Silent Hill
By: Tristan Jones on February 8, 2006  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Platform: Sony Playstation
Developer: Konami
Players: 1
Year: 1999
OFLC Rating: MA15+
Silent Hill will forever be lumped in with that now extremely popular genre known as the "Survival Horror". This would all be well and good, but Silent Hill is far from a survival horror title. Silent Hill is straight up horror. Pure, unadulterated horror. Sure, you have to survive, but you have to do that in Super Mario Brothers, and that's hardly survival horror (unless you're afraid of colours, or ethnic stereotypes… or possibly turtles… then it could be bad…).

From the outset, Silent Hill looks to be telling a fairly basic story of man who loses his daughter in a town full of monsters and must save her, but don't be fooled. Silent Hill is (and has since become) an extremely deep story, full of twists and turns and more back-story than each member of Marvel's X-men combined.

Harry Mason is driving across the Midwest with his young daughter Cheryl, when out of nowhere a girl appears in the middle of the road. Swerving to miss her, Harry wrecks his car and loses consciousness. When he awakens, he finds himself in a town enshrouded in fog and his daughter missing, and very quickly realises that there's something extremely wrong in the town of Silent Hill.

The differences between this and its only real competition (Resident Evil) are glaringly obvious from the very beginning. Silent Hill is easily one of the most oppressive games I've come across, both viscerally and cerebrally, which is a very rare quality of horror games these days. Most tend to rely solely on soaking you in gore or messing with your head. Silent Hill manages to balance both, and the visceral horror of the game actually provides the catalyst for the more cerebral horror. Intimations of the horrific and seemingly out of context violence pretty much force you, as the viewer/player, to work out what happened and why, and how it fits in to the game (and given the bizarre and nightmarish nature of Silent Hill, can come down to a number of torturously grotesque situations).

This is where I feel Silent Hill, along with its sequels, has a huge edge over other games. It doesn't feel the necessity to spell everything out for the gamer. Often the scariest things are what our minds create, and Silent Hill plays on this, leaving you with a visual and very little else. The other great thing about the Silent Hill games, and this one in particular, is that they are open to a vast number of interpretations as to what is going on in Silent Hill. Everything from symbolic representations, the monsters, the characters, the town itself, it's history, to dimensions other than our own and reality are open to interpretation, and huge amounts of speculation and theories regarding Silent Hill can be found all over the internet. Konami have never said yes or no to anything either, so it truly is what you make of it.

Back to what I was getting at earlier, Silent Hill is surprisingly (and sometimes frustratingly) oppressive. Visually, the game is extremely wearing on the player. Confined spaces are made even more confined by the limited light provided by a pocket flashlight, and if you know there's an monster in the room, the feeling is taken to a whole other level. At the opposite end of the spectrum, larger areas are often confusing to the point where they can induce panic. If you're being chased by something in the netherworld, the limited vision will leave you running with no idea where to go or where your pursuer is. The duality of the open areas is interesting as well. When in 'normal' Silent Hill, the fog and snow is so choking that the open streets have an air of claustrophobia, and it really feels as if the town itself were against you (especially when you come across torn roads). The discoveries you make in the town when it's 'normal' have very torturous intimations and the general aesthetic of the netherworld is saturated in violence. The creatures, even the most unsuspecting, are more aggressive than any in the games that followed, particularly the Mumblers, disturbing little bastards with faces like the openings on the eggs from Alien. There's a ruthlessness taken towards the characters that can't be ignored either. People are left on their own without hesitation, everyone seems to be in that Dawn of the Dead state of mind and Harry doesn't really care about anyone else except his daughter (and as time goes by, Cybil Bennett, a patrol officer caught in the town). There's a really well played out relationship between Harry and a nurse trapped in the hospital that culminates in a particularly disturbing and downbeat moment. The same can also be said for Cybil, depending on how you play the game.

The game does not raise as many social or psychological comments as it's successors (most noticeably 2 and 4), but it does hint at things like medical malpractice, drug trades, and the influences of religion. The religious side of the game also presents the player with subtle and powerful scenes of child abuse and extremism. There are also a couple of nice little moments akin to Rosemary's Baby as Harry uncovers more and more about particular denizens of the town.

Technically, Silent Hill has a lot going for it, but it also has a few heavy detractors that will take a while to get used to. There were a number of moments where the sluggish response system had me fuming. Enemies that shouldn't be a problem to dispatch because of their slowness became representatives for the unfair as they ripped into me while I tried to attack. On the same note, the camera, though well placed and controllable, still presents problems when you need to quickly spin it around. It's quick, but that's only in the context of the game itself, it's still pretty damn slow when you sit back and watch yourself get torn to shreds by something you needed to see as soon as possible. The good thing is though that Konami clearly learnt their lessons from these mistakes and rectified these problems for the sequels.

The sound quality ranges from good to bad, with the sound effects running the entire gamut. Some sounds are clean and realistic, such as the majority of the weapon impact sounds, and environmental sounds, whereas others, such as certain gunshots, action sounds (running, weapon swings, etc.) will sound a little out of place and poorly recorded. The creature sounds run the same problems, varying from good to bad, depending on the creature, but that's more in terms of sound quality than realism (each monster having their own sounds that suit them – see the belching victims of Silent Hill 4's hospital for an example of 'No! Bad!'). The voice work, like most of these games is a little patchy too. The voice actress playing Dahlia is wonderful, managing to capture the threatening duality of the character, as is the woman who plays Lisa. Fortunately there's no Resident Evil voice acting here, the other voices are just fairly mediocre.

The music/soundscape is brilliant. Each one of these games has had a fantastic soundtrack, and while this one simply doesn't have the same musical capabilities (quality of instruments and such) of it successors, it still manages to reinforce the signature feel of the game with disturbing industrial throbs and mesmerizing combinations of musical instruments and real world sounds.

The graphics will probably present the biggest stumbling block for today's gamer though. Young gamers are likely to balk in disgust and, combined with the 'takes-time-to-get-used-to' controls, probably walk away without giving it a second look in. But we are talking PlayStation 1 here people, and Silent Hill really did push the machine for all it was worth. Unlike Resident Evil's pre-rendered sets, all the backgrounds and settings are three dimensional, so they are completely interactive, and surprisingly, look a lot better than Resident Evil (the original at least). Textures are low resolution, so they all look a bit muddy, but given the general aesthetic of the world and intended atmosphere this can be and is easily forgiven. There are huge amounts of detail in each area and considering the size of some areas, the low loading times are a pleasant surprise… and no – there are no 'doors' like Resident Evil. The use of light is surprisingly advanced for this generation of games too. The pocket torch gives off very limited amounts of light and the control of the lighting effects is surprisingly realistic (this moved forwards in leaps and bounds as the games went on).

Silent Hill also contains a vast amount of branching game play, which works extremely well given the size of many of the maps. If you like to explore, you can cover every inch of the town (something I'd recommend, both nasty and pleasant surprises in store for those who do), if you like to just run around and hack monsters you can do that too. There are so many things scattered through the game that you're almost guaranteed to find new things each time you play, and with four possible endings (and a fifth after you finish it once), there is always an incentive to come back. Each ending, while similar, is also very different in terms of wrapping up the events of the story. One person may get one ending and interpret the game very differently to someone who played it through and got a different one. There are also bonuses at the end of each game, so depending on rankings and how you played, you may be entitled to some very useful tools the next time you play. If you get the best possible ending, and explore the town completely, Silent Hill 3 is a much more fulfilling game than it would be for those who have done otherwise (or not even played the original).

While this is far from the best of the series, it still must be played (especially if you want to get the most out of Silent Hill 3). It is quite simply, a pure horror experience. With the third game being the only direct sequel to this game in the series, it's the only one that touches on the same sort of horror evoked by the original, but didn't remain as dually consistent viscerally or cerebrally. Silent Hill 2 and 4 played more on the cerebral side of things. If you can give it a little getting used to time, you are guaranteed to walk away very, very happy.
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