After Pressing Start: Silent Hill

I’ve always been fascinated with horror games, but haven’t played many real ones. I haven’t because they don’t exist. At the least, they no longer exist in the mainstream spotlight as they once did. The tense atmosphere of the Dead Space series has always kept me on my toes, but they aren’t horror games. Dead Space is an action horror series. It falls in a genre that focuses on the action element in a horror-like environment. Rather than leaning towards one side, Dead Space lies between horror and action. The series tries to frighten the player with cheap jump scares, but does little beyond that. Dead Space wants to be scary, but cares too much about the action. There’s never any downtime to take things in because something pops out at what seems like every two minutes. Silent Hill, on the other hand, devotes itself to that fear. It does so right from the beginning and dedicates itself to expressing that fear in every facet of its being.

Silent Hill starts with Harry Mason awaking from a car crash to notice that his daughter, Cheryl, has mysteriously vanished. You are immediately given the chance to wander the resort town of Silent Hill, but you notice that it’s abandoned. Silent Hill is a ghost town shrouded in fog and mystery. You’re given no indication of where to go, but you go headfirst into the fog regardless because what else can you do? It’s the only way that the game offers. This presents a sense of isolation, both literally and figuratively. Literally because you’re alone in Silent Hill and figuratively because the game doesn’t bother to guide you. All you can do is rely on your sense of exploration and go headfirst into the fog.

Another thing you notice is the sound playing in the background. It’s distorted static of some sort, like the kind you hear from a radio that’s off the fritz. It’s this broken, unsettling sound that you’d rather not listen to.

Eventually Harry sees Cheryl, but she darts into the fog, and the camera zooms in on an alley. You’re unsure of where else to go, so down the alley it is. Down the alley you find and go through a fence with the sign “BEWARE OF DOG”.  The first thing you see is a dog, splattered on the ground to the point that there is barely any dog left. Something went on here, but Harry doesn’t react to it. He’s too occupied with looking for his daughter. We aren’t like that though, we realize something isn’t right here. Regardless, we push forward out of some twisted sense of exploration and curiosity.

As you go forward you run through some corridors and the camera changes with each turn. The camera angles are somewhat cinematic in nature, trying to give you a certain perspective on things. These corridors also present the difficulty of turning around tight spaces with the controls, which is a sign of things to come soon after. Then Harry finds another fence. Once through it, everything suddenly goes dark. A siren wails in the distance, but soon disappear in favor of something more sinister and intense. It’s as if Harry stepped into some sort of nightmare. Then you find a bloody body, tied to a wired fence.

Unlike the dog, Harry notices it and starts to wonder what the hell is going on here. You’re attacked by some monsters, but you’re unarmed and outnumbered. Silent Hill’s tank controls rear their ugly head here and make it difficult to run away in a cramped space. Regardless of what you try and do, Harry is scripted to die here no matter what. At this point in the game, when you’re given no way to defend yourself in this mysterious town, you feel powerless. You start to wonder how you’ll deal with enemies in the future. Not just offensively, but defensively. This is the first time that you’re forced into a tight space with nothing but darkness all around you. Even without a means of attack you try to run away, but you can’t. Harry is supposed to die here, but you don’t know when you’re in the moment. You don’t know that when you’re panicking in the face of certain death.

Harry wakes up in a cafe, as if that horrific death by knife wielding, naked children never happened. Was it all just a nightmare? Did any of that really happen? It really did seem like some bad dream.  That’s how Silent Hill is shaped. The isolation, the static, the tank controls. Oh the tank controls! Ever noticed how in a nightmare you often have trouble running away from a monster of some sort? How it’s always harrowing to escape? You’re running in slow motion, stumbling around obstacles. Maybe you trip and fall. Silent Hill is sort of like that, but not exactly. Silent Hill is like a messed up nightmare. The controls are a representation of a nightmare you are unable to wake from. The faceless monsters, the unrecognizable corpse of a dog, the fact that Silent Hill is a ghost town. They’re all traits that make it look like Harry is living some kind of nightmare. Stay in the nightmare long enough and moving around will feel like second nature though. What was once a nightmare will become reality.

When Harry wakes up he’s greeted by his first inhabitant of this town, Cybil, a police officer who patrols the area. See? Silent Hill isn’t so lonely after all. After having a talk about the state of the town she lends you a handgun, but leaves. So, once again, you’re alone. Cybil’s meeting creates a sense of normalcy, making it seem like your death really was a nightmare, one that’s over now. That idea is crushed as a winged monster breaks in through the window. After shooting it down and seeing it bleed out on the floor, that nightmarish feeling comes back. Harry realizes this isn’t a dream. It feels all too real to him.

In less than 10 minutes after pressing start, Silent Hill makes it well known that it wants to be like a nightmare. It isolates the player in a mysterious place filled with unfamiliar sounds and such. Silent Hill sets itself up to have what it takes to be a horror game without wasting very much of the player’s time.

After Pressing Start is a series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those introductory stories influence the arcs of video games. This guest entry of After Pressing Start was written by Daryl Heard. Check out some of the other APS articles: After Pressing Start

One Comment

  1. CodenameV

    I agree that Silent Hill’s introduction is a very harrowing experience. I likewise agree that it sets a perfect precipice for the rest of the game. However, I disagree that Silent Hill’s ham-handed controls fulfill the purpose you describe.
    Dream or not, a game should never force a player’s interaction to feel clumsy and unresponsive. The reason for this is fairly obvious too. If a game has poor controls, it pulls you from the experience. This is because there is a meta sensation that a player feels when they’re subjected to poor controls: that the creators screwed up. Which means that the player is no longer considering the game, instead focusing on the poor work of the creators. 
    The job of game creators is, after all, to provide an interesting and valuable way for the player to interact within a space. If that interaction feels shoddy then players won’t respond appropriately. Plus, what does it say of Harry Mason that he strolls around like a tank?  Perhaps the game could have drawn a successful narrative link between shoddy controls and the dream-like state of Silent Hill — but even that might feel like a snide solution.
    It just seems a bit uncritical to approach the game with such scrutiny, while almost totally ignoring a clear issue.