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Silent Hill (PlayStation) artwork

Silent Hill (PlayStation) review

"Silent Hill draws a map of the human psyche and at the edge of that map places a sign reading ďHere be Monsters.Ē"

With big games like Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 2 declaring loudly that the future of survival horror lies in action sequences, quicktime events, and big explosions, it feels appropriate to take a look back at what the genre used to be. It used to be damn frightening.

How many of you have heard this story? Harry Mason gets in a car accident and wakes up in the ash-filled nightmare town of Silent Hill. His daughter is missing and he heads out to find her, along the way discovering the secret to the townís demise. This involves an ancient cult, some old hag-witch, a doctor selling psychotropic drugs, and the revelation that Harryís daughter doesnít really exist, but is instead the aborted soul of another girl who was impregnated by the cult with what might either be a demon or an angel, and then thereís also these parasites that control people and make monsters thatÖ díah, I donít know what the hell Silent Hill is about. It doesnít matter. Silent Hill is less about telling a story and more about creating a setting. And thereís a lesson in that which modern survival horrors should take to heart.

Letís back up a bit. Iíve come very late to Silent Hill. Many people had told me that it is a classic. I was skeptical. Often, when you try to go back and play these so-called classics, you discover that much of what made them stand out has dissipated over the years. And itís true here, to a point--Silent Hill hasnít entirely escaped the aging process. Its graphics, for instance, are so chunky as to be almost indecipherable. I actually had to turn to a FAQ a few times, just because I couldnít locate a key item amidst the blocky textures and muddy colors. The enemy design is uninspired, as well. Everything that people associate with Silent Hill--the bandaged nurses, Pyramid Head, the creeping Hans Bellmer dolls--donít show up until Silent Hill 2. The nurses here are just normal-looking people with hunched backs, one of the bosses is a giant moth, and the streets are filled with zombie dogs and pterodactyls (yeah, pterodactyls--go figure). The controls are also clunky and itís not rare to run straight into an enemy when youíre trying to dodge it, or to pull out a gun only to aim in the exact opposite direction of what you are trying to shoot.

The game compensates for this by being incredibly easy. Even on the hardest setting, ammo and health are everywhere, and sudden difficulty spikes are patched up with the equivalent of programmerís band-aids. Take, for example, the enemies on the streets. They are the most tenacious creatures in the game and perpetually respawn. But it is also here that you have the most room to dodge and outrun them, so you should never have to stand and actually fight. The enemies you canít dodge, who show up inside the tight corridors of the various buildings, are made slow and stupid and you quickly acquire a metal pipe the size of a lamppost to beat their brains out with. The final boss will do you a favor and actually kill itself if you go in with no ammo. Why? Because it flies and you canít hit it with melee weapons. It begs the question: why make him fly in the first place? This question has no answer.

But enough of that. Silent Hill is damn terrifying, and itís amazing how many issues this terror solves. Suddenly the lack of coherency in the story becomes disturbing, as you feel continually off guard and not sure what horror the game is going to throw out at you next. The muddy graphics become a place where demons may lie in wait and you start checking every corner and shadow twice, sure that you just saw something move. Fear even starts to make the game feel harder. Fear is an enemy that you canít conquer from within the game--it sits next to you on the couch, whispering that something is going to attack you as soon as you go through that door, or that something has crept up behind you while you were looking at your map. I used up most of my health packs preparing for enemies that werenít actually there. Every time I died, it was because I panicked and tried to run when I shouldíve held my ground--or held my ground when I should have run. Fear makes it hard to think clearly.

In creating this fear, huge credit has to go to the sound design team. When I explored Silent Hill, I was taken captive by a cacophony of sound. More than captive--I felt herded by the sound. No other game uses sound to this degree to control a player. Itís like playing two games at once. In one game, you may be running through a disgustingly dilapidated hospital, seeing that the way ahead is clear--but the other game, the one piping through your speakers, is bursting with discordant static and orchestral screams, blazing a message into your brain: ďDonít go this way!Ē Often, I was turned aside from the right course and into danger by the sound messing with me.

It is a showcase of intelligent design at its best. The game trains you to listen for enemies by setting up a system where static and loud music play as creatures draw near. When you canít see more than ten feet in front of you, you start to rely on your ears to tell you whatís safe. This is a trap, though. About halfway through the game, the sound starts to change the rules without telling you. Suddenly, loud music plays in empty rooms, and the range for static becomes erratic, sometimes alerting you to enemies well beyond your immediate danger zone or not alerting you until they are right on top of you. I canít count the number of times I froze, seeing an open pathway ahead of me but hearing a dead end in the sound. One of the more terrifying moments had me running through a sewer, straight into the heart of the music, the pitch getting louder and more intense with each step, while countless enemies chased me. I couldnít stop, despite all of my instincts yelling at me to turn around. It was a trap the game had set--the only way forward was to face a fear it had created by training me as surely as Pavlovís dog.

It is this training and this trap which makes Silent Hill a classic. Gamers will continue to find scares here, no matter how many years pass, no matter how old the graphics get or how clunky the controls. If anything, Silent Hill proves that you donít need beautifully rendered bogeymen in order to create fear. What you need is design that plays with a gamerís head. Silent Hill draws a map of the human psyche and at the edge of that map places a sign reading ďHere be Monsters.Ē The rest it leaves up to you.

The original Silent Hill is available as a download on PSN for $5.99. For those looking for an unsettling experience, itís money well spent.


zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (December 20, 2012)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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