Silent Hill

   Writer Orson Scott Card once came up with a classification scheme for scary media which works well in describing what sets Konami's Silent Hill apart from the rest of the pack. Terror, says Card, is about being shocked at the monster jumping out of the shadows, while dread is about being afraid of what might be about to jump out of the shadows. Card further argues that dread is a more powerful tool than terror, because while terror is focused entirely into one cathartic moment, dread can be stretched out, and targeted against any number of suspicious things. In the minds of many gamers, Silent Hill has proven Card's hypothesis by making a game where the actual monsters in the dark aren't nearly as scary as what a player thinks might be just beyond the range of his flashlight, waiting.
Your pitiful attempts at survival amuse me greatly

   Silent Hill is a third person 3D adventure game that generates immediate comparisons to Resident Evil and Parasite Eve with battles against various monstrosities and horror film sensibilities. The plot revolves around Harry Mason, a regular guy on vacation who loses his daughter and must track her through the mostly deserted ruins of Silent Hill, a small resort town. Like other games in the Resident Evil genre, Silent Hill is divided between dispatching monsters with various weapons, solving puzzles to get through various mazes, and figuring out what the hell is actually going on, with a bit of rendered video thrown in for good measure.

   But Silent Hill has its own unique take on the genre. The most obvious is the game's dependence on atmosphere over mindless action or dazzle. Environments in the town are shrouded in mist at best and plunged into total darkness at worst, lit only by a small pool of illumination from a pocket torch. Monsters rarely pop up out of nowhere, ready to fight, but instead stay just out of visual range until they're ready to charge. How do you know they're out there? Through one of the most eerie features ever implemented in a game - a small radio that plays increasingly loud static as monsters approach. A good chunk of a player's time will be spent staring into the dark, listening to white noise and waiting for something to come screeching out of the rain. Silent Hill is full of these little touches, from town streets named after horror writers to cries and rattles coming from unknown locations to the word "REDRUM" scrawled on the side of a liquor store.

No, really, they mean it

   Konami's even clever enough to make some of the game's shortcomings into strengths. Like almost all Playstation games the 3D rendering here is sometimes crude, but taken in Silent Hill's own context slightly warped doors and blurry textures only serve to strengthen the atmosphere of dread. This low resolution methodology is especially effective with monsters, who are almost always glimpsed only in passing as vague shapes, and as a result become something you might remember from your childhood nightmares. You'll want machine guns, grenades and rocket launchers against these things, but through most of the game all you'll be able to muster is a handgun with a limited amount of ammo, which leads to a mentality that prefers flight to fight. (However, you can ultimately get a chainsaw and get appropriately psychopathic.)

Yes, and one with extra cheese. Thank you.

    Silent Hill's main deficiency is its own complexity. The main game is relatively short, running only about 8 hours on the first play though, but you won't half understand what's been happening. To see the "best" endings players must perform certain actions that aren't documented or explained at all in the game. This stands in strong contrast to most of the dungeon puzzles, which are tricky but can be figured out with the available clues, given enough time. Making the first play through more complex but completely winnable would have made this title much stronger.

That's the last time my daughter gets to drive...

   Silent Hill's final notable feature can be a strength or a weakness depending on your tastes - this game is dark, and in places genuinely frightening. The short interactive introductory sequence, for example, starts out empty and nicely spooky, but quickly descends into a sequence that wouldn't be out of place in a Hellraiser movie. Much of the game follows the same pattern, descending into darker and darker environments until a player may be dreading playing more of the game as much as he dreads the monsters in the darkness. To put it bluntly, Silent Hill is not a very fun game unless you have a very odd sense of fun. This is not to say Silent Hill isn't worth looking at - it's entirely possible to enjoy the game as an expertly done piece of entertainment even if it doesn't create quite the same feeling of joy you might get from playing Zelda 64. Also the game does get much more compelling further in, as more of the backstory becomes uncovered and the grimness begins to level off somewhat. Regardless of whatever else might be said about it, Silent Hill is an extremely well done game by a skilled, experienced game producer. One final piece of advice, though: if you do get into Silent Hill, try not to play at night.

Retrospective by Chris Jones, GIA.
Silent Hill
Developer KCET
Publisher Konami
Genre Survival Horror
Medium CD (1)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date

Walkthrough, Street Name FAQ
225 violent and disturbing images
Box art