The Sad Demise of Silent Hill: 5 reasons I will always love that town
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I love video games (follow the links to read my recent reviews of Call Of Cthulhu, Sekiro, and A Plague Tale: Innocence) because I believe the medium is uniquely capable of telling truly immersive stories. By placing you in the role of the protagonist in a way that books and movies simply cannot replicate, and giving you freedom of choice over the story's outcome, video games have delivered some of the most gripping and moving narratives I've ever experienced: if you haven't had the opportunity to play through titles like Bioshock, Bloodborne, Dishonored, or lesser-known classics like What Remains Of Edith Finch, then I cannot recommend them enough.
But the Silent Hill games were my favourite of them all. Each of the first four instalments was a horror masterpiece, a uniquely atmospheric and bleak descent into its protagonist's darkest fears and secrets. Even the later games were, in my opinion, unfairly criticised, delivering some innovative scares and narrative twists (such as the part in the Nintendo Wii's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where your Wii Remote suddenly rang, like a mobile phone receiving a call...) The series even spawned two movies, the first of which is surprisingly half-decent, although the second was beyond even Kit Harrington's talents to save...
Yet this once-flourishing series, which still has a fanatical cult following, is now stagnant, seemingly abandoned by its creators, Konami. In today's post I explore why this is such a tragedy (warning: some minor spoilers ahead).
1: The games were truly adult
Over the years, the Silent Hill games have dealt with themes of child abuse, terminal illness, and suicide. But these subjects were not thrown in as cheap 'ratings-grabbers', as they are in modern soaps; rather, they were sensitively handled as part of the dark tapestry of the town and its inhabitants' pasts. The darkest secrets of these denizens were alluded to in unsettling, Twin Peaks-esque dialogue, or in the twisted shapes of the horrifying monsters that shuffled through the mist-shrouded streets. Everything was allegory, partially-obscured, as muddled as the mind of the character you were inhabiting as they pursued a missing daughter, wife, or father.
There were no happy endings. Character arcs were resolved ruthlessly, tragically. I remember Lisa Garland's final scene having a particular impact on me as the long-suffering nurse realised her true fate. These were games whose stories could be discussed and dissected, full of meaning and symbolism, and continue to haunt me years after playing. The Terror Engine by Bernard Perron is a fantastic read if you are interested in a deeper analysis of these seminal works.
2: The games were absolutely terrifying, without resorting to cheap jump scares
Rather than the puerile power fantasies of most games of the time, the games' protagonists were weak and frightened, like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, who could barely lift the plank of wood he was forced to use to defend himself. Darkness and fog obscured the streets and passageways ahead, forcing you to rely on the terrifying sounds of shambling footsteps, inhuman growls, or the crackle of your broken radio that hissed whenever a creature was close by. When you entered the confined spaces of schools and hospitals, the tension and dread were almost unbearable.
In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, the horror legend explains the three levels upon which it is possible to frighten a reader: terror, horror, and revulsion. The first is the suspenseful, terrifying anticipation the moment before a monster is revealed; the second is the shock of actually seeing something monstrous; the third is a cheap 'gross out', like the sight of someone's head being chainsawed off in a schlock B-movie.
At the time, Silent Hil felt like a huge leap from the drooling zombies or frantic shooting action of other titles, akin to comparing the unsettling feeling of a David Lynch movie to an action blockbuster. While other games were still mired in the 'gross out', Silent Hill was succeeding in creating true terror.
3: Silent Hill is an iconic, original and brilliant setting
Sometimes people have ideas that you wished you'd thought of first. I cannot overstate how much I love the concept of a haunted town whose form changes from every visitor's perspective, physically manifesting their desires, secrets, dreams, fears and regrets. In Silent Hill it's possible to meet other, real, people, but they will not have perceived the town in the same way as you.
In Silent Hill 3, after battling your way through dozens of grotesque monsters to arrive at the chapel, a character named Vincent sums this up perfectly with the shudder-inducing line:
"Monsters? They look like... monsters to you?"
Thus, Silent Hill becomes a kind of personalised purgatory, a tailored hell for each of its troubled visitors, only calling those who deserve - or perhaps even crave - its punishment...
4: Akira Yamaoka's soundtracks were masterful
Earlier in this post I mentioned Stephen King's three 'levels' of sophistication when it comes to horror. These can probably be applied to the majority of horror soundtracks too: many operate at the level of 'revulsion' (overblown metal trying desperately to sound intimidating), while some are more effective as 'horror' (creepy tunes, slowly rising to a crescendo), but very few create a true feeling of sustained dread.
Akira Yamaoka is, to me, the 'gold standard' for such scores. His soundscapes spanned everything from faintly discordant piano chill-out to terrifying industrial hammering, at times featuring long silences punctuated by disturbingly alien noises (including, apparently, the sound of a bag of custard being splatted against a wall)... and were always underscored by that infernal radio crackle, reminding you that there was something, out there, watching you.
Listen here for an example of Yamaoka's amazing work.
5: The final instalment remains the greatest game on Playstation 4
After years in the creative wilderness, outsourced to different developers with limited success, the Silent Hill franchise had lain dormant. Then, in 2014, a strange free-to-download demo appeared in the Playstation Store, advertising a game apparently entitled 'P.T.' This turned out to be the 'Playable Teaser' for Silent Hills, a reboot that was to be co-directed by industry luminary Hideo Kojima and horror master Guillermo Del Toro, and featuring the acting talents of The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus. The internet's collective brain exploded.
The game is only an hour or so in length, and its final puzzle remains frustratingly obtuse, yet it remains one of the best examples of video game horror ever created. A single hallway, with a door at each end: the player enters, then leaves, only to find themselves back at the entrance once again. This loop continues, but the specific features of the hallway deteriorate, becoming more and more horrifying as the clock continues to hover at one minute to midnight...
That Konami decided to scrap this project to focus on pachinko machines and mobile gaming is a true tragedy.
We can only hope that the gaming behemoth comes to its senses and either revisits its greatest creation, or relinquishes the IP to a company that can do justice to the series' legacy, and appease a rabid fanbase I am proud to count myself amongst.
Until next time... in my restless dreams, I see that town...