After Silent Hill, Nick F. hopes that the future has more surreal gaming experiences in store…
irst up, let me thank Bob Shand for taking the time during his busy schedule (hah!) at GDC to pick a US copy of Silent Hill up for me. Honestly, you US gamers don’t know you’re born…
I’ve always viewed those people who feel that games and movies should go hand-in-hand with a lot of suspicion: after all, they are two very different media. I dealt with this issue in my first loonygames article (a look at Metal Gear Solid), but I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the old stereotype of the ‘interactive movie’ (6 CDs of FMV, with 250k of game engine) is, put simply, dead. These days the ‘movie’ element isn’t just limited to use of film footage, and the ‘interactive’ experience is more than some dodgy multiple-choice story line. Technology has enabled more realistic and detailed graphics, but game designers have also grown in sophistication and we’re now capable of constructing a gaming environment which, in terms of graphics, sound and general atmosphere (what film buffs would call mis-en-scene), rivals that of any Hollywood production. Hey, as the case of beleaguered N64 title Hybrid Heaven (think Resident Evil 3D with an RPG combat system) shows, even the Hollywood curse of ‘development hell’ is creeping into the games industry!
The thing about Silent Hill is that it really isn’t like any typical Hollywood production. Whereas Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid have their roots planted in familiar genre territory (schlock horror and manga action, respectively), Silent Hill plays more like some surreal psycho-horror movie. The nearest gaming equivalents I can think of are the Giger-designed PC adventure Darkseed, and the (dull, but undeniably bizarre) Myst series, but in execution it’s more like Kubrick’s The Shining than any game. You play the part of Harry Mason, an ordinary guy on his way to the holiday town of Silent Hill with his daughter Cheryl. Just outside the town, you are involved in a car crash – when you wake up your daughter is missing, and you venture into Silent Hill to look for her. From the beginning, Silent Hill grabs the player and draws you into the twisted, dream-like world the game’s designers have created. The disturbing opening sequence sets the tone for much of the game that follows – the town veers from initial Twilight Zone spookiness to something darker and much more horrific.
In answer to a common criticism, Silent Hill may well have been conceived as Konami’s answer to the Resident Evil series but the final product has emerged as something much more sophisticated. Whereas Capcom’s games provided short, sharp shocks between bouts of zombie-blasting, Silent Hill rarely ventures into jump-in-your-seat territory. The assault on the player is much more psychological – every element of the game has been created to put you ill-at-ease, and the final effect is of a playing experience permeated with a weighty sense of dread. Resident Evil might have scared you, but Silent Hill will give you nightmares! Even beating the game is a disturbing experience – the strands of the story do eventually lead together, but no explicit explanation of many of the more confusing events is given. As an assault on the senses, you won’t find any game more ruthlessly efficient.
It’s not quite a case of "style over substance", but Silent Hill doesn’t manage to impress quite so much when it comes to its most basic gameplay mechanics. Most shamefully, the puzzles and game items are uncomfortably close to the Resident Evil games’: "You have found the Lion Key", "You have found the Pistol Ammunition", "You have the First Aid Kit" – sound familiar? Unfortunately, this means that it also suffers from similarly limited controls and combat mechanisms – just run, point, and shoot (noticeably unsatisfying in the "boss" encounters). Silent Hill also "borrows" the ‘survival horror’ genre’s curious dual use of both FMV and in-game graphics during cut-scenes, although this is far less jarring than usual despite the extremely high quality of the CG sequences (unbelievably, all created single-handedly by one member of the game’s team).
The most obvious visual difference from Resident Evil is the use of fully 3D environments (as opposed to Capcom’s luscious 2D backgrounds). This works surprisingly well – it’s testament to the skills of Konami’s texture artists that the levels of Silent Hill seem no less rich. The resultant opportunities for dynamic camerawork are also fully exploited: a number of memorable sequences come to mind, but to divulge any details would spoil the fun! Convincing environments are certainly an impressive feat, but the most significant technical achievement in Silent Hill is the use of light-sourcing. The programming team have taken the familiar horror motif of a lone torch in the darkness, and made it an integral part of the game. For once, the use of lighting effects is not a "gee-whiz" gimmick; shine your flashlight and you might be able to see, but the monsters lurking in there can also see you. There’s also the question of where to shine your torch, as creatures have a nasty habit of shuffling up behind you - in terms of creating opportunities to scare the shit out of you, this concept is pure genius.
Special mention must also go to the soundtrack. Silent Hill has the most chilling audio accompaniment I’ve ever heard - in any medium, ever. I can’t think of a single horror movie which has filled me with such dread, and I’ve seen a few. Not so much a score as a collection of noises, the mixture of white radio static, low thuds, organic pulsings and metallic gratings will have you cowering behind your joypad in terror. Play this one in the dark, with the volume up.
For once use of the word ‘character’ to describe the plot’s participants is fully justified, thanks to the decent scripting, voice acting and unbelievable FMV sequences used to introduce the cast members as you meet them throughout the game. True to the spirit of Silent Hill, a short, jokey sequence featuring the cast (left till the end of the credits) proves as unnerving as it is humorous. Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything here! I saw a newsgroup post comparing the game to David Lynch’s weird-fest Lost Highway – a remarkably apt comparison that stuck in my mind as I played through it. Lost Highway has been described as "a 21st century horror movie". Well, if that’s true then Silent Hill is certainly the sort of surreal gaming experience that should help games become recognized as the major art form of the next century.
The most impressive thing about Silent Hill is the way it presents a seemingly incoherent story, but yet it still manages to make sense, in a warped way. Despite the bizarre flashbacks, are-they/aren’t-they dream sequences, ghostly apparitions and occasional total blackouts, the player is never left feeling frustrated or cheated - just curious. I haven’t wanted to beat a game this much for a long time! In its use of narrative structure, Silent Hill is absolutely unique. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but if you appreciate the nightmare world Konami have created, you’ll relish every twisted moment it provides.
I won’t deny that I really got into Silent Hill – I was up till the wee hours of the morning, playing in a cold, dark, empty flat. I had nightmares for the first time in years after experiencing some of the most unbelievably creepy moments, making this a gaming experience I’ll remember for years to come. When you were little, did you ever wake up alone in the dark, with the deathly silence of the night causing fiendish images of devils, monsters and abominations to dwell in your imagination? Did you lie quivering under the covers, wishing those waking nightmares would disappear? Welcome to Silent Hill.
- Nick Ferguson most certainly likes scary movies.
Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.