“The Essence of Fear – a Prelude to Silent Hill Homecoming pt.2”

“Silent Hill” is often compared with its older sibling “Resident Evil”, from whence it drew inspiration, just as “Resident Evil” itself once borrowed from “Alone in the Dark”. Both however, presented a unique approach to the same set of interaction mechanics, using them in favor of their own designer philosophies. Unlike “Resident Evil”, the “Silent Hill” franchise wasn’t designed in reference to western horror, instead opting to uphold the cultural and aesthetic differences which make Japanese horror unique. Hideo Nakata and Ryoshi Kurosawa are some of the more obvious references on that front, as “Silent Hill” adopts the same flavor for the supernatural, psychological and aesthetic elements which made those movies unique in their genre. Which is not to say that “Silent Hill” doesn’t look up to western art, as there are numerous references to western authors, the most notable being “Silent Hill 2” – an obvious homage to David Lynch. But in “Silent Hill”, there are no B-movie references, no action game moods or easy scares – it’s all about anticipation, tension build up and psychological horror.

Like in any Japanese horror flick, “Silent Hill’s” main characters aren’t heroes, but ordinary people. In the first game, for instance, you play as a household father, Harry Mason, who is in desperate search for his missing daughter. He walks in a clumsy way, runs slowly and with considerable effort, panting heavily after any physical strain. He can’t shoot straight, or defend himself with a knife – he’s an average guy, just like you and me. If you manage to identify with him, it’s normal that you should feel afraid because he’s helpless towards the oppressive environment which surrounds him. Monsters abound in “Silent Hill”, allegoric figures which seem to be wrought by the deep corners of a Freudian nightmare, meshes of twisted sexual tendencies, perverted desires and bottled up hatreds, all molded into bizarre corpses of flesh and blood. They move in disturbing fashion, clumsily trotting, slithering like reptiles, or simply crawling in strange manners; the sounds they make are equally unsettling, screeching and growling in ways you simply have never heard anywhere else before. When you meet these macabre creations, you’ll try to figure out ‘what’ they are, how they move and, most importantly, how to avoid them. But even when forced to fight these monsters, “Silent Hill” never seems to focus on actual combat elements, such as quick reflexes, special moves or tactical positioning, instead opting to explore how these creatures make you feel through their aesthetic elements, behaviors and inherent symbolic nature. Combat is clunky and definitely not fun, and rightfully so, because its meant to make you feel uncomfortable. Most times, when trying to survive attacks, you simply shoot with whatever weapon you can find and hope to live through it, a fundamental difference from “Resident Evil”, where the focus is on the adrenaline rush of killing of monsters with powerful weapons. And though weapons do exist in “Silent Hill”, they are usually underpowered (there are one or two unfortunate exceptions), going from metal pipes to world war II carbines, none of which work particularly well in the hands of “Silent Hill’s” weak main characters.

But the game goes deeper than fleshing out weird beings to attack you, choosing to instill fear mostly through the anticipation of events, rather than the events themselves (a characteristic Japanese take on depictions of violence and horror). For example, one of the first items you get is a radio which emits an eerie static whenever monsters lurk nearby. Immediately after a few encounters, you start dreading the sound, because you know what it means – danger. The association of this simple sound effect with the existence of an upcoming menace is a simple example of how elegantly “Silent Hill” designers make you fear the unknown. And “Silent Hill” is definitely unknown territory. Preferring a surreal conceptualization over the Hollywood-esque pseudo-realism of “Resident Evil”, the gameworld is never bound by the laws of physics – anything can happen in “Silent Hill”, and I do mean anything. You may walk through a road only to find it ends in a gigantic, bottomless pit; day may turn into night in a blink of an eye while the sound of a military siren is heard from afar; a strange and brooding mist covers all buildings. There simply aren’t reliable rules in this fantastic world, and even the trusty radio and flashlight may fail when you least expect for some unknown reason. Strange and unique events constantly mess with preconceptions: a dark ghost may appear running out of nowhere, screeching like a little child, impervious to your actions; a room may have a giant head lurking with its eyes squirming with spasms; a mocking talk-show host can be heard when you’re riding the elevator to a floor which doesn’t exist – the sense of being lost in an alternate dimension, a “Twilight Zone”, is always present, making you feel discomfort, and really fear the twisted and unexpected events that occur in the game-world. Even human characters talk in strange ways, babbling about doomsday and strange occult rituals in mostly incoherent discourses, their facial features and emotional expressions, while definitely human and intensely dramatic, feel awkward and freakish, as if they were part of a hazy dream or a dark nightmare [you can check out some of Takayoshi’s glorious CG work for Silent Hill 1 and 2, in his website here].

The overall ambiance of the environment is what really sells the eerie phenomena which occurs in the accursed town. The white grainy fog which never goes away, blocking out sunlight from every frame of the game; the industrialist metallic constructions and sounds from the otherworld, oppressive in their constant bleakness and brownish, rusty red hues, which seem straight out of depictions of purgatory. Even as an art work, “Silent Hill” excels brilliantly, thanks to its wealth of visual influences, of which Francis Bacon seems to be a primary figure. Every single sight, sound and interaction is meant to produce an undeniable sense of displeasure, whether in the form of grotesque fiends or bizarre locations. To put it simply, “Silent Hill” is aimed at messing with your mind’s inner workings, instilling an unsettling sense of fear and foreboding. The problem now, is that all of these aspects which make “Silent Hill’s” so interesting as horror games were built on a Japanese conceptual frame, which makes me look with skepticism to the departure of the series to American studios, that are bound to interpret “Silent Hill” in a different way than the original Team Silent… something I’ll get to in the upcoming review.

[Next up is the proper review to “Silent Hill Homecoming”. These two texts are far from exhaustive, as I never intended to create a detailed meta-review of survival horror; I simply tried to show, in a simple and easily comprehensible way, what distances “Silent Hill” from other survival horror games, such as the “Resident Evil” series. Hopefully, this preamble will make my judgment of “Homecoming” all the more transparent.]

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  1. Thank you for the post.

    Indeed there is nothing like underlining the context in which Silent Hill originated, about a decade ago, to remind us of all the precious elements that somehow got lost with the passage of time. And if Silent Hill 4 – or the period after it – was the inevitable death of a project originated and designed in the Japanese studios of Konami, the carriage of this artistic property to North American studios has in no way given the series a proper burial.

    Which reminds me, again, of how videogames are still heavily influenced by the strategies of motion picture business: when I saw Silent Hill Origins on the PSP a year ago I thought that it was an exception, but with Homecoming, I’m convinced that the trend of adapting nihon terror games is not too different from Hollywood’s own manifestation of desire for reworking Japanese horror movie concepts. Ironically, the poor results of these attempts can be felt equally in both examples.

    Though not an exultant perspective, I don’t think we’re ever going to see another Silent Hill masterpiece, or at least not in the same level of artistic design and innovation as they were seen in the first two games – meaning a great loss for the videogame medium.

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