Silent Hill seemed extremely mysterious when I first saw it in a shop catalogue. Resident Evil was zombies, Dino Crisis was dinosaurs (dino-horror… has that already been coined?), but what was Silent Hill? Misty streets and ambiguous bloody messes were the most prominent features of magazine screen shots at the time. Even the name was mysterious; not like other horror stories; more like the moment just before something happens –
And the game lives up to that mystery. You, Harry Mason, wake up in a town shrouded in thick fog [that most genuinely creepy of all weather conditions – I remember visiting a beach on the Gower Peninsula which was covered by a thick white sea fog – it was a novelty experience, but I couldn’t help feeling the tinges of a claustrophobic response bubbling up] and are met by a police officer. A reassuring sight, if not for the strange, unnerving way in which the characters, including your own, speak to each other. This is key to Silent Hill’s lasting creepiness. Speech in this game seems at times like an abnormal activity – as if words no longer properly express reality.
Whether or not this was intentional is probably up for debate, though with the development team citing David Lynch as a major influence I wouldn’t be surprised if the voice acting team took direction from films such as Lost Highway, in which every line seems to imply some underlying menace (though reading an interview with Michael Guinn, Harry’s voice actor, it doesn’t sound like those influence, if they existed, were made explicit in direction).
Much has been made of the setting in the past (rightfully so), but it always seemed strange to me that the town entirely lacks a hill [in this game at least – I haven’t played them all]. The town is next to a lake. But I don’t recall any mention or sighting of a hill in the game. A lake does seem to fit the mood and tone of the setting though – again that thick fog off the water. Also (and I’m sure I’m stealing this from somewhere), there’s something about large, still bodies of water which suggests sleep and stasis; and there’s that liminal shoreline between life and another, submersed world. The disconnect between the setting and its name (Hill – lake; though Silent neatly fits), like the voice acting, also presents the player with a place in which things just don’t feel right; in which language isn’t able to function properly.
One aspect of the game which represents its biggest success for me are the exploration sequences. Wandering through the foggy town looking for resources and clues is so brilliantly creepy and evocative – with the static radio sounds making silence feel comforting – and the… fleshy pterodactyls… flying through the mist. Combat however is undeniably awkward, but people argue it’s intentional and a good thing. I’m not sure whether I entirely agree, and on the whole I wish there was less combat in the game. It does however add a layer of tension and increasing stress as you manage your resources, but towards the end of the game this isn’t much of a problem, and as a result you’re left only with the awkward encounters [perhaps increasing the difficulty level would improve this, but it could just as easily make it worse].
On top of this the enemy designs are questionable: yes, fleshy pterodactyls (more dino-horror ©) are original I guess, but evil teddy bears; a random caterpillar; fleshy dog-like things; actual dogs! The bosses, and enemies as a whole, are just fleshy things which are scary. They don’t relate to anything much.
Apart from the enemies and some of the combat situations, I really do enjoy this game as a whole. It’s one of those experience games, where it’s more about the whole than the parts.