The will likely be spoilers, but should I talk about something super new I'll warn ya. But consider this a pre-emptive warning! You're WARNED!

Friday, January 28, 2011

SILENT HILL: A Series Retrospective

Talk is heating up- HEATING UP I SAY- about the latest Silent Hill title in development- Silent Hill: Downpour. Articles, screenshots, and music clips are leaking...heh.

"Leaking"..."Downpour". See what I did there? Terrible! Anyway, the point is that I thought this would be a good time to take a look back at the entire series, which debuted last century, people. Why, I believe Silent Hill can now be considered "venerable".

Silent Hill (1999)

In 1999, the internet was just shy of becoming the non-stop hype machine it is today. In marked contrast to the latest iteration, Downpour, the original Silent Hill simply appeared on the scene from nowhere and quickly became a game changer in the world of survival horror. Whereas Resident Evil relied on jump scares and tried-and-true movie monsters such as zombies to frighten players, Silent Hill approached video game fear in an entirely different way. Atmosphere, limited visibility, sound design...even camera angles were used to maximum effect in disconcerting players. Like no other game that came before it, Silent Hill got in your head. The team behind this game seemed to understand that horror is best when all of the audience's senses are engaged. Okay, maybe not smell. Or touch, really. Or taste. But you get my point, which is that Silent Hill is a complete experience that envelops you and puts the player in the game. On one late-night playthrough, the chills up my back were too much and I turned this shit off. That's a pretty effective game.

Harry Mason, knocked unconscious during a car crash, wakes to find his young daughter Cheryl missing from the car. He thinks he spots her running away and gives chase, only to find himself in the fog-enshrouded town of Silent Hill. Once inside, however, he discovers that it's not simply a patch of bad weather; rather, there are some evil forces at work. The town seems abandoned and monsters roam the streets. Roads disappear and Harry cannot leave...and occasionally, the "Otherworld" takes over and Silent Hill becomes a twisted version of itself, dilapidated and drowned in complete darkness. As he explores, he uncovers the truth: there's a cult trying to resurrect an Old God, and Cheryl figures prominently into their plans, etc etc. Effing cults. It's always something with a GD cult!

The plot may be a bit of a head scratcher, but there are several outcomes/resolutions, including the infamous, jokey "UFO" scenario. Multiple ending possibilities would become a series hallmark...along with clunky controls, awkward combat, and camera issues. Hey, Silent Hill may not a perfect gameplay experience, but that's a small price to pay for such immersive atmosphere and aesthetics. As wonderful as the visuals are (even on a PS1 game!), the effectiveness owes as much- if not more- to the soundtrack work of Akira Yamaoka, whose name quickly became synonymous with the series. Whether its jarring, discordant noises that set your teeth on edge or melodies that lull you into a false sense of security, the sounds he's given the town have given the town life.

I'm not gonna lie- I'd love to see Silent Hill get a graphical upgrade-ening. It worked well for Resident Evil when the PS1 version was overhauled for the GameCube: vastly improved visuals and gameplay, but the story, though tweaked, was largely left alone. Guess I know what one of my upcoming birthday wishes will be!

Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Widely touted as not only the best game in the series but one of the greatest horror survival games in the history of ever, Silent Hill 2 is absolutely a masterpiece, a remarkable experience from beginning to end.

James Sunderland receives a letter from Mary, his wife- his dead wife- asking him to meet her in Silent Hill, where the couple vacationed years prior. Much like Harry Mason, upon arrival James finds himself trapped within the town's fog-laden streets. He battles monsters, meets a few other people wandering the streets, and finally comes across Maria, who bears a striking resemblance to Mary. As he tries to piece together this puzzle of WTF-ery, alarms blare and Silent Hill morphs into Otherworld...

In Silent Hill 2, the town is almost a living entity, beckoning people to itself and becoming a type of purgatory where people are judged for misdeeds. After several conversations with Eddie and Angela, two people equally as confused by the goings-on as James, it becomes evident that Silent Hill is malleable and provides people with...well, a custom-made experience, sort of like Room 101 in Orwell's 1984. For James, the town is rotting and full of monsters; for Angela, however, it's on fire. Illness, sexuality, guilt, remorse, murder, suicide, abuse, desire, deprivation- Silent Hill 2 deals with some heavy, adult themes and definitely earns its "M" rating. There's a sadness lingering over the whole affair, and it's as depressing as it is unsettling.

The gameplay, while still frustrating at times, is vastly improved over the first game, and difficulty levels of combat and puzzles can be set differently depending on what type of experience the player wishes to have. The graphics, as you might expect, are also much better than its predecessor. Sound design in a video game has rarely been better, thanks once again to the work of Akira Yamaoka. The locales, from the hospital to the prison, are delightfully dark and ominous. Playing Silent Hill 2 is, more often than not, an absolutely terrifying experience. This is thanks, in no small part, to the presence of Pyramid Head, an imposing executioner who relentlessly stalks James throughout the entire game.

The Xbox release of Silent Hill 2 featured "Born from a Wish", a scenario that puts players in the role of Maria before she meets James. This is one of the earliest examples of platform-exclusive content and therefore one of the earliest instances of me saying "Well great, now I have to buy another system."

Silent Hill 3 (2003)

Whereas Silent Hill 2 is a standalone entry in the series, Silent Hill 3 is more or less a direct sequel to the first game, set 17 years later. Heather- the only female protagonist in the series- is raised by Harry Mason after she's given to him as an infant in one of Silent Hill's endings. Now nearly an adult, she's drawn to the mysterious town and learns that the old pesky cult has plans for her- plans that feature birthing Gods and all the usual cult stuff. You know how they do.

The Otherworld is still in full effect, and the standard equipment- a flashlight and a radio- return. Gameplay is the mix of puzzles, combat, and exploration that players expect. It's also as scary as you'd expect. All in all, there's not much to set SH 3 apart from the game that came before it, but more of a good thing can know, a good thing when its done right.

Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)

The fourth installment brings about that classic paradox uttered by game fans, movie fans, and the like: I'd complain if you gave me more of the same old thing, but now that you've given me something new and I'm going to complain that it's not more of the same old thing!

SH4 deviated from the established formula in several ways- not the least of which is to take the game out of Silent Hill and stick it in the town of South Ashfield, specifically in the apartment of Henry Townsend. He wakes to find himself locked inside his small domicile, but soon discovers a hole in his bathroom wall that leads to a Silent Hill-like Otherworld. He becomes embroiled in the tale of Walter Sullivan, a deceased serial killer mentioned in a newspaper scrap players can find in Silent Hill 2. Henry, haunted by the ghosts of Sullivan's victims, travels back and forth between his home and Otherworld locations in a quest to put Sullivan to rest once and for all and to get the eff out of his apartment.

The series needed a breath of fresh air by the fourth entry, and SH 4: The Room certainly provided one. While the notion of expanding upon a throwaway piece of SH trivia is noble and the game's plot is fairly strong, ultimately it's a case of "good ideas, poor execution". Traveling back to your apartment- the only place providing a save spot in the game- gets tedious quickly. Puzzles, once a huge part of the experience, are sorely lacking, while combat is quite difficult. The ghosts that pursue you are irritating more than frightening: they chase you from area to area, and they can't truly be defeated. It's just...not fun.

Is it the game, or is it me? Hard for me to say. I found it quite frustrating and, while it had a couple of shining moments, it's sadly lacking in the scares department. For example, the nurses- terrifying in all previous installments- become...err, something quite different in Silent Hill 4.

The Room is the only Silent Hill game I've ever traded in, and it's a decision I question. Again, is it me, or the game? Would I enjoy it more now that I know what to expect of it? If I find it on the cheap, I'll probably pick it up (YES AGAIN) and give you an all-new verdict. Or maybe a "Yeah, I was right the first time" verdict. I know, edge of your seat and peeing with anticipation and all that.

Silent Hill: Origins (2007)

Silent Hill: Origins is the first SH game brought to fruition by someone other than the original Japanese developers, Team Silent. After a few false starts, production shifted to the UK-based Climax Studios, who brought the gameplay style back to the familiar ground of the earliest games in the series. Origins, released initially on the PSP and later ported to PS2, is a prequel to the first game and tells the story of truck driver Travis Grady, who rescues a child from a fire and soon finds himself...dun dun dunnnn...mired in the goings-on in Silent Hill. The girl is Alessa Gillespie, who is not at all unfamiliar to players- she's been at the center of the SH cult's resurrection plans since Day One. Alessa disappears from the hospital where Travis brought her and as he tries to figure out how and why that happened, he remembers more and more of his past. It's no surprise that his ties to Silent Hill run deeper than a simple drive-by.

As I said, an effort was made to hearken back to the old days of Silent Hill and for a die hard fan like me, that's fine...even if, by this fifth installment, the beloved formula ( was a tad too familiar. Things were shaken up by tweaks to combat (including modified quick time events) and the main character's interaction with Silent Hill's infamous Otherworld. Before Origins, Otherworld would simply happen, heralded only by the blare of air sirens. Travis, however, has the ability to travel between worlds via mirrors, and his actions in one world affect things- objects, environments, etc- in the other. It's a unique development, certainly, but it also takes away the minutest bit from the gameplay; not knowing when the darkness will strike and, once ensconced in it, not being able to leave it, can put the player in a bit of a panic.

Then, too, there's just...something missing from Origins, though it's difficult to pinpoint one thing, exactly. It could be that originally, Silent Hill was essentially a Japanese interpretation of western horror. Highly influenced by movies like Jacob's Ladder and classics of genre literature (take a look at the street names in the map up top, won't ya?), SH was of a certain sensibility thanks to the culture of its development team. When the series was put back in the hands of western developers, it became an interpretation of an interpretation, a third-generation copy that, for all its superficial successes, rings hollow. It's enjoyable simply because it's Silent Hill, dammit, but it fails to leave a lasting impression or ever truly get under your skin the way the first three games did. It's possible, too, that the series was simply running out of steam. "Running out a steam" is apparently a long way from dead, however, as the SH games keep coming.

Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008)

The first Silent Hill game made for next-gen platforms Xbox 360 and PS3 came from another western developer, Double Helix. Alex is a combat veteran returning home to Shepherd's Glen, a hamlet that borders on Toluca Lake with Silent Hill, only to find things are terribly amiss. His mom is all zonked out and townsfolk- including his father and younger brother- have gone missing. He dives into the fray to get to the bottom of the mystery, and things get effed up.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it should by this point, and that's a shortcoming for Homecoming. To their credit, Double Helix made some changes that while seemingly minor, ultimately had a huge impact. In previous games, combat was awkward and difficult in part because of wonky camera and controls, but also because it was endemic to the protagonists. A dad, a trucker, a 17-year-old girl...the main characters in all other installments are just regular people who simply wallop monsters as best they can- which often isn't very well. Alex, however, is an ex-soldier and as such, he knows how to kick monster ass, wielding upgradeable weapons as he performs finishing moves and dodges attacks. In previous forays into Silent Hill, combat was to be avoided whenever possible; here, enemies pose little threat. As a result, Homecoming feels more like an action-based game than a psychological horror-based one.

Still, Homecoming isn't a bad game by any stretch- it's just a bit stale and predictable. The plot, while only loosely tied to Silent Hill itself, is serviceable; the visuals, though often too dark, are generally terrific when you can see 'em, and Akira Yamaoka's work is as good and atmospheric as ever. If this game were an original title and not tied to the Silent Hill series, it probably would have received higher marks across the board...but this is Silent Hill: Homecoming, and it's missing that certain something that made earlier games in the series so special.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)

Climax Group, the team behind Origins, returned for Shattered Memories, a reboot/reimagining of the first game.

I know all you horror movie fans out there just felt a chill run down your spine, as we're all too accustomed to updatenings pooping all over our beloved classics.

And yes, up top I expressed a desire to see the first game given a graphical overhaul- that's something entirely different than a reboot. It's like the difference between scrubbing up James Cameron's Aliens for a Blu Ray released and Joe Schmoe director reimagining Ripley and her Space Marines as a science class on their worst field trip ever.

This is not to say that Shattered Memories is as bad as all that; I sheepishly admit that I don't really know. I played the first couple of hours on a friend's Wii, the platform to which the game was exclusive at the time. I don't own a Wii, so when that visit was over, so was my relationship with Shattered Memories. It has since ported to PS2, but...I wasn't so impressed that I felt the need to go pick it up. Additionally, the gameplay was very much tailored to the Wii's remote (which the player uses to aim the flashlight and utilize the cellphone), which may or may not translate well to the PS2's dual-shock controller. Shattered Memories is the first Silent Hill game I didn't rush out and buy on release day. I don't know why, but I feel like mentioning that. Surely it says something about something or other.

What I did play at my friend's house was admittedly fairly interesting. The story of Harry Mason and his daughter Cheryl, once again lost in Silent Hill, is intercut with scenes of Harry at a psychiatrist's office. Harry dutifully answers the doctor's questions, and those answers color the gameplay back in Silent Hill, from the puzzles he must solve to other characters he encounters. This allows for enough variety in the experience to warrant a few playthroughs.

The biggest changes, however, occur when Silent Hill enters the familiar Otherworld- in Shattered Memories, it ain't familiar at all. Rather than changing to a world of rust, decay, cages, and rotten flesh, it changes to a world of ice. There are also marked changes to combat in this installment: there is no combat. When the world turns blue and cold, Harry can only run away from the fleshy little dudes who chase after him. While this can be an exhilarating experience, it can also be one hell of a frustrating one as you try to navigate tricky environments and find a way out. Obviously, these enemy encounters are vastly different than any in the previous games; it certainly takes away that trademark feeling of dread when 1) you know the only time you'll be attacked is in Otherworld, and 2) encounters only entail relentless pursuit.

I don't know how far Shattered Memories deviates from the original game in terms of story because I haven't read plot spoilers; I figure someday I'll get me a Wii and then I'll see the game through to its completion simply because I am a nerd for all things Silent Hill. From where I'm standing now, it seems as if this could be another case of "If it wasn't a Silent Hill title, it'd be pretty good...", especially considering its home platform, which is sorely lacking in the horror games department. I'll eventually find out. I know, once more edge of your seat and peeing with anticipation and all that.

Silent Hill: Downpour (2011)

The forthcoming eighth game in the series, Downpour, is currently in development in the hands of Vatra Games, a Czech-based studio. Since the game's announcement at E3 last year, info and screenshots are becomeing more frequent- including a sizeable feature in the most recent Game Informer. I'd say things look promising, but then everything always looks promising when you're looking at pretty pictures and reading the promises of producers. Still...promising!

Apparently the protagonist is a prisoner named Murphy. The transport bus he's riding in crashes in a thick fog outside of Silent Hill. Murphy escapes the bus, heads into town, know. Stuff happens.

What's got Silent Hill fans in an tizzy over Downpour is that it will be the first game in the series that won't feature the work of composer Akira Yamaoka. In his stead is Daniel Licht, the man behind the music of Dexter. Though Yamaoka's incredibly haunting work is as much a part of Silent Hill as is...well, the name Silent Hill, it's far too early to pass judgment on the effectiveness of Licht's work. Some of the music was posted recently on Kotaku and though it's got an undeniably (and expectedly) different feel than what's come before, it seems fine to moi. I hear mandolins, so, you know. That's good!

Design director Brian Gomez claims that Murphy's story will be his own- he won't have ties to Alessa, the town's history, the cult, or any of that hoo-ha. He simply stumbles into a bad situation...or does he? Vatra intends to make the town of Silent Hill a true "character" again, the way it was originally intended. If that's true, then Murphy's arrival is unlikely to be a coincidence; more likely, he was beckoned there (if only by fate) as penance for his criminal past. Sounds a bit Silent Hill 2-ish in storyline approach, but then it's too early to even speculate and besides, I don't want to get my hopes up.

Okay, yes I do! I do want to get my hopes up because I still fucking love the first three games in the series and call me lame, I want a new story set in that horrible, terrifying town that will share the essence of those early entries. I want to be scared so badly by the goings-on that I won't play it in the dark- hell, that I have to stop playing it altogether. I know it's ridiculous to want to simply recapture an experience, but when it's this good, why not? I'd rather keep believing that the next trip to Silent Hill will be the best one yet than think the series is all dried up and new voices won't have anything worthwhile to offer. What's the fun in that?

I do know better, however, than to hope for another cracked out dog ending.


Ben Newman said...

I love silent hill 2 so much it's not even funny. I actually get quite sad when I think about how it's unlikely that I'll ever have a gaming experience like that again :(
Thanks for the exhaustive reveiws!

CashBailey said...

SH1 was the STAR WARS of survival horror. Vast and piss-scary.

SH2 was EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: deeper, richer and better in every concievable way to the orignal. It rightly stands tall as one of the top five greatest video games of all time.

Sum Guy said...

So, no thoughts on Dead Space 2?

Stacie Ponder said...

My only thought on it right now is, "I'm greatly looking forward to playing it." I'll be sure to post something after I have. :)

Andrew Green said...

Great post!
I loved Shattered Memories. It was my favorite Silent Hill since the first one.

Dave M said...

Much love for the Silent Hill series. At least the ones I've played. 3 will always be my favorite and was my introduction to the series.

CANNOT WAIT for Downpour! Between that and Skyrim I have a feeling that I have many an unbathed and unfed weekend coming up.

Nick Mullins said...

Of course we all hope Downpour will be good… but a criminal who is punished by Silent Hill? Sounds like black and white Hollywood morality. What made Silent Hill 2 so great was that James was torturing himself. He couldn't forgive himself for what happened (he did) to his wife. He hated her illness and what she became, but he still loved her. Silent Hill 2 is morally complicated, real, and very sad. I just don't think most game developers can tell such a mature story.

Here are my thoughts on Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2.

Holger Haase said...

Of course, you needn't buy a Wii for SHATTERED MEMORIES you could also play it on the PSP (if you own one).

Stacie Ponder said...

@Nick- Yeah, SH2 is very layered and the plot for Downpour isn't completely revealed, it may prove to be layered as well. At least I hope it will, but nothing will probably ever touch SH2!

@Holger- I don't have a PSP, but I do have a PS2. I haven't gotten the Shattered Memories port because I think the game would probably be best served on the Wii. One of these days (years) I'll get one- exclusive Resident Evil and Dead Space titles await!

Tanya said...

If u want to play Shattered Memories and don't have a Wii just get it for the PS2. I thought BUYING the Wii version (and borrowing my friends Wii) would be good because it was the lead platform and the game would perform best. While the exploration parts work great with the Wii controls the Nightmare sections are TERRIBLE!!!! I want to finish the game but I don't think I can with these controls. I'm considering buying a used version of the game for the PSP just so I can finish the story. Shattered Memories and The Room are the only games in the series I haven't finished due to my hatred of the controls...Maybe I'll finish them someday :-/

C.S. said...

D'aww, Stacie, you didn't have to buy an XBox to get 'Born with a wish.' They put all that content on the best-seller version for the PS2. I actually lucked out getting a copy myself when I bought it at Game Stop a few years back.

Erm, and this is kind of a spoiler, but in Shattered Memories, it isn't Harry interacting with the psychiatrist...

Man, I feel like that nerd, the one who has to correct people on their interests and goes on and on about specific details that really shouldn't get in the way of the story or the other person's experience.

D'oh, whatever. I love all you do! At least you actually played the first game.

dementia13 said...

>> ...horror is best when all of the audience's senses are engaged. Okay, maybe not smell. Or touch, really.

Actually, that could really get creepy. And the funny thing is, the technology's there, just not the demand. During the dot-com boom, there were two competing smell-synthesis systems who were trying to get to market, but never got the venture capital they needed. They worked well, but it just wasn't something people wanted. Especially considering that you run into the same chicken/egg problem as PhysX: the hardware's useless until developers code it into the games, which they won't do if there aren't a lot of users with the hardware. Plus, they likely would have been expensive, with lots of spillage-prone scent vials to replenish; inkjet hassles on steroids. Touch, however, has long been around in the form of force-feedback joysticks and mice. Though if there were a way to simulate the feeling of slimy, scaly skin, that would really take it to the next level.

TheKungFuProfessor said...

Loved the first 3 games, no#2 reminds me of Argento's Inferno (the flooded ground floors... the stairs on fire leading up to the finale).

The fourth one had some great ideas but the lack of flash light and almost no ambient noise/music robbed the game of any atmosphere, I did like the storyline & cutscenes though, but it was a chore to finish, same with Origins.

Shattered Memories is quite good on the PS2, the controls work well, but the game itself is lacking. The only time there's a threat is when everything freezes over, the rest of the time you're doing piss-easy puzzles. I do like the psychological tests though, and how the characters' appearances change depending on how you answer the questions (C.S, that spoiler is about as bad as "her head is in the box").

I bought Homecoming for the PC but haven't got round to playing it, guess I should start now before the new one comes out.

DonsSword said...

Silent Hill 2 Greatest Hits PS2 added the extra XBox content a year after its original release.

Devil May Cry did the same thing with its Greatest Hits edition several years later.

Great post BTW.