I grew up playing games that were mostly upbeat and exciting in nature. I mostly played console games which, for the most part, were geared toward kids at the time. There was never any doubt that the good guys would win. The music and environments were sunny and energetic. And if anyone frowned, it was out of disappointment with my ability to play the game and not because anything was actually wrong. I imagine that the last thing a game publisher would want to do back then was create a game that was designed to upset gamers (or their parents.) For that matter, even controversial games like Mortal Kombat werenít supposed to be upsetting as much as they were supposed to be exciting for gamers who were eager to have the chance to claim gore-filled victories over friends. The shock of melting the opposing avatarís face was fleeting. You weren't scared or sad about it. It was just a juvenile way of emphasizing your totally awesome victory. The experience was just as positive in nature as Mario, Sonic, and all the rest. Games were there to make you feel good, or at least thatís the conclusion I had made. The last thing I expected a game to do was plant a seed of fear that could stick with you even after the console was turned off.
The game was advertised on the back of the manual for Metal Gear Solid. A blond police woman stood in a diner, arms crossed against a murky background. There was nothing particularly off about the scene other than the fact that there wasn't anything particularly off about it. That and the words "Welcome to Hell" scrawled across it. What was the deal? I sat there, and in my mind I was asking "...and? and?! AND WHAT DAMN IT!??" I hadn't seen anything quite like it before and now I wanted to know what it was trying to hide. I was familiar with Resident Evil, but it was upfront with what would be scaring you: zombies, monsters, and guys wearing sunglasses. But this felt different. That police woman's demeanor almost seemed to say "you're going to be scared, and I know it." But there was nothing to be scared of in the ad. It was equal parts challenge and curiosity that led me to play Silent Hill.
The following summer, I rented it with a friend. We took it home like countless other games we had rented over the years. The movie that played introduced all of the characters, and what was clear was that these people were not all right. They were scared, confused, and possibly in pain, but I still had no idea why. In any case, these images were unnerving. We started the game. Harry and his daughter Cheryl are on their way to Silent Hill for vacation. That abruptly ends when Harry manages to crash his car on the side of the road after swerving out of the way of a young woman who saw fit to stand in the way. The next thing I know, it's morning and Harry is stumbling out of the car. Cheryl's gone, but she couldn't have gone far. In fact, I could already see her through the fog.
There's an uneasy calm. Nobody else is on the street, and it's snowing. Who knows why, but it just adds to the laundry list of other things that are strange about this town and game. Cheryl is running away and Iím quickly drawn further into the town. Harry is forced to meander through the streets and alleys to the point that I wouldn't be able to find my way back again. Aside from not understanding what was happening in the town, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm even supposed to do in the game. My only objective is to find Harry's daughter. But as I get closer, I get the impression that she doesnít want to be found. All I can do is keep running.
I donít know where Cheryl is, I donít know how I would get back to the car, and now itís getting dark. Sirens are blaring as Harry lights a match. (Iíve never had to contemplate the threat of an air raid before, but these sirens were still used regularly for other emergencies where I lived, and it creeps me the hell out.) The alley looks like somebody had turned a hospital on its side and dumped out the contents. Wheelchairs and gurneys are strewn about. Iím not even sure if I want to know whatís happening anymore. Then, Harry stumbles into a body thatís been eviscerated and strung up to a chain link fence. It was a gruesome scene, and I stood there gawking at the body by the light of the match. A small figure emerges from the darkness. Has Cheryl come back? Was she all right? Thereís no doubt at this point that there was something seriously wrong, and this game was going to be more horrific than any other Iíd played. Before I could finish that thought, the child-like figure had lunged at me and drove a knife into my leg -- then another figure, and another. There was no way to escape and Harry slumped over, dead. Having failed, I handed the controller over to my friend. A moment later, Harry woke up in a diner. I was even more confused than I was before, but that only further piqued my interest. I snatched the controller back and played on.
Silent Hill held my attention because, at itís core, my goal was simple: I wanted to help Harry save his adorable daughter. He might look and sound like a dunce, but that only reinforced my feeling that neither he nor his daughter deserved this. Everything was terrible about that town and I wished that Harry and Cheryl could just get back into the car and drive away. That was the gameís hook. Morbid curiosity reeled me the rest of the way in. In other games, I was trained to expect a reward when I reached major milestones. But in Silent Hill, these are precisely the moments when the game decides to let me know that things are even worse than I first thought.
I had been running around in the dark for hours. I went from room to room of Midwich Elementary, hearing the cries of these child-like monsters. I could fight them off at times, but many other times I just had to flee until the static on the radio died down. I desperately tried to remember which rooms on the map had been cleared out so I would be able to take a break periodically. In my mind, I couldnít imagine how things could get any worse. But sure enough, it got much worse. Solving the townís puzzles and surviving itís creatures led me to find myself in Silent Hillís ďotherworld,Ē which can be accurately described as ďhell on earth.Ē Everything about the otherworld exuded terror and despair. The town itself had become a corpse (full of even more corpses) that had bigger monsters and more challenging puzzles. After this, I had no other choice but to put down the controller. I had been drawn so far into the game that I was too scared to go into the next room. I kept coming back to it when I had my wits about me, for every bit of me that was afraid I was also intensely curious about what was ahead.
Eventually, I escaped the ďotherĒ world, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The white fog was a welcome sight. I sat back and I looked back on what just happened. And itís at that point that I began to realize just how fucked I was. I had been wishing for nothing else than to get back to the slightly-less-horrible version of the town. And I started to sense that things were never going to turn out well. But there was no turning back now. I just wanted to know how things were going to end. And if Iím lucky, why this was happening. I jumped back and forth between bad-town and awful-ville. Each time, things got even worse. I could never tell what was coming up next, but I had learned to expect it to be bad. Each new door would be harder to open than the last. I was slowly coming to the realization that Harry wasnít going to see his daughter again. What else could he do though? It was terrible, but I was trying to help Harry see this through to the bitter end.
Silent Hill understood what it meant to be afraid of the unknown, and how much your imagination contributes to that fear. Iíll be damned if anything that happened in that game made any sense in the end, but it was scary. The environment, music, sound effects, and most everything else in the game pushed imagination to darker depths. There was no happy ending. And the less-bleak endings require keen attention to details and a good deal of luck if youíre not using a FAQ. It was like nothing else I had played, or ever thought Iíd want to play. Itís challenging enough for games to succeed by being fun. Silent Hill was amazing for putting me want to play a game that scared the hell out of me. Itís difficult to describe what exactly makes this game special to those who have never played it. But among those who have, I gather the impression that weíve enjoyed the opportunity to embrace, and learn to work around that sense of fear that Silent Hill arouses in us. Your only reward was to know that you were able to push yourself further than you thought was possible. It changed my idea of what games could and couldnít be entirely, and I loved it.