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Twitchy Thumbs: Silent Hill (1999)
The following is what would have been the first entry in an ongoing column about video games. However, since the site will no longer be updating after June 15th, only one entry was produced. We hope you enjoy!
Way back in 1999 when Silent Hill was released for the Playstation, videogaming was in the middle of a massive image shift. With the arrival and success of the Playstation in 1996 gaming was becoming mainstream and cool. It was no longer considered the past time of pasty kids with no friends or the hopelessly nerdy. Advances in technology enabled developers to add a cinematic sheen to their games for the first time and titles like Gran Turismo, Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid were leading the pack in this new cinematic approach. Even Hollywood was getting in on this blossoming medium, with the likes of Bruce Willis lending his likeness and voice to generic shoot em up Apocalypse. And in the midst of all this came Silent Hill. Initially seen as a rival to flagship horror franchise Resident Evil, it went on to become a big success in its own right and the years since have seen numerous sequels, spin-offs, merchandising, films and even a remake. The series even has its own iconic bogeyman in the hulking shape of Pyramid Head. But it all started with the first game, a relentless, nerve shredding nightmare.
The game's memorable opening sees hero Harry Mason and his young daughter Cheryl taking a trip to the quiet mountain town of Silent Hill. While driving late at night Harry swerves to avoid hitting a figure who walks out into the middle of the road and ends up crashing his jeep. He wakes up to find his daughter missing and he stumbles into Silent Hill to look for her, only to find the town empty and shrouded in an eerie fog. He catches a quick glimpse of a girl who looks like Cheryl and chases her down an alleyway. The deeper he gets the darker and narrower the alley becomes, until a distant siren sounds and plunges the world into darkness. He uses a lighter to see where he's going and finds a trail of blood and bodies, before being surrounded by nightmarish creatures that proceed to kill him. Yes, the hero dies in the first 10 minutes of the game. But it's okay because he wakes from his horrible nightmare in a cafe with a cop for company, and at this point, the game has your undivided attention.
This opening segment lays all the groundwork for what lies ahead. As well as the basics of introducing you to the world and the controls, it also starts to work on you psychologically, playing exactly like a nightmare. The deeper you go down that alleyway the more that feeling of dread starts to gnaw at you. You know something bad is about to happen, and everything from the screeching industrial soundtrack to the dizzying camera angles reinforces this. If you try to backtrack the way you came you face a dead end, forcing you to confront whatever's ahead. At the time the game came out no other horror title had manipulated the player's fears like this, and when talking about why the game worked so well you have to look at what it did differently.
For starters, as a hero Harry Mason was a complete breath of fresh air, as he was anything but. He's a terrible shot with a gun and he's not much better at hand to hand combat. If he runs for an extended period of time he start's panting like a chain smoker. He has no one-liners or special moves. Basically, he's a wimp. Whereas most game's will put you in the role of an elite soldier or tough cop with lots of firepower and health, Silent Hill puts you alone in the dark surrounded by monsters. Wisely recognising that a capable hero with an assault rifle is detrimental to building true fear the game has stripped you of all these things. You are not supposed to feel capable. You are supposed to feel panicked and helpless, as you would more than likely feel if you were in the character's shoes.
Adding to this feeling of vulnerability is the ominous fog that surrounds the town. The fog serves the function (besides masking the graphical limitations of the Playstation) of giving the surrounding monsters a place to hide, making you jump at every squawk or screech. Early in the game you receive a broken radio that emits a crackling noise whenever a monster is nearby. The closer you get the louder the static becomes, an effect that can really grate on your nerves after awhile. Knowing an enemy is nearby but not being able to pinpoint it puts you in a constant state of anxiety. Things aren't much better when you head indoors. In many cases a small clip-on flashlight will be Harry's only source of light, and of course this has the added disadvantage of drawing the monsters TO you. So you can turn it off and stumble around in the dark, or leave it on and try to outrun whatever's chasing you. And neither choice is very attractive. These gameplay mechanics are carefully designed to keep you feeling overwhelmed. The character is in a stressful situation and the game want you to experience that stress right alongside him.
Replaying a game that is now twelve years old brings with it the warm glow of nostalgia as well as exposing the fact that a lot of elements haven't aged well. Obviously the graphics don't hold up compared to modern games, although it still looks handsome in parts. Character movement is often stiff and unresponsive. Combat can be incredibly frustrating. More than once when I found myself fighting against two or more monsters at a time, the auto aim decided to lock onto a creature in the distance, ignoring the one nearest to me. And since Harry is a bad shot at the best of times, none of the bullets even hit the monster I was locked onto. Some of the puzzles you encounter have needlessly complex solutions. There is a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from solving one all on your own, but more often than not the Internet had to provide the answer (I'm looking at YOU piano puzzle!). But these complaints aside, the game is still great fun to play, and at no time are you bored with it.
And the gameplay compensates for the lack of a truly compelling plot. As it unfolds you encounter doppelgangers, drug running doctors, evil cults and the birth of some kind of demon god and the whole thing is messy and convoluted. The game sets up a good mystery but it has trouble paying it off in a satisfying way, and I'm still not entirely sure what happened. And in keeping with the general quality of voice acting at the time the performances are pretty stilted. But it's worth noting the plot itself shows a level of maturity that wasn't found in many games at the time, being that it's based on the age old fear of the loss of a child. Subsequent games in the series would improve greatly on the gameplay and story elements (Silent Hill 2 is generally considered the series' highpoint) but since Silent Hill was the game that was breaking this new ground some plot wrinkles are forgivable. The imagery and art direction is rich in subtext. There is the slightly sexual edge to some of the creatures (the faceless nurses, the giant maggot etc). Fear of hospitalisation is a recurring theme, being seen in the abandoned wheelchairs and blood splattered hospital gurneys that litter the levels.
And with this imagery it's clear that developers Konami were obviously inspired by years of horror literature and movies in creating the game. Just looking at the basic setup of the plot an instant literary influence would be Stephen King's The Mist, with its story of ordinary people surrounded by a mysterious mist filled with deadly creatures. The names of the various streets in Silent Hill reference famous authors such as Richard Matheson, Mary Shelly and Ray Bradbury. Fairy tales play a big part in the puzzles you come across with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz amongst others being referenced. Filmic references come through strongly in the sinister Otherworld which plays like its straight out of Hellraiser. It's a rusty, blood smeared nightmare with hanging chains and bound bodies littering the walls and corridors. The "Bad" ending of the game sees a dead Harry slumped over in his crashed jeep suggesting it was all a dying dream, an idea common to a number of psychological horror thrillers. And the image of a terrified, screaming Cheryl being played on multiple television sets throughout one level wouldn't look out of place in a David Lynch film.
And just as books and films inspired the game, the inspiration came full circle in 2006 when director Christophe Gans directed a big screen adaptation of Silent Hill and created probably the best received game to film translation. Harry underwent a sex change and become Rose DeSaliva, but overall the film remains incredibly faithful to its source material. The opening scene of the game is recreated shot for shot. The visual design, the creatures and the game's soundtrack are all retained. Some might argue that it was too slavish an adaptation, as a montage of actress Radha Mitchell repeatedly looking at a town map was hardly necessary. And intentionally or not, it also recreated the convoluted plot and stilted dialogue of the game. But it still stands as a visually stunning and artfully directed horror film that respects its videogame origins. A sequel, based on the plot of the third game, is due for release next year.
And finally no article on the game would be complete without mentioning the contributions of series composer and sound designer Akira Yamaoka. His effect on the atmosphere of the game cannot be underestimated. His score is a masterclass in building tension and unease, and depending on the scene his music can switch between beautiful and melancholy to dark and despairing. His music is often mixed up with the sound design, almost as if the music is emanating from the world itself. In the case of the Otherworld sections his music will comprised almost entirely of harsh industrial sound effects, designed to cause maximum apprehension. His music is such a vital part of what makes the game (and the series as a whole) work that it's almost impossible to imagine without it.
Even if the look and design of the game have not aged well, that doesn't change the fact that Silent Hill is an undoubted landmark in the horror videogame genre. It pioneered gameplay and design choices that have been continuously "borrowed" by many other games in the decade since its release and its impact on the genre is undeniable. If you haven't played it before then take it from me, a trip to the sleepy little town of Silent Hill is a trip well worth taking.