Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation was the first time I actually remember being plugged into the hype cycle of a video game. I was in my early teens and finally really getting into the hobby, reading various magazines and taking in all the information I could about the industry. When I got the game, I had an amazing time with it, but despite how focused I was on it, I couldn’t stop thinking about something I saw on the back of the instruction manual: an ad that said “Coming Soon” with a crossed-arm cop, alongside the text “Welcome to Hell” and the title Silent Hill. It gave me nothing about the contents of the actual game, but I was drawn to it. Maybe there was something transgressive to my young mind about seeing a ‘bad word’ like Hell prominently in an advertisement, maybe it was just the vibe of the name “Silent Hill,” but it grabbed me immediately. When new gaming magazines arrived with details on the game, I ate them up and wanted more. No matter how much I learned about the game, it did not prepare me for how it would change the trajectory of my genre interest going forward.
I was familiar with the feeling of being scared in a video game from playing Resident Evil, but Silent Hill was something else. While Resident Evil pushed the boundary of gore in startling ways, Silent Hill unsettled me in ways I wasn’t used to. In Silent Hill, you were cast as a novelist looking for his daughter in a shifting nightmare town where anything could happen, a far cry from the prepared badasses of S.T.A.R.S. who were braving the undead horrors of Spencer Mansion, making the tension feel more real and grounded as things got strange around you.
The opening of the game immediately demonstrates this combination of disempowerment and unpredictability. You, as Harry Mason, are following your daughter through the foggy streets of Silent Hill, catching glimpses of her just at the edge of your vision. Eventually, her trail leads you down an alleyway. As you progress, shifting between dynamic preset camera angles, the world slowly gets darker until you are walking around illuminated only by a lit match. A broken wheelchair, a hospital gurney with a body under a sheet, and a path of blood all lead you to the horrific sight of a skinned body hanging in barbed wire at the end of the alley. Before you have a moment to process what’s in front of you, child-sized creatures with knives descend upon you. You have no way of fighting back, and going back the way you came will bring you to a dead end. The only way to progress is to die.
In the next scene, you wake up in an abandoned diner with the cop from the previously mentioned advertisement. There’s never really any explanation given to what just happened to you, but it sets the expectations for what you’re going to experience over the game for the next seven or so hours. Metal Gear Solid had shown me that the medium could tell more serious stories in the vein of what I expected in films, and Silent Hill was the first horror game to attempt that level of seriousness for me. While Resident Evil definitely felt mature in content, pushing violence, Silent Hill felt mature in theme, challenging me with ideas I never expected from a video game. The surreal tone kept me constantly on edge, allowing the game to truly get under my skin.
Not only did the game push the horror narrative for the time, it also felt like a technological leap. Resident Evil looked great by using pre-rendered images as backgrounds combined with well-thought-out fixed camera angles. By contrast, Silent Hill rendered its environment in full 3D, allowing them to mix fixed camera angles with a more dynamic point of view. Full 3D allowed the perspective to move with the player when it needs to, making for a more kinetic experience without losing the handcrafted framing when needed. Even the technical limitations of the console gave the game its most iconic visual element: the fog. Limited visibility kept everything tense as your radio altered you of monsters just outside your range of vision. Navigating the darkness was equally fraught, giving you only your trusty flashlight to light the way.
Some of my favorite gaming memories were playing Silent Hill with my buddies. While we traditionally played multiplayer games, Silent Hill was a game where we could play by passing the controller around, leaving the others to watch. We played in full darkness at night to set the mood in the gaming area of our basement. There was an element of bravery to it, seeing who could play for the longest before they had to hand it off to someone else. We’d even challenge each other to turn off the radio so there was no static to warn us of nearby creatures. The game’s clever puzzles provided us with a unique opportunity to turn a single player game into something of a co-op multiplayer game by forcing us to collectively work together to figure out the solutions. It became a tradition for us to do this with other single player games, but none of them were as memorable as our time with Silent Hill.
My enjoyment of Silent Hill led me to the discovery of a lot of my favorite media. After reading interviews with the developers, I started to dig into the filmography of David Lynch, who they cited as one of their influences. Since then, Lynch has been one of my favorite filmmakers, both as a talented director and a fun personality. When the Silent Hill series was at its height, I was starting to discover internet forums and spent a lot of time reading through a Silent Hill website, and recommendations from users there pointed me to my all-time favorite novel House of Leaves. Chasing the tone of Silent Hill is something I’m always doing, so even to this day I check out almost anything that even vaguely reminds me of the series.
All of the entries I played (I skipped Origins, Homecoming, Shattered Memories and Downpour) have their merits, with Silent Hill 2 and P.T. being my favorites, but I have such a strong attachment to the first for its place in my personal gaming history. It’s certainly been a ride to be a fan of the series, with the cancellation of P.T./Silent Hills and constant false rumors of its “secret” revival. A little over a year ago, we finally got concrete plans for the return of the series, but like most fans, I’m still hesitant. Ascension kicked off this new era with an extremely rocky start, and I find the remake of Silent Hill 2 to be largely unnecessary for what is already basically a perfect game. Silent Hill: Townfall and Silent Hill f both look to be doing something fresh and unique with the series, but we still have yet to hear much about either of them since their reveal.
Even if none of the new games turn out to be good, I’ll always have the comfort of being able to return to the beloved originals. At this point, I’m not really searching for the next game in the Silent Hill series, but rather the next thing that captures the feeling of sitting in a dark room with my friends, playing the scariest game we’d ever seen.