GAMING GREATS: Silent Hill (1999)

New recruit Rod Petrie revisits one of the scariest games of all time. 

Who made it?: Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Developer), Konami (Publisher).

Platform: PlayStation, PlayStation Network.

Format: CD-ROM, Download. 

Released: August 1, 1999 (UK).

The first and original Silent Hill is part of the survival horror genre which, at the time of its release, was ruled by the Resident Evil (1996-) series. What wisely set Silent Hill apart, and a key to its success, is the focus on employing effective techniques that affect the player on a more psychological level.

The main protagonist is Harry Mason, a writer. In a way, this is a small reference to the works of Stephen King who wrote many novels with a writer as the main character. There are many other references to King’s work littered throughout the game, as well as references to other works of fiction in the horror genre.

The set-up of the story is simple and to the point. Harry drives to Silent Hill at night with his daughter, Cheryl, but during the trip,  he swerves his jeep to avoid hitting a girl who appears from out of nowhere. He ends up crashing and loses consciousness. The next morning, Harry wakes to discover he has mysteriously arrived in Silent Hill, and realises to his horror that Cheryl is missing.

Throughout his journey, Harry meets a small group of characters:

  • Cybill Bennett, a police officer from the nearby town of Brahms that Harry meets inside a café after waking up from a nightmare (or is it real?). Cybill provides Harry with a firearm and they meet again at various points in the game.
  • Dahlia Gillespie, a mysterious woman Harry meets inside a church who gives him a charm she calls the “Flauros.” In the beginning, Dahlia’s motives are unclear to Harry and the player.
  • Doctor Michael Kaufmann, the director of Silent Hill’s Alchemilla Hospital, shoots at Harry but misses, having mistaken him for a creature. He then leaves the hospital.
  • Lisa Garland, a nurse who works at Alchemilla, and the only one who isn’t a monster.
  • Alessa Gillespie, Dahlia’s daughter who suffered major burns to her body and was being cared for by Garland.

There is a lot more to most of these people than what Harry and the player knows about them, which is revealed as he delves further into his search for Cheryl. Without spoiling anything, there are events in this game related to the activities of a cult operating in Silent Hill, and it is part of the mystery behind what’s happening.

As the story unfolds, Harry also experiences some very strange phenomena and events, the first of which is at the very beginning when the player is first able to control Harry. He finds himself in a darkened alleyway in a sequence initiated by the sound of a wailing air-raid siren, a signature sound effect of the franchise, which is heard when things are about to shift into what is known as “The Otherworld.” When reality shifts, whichever location Harry is situated in is transformed into a nightmarish version of that place. When this occurs, there are various differences in the look of the environment; a very decayed, dirty and rusty kind of look, and walls are also stained with blood.

In both realities, there are monsters that Harry has to deal with such as winged demons, demon dogs, doctors, nurses possessed by parasites, and more. In certain levels, Harry will also have to face-off against boss enemies, one of which is a giant lizard at the end of the Midwich Elementary School level. A clue as to how this enemy can be killed is given in a nursery rhyme Harry finds as he explores Midwich. There are also puzzles throughout the game that Harry has to solve in order to progress further, and some of these are very difficult even on Easy because they require a bit of thought put into them, and the clues as to the solution are very creative.

A major part of the identity of Silent Hill is the score composed by Akira Yamaoka. It’s one of the best scores of the survival horror genre. The music doesn’t only serve to imbue the atmosphere with horror, foreboding and terror, but it is also a tool to manipulate the player, and this ties into the psychological aspects of the game nicely. One of the many times when this is utilised most effectively is when Harry unlocks the back door of a house (using three keys found in separate locations), and at the exact moment he steps outside night begins to fall, and the piece of music titled “Over” starts, which sets the scene for a situation of unknown possibilities where anything could happen.

There are other moments in the game where you enter into an area and, because the score can sometimes act as sound effects, it makes the player anticipate a fight with enemies that might attack, but it turns out there’s nothing there. A great tactic to create suspense for the player. The sound effects help create suspense in certain moments, but that’s not all they provide in the experience. Harry discovers a radio early on (along with a pocket flashlight) that acts as a game mechanic, too, in that when the sound of static is heard it means that a creature is nearby. The sound effects also keep you immersed,which means you’re always going to be expecting something to happen, keeping you on your toes.

The voice acting in Silent Hill is really good. If you compare the voice performances between the first game in the series and the first Resident Evil for example, you will find that the quality in terms of line delivery is much better, although to be fair to Resident Evil, this franchise isn’t going for a re-creation or homage to the style of dialogue found in B-Grade horror films. The other comparison to make between them is that one allows the player to wield a variety of projectile weapons ranging from handguns to rocket launchers, whereas the only projectiles in Silent Hill are the handgun, shotgun and hunting rifle, and the other weapons available are melee-based. But since Harry as a character doesn’t have much experience with guns, it is fitting that his aiming isn’t 100% accurate.

Silent Hill also benefits from having a different pace to the gameplay. There is more room for exploring the areas available, and the boundaries that prevent the player from exploring too far is worked into the story because the town is under someone else’s influence and the roads are blocked. The advantage of having more room to explore is that you can find items such as health drinks/kits and ammo for guns. It can also allow the player to feel like they’re off the beaten track and the fog is also a big reason why that sense of becoming lost is such a strong one.

Like Resident Evil, Silent Hill‘s protagonist is controlled by the player in the “tank” control fashion, which can be frustrating at times, especially when using the D-Pad, but this can be overridden by the analogue sticks which were introduced and attached to newer versions of the PS1 controller. The configuration can be changed between three types. You can also change each individual button. But the standard configuration and control scheme is as follows:

Up moves Harry forward and Down makes him walk backwards. Left and Right rotate Harry on the spot when he’s standing still, and whilst holding the Square button, it will make him rotate faster. The Square button also allows Harry to run forward while holding the Up button, jump a step back while holding the Down button, and when holding Left or Right at the same time, it will make Harry veer to the left or right. When standing and still pressing L2 makes Harry strafe sideways to his left, and R2 makes him strafe sideways to his right. Holding the Square button while strafing will make him run-strafe to the left or right depending on which button remains held.

The R1 button aims/readies his weapon and pressing X shoots/attacks. Harry can still move and shoot/attack when aiming/readying a weapon, and he can also encircle an enemy to get in a better position more easily in order to attack. When near an object, pressing X will cause Harry to make an observation and comment when possible, will make Harry pick up an item when standing in front of a collectible, and will open doors when standing in front of them. Triangle brings up your map (which won’t work if your flashlight is off and there’s no lights on in the room). Circle toggles the flashlight on/off. Pressing Start will pause the game and Select will bring up the Inventory Screen where you can select any item to use or weapon to equip. You will also see a description of any items you have collected.

It should be noted that sometimes a specifically chosen fixed camera position or angle will be active in certain areas that cannot be altered by the use of the L1 button. But there are other times that allow you to move the camera slightly, even though you begin an area with the camera already fixed. Unlike the most recent game in the franchise, Silent Hill Downpour, these fixed camera position moments aren’t jarring to the player or interrupt the flow of controlling the character, and are utilised very effectively and appropriately. A good technique to use when running through alleyways is to utilise the camera so you can see any items that may be lying on the ground which could be missed by the player as you go past.

One frustrating aspect of Silent Hill can be found in how to use the map when trying to figure out the direction you need to go, and you could be having to double or triple check the map to see whether you’re facing the direction you need to go. A good way to alleviate this issue is to remember that the tip of the arrow which represents Harry’s position is the direction in which he is actually facing. Also, it is useful to remember that you need to think in terms of Harry’s left or right when planning a path to navigate through streets when outside or hallways when in buildings.

The game has five endings that are achieved by doing certain things, two of which are Good endings (Good and Good+), two are Bad endings (Bad and Bad+), and one is a joke that you can only achieve after finishing the game at least once and then acquiring artefacts known as “Channeling Stones” on your second or subsequent playthroughs.

There are a few things that happen once you complete the game:

  • A ranking that marks you on how good you were at playing.
  • A “Next Fear” mode that unlocks after your first play through which increases the difficulty to the next level. So, if you chose Easy, Next Fear changes it to Normal, Normal is changed to Hard, and if Hard was chosen it remains on that difficulty.
  • Secret weapons that can be found in Silent Hill on subsequent play throughs, some of which only appear after achieving certain requirements.

Silent Hill has a lot of replayability that offers those who wish to achieve or discover new elements a variety of things to accomplish, which is another reason why it’s a great game. Even though by today’s graphical standards Silent Hill isn’t as sophisticated, this only adds to the overall feel of the game being part of the survival horror genre, and for the time in which it was released, the graphics were really rather good.

In summation, Silent Hill deserves its status of being part of one of the most successful survival horror franchises in gaming. It has its own unique identity, contains a lot of neat references to literary work and films in the horror genre, and the music is one of the most atmospheric, engaging and affecting in video game history. Give it another go.

Useless Trivia

  • There are streets named after famous authors or directors such as David Lynch, Richard Matheson, Richard Bachman, Robert Bloch, and Ray Bradbury to name a few.
  • Some of the films and novels that inspired the creators of Silent Hill were Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Shining (1980), The Mist (1980), and the films of David Lynch.
  • There are three keys for the house in Levin St. named after The Lion, The Scarecrow and the Tinman from The Wizard of Oz. The character named Lisa Garland is in reference to the actress who played Dorothy, Judy Garland.
  • The fog in the game was due to the fact that the PS1 had graphical limitations, and it’s a perfect instance of limits becoming a creative advantage.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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