Silent Hill

Ambiance: A Look Back at ‘Silent Hill’ on its Twentieth Anniversary

January 31st, 2019 will be the 20th anniversary of the very first Silent Hill (1999) video game release. All these years later, the original has spawned off seven sequels, two films, and a legacy that changed horror video games forever. Prior to its Q1 1999 release all those years ago, when folks spoke of survival horror video games, they mentioned Capcom’s Resident Evil (1996) and its follow up, Resident Evil 2 (1998). Zombies were “all that.” If you focused on them, you had a chance to get noticed. Action, puzzles, and final boss battles were staples. The B-movie feel found in Resident Evil – as well as in such titles as Doom (1993) – although exhilarating, had become the commonplace. Seeing the vast yield that horror could present and its lack of glut in the marketplace, Japanese software company Konami decided to re-invent the genre with Silent Hill.

Harry Mason finds a clue.

At the time, Japanese cinema was just about to go international with the release of The Ring/Ringu (1998). Psychological horror suddenly brought attention to the critically panned midnight movie. In a bold move, Konami made an unorthodox decision.  They put the young and unknown designer Keiichiro Toyama as lead for what would become Silent Hill. With his lack of knowledge in the horror genre but strong interest in pulp stories, extraterrestrials, the occult, and esoteric cinema, Konami’s move would turn out to be unintentionally astute. Silent Hill would be like nothing anyone had seen before.

With 3D technology recently becoming available, visionary developers had their own virtual toolbox. They were now able to create their inspirations not unlike what both CGI and the film Titanic (1997) did for cinema. Video games themselves became art. Many had stories and character depth, and Silent Hill was no exception. Taking the element of the everyman that had become popular in literary fiction, the protagonist in Silent Hill was just that: an unassuming person that didn’t stand out… and his name was Harry Mason.

Harry Mason

Harry was neither a police officer, soldier, or a black ops operative. He also had no firearm experience. His background was that of a non-fiction author, a single dad, and a widower. He was what literary fiction would call a survivor, or simply an individual who took his beatings from the world without complaint. While on the way home from a weekend vacation with his young daughter, Cheryl, a dense fog hindered his driving visibility. As they proceeded through a rural route, heading through the town of Silent Hill, a young girl standing in the middle of the road caused Harry to swerve, resulting in the loss of control of his vehicle. The ensuing accident left him with a concussion. When he came to, Cheryl had vanished and he was left alone behind his steering wheel.

And so the story begins.

1999 was still early in video game history when processor memory could hinder performance. The creators of Silent Hill had the remarkably brilliant idea on how to hide the era’s flaws. A deep fog surrounded the entire town, leaving only what was just ahead visible to the player or to Harry. The affect not only helped cover up technology’s limitations during this period, but it unexpectedly added tension to the gameplay.

The "Otherworld"

Another brilliant aspect of the game was the use of sound. Besides its fine soundtrack, the game offers a portable radio discovered early on in the game. Harry carries it with him throughout his journey. Whenever anything supernatural is nearby, a slowly building static escapes from the radio speaker, alerting the player of danger.

One of the iconic Silent Hill nurses.As a survival horror game, combat was essentially minimal, with much of the gameplay focusing on investigating the town and its surrounding buildings. Many of the locations, such as the school and the hospital, have become iconic set pieces. At one point, traversing through these abandoned locales will be interrupted by a loud hurricane siren. As it blasts its cacophony, the world around Harry suddenly dissolves into a dark, industrial, alternate place called The Otherworld. The already creepy town converts into a nightmare where even more obscene creatures appear. Some of them, including the humanoid mumbler and the iconic, ghoulish nurses, have become standard Halloween costumes.

Unlike many video games with stories, Silent Hill does eventually pay off the player by explaining everything. Various actions performed by during walkthrough will determine Harry and Cheryl’s fate. In some cases, that fate won’t be positive. Yet, no matter the ending, the player will always feel rewarded. The main intent of Silent Hill is the ambiance. There is a reason why the game’s legacy is still strong after all these years. The dread and despair that its horrific world presents to the gamer is unique. As a result, the legacy that followed is well deserved. Today, the consoles that the game was played upon are now extinct (like the VHS or cassette). Yet, if one can find a way to join Harry in his journey to find Cheryl all these years later, they should try in any way they can.

About Philip C. Perron

Philip is the co-host of Dark Discussions Podcast and is a published short story author.

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