There comes a point about an hour into Silent Hill where the game suddenly changes and becomes an altogether nastier experience. So far it’s been a fairly straight forward take on the Survival Horror genre. Your character Harry Mason has become separated from his daughter in the fogbound and empty town of Silent Hill. You have guided Harry first through the streets the into a school and fought off peeled dogs, mutant birds and little zombie children. Creepy stuff but not too far removed from the grisly imagery of Resident Evil 2.
Events lead you to a clock tower in an open-air square at the centre of the school building. You ascend the tower, cross the room at the top and descend the other side to find yourself… back where you started. Except night has suddenly fallen and etched into the ground is a huge satanic looking symbol. Then you re-enter the school and with a shock you see that it’s all changed. The wooden floors are now rusty wire mesh hanging over a dark abyss. The walls are smeared with blood and dirt, and nameless, shapeless bodies are strung up all over the place. You have now entered Nightmare Silent Hill, the twisted reflection of the town that usually exists beyond normal perception. Take a good look round; you’ll be spending quite some time in this horrifying place.
It’s this change that elevates Silent Hill over others in the Survival Horror genre. This world of grot and decay worms it’s way into your subconscious, grating on your nerves and subtly encouraging a sick feeling of unease and questioning of your characters sanity. Is this the real Silent Hill? Is the fogbound Silent Hill the illusion? Are the other characters experiencing the same nightmare or is this all in Harry’s mind? And how is his seven year old daughter Cheryl managing to walk through this hellish place unmolested by the twisted creatures that inhabit both Silent Hills? Many questions are thrown up, but only through repeated trips to the town will all the answers be forthcoming.
Whereas Resident Evil relies on big set piece shocks to induce fear in the player which tend to diminish on replays, Silent Hill’s atmosphere of literate, psychological fear still has the power to induce bad dreams even after multiple playthroughs to see each of the five endings. Seeing the different endings puts different pieces of the final puzzle in place and is well worth doing if you want to fully understand what’s been going on.
If there one slight criticism to make of the game it’s that it’s sometimes a little too obtuse for it’s own good, and figuring out how to trigger the different endings can be tricky without having to resort to a guide. The clues are all there in the game though and if you pay attention to every conversation and check for every item and scrap of text littered about the place you should finish the game somewhat the wiser. This obtuseness does help create a sense of unbalancing bewilderment that adds to the general feeling of tension in the game and the need to figure things out is what drives us and Harry Mason deeper into the nightmare. The character’s plights and the twists and turns of the story will stay with you long after you turn the console off.
Graphically the game was a little rough around the edges even at the time, but it’s in full 3D rather than Resident Evil’s fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backdrops. There are no cheap deaths from monsters hanging about off-screen. A lot of the time it’s better to run from monsters thanfight because Harry isn’t a brilliant shot with his revolver and ammo is rather thin on the ground. Generally combat is a matter of battering the gruesome creatures to the ground with a lead pipe and saving valuable shotgun and rifle ammo for the huge and disturbing Boss monsters. The audio is used sparsely but effectively. Harry has a pocket radio which, when monsters approach will suddenly crackle into nerve shredding life, hissing out static as the groaning and chirruping monsters come closer and closer.
FMV is excellent but sparingly used to introduce the other characters. There is Cybil the police woman, drawn to Silent Hill to investigate its sudden radio silence. You spotted her bike crashed in the opening sequence just before Harry crashed too. Are you both dead? Both seeing the same things? At least she is an ally. Witch-like Claudia will pop up and drop hints to bring you closer to Cheryl, but what is her agenda? Dr. Kaufman seems to be experiencing some of the nightmare world too, but as his drug dealing activities are exposed it seems he might be more of an integral part of Silent Hill’s problems than he at first seems. Finally there is Lisa, a young nurse and the only person you meet in the Nightmare Silent Hill. She is kind and supportive and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by her eventual fate.
If you want some idea of what Silent Hill feels like, you should look at its influences. Whereas Resident Evil takes it’s cue from the zombie movies of George Romero, Silent Hill’s come from cult mind screw films like Jacob’s Ladder and Eraserhead. If you have seen those films you should have some idea of what to expect from Silent Hill as it runs it’s sticky fingers through your psyche.
If you can look past the elderly graphics and wallow in the suffocating loneliness of fogbound Silent Hill and the putrescent glory of Nightmare Silent Hill you might understand why this game that slipped out in 1999 with little fanfare has gone on to spawn four sequels and one prequel across a variety of gaming platforms. Good though some of those are, not one has quite matched for sheer, lurching dread that first time you descend into the school square, see the darkness and the occult symbol and hear the chink of rusted metal under your feet as you find the school and the game have suddenly and horribly… changed.