Silent Hill - Retrospective Review
The birth of what is now called survival horror is generally attributed to the original Alone in the Dark, although the term wasn't popularised until Resident Evil was released in 1996. Both games took the standard adventure game template at the time and attempted to use it to frighten people. However, it took another three years before survival horror would live up to its name when Silent Hill hit the shelves.
Whereas Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil relied on jump scares and ugly monsters, Silent Hill worked because of its atmosphere and story. Trapped in a small American town, the player is placed in the shoes of Harry Mason, a seemingly ordinary thirty-something father who is looking for his missing daughter, Cheryl. The missing child plot taps into a whole different kind of fear than other horror games had done, one that, for a lot of people, was much more relatable, and arguably more terrifying.
Harry was also an average human being, not someone with weapons training or a cop. For the first several hours of the game your aiming was impaired to reflect the fact he wasn't good with firearms. It was a simple and effective idea: disempowerment is at the heart of achieving good horror in a video game and the developers nailed that feeling down.
Even the game's shortcomings worked to its benefit. The game's fog, which went on to become a series staple, was initially introduced as a way to hide the inevitable pop-up that came with rendering the town of Silent Hill. The town itself also deserves special mention because, as a game space, it was very different from what survival horror fans were accustomed to. Unlike the maze of corridors that made up Resident Evil's mansion, Silent Hill was a town that was fully explorable, full of little incidental details that made it a much more believable place.
Of course, Silent Hill wouldn't have been what it was without its monsters. While the series is well known for its disturbing array of Freudian monstrosities; shuffling phallic symbols and creepy gaping mouths, the original Silent Hill's monsters were a little tame. This is mostly because they were giant bugs, dogs or zombie doctors which paled in comparison to the horrible hunks of nightmare fuel that would go on to inhabit the sequels.
Still, even for a game that's clearly aged at this point it's important to remember that a lot of what made it frightening came from its overall ambience and unsettling atmosphere as much as it did from the scary monsters. Even now, walking along the streets of Silent Hill there's still something unnerving, especially when you're wrapped up in that impenetrable wall of fog.
While the town and its characters were more of a departure from typical survival horror, Silent Hill's actual levels were more akin to what you would expect. Creeping around a primary school in the dark, with horrid grey-skinned child-things slashing at your heels or stumbling through a nightmarish hospital, complete with weird zombie-doctors. It was perhaps not all that different from Resident Evil in this respect and, rather surprisingly, was a whole lot easier, thanks in part to the array of melee weapons Harry could equip.
Even then, the game's weird plot and world-building helped keep the gameplay fresh, thanks in part of the Otherworld; a disturbing twisted version Silent Hill that managed to make the "ordinary" town seem tame in comparison. Offices and hallways gave way to rusted iron gates and weird torture contraptions while the number of monsters that roamed the halls would multiply. It also enabled the game to strike a really great level of pacing, with each of the game's "dungeons", for lack of a better word, getting increasingly worse until eventually you'd reach a boss and then be given a brief respite, before beginning the cycle all over again.
The game's puzzles, another important element to the series core gameplay, are, in retrospect, pretty disappointing in this first instalment. It wouldn't be until the later games that a difficulty level would be assigned to the game's riddles and some of puzzles in the sequels are genuine head-scratchers. Here though, there's not a whole lot to get excited about, it's very much "use red key to open red door", albeit disguised more effectively by using real-world items such as a rubber ball and some wire cutters.
Looking back, it's clear that the original Silent Hill was way ahead of its time. It's possible that this is why it would be the only instalment of the series to get a direct sequel in the form of Silent Hill 3 on the PS2, where the more advanced hardware could better render Konami's genuinely disturbing nightmare world. Having said that, the original Silent Hill is still a PlayStation classic that's rightfully held in high regard; standing head and shoulders above the reboot/re-imagining that was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
It might be old and it might have aged but Silent Hill has still not lost all of its bite.
Silent Hill was released in 1999 for exclusively for the PlayStation.
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