“In my restless dreams, I see that town.”
I miss Silent Hill. The games are still around, of course, and perhaps I ought to replay them – but you can’t really go back, and any replay is going to be more recollection than discovery. What I want, of course, is something which is capable of evoking the same sensations, the uncertainty and discomfort and doubt, the painful ugly beauty, but which doesn’t feel like a relic of a bygone age – and that is, for various reasons, an awful lot to ask.
What is it, specifically, that I dream of? Each of the three games of the original Silent Hill trilogy, while being broadly similar to one another, offer something different. The first game came out for the original Playstation, and has aged quite harshly – though some argue that the abstract confusion of its ancient polygons create more effective horror by forcing the player’s imagination to do more work. Coming out in 1999, Silent Hill was strongly inspired by Twin Peaks, and shares some of the same themes, such as a small nostalgic American town concealing deep and disturbing darkness and alternate worlds with warped doppelgangers. While you do find out more about what is causing the strange twisted monsters and shattered edges of the world to manifest over the course of the game, no hard answers are offered: Nonsensical things happen, many surreal explanations emerge, but while some are more convincing than others none become completely dominant or definitive.
Perhaps Silent Hill was never well-suited to having sequels: It’s difficult, after all, to follow up a plot when that plot is so abstract and left so full of questions. Somehow, despite this, Silent Hill 2 was developed and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series. One might ask, how did it so successfully resolve the abstract conflicting ideas of the first game’s plot? The answer, of course, is that it didn’t try to whatsoever – no, rather than continuing the plot of the first game, Silent Hill 2 assumes that Silent Hill has seemingly become a warped spot in the universe, a place anyone can stumble into, a place for penitence and reflection and suffering. Where the monsters of Silent Hill 1 were eventually revealed to be the warped and agonized imaginings of the child Harry was trying to rescue, the monsters of Silent Hill 2 are the warped and agonized imaginings of the hapless guilt-ridden people who found their way into this hellish purgatory. Though the series is broadly considered “psychological horror,” Silent Hill 2 is the entry where the horror is most closely tied to the psychology of the particular characters, the world around James taking shape to echo his guilt back towards him in extremely specific ways. Though it’s still horrifying, the tenor of the horror is notably different: An overwhelming sensation of sorrow and loss, of decay, of regret, rather than of acute pain and immediate violent threat.
While Silent Hill 2 dodged the question of what exactly was going on with Silent Hill 1, Silent Hill 3 removed any and all ambiguity and described exactly what was happening and why. This was a regrettable choice in my opinion, but these narrative weaknesses were counterbalanced by incredibly strong visual design and set-pieces. The moment-to-moment violence and uncertainty of Silent Hill 1 came back, but augmented with the new rendering capabilities offered by the Playstation 2: Fleshy walls bulged out from their moldings, threads of fluid pulsed, creating an uncomfortably organic and hostile space through which the player had to guide Heather, the smallest and most vulnerable protagonist of the series.
A few very distinctive gameplay characteristics were constants across all three of the games:
- First, the radio: Very early on, the player finds a radio playing static and picks it up. It quickly becomes evident that the static gets louder when living enemies are nearby and goes silent when they aren’t. I don’t think any explicit reason for the creatures creating radio static is ever brought up, but it has quite an interesting impact: Having this perfect information on when danger is nearby makes jump scares all but impossible, but makes the tension of imminent danger inescapable. The effect of this static is particularly interesting in a game where so much of the score is abstract industrial sounds stacking rhythmically against one another – the static and the music are similar enough in tone that each area’s music is extremely effectively tension-building. All the more because of…
- Second, the darkness. Many games, particularly horror games, have some form of “darkness,” of visual obfuscation: Silent Hill has several. In the first world, the only somewhat terrifying one which still bears some resemblance to reality, the darkness is a pervasive fog that makes it impossible to see far ahead, and in the second it’s pitch blackness, a complete absence of light. Many people noticed at the time that this was effective both as a means of improving performance, by reducing the amount of geometry that had to be drawn at any moment, and as a means of building tension – and this limitation of information had a particularly interesting effect in contrast with the radio’s provision of free information. However, there’s a third form of “darkness” that is less frequently noted: That of the game’s set perspective points, locking the camera to certain locations situationally, usually resulting in downwards angles that prevent long sight-lines. Such camera angles were actually the norm in Silent Hill’s predecessors, Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, since these games relied on pre-rendered backgrounds – it is notable that even after obviating the need for these by making a wholly rendered (albeit crudely so) 3D world, Silent Hill still kept these angles for many situations.
- Third, terrible controls. These were also standard for the genre at the time: Alone in the Dark established the norm which Resident Evil and Silent Hill followed, and in all cases it had much to do with the locked camera perspectives. Because the player didn’t have control of the camera, it was difficult to have controls relative to the camera’s angle, controls which would unexpectedly flop in different directions, so these games all embraced what are now called “tank controls”, where you could just turn left or right and move forward or back, driving the character like a tank. Now, I’m not going to make the contrarian argument that these controls were good, actually – only that they did serve a purpose. It was impossible to react quickly and fluently to threats, making those threats fundamentally more threatening through an enforced clumsiness.
One reason, perhaps, why there hasn’t been another Silent Hill in some time is at least two of these would be considered terrible game design in the context of most modern games. Almost no games are interested in obscuring visual information any more: “Darkness” is seldom truly dark in modern games, visual information is usually easy to parse out at any distance regardless of how dark a room is presented as being. This might be defended as an accessibility consideration, except dimly lit environments full of clutter are still quite present – thus we find the worst of both worlds, a dim and difficult to interpret space that nevertheless conceals nothing and leaves nothing to the imagination. Moreover, there’s simply no room for locked camera angles in 3d games any more – unless we want to countenance a return to tank controls it’s difficult to imagine a way around that one. Of course, finally, when nothing is truly obscured, what’s the point of a radio telling you danger is nearby? Rather than ratcheting the tension, most of the time it will simply lead you to turn around and see the danger.
Perhaps a greater obstacle than the tenets of “good game design”, though, are those of “good graphics”. While the latter two Silent Hill games looked remarkably good for the time, and still hold up reasonably well, the “trick” of creating more impressive and impactful environments on a limited processing budget by restricting draw distance has been obsoleted. Now processing power is nearly unlimited and we have whatever we need to draw as much garbage as we want on-screen. With this leeway, making a big budget horror game, trying to square the circle of concealing information while making everything look impressive, has approached impossibility. It’s as though, hearing the anecdote about how the animatronic shark used in Jaws looked so terrible that they tried to put it on-screen as little as possible, someone decided “well obviously we need to remake Jaws with a perfect 3D-rendered shark and put it on-screen as much as possible!”
Not only would many consider the Silent Hill games to have Bad Game Design and Bad Graphics, many might also describe them now as having Bad Writing. Most of the major plot points happen off-screen long before the games start, most of the information you find about what’s happening is fragmented and contradictory, character motivations seem muddy and confused and there are seldom any definitive answers. What’s left is something intrinsically unsatisfying to anyone who wants a defined plotline with an absence of “plot holes”; something dream-like, confusing, and open to interpretation.
One of the reasons I first fell in love with Dark Souls was because it reminded me so much of the Silent Hill games. Sure, the setting and mechanics are substantially different, but they have so much in common: Bad Game Design, Bad Graphics, and Bad Writing, some might say. Like Silent Hill Dark Souls has clumsy movement, truly stiflingly dark areas, and so much abstract and contradictory background information that it is in the end always a matter of interpretation what any of it means – so much so that people have launched careers off of these interpretations. The real similarities emerge, though, when one considers the specific style of horror that Dark Souls embraces: The quiet pathetic horror of those who have seen too much, who have given up, who slowly sink deeper into the decay of their rotting world. The poor lost souls wandering through Silent Hill are, in the end, very much like those who wander through Lordran.
As I work on building out my own game, I keep noticing bits and pieces of Silent Hill bubbling up in the world design, in the characters, in the way interactions work, in the darkness and the feedback mechanisms and style. Some games, once they get their hooks in you, don’t come out cleanly. I think Silent Hill is one place which, one way or another, I’ll just keep returning to, whether I want to or not.