Twenty Years Later, SILENT HILL Still Chills

Originally published in Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2019.

20 years ago, horror in video games was at a crossroads of sorts. As the medium’s graphics improved and storytelling sensibilities matured, horror was moving from surface-level scares into something deeper. Atmosphere was becoming more important, and the “survival horror” subgenre was beginning to emerge. Even those games, though, led by the first two Resident Evil titles, relied on B-movie tropes for much of their effectiveness. Jump scares, ghoulish monsters, and splattering blood were everywhere in horror games. Subtlety wasn’t.

In any medium, it’s rare that we’re able to point to any single title as having singlehandedly altered an entire genre. With a shorter history than music and cinema, though, video games have plenty of such titles, and when it comes to horror games, Silent Hill is a major milestone. Developed by Konami’s Team Silent and director Keiichiro Toyama, Silent Hill changed the face of a genre and laid the groundwork for innumerable games to come, its influence stretching even into the present day.

Telling a story inspired by the likes of Jacob’s Ladder, David Lynch, and Japanese horror (with Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Cure, and Ringu then in recent memory), Silent Hill follows protagonist Harry Mason searching for his adopted daughter, who’s gone missing in the eponymous town of Silent Hill. Harry isn’t a cop, or a soldier, or a paranormal investigator; he’s a regular dude, about to be faced with most irregular circumstances. The story involves a cult kidnapping and brainwashing children in order to summon its dark deity through ritual sacrifices, and both Harry and the player are ill-prepared to face it.

Silent Hill drew many game mechanics from Resident Evil but pushed further into the emotion of dread, rather than fright. Players were disempowered as in any survival horror game, but while Resident Evil limited resources and ammunition, Silent Hill curtailed the player’s senses as well. With only a short-range flashlight, a map (which required the flashlight to see), and a radio (which crackled with interference when enemies were near), players had to navigate Silent Hill, a ghost town shrouded in fog and filled with nasty surprises. And it’s the town itself that offered the most original and effective horror.

At the time of Silent Hill’s release, video game graphics hardware was just beginning to be able to render realistic environments. In that era – that of the original PlayStation – objects were blocky, lighting simple, and textures pixelated. Silent Hill’s graphics are little different – they certainly look dated two decades on – but they feature one of the first truly 3D environments in horror gaming – and brilliantly, they’re designed around the hardware limitations of the era. Enter the town of Silent Hill, perpetually shrouded in a thick fog.

Like the best elements of game design, the fog serves two purposes. On a technical level, it cuts down on how many objects need to be drawn on screen at once, with more-distant elements disappearing into the fog. But the psychological effect of the fog is more important: the lack of visibility creates a powerful fear of the unknown in a setting that’s somehow even creepier than darkness. Anything could be out there in the fog, and could emerge from it at any time; thus, the player’s imagination is used against them. There are fog-centric game mechanics, too, such as using it to hide from enemies, but it’s far more potent as a shroud over the world – and the player’s sanity.

Team Silent was reportedly inexperienced in the horror genre when making Silent Hill, and it’s perhaps that lack of experience that forced their hand towards innovation. Though it certainly has its share of monsters, Silent Hill extracts more terror from what the player doesn’t see than what they do. Creating dread through sound design, score, and that damned fog, the team shed the visceral, tangibly horrific elements of other games in favour of something more psychological and sophisticated. Allowing players to fill in the blanks with their private phobias is a simple concept, but it works well, especially given that in-universe, Silent Hill’s supernatural qualities manifest the psychological into the physical. Delusions are indistinguishable from reality in this series. If both can kill you, what is the functional difference?

As it progressed, the franchise continued to grow and change, and not just through the introduction of series mascot Pyramid Head (absent from the original like hockey-masked Jason from the original Friday the 13th). Silent Hill 2, boasting a sizeably increased budget over its predecessor, told a chilling story whose evil emanated from within the protagonist, the world acting as a manifestation of inner demons. Silent Hill 3 pulled a shock twist, roping in elements of the first game’s story in an existentially horrifying way. The fourth game, subtitled The Room, featured a unique structure that split the fanbase. Subsequent sequels met with mixed results, and the franchise currently sits burned-out but dormant, waiting for a fresh take. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima and Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro had such a take, but internal politics at Konami scuppered their Silent Hills project, leaving only a wildly popular and influential demo entitled simply PT.

Silent Hill has been uniquely influential amongst horror games – and even in wider pop culture. Player expectations changed after Silent Hill, with deeper and more disturbing techniques now required to gain the maximum impact. Horror games like Alan Wake, The Evil Within, Lone Survivor, and Amnesia have borrowed and developed upon its atmospheric chills and psychological darkness. The series’ emphasis on environmentally manifesting its characters’ psyches has shown up in games like the relatively family-friendly Psychonauts. In cinema, Silent Hill spawned a couple of direct adaptations, but also inspired Stranger Things, whose “Upside Down” pays homage to the series’ “Otherworld,” an alternate reality where everything is the same, but different; darker, rustier, and more sinister. And finally, PT had an outsize amount of influence for a demo, inspiring countless fan homages and even having a noticeable effect on Resident Evil 7.

The past two decades have, admittedly, had an aging effect on Silent Hill. The object models are blocky, the control and camera systems haven’t dated well, the voice acting is dire, and when looking at the original game, it’s hard to blot out the knowledge that its sequels and other descendants refined the formula a little better. But its design philosophy is so strong, especially given the context of its time of release, that it can still hold players in its grip. More importantly, even if you’re not playing Silent Hill, if you’re playing a horror game you still sort of are. The tendrils of that fog have slipped through the windows of many a development house, spreading a legacy of dread and foreboding across the whole industry.

After all, you never truly leave Silent Hill…