Prior to the Silent Hill series, I can count true psychological horror games on four fingers – The Lurking Horror, Dark Seed, Dark Seed II, and Sanitarium (I’m sure I missed one, and feel free to correct me in the comment section). Horror up to this point focused on tangible, physical threats that you fought, investigated, or tried to avoid. Capcom masterfully combined all three with Resident Evil, which would go on to define the shape of horror games for much of the first PlayStation’s life. But it was a creepy little project from Konami, likely influenced by a recent genre of 90’s films that included Jacob’s Ladder and Ringu, that would end up crafting the look of video game horror for the next decade.
Silent Hill starts simply enough. You play as Harry Mason, a father and “everyman” who his driving with his daughter Cheryl to the remote mountain town of the game’s name. A young girl appears in the road. Harry swerves to avoid her, and blacks out when his car crashes off an embankment. Upon waking, he finds the town empty of its residents, covered in an unseasonable snowstorm, and Cheryl running ahead into thick fog. You’re given control, and asked to give chase.
What transpires from here is what makes Silent Hill so memorable. While they’re certainly present (to give the game some necessary action), this isn’t a game about monsters. Instead, this is a game about playing with your perceptions and expectations. Like the movies cited above – especially Jacob’s Ladder, or perhaps The Shining – much of the game is about wondering what’s actually real. This is a game that famously traps and “kills” your character at the start, setting the tone for a mind-bending journey through the secluded town and the dark magicks seemingly released within. Five endings await you based on your choices and ability to find a few special items.
Silent Hill also gained notoriety for being a modern “survival horror” game with a true 3D engine, instead of pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. This allows the camera to be exceptionally dynamic, with more than a few tilts, pans, and intentionally disorienting angles. A great example is a monstrous spiral staircase the camera follows Harry down, some wild Dutch angles in the alleys, or scripted moves like the camera lowering down to frame objects on a table in the foreground. In general, the camera trails loyally behind Harry, but does so lazily, allowing it to turn a corner a few beats after Harry has, or even flip in front of him to observe him moving forward.
Thankfully, a press of the L1 button almost always resets the camera behind Harry, and it’s rare that the showy angles cause any real trouble in action scenes or with navigation. It does mean you’re faced with the infamous “tank controls,” where Up moves forward relative to the character, not the environment, but as I’ve said before, I’ve never felt these to be the hindrance others have made them out to be. Also, one nice advancement is that you’re no longer locked in place while aiming. You can even move freely with gun at the ready, and Harry will auto-aim at the closest baddie in the vicinity.
The game’s trademark, oppressive fog (and a similar effect used for pitch black areas) was born out of technical restrictions, but is masterfully used in service of the atmosphere. It’s not a simple fade, but actually has some layers to it that allow shapes to become visible before full details emerge. The moments where you’re following a road, only to end abruptly in torn out section that seems to extend down forever are a great example of the many startles that the fog slowly reveals, and certainly helps give the vibe that you’ve just stepped into a Stephen King novel. The only possible complaint is that the outdoor fog is so thick that it can be disorienting – you can end up in open areas devoid of any landmarks – but then, that’s almost the point. It’s you alone on the “ocean,” and keeping a line of buildings for reference, or using the in-game map helps keep you on track.
The final piece is the game’s nightmare world. Like a terrifying version of Link to the Past, every major location has a dark world counterpart you will travel to. This is a world of darkness, metal, barbed wire, and rust, that vaguely follows (and mocks) its real world twin. In one area, a gruesome painting of tortured bodies guarding a door turns out to be an actual scene at the same location in the mirror world. Real world places like an elementary school and a hospital take on a twisted, sinister reflection. Geometry shifts beyond the bounds of the “real” location, so you’re finding yourself walking down endless tunnels or stairs that couldn’t possibly exist in the building you entered, and naturally wondering where the hell you’re going! All the while, strange machines or yet more bodies sit just barely out of sight, blocked by rusting grates or fences.
Crucially, you’re never in control of when the switch happens. At best, the change will be announced by a wailing air raid siren, portending the bad time you’re about to have. Yet other times, it’s as simple and subtle as climbing a ladder. One brilliant moment has you entering an elevator to find a new button for a non-existent 4th floor that doesn’t appear on your maps. Often, there’s gradual bleed between reality and the mirror world, making you wonder in retrospect when the shift actually occurred. And after solving puzzles and ultimately slaying a boss creature, Harry usually finds himself back in the real world with the next piece of the puzzle, no other signs of what just transpired, and real questions from you as to whether Harry is losing his damned mind.
Monsters exist in both realms, and as stated, they really just run interference. You gain nothing from fighting them – they don’t even drop supplies – so they’re best avoided when possible. A radio item helps here, turning the presence of nearby monsters into unique warbles of static. You can pick out what types are nearby by their specific tone, and it crucially helps you know when creatures you’ve knocked down are just playing dead. You can also switch off your flashlight to become harder to find, though at the cost of stumbling through near darkness. Monsters don’t follow you through doors, so if you can just make it to the next room, you’re golden – unless there are more in there too!
Fighting is never preferred, but that’s not to say you’re ever at a complete disadvantage, as ammo is not too difficult to find. You get a pistol from the start, with ammo boxes laying around everywhere (even in an elementary school and a church). A shotgun and a rifle round out the ranged arsenal, though these are best saved for boss battles. What is rare are the health packs, and even on the “Normal” difficulty, monsters take surprising swaths of health away if they connect. A choice between your precious health and a few bullets should be no choice at all. There’s also a token melee option, but this is more dangerous than it’s worth until you get the giant hammer.
As a survival horror game, comparisons were immediately made to Resident Evil, and its influence is certainly noticeable. Puzzles play a key role, and follow the same pattern of reading an obscure poem or note, and then manipulating a mechanical device. Here, you’ll need to translate a story about birds into piano keys, count the number of limbs on astrological signs, and replicate patterns to unlock doors – standard Resident Evil tropes. There’s no selectable puzzle difficulty in this version; that comes later in the series, and what’s here isn’t usually that obscure. Even if it looks like you’re going to need to read music or know chemistry, you won’t. And naturally, there’s still the annoying prompt “Would you like to pick up this item?” every time you examine something you can collect. Well, since I have an unlimited inventory in this game, YES.
I can’t say there are too many design flaws, but certainly some things that stand to annoy. A big one is forced exploration. You’re updated with a location to go to within the town, but the direct path is always blocked. This leads to some minor searching around for the alleyway (and likely puzzle) to proceed. Similar story indoors, where a combination of locked rooms or blocked hallways have you searching damn near every door for the path to bypass. I was searching for supplies anyway, so I never found it annoying – and a map that auto-updates which doors are locked or obstructed is a godsend – but I can see how the artificially slowed pace could frustrate. There’s also moments (namely, the doghouse) where you can’t investigate an item until you find the clue to prompt you to do so. Cue some needless backtracking, or the following revelation that you now need three keys to move on. Back into the town you go!
The translation is a bit dodgy, and seems like it was taken word for word from the Japanese without any localization massaging. All characters have very stilted dialogue, and Harry is the master of one-sentence lines. It rarely causes a serious issue, but there are points where a better translation might have made something more clear; “Can’t use the phone,” for example, is probably supposed to mean “The phone is unplugged.” I also feel like the game’s explanation of events was a little light, and I’m not sure if that’s intentionally left to interpretation, or if some clarity was cut. There’s definitely some scenes in the intro cutscene (a fever dream of CG clips from later in the game, possible outtake renders, and actual prequel story clips) that are omitted from the English manual.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Silent Hill 2 played with ideas of a personal nightmare, or the town itself acting as a distorted mirror to your darkest secrets. That doesn’t happen in the first. There’s still some great atmosphere here, even if the plot is a little less psychologically weighty, and even if the resolution relies a little too much on a defined villain and the general message “black magic is bad.” Still, Harry’s motivation to search through, well, Hell for his daughter feels legit, and the horrifying images you come across aren’t entirely without context either.
Graphically, things work pretty well. As said, the fog is extremely effective, along with the dynamic camera. Lighting is done well too, with a convincing flashlight effect for Harry’s pocket torch, and a fun sense of straining through the darkness to see who might be coming. Texture work is great for the PS, with minimal warping and details sharp enough to read street signs. Monsters are suitably misshapen, and if you’re playing right, you’ll only get effective glimpses of them as you run far, far away (I’m still not sure if those things with the knives are faceless children or some kind of monkeys). There is a pretty substantial amount of dithering, seen as white crosses throughout the screen, and all animations are pretty stiff, but these were signs of the time.
Sound effects hit the right marks, with beefy, squishy sounds for knocking monsters away and a nice echo to Harry’s footsteps in moments of creepy silence. The radio is both a useful detector and a fine source of dread itself – much like the motion tracker in Aliens, as those tones get louder you know nothing good is about to happen. In-game music is just about perfect, relying mostly on ambiance that ramps up to industrial sounds when monsters converge. The crashing machinery matches the visual look of the mirror world, and ads a nice discomfort as you cheese it out of whatever danger you’re in.
Cutscenes are a mix of pre-rendered CG and in-game scripts. There’s only music over the CG, though voice acting does appear for the in-game work. These are… on the level of the mid 90’s. I don’t think the actors can be faulted, as again, this script seems translated mechanically from Japanese. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were handed a list of lines, smashed out a take of each, and then pushed out the door – they’re paid by the day, after all. Still, you know enough of what’s going on, and it doesn’t affect the atmosphere. They also avoid any regretful “master of unlocking” lines.
At the time, there was a lot of comparing between Silent Hill and Resident Evil. The franchises have definitely gone down different paths since, but even here, the tone and style of Silent is refreshingly different. While Resident Evil seemed to enjoy its camp, Silent Hill is purely about clawing around in your head, which its perception-warping gameplay does with aplomb. Even after finishing, I couldn’t say for certain what Harry actually experienced versus what he imagined, and that’s a refreshing place for a horror series to go. Silent Hill 2 may be the series apex, but the original is definitely a delightfully terrifying time.
Some fine PlayStation graphics, with some exceptional fog and lighting effects. Brilliant use of two different worlds to question what is and isn’t “real.”
Basic translation from the Japanese doesn’t offer much flavor or acting. Some forced backtracking. Not completely divorced from Resident Evil standards yet.