silent hill mini-review
Today's wallpaper obviously got me thinking about the Silent Hill game. Last Halloween it was the survival horror game I chose to obsess over, and it was an entertainingly creepy experience.
The gamer plays Harry Mason, a writer who somehow gets lost on his way to vacation in the town of Silent Hill. Awakening after a car accident, he finds his daughter Cheryl missing and the town…changed. Snow is falling in the middle of summer, and fog enshrouds the streets. (The fog effect was developed to avoid overloading the PSX’s graphics capability with the level of detail the designers wanted, but it proved so effectively spooky that the designers included it in the PlayStation 2 sequel, even though the PS2’s higher graphics power made it unnecessary.) Some of the city street end abruptly in yawning chasms, as if the very town were somehow torn away from reality as we know it.
Pick up the ammo by that abandoned police car, Harry...you'll need it!
Even more frightening, almost all the town’s inhabitants have vanished, and monsters—from fiendish winged creatures to zombified dogs—prowl the streets. Although Harry has a handgun, ammunition is limited and worse, Harry’s a pretty lousy shot. One of the effective horror elements in the game are the weapons Harry collects. In addition to the standard shotgun—for which ammo is even more rare—and the useless but somehow comforting kitchen knife, Harry finds a variety of blunt instruments, from a steel pipe to a sledgehammer. Harry can conserve ammo by bashing in a few zombie skulls—but the clubs are slow and clumsy, and missing is bad news indeed.
Fortunately, Harry doesn’t have to fight every monster thanks to an outstanding innovation: Harry’s pocket radio no longer works in Silent Hill, but the presence of monsters cause it to emit a steadily louder burst of static. This excellent system means the player hears monsters long before they’re visible, and the static’s increasing volume ratchets up the tension as the player attempts to avoid or confront the thing.
Harry finds himself in a twisted, nightmarish parody of the town of Silent Hill.
Another enhancement to the atmosphere of horror is a frequent change of setting. As Harry explores the deserted Silent Hill in search of his daughter, the town changes to a nightmarish parody of itself, a dark and twisted wasteland of rust and blood that’s positively creepsville. The eerie and bizarre setting of Silent Hill renders the various puzzles Harry must solve a logical part of the nightmare, instead of a frustrating and incongruous obstacle.
Numerous other nice touches abound. When Harry runs for an extended distance, he pants when the player stops running. The soundtrack is also a definite plus—the music alternates between sinister and melancholy, and the game abounds with subtle background noises, from the creatures' moans to to the faint air-raid siren in the alternate reality to Harry's echoing footsteps and the radio's warning static. References to other horror writers and their work are scattered throughout the town, from the street names to details hidden among the town’s scenery. The game creates an unrelenting atmosphere of dread that doesn’t rely on frequent combat; when fights are unavoidable, Harry’s limited prowess with a weapon lends a realistic touch to the game. The creepy atmosphere makes Silent Hill a fiendishly entertaining place to revisit, enhanced by the fact that the game’s multiple endings present obscure and mutually contradictory hints about how the evil gripped the small town. In fact, while I'm currently working through the B games of Resident Evil 2, I think I may just dust off my copy of Silent Hill between now and Halloween.
(Second opinion at PlanetPS2.com)