where you can confront physical manifestations of the worst parts of yourself and others. While in real life you might feel helpless, there is a cathartic sense of relief to be found in dealing with these sort of “monsters” from a safe place. That’s the beauty of Silent Hill. It’s an expertly crafted world that’s built upon what’s basically a simple metaphor.
Of course, Silent Hill isn’t the first horror game built upon a metaphor like this, but it does arguably execute it better than any other. While the concept itself might sound simple enough, the realisation and application of it is far from simple, and herein lies the issue with those games created by external studios. To better explain this, we just have to take a closer look at the now-appointed “mascot” of the series: Pyramid Head. Basically, this was a monster initially conceived as a manifestation of the guilt that James Sunderland was dealing with in Silent Hill 2. It was his personal antagonist, and as such, it did not appear in other Team Silent games. However, the moment the creative torch was passed on to someone else, it has appeared in almost every game, film and comic since. Why? Because it looks cool.
What made the Team Silent era instalments so compelling is how perfectly they married atmosphere and storytelling. Everything you’d experience while playing was expertly crafted from the environments and the monsters to the music and sound effects. The games were far from flawless mechanically, suffering from many of the same issues games of that era faced, i.e. tank controls, clunky combat, etc. However, all the components, good and bad, worked together so well because of the powerful creative vision that drove the series. Like a flawed but beautiful work of art, it simply couldn’t be replicated, and that was the problem for those games which followed. It’s not that they weren’t scary or the stories weren’t interesting, it’s that they focused too hard on trying to replicate the franchise’s superficial elements.
In saying that, there is a standout exception to this, and that’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which is basically a reimagining of the original game. While perhaps a bit jarring for some fans because it very deliberately shed many of the series’ staples, I think this is what made it work so well. It’s wildly different in a lot of ways, moving away from the occult and focusing more on psychological horror, as well as the idea of Silent Hill serving more as a mirror for the human condition as opposed to a literal place. By embracing Silent Hill as an idea and not as a framework, the game was able to be driven by its own unique creative vision and find success in that. The instalment that followed, Silent Hill: Downpour, tried to emulate this approach with much less success, but it was at least a step in the right direction.
What truly breaks my heart as a fan of the series is that it was so close to finding itself again. Under the direction of two legendary creative minds, Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro, an amazing playable teaser (P.T.) was dropped without warning during Gamescom 2014, and it sent the games industry into a wild frenzy. It was bold, inventive and utterly terrifying. It was also a concept for the next Silent Hill game, “Silent Hills,” and like Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories before it, it demonstrated once again how the concept of Silent Hill as an idea is what makes this franchise so compelling. It’s not about peeling walls or token monsters with traffic cones on their head, but a place that exists outside of reality, a sort of purgatory, where people can go to confront their inner demons in the most literal of senses.
Unfortunately, this brief glimpse of genius may also be the last thing we’ll ever see of the franchise as Silent Hills was cancelled shortly after the relationship between Konami and Kojima soured. It’s been three years now, and the only Silent Hill related announcement we’ve seen in this time is for a Pachinko machine. While it’s easy to place a concept on a pedestal and lament over what could or couldn’t have been, I do genuinely believe Silent Hills could have been a revolution, and not only for the series but horror games as a whole. There is no doubt that this teaser has had a resonating effect on the genre, but if there is one thing I can walk away with, it’s a sense of reaffirmation that Silent Hill isn’t just a shallow brand full of cheap thrills and more of the same, but something truly special with limitless potential.
Silent Hill as a series could be dead, but that doesn’t take away from what it’s achieved. It’s had highs and lows, and, to be honest, I don’t think it ever came close to being flawless in its execution as a video game until it got snuffed out entirely. However, while most horror is designed to make you feel good by messing with your brain chemistry, Silent Hill has always offered something much more than that. It’s an idea built upon a simple metaphor, and one that I think we can all relate to. We all know what it’s like for the world around us to transform into a dark, twisted and hideous place when life becomes too difficult to handle, and I think there’s cathartic relief to be found in the concept of being able to confront, in a literal sense, all of those inner demons we otherwise could never see. That’s why I play Silent Hill.