The survival horror scene is a bit of a sordid mess these days. It’s kind of a fetid wasteland. Or a dumpster crawling with squalor. It’s your choice of off-putting adjective-pronoun combo, really. After what seemed like a dip in publisher interest during the previous console generation, the genre is once again given flesh; conjured by the unholy necromancy of under-experienced Steam devs, the half-baked horrors shamble dismally towards Early Access. Lifeless and bereft of individuality, the undead masses pine for the attention of popular YouTube personalities.
It wasn’t always like this, though: before the days of barely-functioning clickbait and the callofdutyification of Resident Evil, the genre was a well-respected – if niche – little collective of classics. Prominent among these is of course, the Silent Hill series. Opinions on the majority of these titles seem to vary, but Silent Hill 2 is often touted as one of the best games the medium has produced. But to me, having recently played the first one, there’s no denying the influence and quality of the original outing, either. With that in mind, let’s talk about what makes the game seminal as compared to the selection nowadays, because just recently getting into the survival horror genre makes me an authority on the matter. Obviously.
Silent Hill’s eerie opening sets the tone for the rest of its experience, and puts you in the quivering shoes of one Harry Mason as he searches for his daughter, Cheryl, in a town (Silent Hill) where all but a few individuals have disappeared. The game’s atmosphere sets in early and thick, much like the fog obfuscating the town of Silent Hill. Silent Hill has you visiting abandoned schools, hospitals, shops, and the homes of residents, and everything about these locations have a quality of oppressive solitude to them. Oftentimes you’ll find yourself scouring the streets, accompanied by nothing but the sound of your footsteps, the crackling of a radio, and creatures perusing you out of sight.
The cold, insidious version of the town gives off a very different vibe than that of the Otherword – an alternate reality of Silent Hill characterized by rust and decay, where hostility is the negative affect of choice. The town is keen on Harry constantly flitting between its two versions, and this contrast perfectly mirrors the distinction between gothic terror and gothic horror, which is very rad indeed. The Otherworld is more densely populated with enemies, and contains your typical dungeon-esque layouts, which go far in dividing the usually cautious pacing into something more palatable and less intimidating. That being said, the atmosphere takes a bit of a hit during these sections; while finishing a location only to be transported to a harsher version of it carries an adequate amount of dread the first time, this soon becomes expected. And having your expectations met isn’t particularly horrifying, is it? Still, the increased difficulty and macabre environmental design more than justify their inclusion. In fact, the only thing spookier is the game’s controls.
Between Resident Evil and Silent Hill, you’ll hear a lot about tank controls and how they affect old school survival horror games. Occasionally it’s about how them being a pain in the buns complement the sense of stress and anxiety; most of the time it’s about them being a pain in the buns period. I fall in the former category, for the record. Not only do they help with that disempowerment thing gaming hipsters go on about, but as in Resident Evil, the tank control facilitate the use of many atypical camera angles. Walk into a room and the camera could be positioned anywhere. It might be behind your back, on the ceiling, vegging out in the far corner of the room, or heck, right in front you. There’s even a particularly impressive sequence right at the beginning where it twists, shakes, and zooms out with wonton disregard for consistent field of vision while you run a down an alleyway. Something like this would be a nightmare were your character moved with traditional analogue controls, but it works fine here, once you’ve mastered the feel of it. Besides, it becomes surprisingly fun to accurately dart from corridor to corridor, and I actually feel like the scheme has aged better than other primitive PS1 era control methods.
To alleviate some of the difficulty provided by the unwieldy controls and funky camera, a clever little mechanic was added: the radio. When enemies are in the same room as you, or encroaching on your parameter while you’re outside, the pocket device goes wild with static, alerting you to their presence. So, when you come upon a room with a particularly uncooperative camera angle, you’ll know if you need to react. Or, if you’re running through a bigger area where the game’s low draw distance is cunningly being masked by fog or darkness, the audio cue will tell you when to start going all serpentine. And you would think that – like the alternate reality deal – this would make things predictable, because it always primes you before an enemy encounter, hence adding a sense of security; but that’s not the case. Interestingly, the radio is unreliable in some situations: it might go off because of some otherwise harmless environmental feature, and there are even enemies that don’t elicit a response. These occurrences are just frequent enough to make it feel like the game isn’t arbitrarily breaking its own rules, but also just infrequent enough for you to safely rely on the device for the vast majority of your journey. Even if it operates accurately 95% of the time, that 5% ensures there’s always an air of tenseness.
Even with all these elements stacked against you, Silent Hill isn’t as difficult as you’d think. Though I incurred a few deaths while getting everything figured out in the beginning, they became less frequent the more I played. And despite the clunky feel attached to the physical weapons, the ranged attacks tend to hit their mark provided you’re facing an enemy, and you’re given ample ammunition. Resident Evil 4 this is not: Harry’s infinite hammerspace allows him to carry all the supplies he happens upon, and boy howdy does he happen upon a lot. It’s true that, in typical survival horror fashion, I ended up running away from enemies more often than not, but after discovering I had saved up over 100 handgun rounds in the first major “dungeon,” it became obvious that Silent Hill expects you to let loose a bit. It’s not as though you’ll be barrowing down hallways, shotgun in hand, rendering everything in sight a demonic mush – the controls prevent this more than anything – but you have the freedom to be surprisingly liberal with your supplies. This culminated in a slight problem at the end, where I had so many healing items that I was able to patch myself up whenever I ran into trouble (physically, because between the low vision and the controls, you’ll run into a lot of things), and was perfectly fine on firepower despite passing over the game’s strongest weapon. The issue isn’t helped by the bosses, which don’t feel as threatening as they should given your inventory. I imagine the game’s hard mode remedies some of these issues, though.
All that being said, the game’s pretty effective at being scary, at least at first. Like I mentioned, that feeling begins to erode a bit once you’re used to the structure and overflowing equipment menu, but certain stretches are impressively nerve-wracking. Plus, Silent Hill uses its jump scares sparingly, so when they do rear their head, they can be genuinely alarming. And like, come on. All PS1 games have that unsettling, uncanny early ponygon nonsense going on anyway, and that’s always been creepy.
The oftentimes tenebrous atmosphere and the nature of the gameplay share a big role in inciting this fear, but Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack is masterful in its ability to encapsulate the essence of what’s on screen, as well as what the player is feeling. Simultaneously, the score stands powerfully on its own with its creative use of industrial rock that, often, can feel more threatening than anything you’ll experience in the game. But their occurrence serves to punctuate long stretches of ambient tracks, and are made all the more salient by rare, haunting melodies performed by lo-fi guitar or piano. The music of Silent Hill is both abrasive and beautiful; both irritating and profound. The OST sounds like how Silent Hill feels to play, in a way. In fact, I’ve been listening to it while writing this, so if my prose seems particularly morbid today, that’s probably why.
If there’s anything that messes with Silent Hill’s tight mix of harmonizing elements, it would be the story. Though broad and minimal at first, it quickly veers into the “cults and demons” territory horror franchises always seem compelled to go. The story bits can be oddly amusing, and by virtue of what’s either clever writing or a wonky translation, character interaction always feels a bit off, so there’s an added layer of uncanny. Still, the silliness doesn’t do it many favours, unless you share a fondness of that awkward, 64-bit charm.
One thing I will say though, is that I appreciate the game providing narrative reasons for its use of spooky hospital imagery other than the more problematic “mental asylums are scary, man” justification. Bloodied gurneys, broken wheelchairs, possessed nurses, ghost children; these things aren’t here simply because they’re scary. The story being centred on a little girl’s lost childhood, whose occult powers caused a life of abject misery for her and those around her, means there’s a symbolic significance to a lot of things you’ll encounter. Again though, this is mostly disseminated through setting and atmosphere rather than the goofy albeit charming cutscenes. The extended universe stuff is stellar, but doesn’t exactly translate into the tone of the conversations (though I appreciate the humorous, entirely inappropriate character credits seen at the end).
And really, that harmony I brought up is what makes Silent Hill so cool. It has all these weird little mechanics that would probably be annoying on their own. It has an atmosphere that wouldn’t really work if the gameplay wasn’t on the same page. And it has music that makes the player more tense than they otherwise would be (and that I think is currently making me feel physically ill, I might add). The game’s an easy recommendation if you’re looking to get into the survival horror genre, what with its comparatively easier difficulty. And if you’ve grown sick of all the burning street trash trying to emulate it, now’s a good time to mourn what we’ve lost.