I want to talk about the Silent Hill game series, because it and Resident Evil were two of my favorite game series at one time, and began my love of the difficult and often abused horror game genre. Unlike what Resident Evil has become in more recent iterations, Silent Hill still makes the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up at times, because for all its failings, it is a series that knows a little something about genuine fear.
Real fear is psychological, not simply gore or jump scares like the American horror film industry would like fans to believe. Silent Hill is a property that was limited by its technological ability, fearing the dreaded draw distance and textural issues, the designers added what has become its signature fog and darkness, letting those elements shape their world. Since 1999, Konami has been building on the mystery that is Silent Hill’s lore, and as convoluted as it may have become, one thing remains: Silent Hill is still a downright scary place.
With its dull color palate, reality bending design, and hard to see fog-laden depths, the town of Silent Hill is quite scary solely based off of its visual aspects, however that is only one of its many facets. The soundtrack for the series is quite the menace in its own right, incorporating haunting melodies, grinding and clanking metal, crying and screams, as well as sounds that the game’s monsters make. All of these things put together help create an atmosphere that makes walking down a hallway or empty street seem threatening, even with no monsters in sight. I had a friend who once tried an experiment to play the soundtracks from the first three games low in the background as he worked at home to see if it would unnerve him or change his mood, he didn’t make it that long.
The game uses a third person view with occasional fixed camera angles—angles very similar to Resident Evil but not as restrictive—for dramatic effect, giving players a false sense of having more control. Silent Hill is one of the few horror survival games that actually alerts players when enemies are coming, through radio static, a sound that eventually strikes its own special kind of fear. These things come together to encourage a hyperactive fight or flight reaction. Never be afraid to run away in Silent Hill, especially if it is anything more than a one on one confrontation. Most of the protagonists of the series are not trained soldiers or experts of any sort, but they are everyday men who are faced with the break in reality that occurs as their endurances and sanity are challenged.
These everyman characters run into personalities within Silent Hill that are assuredly insane or purely evil, because that is what it takes to live in such a place. Silent Hill is a place of regrets, mistakes, sins, and nightmares, which is why the majority of the cast is lost and irredeemable by the time the game starts, helping the player along unknowingly or leading them into a trap. A particular scene that stands out from Silent Hill 2 is the one in the bowling alley, making it clear that this is not a place fit for anyone to stay too long without great risk. These characters, victim and psycho alike, help to build the atmosphere and environment, knowing that no one can escape and that there is no salvation, because everyone the player meets is an example of how Silent Hill changes everyone for the worse. No one winds up in Silent Hill by mistake.
Each of these aspects is important because the beauty of the series, and how it harnesses fear, is in the setup, the mood, the world that is—in most of the games—allowed to have its own life. Although it may not be the best out there, it works. Several of my compatriots disagree with me about Silent Hill 4: The Room, claiming many different flaws and that it does not feel like the other games. I argue this wholeheartedly though, because from the premise alone, The Room struck me as a scary concept, with the main character unable to leave his apartment other than by access of a strange portal in his wall, a lack of memories, and foreboding messages scrawled on the wall. It is a beautiful starting point with horror, mystery, and a built in tension that plays off of a handful of fears from claustrophobia to abandonment, in essence a concentrated effect of what each of the games does. Silent Hill is a naturally scary place that doesn’t have to resort to cheap tricks, keeping its scariest bits, the otherworld, to some of the shortest sections to play through, because it isn’t the meat of the series. Silent Hill instead continues to build from an amazing foundation, which is why I will always return to this place of nightmares.