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‘Silent Hill’ Retrospective: There And Back Again

SH1Retrospective

Written by Brittany Vincent, @MolotovCupcake

Total darkness shrouds you. Armed with only a flashlight, a trembling beam of light guides you as the world you once knew crumbles away into something more sinister. The ambient silence from your dying radio roars to a deafening buzz, and suddenly you’re no longer yourself. Fear has overtaken you, transformed you into some sort of inhuman being, one that has no qualms about burying an axe into the skull of wretched creatures that roam the landscape to ensure your survival. Because nothing else matters now other than escaping the personal hell rising up around you. You reach for a rusted pipe, the only viable weapon in your vicinity, and trudge forward into the abyss.

This is your life now. This is Silent Hill.

But it’s not just a mere fictional town. It’s hallowed ground for horror enthusiasts. The popular franchise completely revolutionized the way psychological terror incorporates itself into the more primitive jump scares and cheap pop-up tactics from worlds ago. Where most of the chills and thrills we found ourselves cowering from under cover of a heavy blanket in our bedrooms came from the sudden jolt of a hellhound busting through a window, shattering glass and our fleeting sense of safety, the cinematic horror of Silent Hill relied on something more sinister: the human psyche and the myriad of demons within.

Its unique brand of psychological horror used in lieu of visceral horror completely altered the limits of what would eventually become acceptable in gaming, paving the way for aware of equally disturbing exercises in survival horror that valued an unsettling atmosphere over B-movie schlock. Silent Hill was a pioneer even when game critics judged it solely as a “slicker Resident Evil” clone, and even though it’s never been a perfect monster, it has certainly been an indomitable one.

In the heyday of the original PlayStation, Resident Evil was king of the fledgling survival horror genre, or at least as far as 3D environments were concerned. And while the prodigious Capcom classic was worth its weight in gold, in terms of its shock factor and status as “go-to zombie classic,” it was very much a product of very American-styled horror, with big guns, tough guy heroes, and quite possibly one of the most iconic villains in history. Resident Evil was a gory, explosive success. But it lacked a certain something – aspects that no one had truly begun to explore just yet.

Enter Team Silent, the development team behind the franchise’s starting point. After ownership of Konami had changed hands in 1996, the company looked to push a project that might find its niche amongst American consumers. Team Silent was formed from members of the Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo studio, and attempts were made at putting a “Hollywood” slant on their future project so as to attract American audiences for their next big hit.

With a mishmash of cultural references such as David Lynch’s erratic filmmaking and composer Angelo Badalamenti’s musical motifs, the project quickly evolved into a melting pot of media oddities already enjoyed by the staff, with early versions referencing everything from Michael Crichton’s The Lost World to Troma Studios producers. While there were changes and cuts made by American staff to alter these references, the influences are easily seen in the narrative that unfolds and especially within the multiple puzzles around the world of Silent Hill. And despite its refusal to conform to mainstream ideas in horror, it would begin making waves in the realm, whether it knew it or not. By the time Silent Hill released in 1999, it was already initiating a chain of events that would lead to a veritable renaissance in the game industry when it came to scaring the wits out of its patrons.

The haze of fog veiling the creepy town, the usage of grinding industrial as a backdrop for the madness unfolding onscreen, and the cold, steely atmosphere invited naysayers in again for another look. The absence of in-your-face shockers or classic monsters seemed to both puzzle and captivate players, as well as the strange third-person controls that didn’t always work the way you needed them to, but added a sense of urgency to an already unsettling atmosphere that didn’t openly announce its intentions.

Though the voice actors were criticized for lackluster performances, despite the outside references to other games, critics generally regarded Silent Hill as a triumph of psychological horror later on down the road, though the ball didn’t really get to rolling until subsequent releases found the niche Team Silent originally meant to carve. The onslaught of disturbing mannequin-like creatures, psychotic nurses, and tales of death and rebirth would press on, through a whopping eight more installations, evolving and transforming with each subsequent entry.

Silent Hill¸especially the first game, has lived on in our hearts for some time as, for many, it was their first brush with horror in video gaming, or at least the first time they found their foundations shaken to the core. While the series has been in flux over the past few years, we’re still holding out hope that we can go back to the golden days from the beginning. It’s a little too early to tell what’s in the future for the little scary game that could, but one thing’s for certain: no matter what, we’ll be waiting, in our special place – in our restless dreams, where we see that town, Silent Hill.

  • huntermc

    The first Silent Hill game was a real mindfuck to play, even with the blocky PS1 graphics. Even as a full grown adult, I was afraid to play that game alone in the basement at night.