Silent Hill comes under the “survival horror” genre, but, unlike forerunners Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, the label “interactive nightmare” is more apt. The streets are misty and the corridors are dark; our only warning of nearby danger comes from a portable radio. When it emits a hissing white noise, the sensible option would be to run, and hope you’re running away from the threat, not towards it. But the threat is always there; our environment is an abstract, absurd and hallucinatory realm of fear.
The first incarnation of this realm of fear was released for the PlayStation two decades ago, and although the graphics have aged, it’s still playable, and almost as terrifying as it was in 1999. It’s the product of “Team Silent”, a group of developers, designers and artists within Konami – still enjoying the success of Metal Gear Solid the previous year. A prominent member of the team was Takayoshi Sato, who later went on to join Virtual Heroes, Inc. to develop educational projects alongside the National Science Foundation and NASA Learning Technologies. In 2008, he said:
“I feel that games are being standardized into only a few formats lately: FPS, RTS, MMO, 3rd Person Action and Sports. There’s a tendency to create the same games over and over with only a visual upgrade. And the only thing artists are supposed to do is “be professional” and gift wrap the same game elements with a pretty new skin.”
This frustration with the repetitive trend of video games is evident in his work on Silent Hill nine years prior. Take the protagonist, Harry Mason. He differs from Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield from 1996’s innovating survival horror Resident Evil. They’re elite members of their city’s police department, with plenty of experience behind their belt, sent on a mission to investigate grizzly murders on the outskirts of the city. When zombies turn out to be the culprits, there’s no one we’d rather have on our side than this battle-hardened duo. But Harry Mason is a non-fiction writer, taking his daughter on vacation, when a ghostly apparition causes him to swerve and crash his car in Silent Hill; when he wakes up behind the wheel of his totalled vehicle, she’s missing. He’s no soldier or cop on a mission – only a relatable everyman, whose only motivation is to find his daughter.
Harry being a regular guy has a surprising effect on the gameplay, too. After all, the avatar on the screen is an extension of the player holding the controller, and controlling Harry doesn’t give us the same invincible feeling as taking control of, say, Nathan Drake or Arthur Morgan. The fact that we’re controlling someone like ourselves leaves us feeling vulnerable; there’s no hint of the escapism or power fantasy provided by the shooters that dominate the market today. When we turn around a street corner and a burst of static comes from the radio, Harry is just as scared as we are. He gasps for air after a long run, and can’t take many hits before collapsing to the ground. As he gets weaker, we feel his heart beat through the vibrations of the DualShock controller – ingeniously and immersively chilling.
Another immersive feature of the game is its multiple endings – a concept brought back into vogue last year by Bandersnatch. What’s interesting about Silent Hill is that it really took some exploring and experimenting in order to get finally get a satisfying ending. For example, there’s a plastic bottle in the hospital kitchen, and a mysterious red liquid on the floor in the room next door. There are no hints indicating to do so, but the player must pick the plastic bottle up, take it next door and fill it with the liquid. If this isn’t done, a key character will die later on in the game. Silent Hill rewards your enthusiasm; if you want, you can rush through – but if you explore a bit, check out the bars and motels and investigate the town’s mysteries, then you’ll not only have a more fulfilling time, but get a more rewarding ending.
It spawned seven sequels (number two was even more of a critical success), a mobile game, and, weirdly, an arcade rail shooter. The films didn’t quite work because we were spectators and the immersion was gone, but they were pleasant homages for fans of the games. With the Kojima project’s cancellation, the future of the franchise is up in the air. A remake in the vein of Resident Evil 2 would be very interesting. But Silent Hill has left a hell of a legacy; you can see its influence in decision-making thrillers such as Fahrenheit and Until Dawn as well as the unreal world of The Evil Within. It might look aged today, but it’s worth a revisit.