Horror as a form of entertainment is an unorthodox yet fascinating construct. It’s a genre people tend to love or hate, especially so when it comes to video games given their participatory nature. However, for those of us who love horror, why do we get a rush out of inducing feelings of fear, shock, and disgust? It sounds like a terrible idea, and yet it’s an activity countless people indulge in every day, whether it be through film, television, books, or, of course, video games. As an insatiable fan of the genre, this is something I wanted to better understand about myself, and to do this I delved into one of my favourite survival horror series, Silent Hill, to find out why exactly I enjoy it so much.

When examining horror in video games, I think it’s beneficial to focus on two common approaches. The first is where a game sets out to utilise scare tactics to induce a rush of adrenaline in a player whereas the second is where a game aims to create an environment that perpetuates feelings of anxiety and dread. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, and we could break the genre down 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 intended to excite. 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.

Survival horror as a genre was first popularised by the franchise juggernaut Resident Evil, but the reason I want to focus on Silent Hill is because it’s a series that aims to tell a more intimate story about less exceptional people. It’s not necessarily about the malevolent forces you’re confronting but rather those the characters struggle with internally. It’s easy enough to grasp why people enjoy conventional horror: by exposing the brain to fear in a controlled environment, we trick ourselves into an artificial rush. In other words, it feels great. Games like Silent Hill, I feel, are rewarding in a different way.

My first exposure to Silent Hill was via the demo disc that accompanied Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation. I’d played games such as Resident Evil before, so the concept wasn’t entirely alien to me, but there was something distinctly different about Silent Hill. I still recall being taken aback by the graphic warning every time you booted the game, which stated: “There are violent and disturbing images in this game.” Naturally, as a young male, this guaranteed that I would play it as well as show it to all my friends. To this day, the theme song played on a mandolin is one of the most beautifully haunting songs I’ve encountered in the genre. I also think I can confidently say it is one of the most memorable demos I’ve ever experienced. There is nothing else quite like it.

The demo opens with protagonist Harry Mason standing in an abandoned street. It’s snowing, there’s thick fog as far as you can see, and his daughter Cheryl is missing. As you begin to explore, it’s not long before you spot a figure in the distance that looks exactly like her. Of course, your first instinct is to run after her, and this leads you to an alleyway where it’s immediately clear that something is wrong. The fixed camera angles start to make you feel uncomfortable as you push forward. It gets darker and you can hear air raid sirens in the distance. The world starts transforming around you into one of metal, rust, and blood. Wait, is that a 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?

Silent Hill is in many ways just 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 its formula but the way its world and characters are presented. The town of Silent Hill itself is just as much a character as those who are trapped in it. It’s a place where the worst parts of ourselves manifest in physical and horrendous ways. It’s never clear what’s real and what isn’t – and, unlike other horror games, Silent Hill uses a slow psychological burn to expertly maipulate the fears which sit uncomfortably at the pit of our stomach rather than those which evoke a fight-or-flight response.

A good way to examine what made Silent Hill so successful is to take a closer look where it fell off the rails – because, sadly, the series is yet to recover after Team Silent, the original 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 what is real and confront their inner demons – both personally and through the perspective of the game’s focal characters. While many of the games are built on an underlining narrative involving cults, demons, and the people stuck within the mysterious town, and did it very well, it’s Silent Hill 2 which encapsulated the series’ powerful storytelling potential by presenting the town as a sort of purgatory without all the usual religious story 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 are also said to become afflicted with some sort of mental illness in their lifetime, such as anxiety or depression – grief, at the very least – but all highly complex emotional states which can be painfully difficult to comprehend fully, 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 before it. 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 onto someone else, it’s appeared in some form in basically every game, film and comic since – and for no reason other than 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 one 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 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 scary 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 since is for a pachinko machine. While it’s easy to place a concept on a pedestal and lament over what may 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’s 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 may be dead, but that doesn’t take away from what its achieved. Its had highs and lows – and to be honest, I don’t think it even came close to being flawless in its execution as a video game until it was 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 is why I play Silent Hill.

William Kirk

William Kirk

Editor-in-Chief / Founder at GameCloud
Based in Perth, Western Australia, Will has pursued an interest in both writing and video games his entire life. As the founder of GameCloud, his aim is to create opportunities for local writers and represent Perth in the global video game industry.