Silent Hill is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying games ever and with very good reason. Whereas other survival games focused on shock moments, established horror conventions and clichéd characters, Silent Hill took a different approach. This was a horror game where every pixel was imbued with malevolence and as such remains a chilling experience.
The story begins with a father and daughter travelling to Silent Hill, but it isn't long before things take a sinister turn and Harry, the protagonist, must search for his missing child. As the game begins the atmosphere is slowly built up as you search a deserted alleyway, were things slowly begin to change...
This is a very dark and adult adventure which refuses to stick to the predictable templates of its contemporaries. The atmosphere created in the game, even today, is nightmarish. The streets are permanently engulfed in an ethereal swirling fog, populated by bizarre and twisted monstrosities. Locations were all familiar: a school, a hospital, a coastal resort, but all are twisted and distorted into something far more sinister. The developers cleverly took the familiar and made it horrific, giving the game more psychological impact.
The game's setup also raised questions as to Harry's sanity: was this really happening? Was it all just a dream? The sections in which the town starts to literally transform into a grimy, rust filled abomination accompanied by the sound of a chilling air raid siren still sends shivers down my spine. It is this "other world" scenario that really adds to the atmosphere, as here the locations are barely recognisable and filled with shocking scenes.
Enemies play large parts in the game's chilling ambience. Unlike the usual selection of monsters, Silent Hill was populated by a disturbing selection of horrors. The town was populated by nurses and doctors controlled by a moving parasite in their backs, flying creatures coated in maggots and even knife wielding child-like entities. This wasn't a game for the easily scared and the content proved too much for the BBFC, which led to the some enemies being altered.
Sound design remains one of the strongest in any title and was one of the key factors that created such a threatening and oppressive atmosphere. As you ventured down blood-stained hallways strange metallic clanging and disembodied screeches followed you. The use of your pocket radio was also a masterstroke. As the creatures approached you in the darkness, the radio started to emit static which built to a terrifying crescendo as they loomed out of the blackness to attack. Yet, at times gentle piano pieces would accompany quieter sections and cut-scenes, creating a chilling contrast.
The pacing of the game is also excellent. Whilst it is old-fashioned in that it comprises distinct locations, these are very well selected and you never spend too long lingering in one. Combat is also kept infrequent, in that monsters roam the corridors but most of the time all you can hear is the static of the radio as you turn out your light to try and sneak past. The psychology of this is interesting, as you try and avoid combat which leads to some real tension in between encounters.
Upon release, the game sold strongly and proved a popular hit amongst gamers who wanted a really frightening game experience. After such a successful reception from players and critics a sequel was released in 2001.
Rather than being a direct sequel to the original, Silent Hill 2 instead introduced a new character and storyline as well as a different area of the town. The game stuck to many of the gameplay elements of the original. Combat was still rather clunky, puzzles and riddles played a key part to progressing and there was an emphasis on building tension with infrequent combat.
The graphics and sound were excellent and really showcased the PS2 at the time. Lighting effects and environments were incredibly impressive and really created a disturbing environment. Locations were rust-coated, blood-stained hell holes and investigating them was truly an eerie experience. Locations were also incredibly chilling: an abandoned prison, a filthy dilapidated apartment complex and the mental ward of a hospital were all terrifying enough without a faceless creature trying to murder you.
Enemy design in Silent Hill 2 was also well thought out and very Freudian. Enemies based around themes of sexual repression, aggression and insanity meant that they were more than simple monsters or mutants. Encounters were often memorable and the game featured one of the scariest entities ever: Pyramid Head.
The decision to focus on a more complex and psychological atmosphere and story was a clever one. The story, revolving around the protagonist search for his wife was genuinely interesting, especially as she was meant to be dead... The inclusion of a selection of other shadowy characters was also highly effective especially as you are never quite sure who could be trusted.
For many, Silent Hill 2 is the definitive title in the series. The game was complex, disturbing and technologically impressive and really established the series as one of the scariest of all time. The game proved popular enough to get re-released with an extra scenario which added a new element to the plot as well as an extra ending.
When the third title was released in 2003, the series returned to early ideas and was more of a direct sequel to the original. Featuring a female protagonist who finds her world altered after a mysterious stranger talks to her, the game explored some new themes. Using a mixture of familiar locations and new ones, the game reached some terrifying new achievements.
The graphics in this title were outstanding, especially in the game's alternate world. When the locations shifted into nightmarish versions the walls pulsated and bled, metallic gratings covered over bottomless depths and strange fleshy creatures moved in the background. This was scary.
Characterisation was again a very strong element of the game, and as the story progressed you really cared for these people and what happened to them. The narrative was complex and for people unfamiliar with the series it could be difficult to follow. The combat in the game was also tweaked and a greater emphasis was placed on shooting which changed the feel of the game slightly.
Whilst some found that the game was a little unoriginal - in that it stuck to the same formula of previous games with similar focus on puzzles and riddles - it was still a well thought out title. Silent Hill 3 had some stand-out creepy moments which helped to make it memorable, in particular a haunted house set piece which becomes a little too real...
Silent Hill 4: The Room, was released not long after the third instalment and took the series in a very different direction. The game centred on Henry Townsend, a man trapped inside his own apartment until a mysterious hole appears leading to bizarre alternate worlds. Whilst the game doesn't actually take place in Silent Hill, the style is there and it tries hard to add some new elements to the series.
With first-person sections implemented whilst in Apartment 302, the game had a different feel and in the latter part this was a very effective way in creating some genuinely creepy scenes as well as building up layers of menace. The soundtrack was, as ever, outstanding with some beautiful and haunting pieces written and the game's graphics were another excellent showcase for the series.
The story itself was particularly bizarre and at times was genuinely disturbing, though at times it did venture too far into the occult. The characters in the game weren't quite as fleshed out as the previous instalments which didn't really lead to the immersion and fear of the original three.
The real problem with Silent Hill 4 was that whilst it tried hard to do new things, these often went wrong. Being partnered with a non-playable character for the entire second half of the game and having to revisit the areas from the first area again were baffling decisions. This repetition meant the game was restricted to a series of small levels which were reused, making the latter section tedious and helping to undo all the hard work of the first section.
Enemies were also disappointing and lacked the real psychological manipulation that the earlier titles had. The lack of the town itself was also a strange decision and as such, the game never really had the same atmosphere, making it an interesting game in the series.
When Silent Hill Origins was announced for the PSP, there were raised eyebrows. For the first time in the series' history the title wouldn't be developed by Team Silent. Original output from the game also looked worrying, as the game seemed to take on a Resident Evil 4 style with action orientation which would likely have been a total disaster.
The title was changed and handed over to a new development outlet, and when the game was released it stuck firmly to some conventions but tried to introduce new gameplay ideas. Firstly, the graphics and sound, as ever, were outstanding for the format and really showcased the town and the monstrosities. However, Origins didn't always work.
Much of the game reuses existing storylines and locations which had already been made fairly clear in the original title. The main problem with the prequel is that it takes the mystery out of some of the back story and setting. The fact that combat is more focused in this game isn't necessarily bad, but when quick time events direct from a rival series are crow-barred in things aren't good.
The main problem with the game was its lack of originality and it stuck too closely to existing games, introducing enemies that are essentially the same ones from previous titles with different shaped heads. The game was an effective piece of survival horror for anyone new to the franchise, but for existing fans, it felt lacking.
A lot now rests on Silent Hill 5, a game which could make or break the series. Having a fresh new start on the next generation of consoles with a new team developing it means that the title has potential. However, the release date has just been pushed back to February in Europe, meaning the US gets it 5 months earlier. Initial reports seem mixed and content changes may well be included in the EU version, suggesting cuts are likely.
Despite the recent changes in the franchise, the original titles still remain some of the most terrifying experiences ever and are perfect for a Halloween gaming night. Turn off the lights, close the curtains and prepare to be scared...