We Played an Old Game – Silent Hill

I’m pretty sure I’m not insane

By Sam Desatoff

Silent_Hill_video_game_cover

When deciding on what games I wanted to play for this, the month of horror, there was one series I was determined to touch on. That series…was Resident Evil. And so I did.

But then I realized that October is more than a few days long and that I should probably play something else, too.

I have a passing familiarity with a large number of horror series from Fatal Frame to F.E.A.R. to Dead Space. But the biggest hole is probably the Grand Canyon.

I mean, look how big that is. It's huge!
I mean, look how big that is. It’s huge!

The biggest void in my horror games knowledge, however, is the Silent Hill franchise. With comparisons often being made to Resident Evil, Silent Hill always interested me. But for one reason or another I never got around to it. However, now that I’m an adult with a job and a full-time school schedule, I can play all the games I want. So excuse me while I push aside this eight-page paper and finally pick up Silent Hill.

Going into it, I expected the game to essentially be a clone of Resident Evil, and on the surface that comparison holds true. Scarce ammunition, tank controls, a mysterious locale; these are elements that permeate both franchises. But it doesn’t take long for Silent Hill to differentiate itself.

The game begins when Harry Mason and his daughter Cheryl crash their car in the titular town. It takes less than one minute for Cheryl to forget how to to act like a normal person and wander off into the abandoned streets of Silent Hill.

The rest of the town may be abandoned, but the guys at the fog factory are working overtime.
The rest of the town may be abandoned, but the guys at the fog factory are working overtime.

What follows is an unsettling journey through two worlds ripe with horror, torture, and knife-wielding babies.

In place of jump scares, Silent Hill focuses on psychological horror. For example, when Harry for some reason visits the probably-haunted hospital, he explores the three floors and finds nothing. Yet, he re-enters the elevator to find that a button leading to a fourth floor has mysteriously appeared. Stepping off on the fourth floor sends Harry into an alternate-dimension version of the hospital where the floors have been replaced by metal grating, blood adorns almost every wall, and demon-nurses roam the halls with knives.

I'm sure she just wants to check your pulse.
I’m sure she just wants to check your pulse.

The trade-off of jump scares for psychological horror is probably Silent Hill’s biggest strength. The game plays on your expectations and twists them, subtly at first, but escalating to a point that has you questioning Harry’s sanity. Later in the game, the jumps from our world to the nightmare world and back happen more frequently. This leads to an Inception-like effect where you can’t be sure which world is which anymore.

There are many who decry the tank-like controls of old-school survival horror, but I think the unwieldy control scheme contributes to the sense of tension. When you’re surrounded by enemies and scrambling to escape the room, the controls require a level head and precise execution.

One thing that should be mentioned is Silent Hill’s fantastic map system. As you explore the the town and the many separate levels, marks will appear on the map denoting key locations. These scribbles can point out impassable passages, remind you of a room that needs a puzzle solved, or circle current objectives. Even today this feature is hugely useful. I love the idea that Mason marks noteworthy features on his map, and I’m quite surprised this novel system is not used in more games today.

While the setting and horror have aged well, other elements have not. The PlayStation One generation of games have not aged well graphically, and Silent Hill is no exception. Stiff animations and muddy environmental details mar the experience. The voice acting does not fare much better with unnatural dialogue and awkward pauses that make Resident Evil: Code Veronica’s Steve Burnside look like Winston goddamn Churchill.

Video courtesy of YouTube user fungo

Terrible voice acting aside, Silent Hill provides a truly frightening ride. I appreciate the choice to leave the jump scares to Resident Evil and instead focus on psychological side of things. Silent Hill proves that you don’t need a dog jumping through a window to scare players – a simple town filled with unspeakable horror and creatures from your worst nightmares will suffice just fine.

Follow Sam on Twitter.

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