Welcome to Silent Hill: 15 Years Later, It’s Worth Revisiting
HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.
Pretty much the first thing Silent Hill does is use its camera to fuck with you.
As Harry Mason darts down a foggy, jaggy alley filled with rough, ugly Playstation textures, the game does something altogether brilliant — it pivots its camera down, through exposed pipes and past loose boards, bringing Harry forward into the player’s vantage, rather than sending him away to show where Harry’s going.
Silent Hill will do this throughout its runtime, and its devilish use of camera remains impressive and frightening, even 15 years after its release. It also sets the game apart from Resident Evil, its survival-horror counterpart series of the late 1990s. Resident Evil might be prettier with its pre-rendered backgrounds, but Silent Hill is smarter; its moving camera feels alive and menacing, deliberately positioning itself to make your life shorter.
Compare that to the positively sterile treatment of Resident Evil and the upshot of Silent Hill’s camera work becomes immediately apparent. Sure, Resident Evil also cleverly positions its camera much of the time, robbing the player even of the safety of seeing threats coming. It also uses its pre-rendered backgrounds to create cinematic angles and play them for scares, but they’re pre-set positions, and they never change. In Silent Hill, the camera always has it out for you.
I recently played to completion Konami’s 1999 survival-horror title for the first time, and the game holds up surprisingly well 15 years later. There are a number of things Silent Hill does right even today, and while there are a few elements that remain on the weak side — the storytelling is muddled, the combat is messy, and the enemies often fail to be really frightening — Silent Hill manages to be psychologically unnerving pretty much constantly. And the camera is only the first weapon in the game’s arsenal.
See No Evil
It’s not just the camera Silent Hill uses to build tension, although it’s a big part of the way the game messes with the player. Darkness and short draw distances are used liberally to create an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling; even if the camera wasn’t working to show you what’s behind you rather than in front, you’re never able to see far because of the limits of Harry’s flashlight and Silent Hill’s ever-present fog.
That gives Silent Hill the opportunity to use another brilliant tool: the hand radio. Though you can rarely see enemies that aren’t right on top of you (and some even tend to attack and then skitter off if you don’t kill them), you can almost always hear them, thanks to the fact that the radio kicks up static when enemies are close. Static plays long, long before you ever see enemies, and can give clues as to what you’re about to face as the sound changes with the number of monsters nearby.
Though the radio gives you some sense that enemies are close, it is, of course, a completely imperfect and suspect system. Video games are a visual medium and yet your eyes are completely untrustworthy in Silent Hill because you know creatures lurk nearby, and you can’t see them.
But even when you can, it’s not a guarantee you’ll be able to defend yourself. Silent Hill, like Resident Evil, takes a major burden of combat — aiming — off the player. It’d be pretty ridiculous to expect players to do well to line up a gunshot against a skinless bird circling in the darkness, after all, but the trade-off is another loss of control. Sometimes Harry misses his shots and there’s nothing you can do about it. And if you’re out of bullets, well … mostly it’s time to run.
Even though the enemies of Silent Hill are mostly pretty tame at the normal difficulty level, they become all the more dangerous thanks to the tricky camera and inability to see. Time spent in the school, for example, puts Harry in a number of classrooms filled with enemies he can’t see coming, and thus struggles to protect against. Add to this that fully half of Silent Hill’s weapons are short-range melee implements rather than firearms, and that ammo is often scarce, and the result is a series of tense moments of Harry, pipe or piece of wood gripped tight and at the ready, facing the camera and waiting for his aggressors to come where the player can see them. Where horror films often provide the viewer with more information than the characters, in order to create the tension of knowing danger is lurking and being unable to warn those about to experience it, Silent Hill does the opposite; Harry can see what’s about to kill him, but you are forced to wait for it to make its move before you can adequately defend him.