Ginger Nuts of Horror
For many, Resident Evil represents the first time they felt genuine fear from a video game. Even given its heavy inspiration by titles such as Alone in the Dark, the original Resident Evil marks a particular turning point in what video games could do, what demographics they classically appealed to. As Tomb Raider did for action adventure titles, as Final Fantasy VII for role playing games, Resident Evil marked a quantumn leap in the medium, from childhood to an uncertain adolescence, along with those of us that had grown up with the medium and watched it evolve.
I have very, very fond memories of sitting in front of the computer screen in an extremely cold, extremely dark room upstairs in my parent's house, utterly immersed in the blood-dense atmosphere of the Arklay Manor and its environs, the immediacy and intensity of the tension unbearable. I had never seen or experienced anything even close to what the original Resident Evil evoked at that time.
Then came Silent Hill. If Resident Evil marks a particular stage of adolescence in video gaming, then Silent Hill is another leap forward in transition and experience; hurtling the medium forward into adulthood.
For all its atmosphere, its immersion, Resident Evil is and has always been a very particular kind of horror; it is lurid and comic book and faintly immature; a homage to George A. Romero zombie films, but also to B-movies, science fiction monster cinema and E.C comic books. Its horror consists of the unepxected and the gruesome; of jump scares, hideous monstrosities and mutilations, leant a faintly comic flare by the classically awful dialogue, acting and deliberately cheesey plot.
In that, it succeeds beautifully.
Silent Hill, quite frankly, knocked us all on our asses. If Resident Evil is your slasher and zombie gorefest, then Silent Hill is Cronenberg and David Lynch; psychological and surreal horror with a highly cerebral component, treating its players with a degree of intelligence and respect nothing, nothing at the time equalled. No one expected it, no one could quite believe it: that a video game could be so sophisticated, so richly, profoundly distressing.
Whilst similar to Resident Evil in terms of its gameplay, structure and overall mechanics (a style that would eventually come to be known as “survival horror”), Silent Hill is of another species entirely when it comes to its atmosphere, emotion and the sensations it evokes: Resident Evil shocks and repels; it makes you jump, scream and laugh. Silent Hill disturbs and morbidly fascinates, it unsettles and intrigues. It is the kind of horror that makes its audience obsessed with its darkness, but also with their own; reflecting it back at them in the same manner as the eponymous town that is the game's setting.
It was the kind of game that caused whispers on the playground; that people would freely admit to putting down, because they simply couldn't finish it: the imagery it contains, the profound sense of paranoia, confusion; the unexplained and inexplicable strangeness of the experience...there was nothing like it, and arguably has been nothing like it, save perhaps the game's more successful sequels.
The game's premise is simple enough: protagonist and player character Harry Mason and his daughter, Sheryl, are on their way to a vacation on the outer edges of the fictional Silent Hill, when Harry swerves the car to avoid a girl in the road. Harry loses consciousness, waking up to find his daughter missing and the car parked on a road just inside the town's perimeters. From there, the player takes control, guiding Harry around the fog-obscured, strangely deserted town, following whispers and echoes; strange footprints in what appears to be a covering of ash that falls like snow from the sky. If the player takes Harry back down the road, they find that it falls away into nothing, as though it has collapsed or been chewed away. Harry is lost and trapped within the town, seeking his lost daughter. It isn't very long before the town begins to react to his presence and one of the core mechanics that seperates Silent Hill from other “survival horror” games of the time makes itself apparent: heading down a small alleyway, Harry finds the mutilated corpse of what appears to be a dog. The camera angle recedes, providing a strangely distant view of Harry from above as he begins to navigate the narrow environment, a siren beginning to sound in the distance, the screen darkening and the environment shifting from one of cold, suburban isolation to a Hellscape of twisted, rusted metal, jagged, wire fences in which bodies are snared, their state of mutilation making it all but impossible to discern recognisable detail.
The soundtrack, one of the game's most notable assets, begins to swell at this point, the eerie whispers, the faint cry of wind, giving way to atonal whirs and scrapings, sounds like screams or surgeries going awry, like machinery breaking down. From the darkness emerge diminutive shapes, like diseased babies, hissing ands gurgling, converging on the player...
It is one of the most exquisitely timed, rendered and orchestrated openings to a “survival horror” video game ever concocted; one that seems to stand in deliberate contrast to Resident Evil's quick jump cuts, orchestra stings and overt violence from the get go.
It seems as though the creators of Silent Hill sought to distinguish their work from capcom's zombie-infested, B-movie extravaganza by establishing a starkly different, almost antipodean tone from the first instant: Silent Hill is about, first and foremost, mood and atmosphere; its horrific elements are largely implied, occurring on the interplay between its visuals, setting and soundscape and the player's imagination.
In Resident Evil, if you hear a strange sound or glimpse the shadow of something moving through a window, that experience will be explained or have some sort of pay off later in the game.
This is not the case in Silent Hill. Take one of the most iconic scenes, in which Harry explores the girl's bathroom in the abandoned school. The area is almost silent; no sound, no music. The stalls are all closed and barred. As the player explores the area, a faint, strangled moan emerges from one of the stalls. This is never overtly explained; no monstrosity explodes from inside: it is a simple, isolated moment of distress, as though the environment itself is in perpetual pain; even more unnerving for the fact that it lacks any particular context.
Another factor which separates Silent Hill from its arguable ancestor is the use of metaphor and symbolism: whereas the events of Resident Evil are to be taken literally; everything the player sees and hears unambiguously occurring, Silent Hill is far more ambiguous, establishing a dreamy, nightmarish quality that leaves the player in doubt as to what is actually occurring and what is not. Whilst it is not made overt in the original game, it would later become part of the setting's canon that Silent Hill is a kind of dark dreamscape; it responds to those who find themselves wandering its foggy streets, its abandoned houses, hotels, hospitals and hallways.
In the original game, the town's more nightmarish elements are born from the mind of a tortured and abused little girl: Alessa Gillespie, whom, we find, was the victim of a strange, fanatical cult that had dominated the town for decades, perhaps for centuries, who believed that, through her torment and suffering, they could bring about the birth of their “god,” and usher in a state of paradise on Earth.
As a result, the original Silent Hill's settings, characters and monsters all reflect some aspect of Allessa Gillespie's character: her interests in lizards and insects, for example, becomes the basis for two of the game's more notable bosses. Similarly, the manner in which she was tormented, abused and, ultimately, murdered by the cult informs the shape and nature of the “Other World” that occassionally seeps in, distorting and transforming the town into a Hellish rendition of itself: it is literally Allessa's nightmare made manifest, her fantasies, her fears, her pain, become actual places and persons, monsters and black miracles, at the heart of which is the peculiar force, the apparent “god” that her tormentors and abusers wish to see born.
This degree of ambiguity; the almost poetic quality it creates, requires player engagement to fully appreciate; a degree of engagement that is fairly absent in most other “survival horror” titles, whose frights and atmosphere are of a more direct, traditional kind:
This is artistic, ascended horror; disturbing and provocative, touching on subjects entirely more personal and emotionally intense than anything Resident Evil or its other contemporaries even suggest.
Very little is made overt. You might, for example, find the journal or writings of someone who ineracted with Allessa as a child, which points out that the girl had an abiding fascination with bugs, in particular caterpillars, butterflies, moths etc, but may not make the connection between that and the gigantic, worm-like monster that Harry confronts in the basement of one of the town's many buildings. Nothing is explicit or explained: there are enormous gaps which the player must piece together themselves, which renders the game interactive in ways far beyond the pressing of buttons or the solving of puzzles.
It demonstrates a peculiarly sophisticated form of storytelling, that video games are arguably the ideal medium to express: mythology and back story implied through symbolism and metaphor, resulting in moments of creeping revelation when the player manages to make the connection.
Whilst extremely crude by current standards in terms of its gameplay, its graphics; its voice acting...even its story and symbolism, certainly in comparison to the likes of Silent Hill 2 and 3, the original game in the series will always, always mark a particular point in horror video gaming: that moment when it became apparent that video games did not have to poorly emulate the tropes and mechanics of TV or cinema traditions; that they were and remain a medium in and of themselves, with their own possibilities, potentials and unique forms of horror.
Silent Hill is when video game horror began to sing.
GEORGE DANIEL LEA