Developed in 1999, near the end of the PS1 age, Silent Hill uses an established formula of survival horror and changes it to make something different. Silent Hill uses a psychological horror, rather than an action approach and visceral horror seen in games like Resident Evil.
Konami wanted to make a game that would be successful and appeal to US audiences.
Developed by Team Silent, a group within Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (KCET), the team set out to use Hollywood atmosphere with some elements of Japanese art-house horror films. Team Silent was composed of members of other failed projects and initially wanted to leave the Konami, because they weren’t allowed to their own ideas, and couldn’t fit in with other teams. As time passed management began to lose faith in the project, and the team increasingly felt like outsiders. Eventually, they decided to ignore the limitations that Konami set and to develop the game that would appeal to the emotional side of the player.
The team used psychological horror and the fear of the unknown. The game would be rendered in real time, but it would use fog and darkness to set the atmosphere and hide the graphical limitations of the PS1 hardware. Director Keiichiro Toyama former graphic designer for the Snatcher wrote the script. Initially, he questioned Konami decision to give him the position of a director, as he had never been one prior to the Silent Hill. Although he didn’t have much experience in horror, he was interested in UFOs, occult and David Lynch movies. Fortunately, all of this will perfectly fall into place.
The game opens with Harry Mason and his daughter Cheryl, driving to the titular Silent Hill. At the edge of the town, Harry steers his car to avoid hitting a girl and crashes losing consciousness. He wakes up and sees that the town seems abandoned, and leaves to search for Cheryl. He sees glimpses of her in the fog and follows her to an ally. The sky suddenly turns dark, and it seems that the environment also got darker. Following the ally, Harry stumbles upon a dead end and is attacked by small child mind monsters. He is eventually overwhelmed and “killed”.
He wakes up in an abandoned diner, and officer Cybil Bennet from the nearby town of Brahms informs him that something bizarre is happening and that all communication is down. She wants to call reinforcements, and before leaving she gives Harry a gun, and he sets out to find his daughter. Along with his quest, he encounters more and more bizarre things as the town begins to reveal its secrets.
The plot was made to be vague and in some parts, contradictory to hide its true meaning and make the players think about the unexplained parts.
Monsters in the game are surreal and range from dogs, flying monsters, zombie children, nurses, doctors, insects, and many others.
These monsters seem to play to different fears, like fear of large dogs, worms, snakes, fire, and in some cases adults (Anthrophobia).
The graphics may not look like much right now, but in 1999 they were considered outstanding and were praised at the time, with its use of polygons, and real-time rendering of town. FMV sequences are in good quality and hold up even to this day. Loadings are only encountered when entering buildings or different rooms. The fog and snow hide the monsters at first and leave the player to their imagination and fill in the blanks, but this my take on early polygonal graphics were not everything is shown.
An interesting story about a man behind the FMV sequences. Takayoshi Sato a young employee who worked as an animator on a previous Konami game Sexy Parodius wanted to work on 3D and other serious projects. Initially his the work they gave him was basic involving making fonts, UI for presentations, sorting files, etc.
In Konami, there were older artists that didn’t have knowledge of 3D. So he had to teach them while doing his work. He was doing demos and presentations in 3D and not getting credit for it.
Sato eventually went past his boss, and went straight to the higher-ups and showed them what to do, and threatened to no longer share his knowledge with the older employees if he was not given 3D work. His superiors gave in to his demands, and he was allowed to work on character designs. Instead of relying on illustrations, Sato made the characters while creating their 3D models. Each character was given his own distinctive characteristics but made Harry almost completely neutral to avoid forcing interpretations of the game on the players. Although in charge of cinematics and character design, his superiors didn’t want to fully credit him and instead wanted to assign him a visual supervisor.
To prevent this Sato after a fight with his boss, volunteered to create the full-motion videos by himself. Over the course of about three years, he lived in development team’s office, as he had to render the scenes with about 150 Unix-based computers of his coworkers after they left work at the end of the day.
All of this was not in vain, as the cinematics turned out great, and even still hold up to this day. After the first game, he received the Japanese Cultural Ministry award, and it was shown at Siggraph, and he got a personal CEO award from Konami.
The gameplay is good and responsive but may take some getting used to if you didn’t play games on the PS1, or any older games.
The game uses so-called “tank controls”, but Harry in the direction he is facing, so the player must always push forward to move Harry forward. Silent Hill also uses combat, which can be melee and ranged. The game provides a modest amount of weapons including pistol, shotgun, knife, pipe, etc.
Harry’s aim is not that good and the player may fire more rounds than intended to take down an enemy, however, melee is more precise but puts you in danger if you miss too much. Ammo in the game is scarce, per survival horror tradition, but not that big of a problem, but the player must be careful with its supplies.
Harry can also run by holding square, and sidestep by pressing shoulder buttons.
The player must collect maps in order to view the map screen. The map is available when there is enough light, and maps are marked with places of interests, and where to go next. If Harry runs into a dead end it will be marked on the map.
The game can be saved by using notepads, which are scattered around the levels. The game will record location, number of saves, and time played.
If the player has a DualShock controller a heartbeat can be felt, which indicates that the player has low health.
The game seems like it was designed so the stamina depletes by running, as indicated by some items, while others would restore health. This feature seems cut, as stamina acts like the health bar, and Harry can run and get tired as indicate by his breathing, but the stamina will stay the same.
The game also features puzzles mostly in form of riddles, which are not too hard, but some puzzles like the one near the end of the first chapter are more annoying than anything, because of trial and error approach.
The game gives you a flashlight early on, but it only illuminates a few feet ahead.
The nightmare world, so-called “Otherworld”, is a symbolic and nightmarish rendition of town, where everything is in metal, or covered in barb wire and populated with hanging bodies.
The most important part of the game, in my opinion, is music and sound. For instance, the player is warned of nearby monsters by a static sound heard on the radio. As the player approaches the danger the sound gets higher, until the monsters are killed. Bizzare parts are followed by the sound of sirens, machinery and other industrial sounds for a unique discordant mixture of ambient sounds.
The music is inspired by Twin Peaks and provides constant tension, Silent Hill causes more tension when the music suddenly stops.
Voice acting is good, nothing really bad or really great, but is accompanied by the long pauses, that may ruin the atmosphere. There aren’t any weird lines or spoken dialog, and information given to the player is short and concise.
There are actually four endings in the game, which are obtained by completing or not completing certain quests, and whether or not a certain character dies. There is even a bonus ending which can be obtained by beating the game, saving the game and starting a “New Fear” game, a type of New game + mode.
Back in 1999 there weren’t many games like this one and is constantly putting the player on edge. Silent Hill is not all about jumpscares and cheap tricks, it’s about feelings of isolation and desperation, seeing stuff that is disturbing. The game actually has a warning that says there are disturbing images in the game.
The game was censored, in Japan and PAL versions. Silent Hill had trouble passing censors before getting released outside Japan. The “Grey Child” monster, which resembles knife-wielding, nude children. The reason was that the design of the “Grey Child” was rejected by censors multiple times because they resembled children too much and the fact that the player would have to kill these child-like creatures raised an issue.
The new monster called the “Mumbler” replaces it in Japan and European versions, however, this monster also appears later in North American version.
Silent Hill was very well received by the public and critics, selling over two million copies. The game’s popularity as the first in the series was further recognized long after its release, taking many top ten lists, and creating a franchise that brought:
8 games, a movie, comics, and even mobile games and a few novels. The game can also be purchased on the both NA or EU PlayStation Stores and is also available on PSP.
I recommend this game to anyone who is in the mood for some old school survival horror or if you want to see how the modern survival horror games started. Play the preferably on the PS1, and in the dark. You won’t be disappointed.