You find yourself in a strange town, often times with no recollection of how and why you got there. You know it’s important, something essential, something that you can’t turn your back on…but what?
Scratching at the back of your memory, haunting you, an itch you can’t reach, it spurs you on. Curiousity, fear, wonder…but why?
You’re in this town for a reason. Perhaps you can leave, if you’re a James Sutherland. Perhaps you can shut your eyes and pray the nightmares away, if your’e a Travis. Maybe you can’t leave, if you’re a Harry Mason. Maybe the nightmare would follow you even if you did, if you’re a Heather.
But no matter what, one thing is certain. This town has called out to you. This town has chosen you. Whether you’ve come to find the source of your daughter’s nightmares and now must find that same child as she’s become lost in the unforgiving streets laiden with monsters, or you’ve come at the behest of someone you once cherished who should no longer be among the living…regardless, one thing is certain.
This town has called out to you, and you have heeded its call. Something drives you on, something causes you to fight, and for no discernible reason, you cannot back down.
Silent Hill has a storied history as being one of the most frightening franchises in the horror genre. Originally conceived on the Sony Playstation, the only games that can hold a candle to it are the Fatal Frame series and possibly Siren (or Forbidden Siren if you’re in Europe). Silent Hill got a lot of things right in its hayday that the horror games of today, including those in that same series, seem to be forgetting.
I always find it humorous when someone wants to argue that titles like Fear and Resident Evil are survival horror. Personally, I don’t find any amount of terror in either game, which isn’t to say that they’re not fun titles, just not particularly scary ones. In Resident Evil I find fun action gameplay, and in Fear I find an intruiging, if a little twisted, storyline to follow. In many games that claim to be “Horror” or “Survival Horror” I just find run and gun action and amusing attempts at scares revolving around things jumping out atcha from a dark corner. Every “Horror” game becomes routine; as you walk down the hallway with your ridiculously overpowered weapon you look to your left. Air vent? A monster will jump out. You’ve already got you gun trained on its head before it even appears. Flickering light and a bunch of doors? Something will fly out of one of them. Long hallway? The lights will go out and when they come back on, lo and behold the token little ghost girl will be standing there waiting for you.
Horror in gaming has become trite, and true horror has been forsaken in the pursuit of “Westernizing the franchise!” Unfortunately Silent Hill has fallen victim to this as well. Now, as you know from my DMC: Devil May Cry compass piece (soon to be added to this blog), I’m the first one to tell fanboys and gals to quit whining and give something new a shot. As a result, I try to practice what I preach even though the Silent Hill: Downpour trailer has me a little concerned (Xeawn’s Note March 13, 2012: as it turned out, Downpour ended up being a quite a lot of fun!).
Now, I do find it a little upsetting that modern Silent Hill titles, i.e. Silent Hills past 4, have become more action oriented, but not at all because of “That’s not my Silent Hill!” syndrome. Rather, it leaves us with nothing in the way of classic, helpless horror. Siren is done, Clocktower is stuck revolving in a never ending conceptualization cycle, Nintendo won’t seem to give us any of the new Fatal Frame games in America, and really I can’t name any other pure horror titles. I don’t personally count Corpse Party on that list; I’m aware that it’s apparently drastically frightening, but the subject matter of subjecting children to the morbid atrocities that the game depicts is more than a little too graphic for my taste.
Which brings me to the next subject before getting into the meat of this article: the difference between sick horror and tasteful horror. Now, one could make the argument that any story depicting fear, pain and or death is sick, but not unlike the difference between Jason and Memento Mori, there is a clear distinction to be made here. A truly frightening tale that weaves into your mind and truly creates an ambiance of fear while driving you onward eager to see what’s next? That’s fine by me. A movie about a slasher who just goes around goring up the place? Not so much.
So, what makes a good horror game? Well, for one, it’s the
We might not all be fathers, husbands, daughters or…truckers, but, we can relate to each main character’s unique situation and driving force. You may or may not have a child, but you can relate to the real fear and motivation that losing one in a strange town might bring. When Harry Mason ended up getting in a car accident at the beginning of Silent Hill and passed out, only to find his little girl missing, you know that it’s on. As a rational human being, parent or not you know there is absolutely nothing in this world or any other that’s going to keep you from finding and protecting your child.
Add to that the fact that you’ve got murderous monsters ranging from flying demons to acid spitting freaks, and you’ve got a parent’s worst nightmare. What I liked about Harry is, he’s not Chris Redfield, he’s not Leon Kennedy, he’s not Master Chief. Harry Mason is an ordinary guy. He’s just a regular middle aged man looking for his child. This means he’s not an expert marksman, he’s not going around shoving his fist through fool’s throats, he’s scared out of his wits and trying to find some way to make things right. He’s got authority figures telling him to stay put, and frightened people begging for his help, but at the end of the day he’s got to save his child. Harry Mason takes what he can find and he soldiers up.
James Sutherland is another relatable, although not as likeable character. I’m trying to write this without spoilers, especially since I want those picking up the Silent Hill HD Collection to be able to enjoy the story if they’ve never played before, but I’ll suffice to say that while James isn’t my favorite person in the world he is still relateable.
Losing a loved one is one of the most terrible pains in this world. If you’ve never had that loss come in the form of your other half, I’m sure you can imagine what that pain might feel like if you’ve ever had a loved one depart from this Earth. In that moment of pain, sorrow and confusion, if you were offered even the slightest glimmer of hope that they might still be alive, you’d probably take it, realistically. Or, you could be pragmatic and just not, but if you didn’t chances are it’d be gnawing at the back of your mind for the rest of your life.
James has the opportunity to find his wife, to find her alive and well, and he takes it. While he doesn’t have a lost daughter to spur him on and make him brave the morbid nightmare that is Silent Hill, he has somethng equally as powerful: the desire to bring back the one he loved.
I could hit up every protagonist in the series for good reasons why they’re relateable characters, but I’ll leave the last note on Heather. In my opinion, Heather was the last of the true Silent Hill protagonists. I just couldn’t really click with Travis, I really saw no reason to care about Alex, and I honestly don’t really remember the main character of The Room.
Heather however is another character most people can relate to. Reversing the roles now, Heather is daddy’s girl who grew up without her mother. She’s alone in a strange town and finds herself being plagued by horrific monsters. She’s trying desperately to escape as the monsters, AND a twisted cult leader who knows a certain something about her past won’t leave her be. She’s approached by a strange detective who seems to know about her true history, as well as a handsome if unnerving gentleman who may or may not be trustworthy. Essentially, she’s thrust into a terrible nightmare situation alone with no one to trust.
Why was the daddy’s girl part important? For the same reason why Heather is my favorite Silent Hill character next to Angela Orosco of Silent Hill 2. Heather is the strongest and most stentorian of all the series’ protagonists in my opinion (though arguably Alex did have a worse trauma situation towards the end of his story). Heather made a choice that no other Silent Hill protagonist had made before, or has to come.
Heather was home free. She was away from the nightmare. For all intents and purposes, she was safe. However, she chose to go back. She chose to return to that horrid place. She chose to dig even deeper into the darkness. Why? Because her father was in danger, and there was nothing in the world that was going to keep her from trying to save him. Not even, Silent Hill.
The writers that craft the Silent Hill stories (the original ones anyways) create characters that aren’t so different from you and I. For that reason, we can truly get into the game. We can become our protagonist, and with that we can become frightened that much more so by the ambient noise, darkness, flickering lights, and of course that terrible, terrible fog.
While games like Clock Tower 3 and Fatal Frame have their scares to them, the immersion doesn’t quite work as well. For one thing, I’m not a fourteen year old school girl. I’m not an eighteen year old daddy’s girl either, but I can relate to Heather and her fears and her struggles. Alyssa and whoever the MC of Fatal Frame was? Not so much. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be reduced to a sniveling mass of stereotypical double x chromosomes the moment my enemy presented himself. I’d also like to think that if I WERE a fourteen year old girl and my base of operations was my house, I’d have the pragmatic intelligence to change out of a knee length skirt before tracking down serial killing demons or traveling to a forbidden island of ghosts in search of my brother. I’m just saying.
Ah, but relateable characters aren’t enough to truly present an element of fear. You must first set the tone with the proper
Darkness, fog, guttural noises, dripping water, grinding gears, loud banging on the walls, floors and ceiling. Rust, blood, jagged metal, walls lined with grating that one can’t quite see the other side of. Flickering lights, dead ends, an unreliable flashlight and the warning static of a handheld radio. All of these things combined with Akira Yamaoka’s haunting melodies and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s incredible voice work bring the nightmare world of Silent Hill to life.
There is a clear distinction between places where things will hurt you, and places where they will not. For the most part, fog = relative safety, good lighting means you can let your guard down a little, and home decor that doesn’t look like Lovecraft and Hitchcock weighed in on it is generally clear sign that a monster isn’t going to tear your face off.
However, the moment you hear that dreadful siren, or open that door to darkness and a rueful mess you know that your safety has been stripped away. The light is gone, your peace is gone, you are now in the clutches of Silent Hill.
Because in this series, it’s not just monsters, demons and a cult that have it out for you; it’s a whole bloody town. Of course, what’s a good horror game without
C) The enemies
Whether they come in the form of armless leathery creatures that vomit acid or large muscular monstrocities with faces where their hands should be, Silent Hill is home to some of the most unnerving monsters you’ll ever see. I pity the artist that contributes these designs, his or her head can’t possibly be a peaceful place. Now, while their design and method of attack is frightening enough, every enemy has something unique that adds another layer to their dark presence.
There are the devil dogs that open not just their mouths, but their entire bodies to attack you, the acid spitters who amble towards you with legs akimbo, the zombie nurses with the twitchy movements and disfigured visage, and the titans with the purpetually grinning faces. All four of them.
There are enemies that fly overhead and assault you without warning, and creatures that resemble two bodies pressed morbidly into one. And of course, there is the slow and steady pull of a jagged broadsword being dragged across the pavement…just…outside…of your sight.
The monsters of Silent Hill are truly the stuff that nightmares are made of, however, what good is a terrifying enemy without a sense of complete and total
Again, in Silent Hill you are not a member of S.T.A.R.S. You are not a psychic commando. You are not a suped up space marine. You are an ordinary human being, an everyman.
Aside from Alex with his marine corp background and Travis with his…being a trucker (which somehow qualifies him to throw down like his name was Muhammad Ali), you’re an average person in an above average nightmarish situation.
You’re a middle aged single parent who is a writer. You’re a regular joe just looking for his wife. You’re a teenage girl who has probably never set foot on a firing range. Part of what makes Silent Hill so wonderful is that feeling of helplessness. There is actually a protocal built into every Silent Hill game pre-Homecoming that would make certain you would miss some of your shots. Rather than being Annie Oaklie with a pistol, you’re someone who probably never used a gun before in your life. Except maybe James, I wouldn’t put much past that guy.
Even when you get a particularly nice weapon like the shotgun, you never feel invincible. Most “horror” games I can pick up a really nice gun and I’m good to go for the rest of the journey. Not in Silent Hill. Your guns may misfire, ammo is sparse at best, and enemies soak up bullets as though they were rain drops. Often times your best course of action is to run as best you can. Yes, to try to run through dark twisting hallways, sudden drops, long stairwells that may lead to nowhere at all, deadends round’ every corner, and of course, more monsters.
Functioning with a sort of mob mentality, the more you flee, the more there seems to be creatures that wish to do you harm. You can stand and try to fight if you’d like, but what if your gun jams? What if you miss? You only have five bullets at the moment, will that be enough to drop the hulking creature in front of you? What about the dogs at its side? What about that zombie nurse behind that cracked open door? Should you run? What if there’s more enemies on the other side? What if you’re heading for a dead end.
What if you pull the trigger, and you alert five more monsters to your position while trying to defend yourself from two?
They can see you coming, so you turn off your lights, but now you can barely see where your going. What if you bump into an enemy in the shadows? You turn off your radio, because that very same device that alerts you to their presence with its white noise, alerts them to yours. So you have to make a choice; do you fight? Do you run? Do you cut off your only aid in finding the monsters while trying to crawl your way through the darkness and alert no one?
What do you do? Because, in the town of Silent Hill every choice is equally as frightening and as deadly. And the monsters, the cult and the town aren’t your only enemies. You’ve also got to contend with
E) Your mind
Because why are you there really? Did Mary pass two weeks ago, or longer? Is that woman you’re helping really so innocent and helpless? Is the doctor? Is that woman stalking you really your true enemy, or are you?
Silent Hill weaves a narrative that always has you asking why. You question the sanity of the protagonist constantly, as well as the purity of their mission. You question everything from “Am I really this good person deserving of salvation from this town” to “Are there really monsters in Silent Hill?”
With multiple endings to each story and the interpretation left open to the player generally until a new title is released, one must constantly wonder. Who is the real threat in this town? Is there anyone that you can trust? Can you even trust yourself? In Silent Hill, every story always has
F) A twist
And it’s generally one that you’ll never see coming.
So there you have it in a nutshell. With the HD re-release of Silent Hills 2 and 3 out now and properly patched, now is the perfect time to reintroduce yourself to the nightmare, or else experience it for the very first time. Whether you’re looking for a good psychological horror title, or a change of pace from all the so called horror games that have you wandering their creepy halls with a rocket launcher slung over your shoulder, you can’t go wrong with Silent Hill.
Coming in both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 flavors with both the original script and voice acting as well as a revised one by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, these relatively oldschool classics are sure not to disappoint.
Just make sure you keep a change of pants and underwear nearby, you’ll likely need them. Xeawn, out.