In 1999, there really was only one game series that was labeled "survival horror." For those that may not know, "survival horror" is a genre that sets out to scare you. Often, it's you controlling a character through a scary place, fighting off monsters, managing items, inventory and (hopefully) weapons and solving puzzles to proceed. The series most associated to that was Resident Evil, which burst on to the scene in 1996 and had a fantastic follow-up with Resident Evil 2 in 1998. It was a series that created something new and interesting (though it had a ton of inspiration) and made this new genre viable, but it was also the only one that was really doing it. Capcom, the developer, had the market cornered.
So here came 1999, and long-rival game maker Konami there their hat in to the ring. And you know what? They beat it. They beat it hard. Oh, nostalgically-speaking I loved the first two Resident Evil titles, but Silent Hill was the first time I actually felt a sense of danger around every corner. Whereas Resident Evil had weapons and puzzles, Silent Hill had atmosphere and lots of running away. There's nothing that will make you feel more on the edge of your seat than having a weapon taken out of your hands.
I love being scared. But what's not scary to me is action and predictability. Resident Evil, though I loved those games, was focused on shooting hordes of zombies and kind of knowing what to expect - by that I mean it was highly inspired by horror movies. The large dose of cheesiness and camp probably didn't help matters. Sure, it was smart in doing what it did, but I never felt the risk other than dying and not saving. I never felt that "I really don't want to go in there" sensation.
Silent Hill has that. It has that every other minute, it feels like. And that's why it's something I remember so fondly as evoking an emotional response rather than just something I remember playing and saying "this is kinda cool."
No offense of Resident Evil in that regard, those are great games too, but just different kinds.
If Resident Evil is a George Romero zombie flick, Silent Hill is the disturbing Jacob's Ladder.
As you know, I'm kind of a fan of horror moves. I have been for a long time. Hell, that's why i loved the Resident Evil games because they made me feel as though I was in the middle of a horror movie and basting zombies. So in January of 1999, I was wrapping up my final semester of high school while working at a video store (of which I've referred to many times on this site). It was my job to order games. Now we didn't know what Silent Hill was or what to expect, but we ordered two copies: one to rent and one to sell. (Yeah, it was a small store).
The day we received the box 'o games, I immediately wasn't impressed by what I pulled out. It was a fairly generic looking jewel case. Hell, it was only a basic jewel case - Resident Evil 2 came in a fat, dual-disc case. It felt cheap and bland, so maybe ordering two copies was all we needed. As usual, one we priced to sell (49.95) and the other we opened and prepped for renting. While doing so, we always played a little bit of each game. I pried it out of its case, put the game in the demo Playstation we had near the front of the store and started to play. After a brief video-montage intro with creepy music, this happened:
"This is how you build tension" I thought. That's something Resident Evil never really did: build and layer its scary moments. Just watch this opening gameplay. It starts with running through the fog/mist, seeing shadows and chasing after them. You have no clue as to which direction to go, only following the shadows. This is game design at its finest: you're playing right in to the developers hands yet still feel as though you're making choices.
Then comes the alley. Again you aren't sure where you're going or for how long you must go, but you still hear things. That gate swing tells you to go that way. Then it begins: the infamous Silent Hill storm sirens. An alley full of blood. The vertigo-inducing camera movements. The slow fade to darkness. Then the creatures. Those damn creatures right out of nightmare.
And that's when it occurred to me: while Resident Evil wants to have you play around in a horror movie, Silent Hill wants you to relive your nightmares. Anything and everything can happen in a nightmare, and therefore anything and everything happens in Silent Hill. You're pulled in a direction but can't explain why, and even though you don't want the answers on the other side, you continue on. You have little to go on, even littler to defend and protect yourself and predict what could happen. The fear of being vulnerable is more frightening than anything. At least to me.
After that, another occurrence in my mind that was still trying to wrap itself around being messed with: I have to buy this game. So I did. Our only other copy before it even hit the shelf I bought at cost and never looked back. I think I eventually ordered another for the store, but not for a few weeks I'm sure. Shipping took a while, and I didn't want to wait. I wanted to have that feeling of being screwed with again and again, and Silent Hill did not disappoint on providing that.
Excuse me, Ms. Nurse. I could use some...oh...nevermind. Let me grab my rusty pipe.
Silent Hill manipulated me like no other game before it. It blends playing a video game with psychologically screwing with. It was a new way to play a game: not necessarily with your mind by solving puzzles or with action by using your thumbs, but by toying with your fears and exploiting them as you play. It likes to disturb, not scare. There's a difference. And being disturbed of what could be is far more scary than something that simply "is." I loved that, and realized that games that can toy with a player like that are rare indeed. This wasn't just scary noises and "boos," all set up in a stretch, but a thoughtful, layered excersise in the manipulation of a player's psyche that has sense been done to death in numerous other games- most of which, unsurprisingly, are also favorites of mine (Bioshock and Eternal Darkness to name a few).
What's funny is that I still recall the opening ten minutes or so perfectly vividly, yet I can barely be as specific for the rest of the game. Oh, I remember a few locations and enemies, but the first ten minutes were so powerfully presented that it overshadows everything else. One thing that should certainly not be overlooked in that process, though, is the story of Silent Hill. Not just the myth and the strangeness of it all, which involves other dimensions and deities and all sorts of strangeness, but the story of our main character, Harry Mason, as he wanders with only the drive to find his daughter. He's a conflicted man himself, though the sequel Silent Hill 2 will come in to the mold more with a flat-out character study, and the vague, raw emotion of a father becomes our driving force to the plot full of mystical vagueness.
If the first ten minutes wasn't something that was going to wow me, but now worries there as it certainly did, the use of light and shadow would be the other thing. I'd never seen this type of lighting used in a video game before, and ever sense I'm always impressed on how games used light from a single source and how shadows play with your visual. It feels as though you're moving the light everywhere and anywhere, but it's more manipulating contrast. In other words, you aren't illuminating something, you're trying to see through it and get clarity as to what that something actually is. Silent Hill loves making things unclear, thus making things scary. Hell, there's no better "fear of the unknown" than limiting what you can and can't see, then having a complete lack of music, a staticy radio that hisses and buzzes when creatures are near and, if you're lucky, a metal pipe to beat whatever it is you can't see and barely hear away from you when you they attack. And you know you're be attacked, at least you think you will be. Well…maybe if you slowly walk by that strange creature won't see you.
The use of light and shadow is probably the series' most notorious feature. Long hallways of darkness with rooms full of clutter and the way your little flashlight bounces around the room is one of the defining traits of the entire series, and it's hard to imagine anything else being quite as scary.
Come to think of it, I suppose Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 really spoiled me for the survival horror genre. Not merely be my comparison of games today and games of yesteryear, any nostalgic and retro player does that, but simply because they set the bar so high and made so many standards of the genre, that it's hard to live up to that. Not to mention few games really capture that sense of nightmares and dread like those two titles in particular. Even other Silent Hill games, which give good efforts every time but never quite reach those heights. I suppose, looking back now, we've seen the best that survival horror has to offer. No game will surpass it.
Silent Hill games love to dot their environments with creepy aesthetics. Nothing brings a room together than a painting of a demon and great lighting effects (here from Silent Hill 2). The infamous Pyramid Head appeared in the sequel.
Though I'm completely writing this for Silent Hill, there is a game that does everything better that Silent Hill sets up: Silent Hill 2. Better visuals, better lighting, better story, better control...it just feels better put together. Overall, it's a better game and probably far more deserving for an article, but this is about games that have influenced me personally, and though the sequel be superior, it didn't have nearly the impact its predecessor did on a personal level to me.
That being said, if you want an example of what the Silent Hill games are all about and have never played one before, Silent Hill 2 is still clear and away the best of the series. It just hits all the right notes...but if you want to see the roots of it all and still feel creeped out if you can get past the dated visuals, the original is well worth the time. I still have my copy...which apparently slowly becoming a collectors item these days. Hmmmm...should have ordered more than two copies, I guess.