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Silent Hill Retrospective – The Sound of Silence

There’s nothing much that can be said about Silent Hill that hasn’t already been said. Instead, Silent Hill is very much a game where I’d prefer to focus on how it made me feel.

Developed by Team Silent, a subsidiary of Konami, Silent Hill came to PlayStation in 1999, meaning it’s been 20 years since its initial release. With the context of development in the horror game genre and the influence Silent Hill had on the industry, now is a good time to look back on one of the best horror games of all time.

Playing With the Lights Off

 

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I want to be clear that I think Silent Hill 2 is a superior game to its predecessor in almost every way. This might sound like a criticism of Silent Hill, but I assure you it’s the complete opposite. Silent Hill defined a genre, and most of its shortcomings are a product of the time. The awkward PS1 voice acting and the relatively stiff controls might be a bit jarring at first, but most PlayStation fans worth their salt are likely no stranger to these qualities.

Sign with the words "welcome to silent hill" from Silent Hill game

I played Silent Hill on my PS Vita, a console I still love to dust off when I’ve got some free time. The Vita version is just a direct port of the PSP version, and the PSP version is essentially a direct port of the original PlayStation version. Despite not playing on a big screen, I found myself easily drawn into the foggy town of Silent Hill, where I spent around 7 hours of my time. Much of that time I was laying on my bed with only my Vita light and the sound turned up. My surroundings were quiet and gloomy, making for the perfect way to play. Don’t worry though, I still played with the D-pad- only a psychopath would play the original Silent Hill with the thumbstick.

 

Fear of the Unknown

 

Silent Hill follows Harry Mason, an average Joe who’s looking for his young daughter in the small, American town. Once he gets there, it’s clear something isn’t right, and the player controls Harry through a variety of dark, creepy environments. As you enter the town, you meet Police Officer Cybil, somebody who’s just as confused about the situation as you are.  You’re then inducted into the world of Silent Hill with a handgun, a flashlight and a radio that frantically plays static the closer you get to the monstrosities roaming the streets.

Image from silent hill. Shows protagonist Harry talking to cybil inside a house

Encounters with other characters are pretty rare in this game, and mostly involve a short conversation regarding the nightmarish goings-on of the area. When the denizens of Silent Hill do engage with Harry, there’s a lack of emotion in the way they speak, almost like they have accepted their fate and are ready to be consumed by the darkness of the town. This is one part down to the dated, one-note voice-acting of the PS1-era, but it also feels quite intentional. Take Resident Evil, another wildly successful horror series that is considered as Silent Hill’s main rival: there, the voice acting is pretty hammy and over-the-top. I love the performances in the old Resident Evil games as much as the next man, but they are dire. Fortunately for Resident Evil, it mainly relies on its meticulous monster design and thoughtful locations to succeed in the genre. Silent Hill, however, wants the player to feel uncomfortable. It’s dripping in a nauseating atmosphere that never lets up. The unfeeling delivery compliments this perfectly, and whether intentional or not I always felt alone throughout the course of my playthrough.

 

*Radio Static*

 

Silent Hill’s sound design hasn’t aged a day. This was one of the first titles to really use sound design to the fullest. The menus have a satisfying click, Harry’s footsteps echo from the silence, relaying the feeling of being trapped in a never-ending hallway. Silent Hill’s soundtrack is hardly conventional either. Most of the tracks consist of a miasma of scraping and gurgling, which fits perfectly with the metallic environments of the nightmare world. Not only that, it makes you unsure if you’re being watched, I often found myself confusing the soundtrack with the sound of a nearby enemy. This forces you to rely on your radio, the sound of static becomes synonymous with the nervousness at what you might find when the camera angle shifts.

Image from silent hill. Depicts protagonist in a childs room

The composer of Silent Hill, Akira Yamaoka, is a legend. The soundtrack for the game is so iconic that he was even brought in to work on the Silent Hill movie. The first thing you’re greeted with when you boot up the game is the fast, but melancholic strings of the main theme. Even people outside the gaming space recognize the Silent Hill theme. There’s a couple of other tracks like this too, usually, they play during Harry’s rare interactions with NPCs. Mainly led by the acoustic guitar, it adds a sense of sadness to the denizens of the town that combines perfectly with the bleak situation they are in. These string-based tracks seem like they might clash with the minimalistic pained moans of the others, but they manage to mesh perfectly. On top of that, who can forget about the infamous cold war siren that plays when something’s about to go down. It’s chilling. I adore the sound design in this game.

 

Testing Limits

 

Silent Hill is a game that pushes the PlayStation to its brink. It takes advantage of the stiff movement and fixed camera angles as best it can. The town of Silent Hill is covered in a dense fog, meaning you can’t see very far ahead of you when you’re outside. This allows what you can see to look very detailed. Unlike many of its contemporaries, everything in Silent Hill is fully rendered, meaning everything looks right where it should be. Normally, this would put restrictions on the level of detailed allowed, but Silent Hill’s clever use of camera angles and narrow environments allows it to go all out. Interiors look excellent, and the school has to be my favorite location. The halls are covered in posters and bulletin boards, and offices look lived-in. The narrowness of it all makes you anxious to walk through each door, and as you do there’s a sense of relief when the radio static doesn’t play. Granted this effect wears off as you grow used to gunning down enemies, but it never truly leaves you.

Image taken from silent hill. Depicts protagonist running on a very foggy road

I also love some of the fixed camera angles in this game. It’s clear that the folks over at Team Silent put a lot of thought into each room you enter, positioning the camera in the most anxiety-inducing angle possible. One highlight for me is right near the start. You’re running away from some dogs via an alleyway, and as you enter the narrow space the camera shifts to a wider, isometric shot that emphasizes how much further you have to run. There’s also plenty of times when you’ll walk through a door and the camera is facing the protagonist, with only the sound of radio static to alert you of what’s further in.

 

Heavy Harry

 

It’s no revelation when I say there’s a certain weight to PS1 controls that matches survival-horror perfectly. Hugging walls to move past enemies and correcting which direction you press as the camera shifts become almost like an art form. It makes you slowly feel more capable as you fight off the grotesque creatures you encounter along the way. This is true for Silent Hill as well. You also have the ability to walk backwards as you ready your weapon, which is really useful for when enemies get a little grabby. The combat isn’t the main focus, it’s pretty simplistic and pretty much every enemy can be dealt with in the same way. Give em a couple of shots to knock em down, then kick them to death as they lie twitching. For slower enemies, you’re probably better off just using a strong melee weapon in the interest of saving ammo. The boss fights aren’t very threatening either. Again, it mostly just boils down to backing away and loading them with shells from your most powerful weapon.

Image from Silent Hill. Dpicts protagonist facing a blue wall mounted tile, in a room covered in blood

Aside from combat, Silent Hill fills a lot of your time with puzzles and finding items on the map. The in-game map is surprisingly really helpful. It crosses off doors that are locked and marks important locations for you, making backtracking a lot less painful. The puzzles are great fun too. They’re usually accompanied by some sort of riddle to give you a hint, and bizarrely, I found myself using my notepad to help me figure them out, which is something I rarely ever do. I even got my girlfriend help me out with a couple of them (not because I’m stupid I swear… she just loves puzzles.).

 

20 Years Later

 

Now, Silent Hill’s influence can be seen far and wide. Director Keiichiro Toyama moved on to direct the Siren trilogy, which captures the unknown horror of Silent Hill really well. Silent Hill 2 improved on the original in almost every way. It’s my personal favorite in the series, the vague narrative always drew me in. Fatal Frame was also inspired by Silent Hill, this time taking the concept of a vulnerable main protagonist even further.

More indirect comparisons can be drawn too: the general wider use of minimalistic sound design and silence to create tension, psychological aspects being implemented into horror video games, and just the sheer number of attempts to mimic the series’ pivotal atmosphere.

image from silent hill. Depicts protagonist waking up on a booth in a cafe.

Despite the somewhat outdated enemy design and a bit of aging, Silent Hill is still a must-play. Just for the soundtrack alone, I would give this one my time. Here’s a fun bit of trivia: Team Silent was comprised of staff who worked on failed projects back in the day. When they came together to develop Silent Hill, nobody ever expected them to make one of the most influential video games of all time.

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  1. […] mentioned it briefly in my Silent Hill retrospective (shameless self-plug here), that Fatal Frame was heavily inspired by Silent Hill according to the people who worked on it. […]

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