In 1997, a small team was created inside of Konami made up of members from other projects that were frustrated that their creative voices weren’t being heard. They intended to leave the company, but Konami gave them a chance to work on a game of their own. A year earlier, Capcom had released Resident Evil, which was not only a revolutionary title in horror games; coining the term survival horror, but was also a smash hit in the west. Konami wanted this team to make a horror game to compete with Resident Evil. Director Keiichiro Toyama, who was obsessed with UFO stories and the surrealistic work of David Lynch, wanted to create a different take on the horror genre, one that was less about zombies and more about psychological horror. In 1999, they released the first Silent Hill on the Playstation Entertainment System.
Silent Hill starts off with main protagonist Harry Mason driving to the vacation destination called Silent Hill when his car goes off the road and he crashes, awaking to find that his daughter is missing. He goes off searching into the town to try to find her. Graphically, the game is pretty great by the standards of the PS1. Granted, the textures and in-game character models look like bad origami with a JPEG of a face on top, and half the time you can’t tell what the fuck the spooky things are supposed to be, but give it a break. 3D gaming was still in its infancy and the PS1 was trying as hard as it could. There are still some impressive effects for the era at work though like how the snow lands on the ground and stays for a second before disappearing.
Speaking of the snow, one of the main draws of the game is the fog and lighting effects. Of course, this was originally put into the game due to the limitations of the system, especially the low draw distance capabilities. But Team Silent worked with this in mind, and integrated it into the atmosphere of the game. It pairs really well with another genius mechanic in the game: the radio. The radio you get early on will make a noise when an enemy is nearby. While this might seem like it would lessen the scariness of the game because it alerts you to an enemy’s presence, combined with the low visibility it really ratchets up the tension. Especially since at random points in the game, the radio will go off even if there are no enemies nearby.
Gameplay-wise the game is split into two parts. The first part is the usual tank controls and clunky melee combat that… Admittedly isn’t great, and what will be the biggest barrier to people who really want to play the game. Granted, I’ll die on the hill that atmosphere is the biggest aspect of horror game gameplay, as games like Amnesia are amazing and they don’t even have gameplay other than running and hiding. The second half of the game is puzzles. The puzzles in Silent Hill are actually really clever and well done. It’s not like in future games where puzzles are just shoving 3 things together to make what you need to progress, even if you have about 5 other items that could just as easily achieve what ever you needed to do. This game definitely has legit riddles, my favorite being the one where you have to interpret the poem about birds into what keys to play on a piano.
The sound design is probably my favorite part of the game. Composer Akira Yamaoka, whose soundtracks would become staples of the series, really did an amazing job on this considering he had never done a soundtrack or any type of official musical arrangement before. Of course, there are more melodic songs which are really nice, but it’s the guttural, industrial aspects of the OST that he creates, especially when you’re in the “nightmare” world that really makes the game far more intense than it actually is at times. He sampled dental drills and other weird noises to create these hellish ambient soundscapes that are just as much an irreplaceable part of Silent Hill’s atmosphere and gameplay than anything. As far as voice acting goes… I’m not sure what it is with horror games of this era having just absolute dogshit voice acting, but I’m not even sure if the stilted dialog and deliveries are on purpose or not. They certainly add to the dreamlike detachment from reality that the game is going for.
I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of the story in this game. It’s not that it’s bad, just maybe a bit convoluted, but it’s a fairly good story. In the context of the series though, this is definitely the weakest story out of all the Japanese developed games. Silent Hill, while obviously having a lot of psychological elements weaved in, hadn’t found its narrative identity yet, especially in the tone of story and use of symbolism, as there aren’t really many of the elements that would make the stories of the future games some of the best in the medium. Also, I’ve never been a fan of the cult elements in this series. Psychological horror just doesn’t feel the same when you can attach a human element to it. I mean, a Lovecraftian horror from beyond the veil of time and space that represents how insignificant humans are in a chaotic universe just isn’t as scary if you can imagine it dropping its car keys or arguing with a spouse about where to get take out. Additionally, this title started the series tradition of having multiple endings depending on choices and fulfilling different requirements during the game. The “bad” ending is straight up awful. Not in a scary or graphic way. I mean, quality wise it’s horrible, and I can imagine some people getting it at the end of their first playthrough and being really unsatisfied.
Overall, Silent Hill was a seminal title in horror gaming, distinguishing itself from other horror titles by taking a more psychological approach as opposed to being about monsters or zombies like many other games of the era. While there are certain aspects of the game that have not aged well at all, I would still recommend it. It’s a great jumping off point for the admittedly better games in the series. It’s definitely the type of game that could use a full-on remake. If only we could convince Konami to stop making Solid Snake brand cock rings for five seconds.