The 1st PlayStation, in my humble opinion, was the home of horror games. Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Parasite Eve, Nightmare Creatures, Alone in the Dark, Martian Gothic, Clock Tower, Hellnight, Shadow Man, and Dino Crisis to name but a few. I vividly remember coming home from school one day in 1996 and watching my dad play the first Resident Evil; cowering behind the cushion as that very first zombie stops chowing down on human flesh and turns its crusty face towards the camera.
But of all the survival horror games on the very 1st PlayStation, it is Silent Hill for which I hold the fondest memories. Released 22 years ago (1999), Silent Hill set itself apart from its contemporaries by delivering a profoundly psychological experience. Whereas games such as Resident Evil and Dino Crisis which focused on the intense struggle between the protagonist and the monsters of the day, Silent Hill simply wanted to scare the shit out of the player. Like a British Health and Safety film from the Seventies.
In Resident Evil, the King Shit of survival horror in the 90’s, the terror came from rotten zombies breaking through doors, fighting giant snakes to obtain a key needed to progress, being hunted by massive hulks in trench coats, and rounding a corner only to have your head sliced off by frog-like monsters with razor sharp claws. Silent Hill uses a psychological process in which in weaves together an uncomfortable industrial soundtrack, weird ambient noises, and suggestive, grisly imagery obscured by grainy pre-HD visuals. There was simply nothing else like it at the time – outside of inserting LSD into your brain via a rusty drill.
You play as Harry Mason, a writer (of course) who when the game begins is travelling to Silent Hill with his daughter. During the trip he narrowly avoids hitting a mysterious girl in the road and crashes his car. When he awakens on the outskirts of town, he learns that his daughter is missing and is forced to search the foggy abandoned town. As he does he uncovers a dangerous world of monsters and the occult, with a hellish other world bleeding into reality, and a cult who seek to bring their deranged god into reality.
During the course of the game, Harry will explore the town and learn the cabalist secrets below the surface, learning that the ‘normal’ town was already basically Twin Peaks before the madness. As he meets the few remaining insane inhabitants, Harry learns the reason why the nightmarish other world of rust and blood is seeping into reality, and how it connects to his daughter, Cheryl.
Silent Hill retains the formula of earlier survival horror titles. As well as the streets of Silent Hill which serves as a hub area, the key stages include a school, hospital, and amusement park. You explore searching for the way to proceed, solving puzzles and looking for keys and key items to progress. A variety of enemies litter the environments, mostly as obstacles – as the emphasis in survival horror is on resource management, and therefore the idea is to kill only bosses and enemies which are in your way.
Many of the franchise’s staples were introduced in this game, and are reflective of the series’ unique approach to survival horror. You have a flashlight to help navigate the dark areas, but it also attracts enemies to you like you’re on Twitter defending J K Rowling. Similarly, there is the radio that alerts you to when enemies are nearby, but it plays only ear-raping white noise…and the temptation will be to turn it off, like a dad angrily shouting at his kid to shut off that damn racket.
Part of what made Silent Hill’s story so unique is that it took something of inspiration from pulpy horror novels. The game mixes together small town horror tropes – such as you might find in a Dean Koontz or Stephen King novel – with occultism, New Age mysticism, trans-dimensional cosmic horror and some genuinely disturbing themes such as child abuse. It’s certainly no Journey to the West, but represented a more nuanced and mature story than anything else around at the time.
Silent Hill is very much a product of its era, and it represents why these sort of games cannot be made today. Being a writer, Harry is designed to be a sort of everyman (unlike the triple-hard, Arnie type protagonists of other survival horror games). To this end the typically clunky movement controls, in which you cannot change direction whilst still moving (referred to as ‘tank controls’), and the melee combat where Harry must stop and cannot move whilst attacking, all reflect the protagonist’s inexperience. Controlling Harry is like trying to navigate a Bagger 288 across a field of glue.
Even the series’ iconic all obscuring fog was simply a workaround for the developers to create expansive outdoor environments. Its easy to forget that the atmospheric fog was originally only there to stop the PlayStations CPU melting like the Nazis’ faces at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There’s something I quite like about early 3D graphics for horror games. You see a bloody image of corpse and there’s just enough clarity to make out what it is supposed to be, but the murky, pixelated graphics hide the detail forcing the mind to fill in the blanks.
And that is something that Silent Hill has always done well. Silent Hill 2 mastered the formula of screwing with the player, but the first game is no slouch either. The opening ten minutes of the game is masterful game design. You chase after the obscured form of Cheryl, first through the foggy but light streets of the town, and then through gloomy back alleys.
The initial mystery slowly gives way to sheer dread, as the environments become darker, more closed in, maze-like; the camera angles become disorientating and confusing, and an ominous drone simmers below the surface. Then you’re suddenly trapped and hunted down by knife wielding monsters: the only way to progress is to submit to the inevitable brutal stabbing like you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in Wolverhampton.
Ultimately it’s the oppressive fog, the disorientating camera angles, and game’s willingness to screw with the player that makes a Silent Hill game. All of those aforementioned things originated here, setting a solid base for the series to follow. These elements were all but lost once the series came to the west with Silent Hill Origins (the last, arguably, decent entry). The thing is you can’t just have a scary monster show up, making the sort of off-putting noise your mum makes when the kids off Xbox Live are sorting her out.
I think that all in all, Silent Hill holds up well. It’s not the best game in the series (that distinction belongs to 2 and 4), but it retains a unique feel. The soundtrack is rawer and angrier than anything which came before or after: a journey through an utterly desolate industrial world, like vising Sheffield in the 80’s.
Enemy selection is probably the weakest in the series, with the enemies being themed around a little girl’s fears instead say a randy bastard’s sick desires (a la Silent Hill 2). So you’re fighting dogs, insects, monkey-men, parasite controlled nurses, teddy bear monsters (or murderous school children, in the regions of the world which had balls), and the fear of not getting enough likes on your latest Snapchat photo.
And with the exception of Silent Hill 4, this is perhaps the weirdest Silent Hill game – it feels like a mix of Japanese strangeness with its incomprehensible storytelling, and western survival horror. Most of the story is occult garbage (the infamous “gyromancy” scene) and honestly, though I could tell you what happens I couldn’t really explain the ins and outs of the story. As one of the characters says about the town’s inhabitants, “must be on drugs.”