When we talk about horror lots of us think about films and books, but gaming has lent itself very nicely to the horror genre. There’s something so perfectly immersive about video games that raises them up to be a key medium for the horror genre.
Today I want to talk about an old classic, one that, for me at least, was an early introduction to horror in the gaming medium. I am of course talking about Silent Hill.
Silent Hill is perhaps one of the best-known video game series’ and has paved the way for some amazing survival horror games. It was published by Konami in 1999 on the PlayStation, and while the game has its problems it’s still a great experience playing it now as it was when it first came out.
Story Summary –No major plot spoilers.
Harry Mason, our protagonist (and playable character), is heading off on vacation with his daughter Cheryl. On the way, they pass near the Town of Silent Hill, where Harry nearly hits a girl in the road and has to swerve causing an accident in which Harry passes out. When he wakes up Cheryl is gone.
Thus, we enter our setting for the game, the deserted and fog-covered town, Silent Hill. However, the town is more than it seems and as Harry searches for his daughter he is pulled into another version of the town. This version is very different, it’s dark and oppressive, threatening and unsettling. Not to mention it is populated by horrendous monsters.
During his search, Harry meets various characters including police officer Cybil, and fortune teller Dahlia.
Cybil, a tough and strong-willed cop is very sceptical of the town and the supernatural, thinking that everyone in the town is on drugs. Dahlia tells Harry of the darkness, which has been responsible for the disappearance of the townsfolk and the regular immersion into nightmares. She also tells him that there is a demon in the town, the girl he almost killed with his car, and it is after Cheryl.
There are two different endings to the game depending on the choices the player makes throughout the “good ending” happens if Harry saves Cybil or discovers a bottle of Aglaophotis or both. The “bad ending” happens if Harry kills Cybil and fails to find the bottle of Aglaophotis.
Silent Hill taps into so many types of fear and weaves them all together to tell an immersive and spine chilling story.
First and foremost it plays on our instinctual fear, the fact that you can never see more than a few feet ahead when in the town plays heavily on our fear of the unseen and unknown, especially when you start hearing things you cannot see. Then when the town warps into its nightmare it becomes dark and visibility is now reduced not by fog but by the dark.
The creatures/monsters that populate the nightmare Silent Hill are marvellously designed, with one foot in reality and the other in a nightmare. Silent Hill also tackles social tensions with the introduction of the cult which the entire town seems to be a part of and the drugs which have poisoned the town. In particular, the nurse Lisa Garland whos addiction allowed her to be blackmailed by the cult.
You play as Harry, who is, for want of a better word, just an ordinary chap. No super strength or amazing weapons, no combat training, or great weapons, he’s just a regular guy in a horrendous situation. The fact that Harry isn’t a superhero builds a feeling of vulnerability and helps build the tense and frightening atmosphere of the game. Naturally, you are discovering Silent Hill through Harry’s point of view, and his drive to find his daughter. His actions, which to an extent are your own, are believable, you can understand why he doesn’t try to flee in the face of impossible monsters.
The gameplay is relatively straightforward and builds tension and atmosphere. This is done by not focusing on combat, there’s plenty of times in this game where you will run for your life, as I said before Harry is just a normal, everyday chap, he’s not about to go hand to hand with monsters when running is a far more sensible approach. Combat is restricted as well, due to the fact that you can’t always find weapons or ammunition. The focus of the game is survival while searching for Harrys daughter, a key horror element.
The inherent mystery of Silent Hill is played up through the gameplay, the plot’s suspense and drama is enhanced by placing you, the player, right into Harry’s POV, powerless (beyond what he can find) and desperately seeking his lost daughter.
There is also an element of choice to the game such as when the player must choose to save or kill Cybil when she becomes possessed. This adds an element of immersion that might not have existed if the player didn’t feel like what they did had consequences.
The level design in the game is also geared to help build tension and fear. Fog and darkness are used throughout the game, adding to the feeling of vulnerability and terror, you literally have no idea what’s coming because you can’t see anything.
However, the use of fog was not initially for that reason, instead, it was considered because of the limitations of the console hardware, the poor PlayStation simply couldn’t handle too much at once, so to limit load screens and downtime which would have sucked you right out of the experience the developers had a constant load function and disguised it with fog and darkness. It is a cool and innovative way to get around a hardware problem that helped make the game all the more frightening and immersive.
Silent Hill’s atmosphere is created through various means, the abject terror at the monsters and the nightmare version of the town provokes a feeling of all-pervasive dread. The mystery that envelops the town and which is demonstrated physically through the level design, brings a strong atmosphere with it, for while your in fear of your surroundings and fear for Harry’s daughter you still want to know what the hell is going on, how did this town end up like this. The way the game feeds you information is well crafted, keeping you intrigued while also allowing you some satisfaction as you being to piece together the mystery around you.
The stakes of the game are clearly very high with Harry being driven to protect his daughter and survive in this extremely hostile place. The game’s stakes are clear from the moment it begins right up to the end. The plot has many twists and turns but the stakes remain high throughout, keeping you invested in Harry and his journey through Silent Hill.
Overall, Silent Hill is an awesome game which will pull you in and not let you go. With a strong story and high stakes to keep you interested, gameplay that leaves you feeling vulnerable and a tense atmosphere it has everything a good horror game needs. Not to mention well-crafted characters, and imaginative monsters.
I recommend playing with the lights on.