Fear of flesh and blood: Revisiting Silent Hill

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Introduction

As a little boy I remember being deeply in love with video games, dedicating a great amount of time to them, day and night. From the various games I tried, there are only a few cases I remember as clearly as the first time I played Silent Hill, a 1999 classic developed by Team Silent (TS) and Konami. Just by seeing the blurry cover with Alessa’s pale face I knew this would be the perfect introduction to a horrifying journey. What I did not know was that it would also be a long-lasting passion, one I hold dear to this day.

Chapter One: The Harmony of Disharmony

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That night, sometime in 1999, I put Silent Hill‘s playable disc into my Playstation, I turned the lights off and let myself sunk into total silence as the disc started turning. This was my first walk in the streets of Silent Hill. The game’s opening clip is still one of the best introductions I have come across to any piece of commercialized art. It presented the story’s main protagonists alongside the very best of the game’s graphics and, thanks to the incredible melodies of Akira Yamaoka, it managed to excite and fill the gamer with curiosity for what was about to come.

I will spare the reader from any details, because most probably you have either played through the game already or you are a starter and don’t want any spoilers to come your way. Still, I have to underline the fact that for most people what made Silent Hill a powerful experience was very different from what made other games of its genre great.

There are certain common patterns that most companies follow to create a horror game. Lots of blood, distorted shapes accompanied with dangerous weapons, evil eyes, screams, etc. To a great extent that style is influenced by Western horror films such as Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead (or to cut it short, all of George Romero’s filmography), The Alien trilogy, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc., and try to provide the viewer with impressive gory sceneries. Resident Evil used a town filled with the undead; Doom, Quake and Alien Trilogy preferred to go into a sci-fi background against armies of alien like creatures; Fear Effect was… weird and perverted, to put it bluntly; other games like Nightmare Creatures or Deathtrap Dungeon, etc. followed a more action-based approach.

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What made Silent Hill different was a. the amazing power of the plot and b. Konami’s effort to give the game a slower, cinematic rhythm. There were obvious weaknesses to the gameplay, such as the horrible control system, the dull voice actors who failed to give the characters any depth, the crawling loading system and the extremely hard in-game riddles- but none of them mattered, because most players could truly feel as if they were in the game. Harry’s appearance as an average man who has gone into trouble for truly unexplainable reasons and has no greater ambition than saving his daughter -who has gone missing into the town’s mist- even though he can hardly use his handgun, has a lot to do with it. As a hero he is much easier to relate to than, say, Chris Redfield or Hana Tsu Vachel.

The rest of the cast holds a great balance between fetishized tragic figures like Lisa to totally bizarre personalities like Dahlia, the tough cop Cybil and, finally, Mr. Borin… eeeh, I meant Dr. Kauffman. They all make up a theater of insanity that fits their environment so perfectly that one cannot help it and feel addicted to it. That is, after all, what only a truly excellent game can achieve.

Chapter Two: When One’s Paradise is Hell

So far I have intentionally focused on the original game because that is where the roots of what made the series great lie. The two sequels, Silent Hill 2 and 3, followed the same path -smart storylines, charismatic protagonists, improving graphics, inventive monster designs and a cool, heartful soundtrack- but tried to develop the positives of the first game while correcting some of its errors. (1)

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What is worth mentioning is TS’s consistency to the approach they started with. There is no better evidence of this than the mini-documentary “Silent Hill 2: the making of” that some of the gamers had the chance to buy and watch along the game. While most producers go to the more mainstream sources of horror, in the case of Silent Hill one finds the influence of Francis Bacon’s visual style, not only in the shapes of the monsters but also in the general artwork and the title’s color palette. That helps the graphics to stay in touch with Silent Hill’s strongest point, the creation of a morbid, surreal atmosphere and the feeling that it is not the monster you need to be afraid of but the environment itself. Still, TS did not stop there. Even though I won’t go into details, I must underline how they did not think of any part of the game as a tool to fill more space, but rather as an object that fulfills a very specific goal. There is a reason why the nurses in SH2 are overly sexualized while in SH3 they are more modestly dressed. It is part of a careful design to have James jump from hole to hole once he reaches to Historical Society. Those details are part of the mindset that makes the difference between good and classic -and Silent Hill games are of them.

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Yamaoka’s insistence on the mix of obscure sounds with silence, is further evidence that during the first trilogy all of the developers worked hard to deliver an -almost- perfect result. I am not a musician to judge his technique or composition, but as a listener, trying to find anything that resembles the feelings of Yamaoka’s music has been proven an almost impossible task. In the games it stands as the perfect horror soundtrack, outside of them it is a collection of haunting acoustic diamonds. Now that Yamaoka is gone from the franchise I think of him even more highly, because in all of the games his music stood up and was reason enough to buy the more recent sequels. For a musician to be such an important part of the game, it is a rare achievement and he should be given absolute credit for that.

Chapter Three: Fading Threads

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TS tried a different approach when it came to the third sequel, The Room; the gameplay was more action oriented, the riddles were much easier, the monsters more ordinary, the plot developed much faster and, oddly, one never actually went to Silent Hill. Still, the game was interesting, but the same thing cannot be said about the next title called Origins. It was like a remake of the first three games and the -rather average- film that was released in 2006. It was so boring in comparison to the original trilogy that I don’t even want to sit down and analyze it.

The sixth official title, Homecoming, I have yet to play since I cannot afford to buy a Plastation 3. Judging from the mixed reviews it got, it was probably a love-or-hate thing. Shattered Memories was the title that followed Homecoming. As an experimental remake of the original story it gave me little hope that it’d be a good piece of work but, thankfully, I was mistaken. I consider it a great game, certainly the best out of everything that followed the original trilogy, a. because it was as short as it should be -given the simplicity of the gameplay- to avoid repeatedness, and b. because it reminded me why I got hooked up to the whole Silent Hill thing. It was fun.

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From there on, the only connection I currently have with the franchise are the new soundtracks and the interesting graphic novels that are out there. In terms of gaming I cannot afford the money to pay for the new consoles -thus there is no way to access Downpour– and I am simply not in the mood for Book of Memories, a multi-player title. The journey to that misty city was always meant to be a lonely one. It seems as if the series has changed so much that it has been turned into something totally different and I can’t relate to that.

Epilogue

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Perhaps the problem does not lie with the games but with myself. Like I mentioned in the article’s introduction 15 years have passed since my first time playing SH. I am no longer an idiot kid who does nothing but play video games and make imaginary trips to alternative universes. I am a 25 year old person with concerns for both the present and the future; with less time everyday to dedicate to gaming -and that amount is soon going to shorten even more. I have played so many other games and watched or read stories that I have gone stiff. It is easy to shape clay when you start using it, but it gets harder as time passes. Now I know that the same thing goes for people.

Still, there is something that won’t change: memories, dreams and melodies; these are a few of the things I owe to Silent Hilll. For many years it has been one of the stories that set the standards of what I considered a masterpiece. I have tried to deal with my own work using the Team Silent philosophy. I have tried to create art similar to this franchise that hopefully will cause others to feel the way I felt about this game. For better or worse, its originality has proven to be too great to reach, but it inspires me and many others to keep on trying. For that and for the innumerable days I have spent having fun walking those misty streets to the dark side, thank you, Silent Hill!

Footnotes

1. They surely never fixed the crappy control system.

2. This article is the second I have written on Silent Hill. Some of you, older readers, might remember that originally we used to have “Fear of blood and silence – My relationship with Silent Hill” online, but we felt that the article was too long and needed many corrections, so we scrapped it and decided on this new version.

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