Retro Dread: Silent Hill Original Defined a Generation of Horror

Welcome to Retro Dread, a new feature covering the well-known and not-so-well-known horror games from eras bygone. If you join me on this adventure you’ll be entering a world of SNES scares, Sega Genesis gore, Famicon fears, and other alliterative phrases conveying scary on old consoles. This week is a titan of terror, a franchise I can’t stop hearing about no matter how much I try. It trends on Twitter at least once a week, and any development team tenuously rumored to be making a new entry becomes an instant public enemy. I am going to explore Silent Hill original!

I never played Silent Hill. That’s kind of the rub with this piece. It’s such a huge inspiration for horror games, and I work in horror games, and haven’t played it. That seemed like a bit of a crime. I understand that Silent Hill 2 is the game in the franchise that gets the most love, what with its Pyramid Head and…and…I don’t know much about Silent Hill 2 because I’ve never played it either. It’s a running joke – one I even did a whole article about – that I’ve never sat down and played a Silent Hill game. Well, that’s actually true. I haven’t. So what better way to start Retro Dread by exploring Silent Hill original?

Silent Hill original is ugly. Just terribly ugly. I’ve seen the PlayStation pull off some impressive graphics, but not with Silent Hill original. I mean, the cutscenes are nice, pre-rendered animation, but that’s where any “pretty” or “impressive” stops. You play as Harry Mason, a man driving down the road with his daughter when he manages to crash his car into Silent Hill. Using my limited knowledge of the Silent Hill franchise, I was trying to pick up on hallmarks of the series. I was like, “oh fog, check”. The fog is everywhere in Silent Hill. The game is often lauded for using it’s graphical constraints to its advantage, and I see why. The town of Silent Hill is a very early open-world map. You can go wherever isn’t blocked off by gaping chasms in the world.

You start in a small diner and talk with the cop lady from the Silent Hill movie (I know the move came after the game nerds lemme make my joke). You get a knife, flashlight, radio, and the cop (Cybil) for some reason gives you a gun. She just met you, and she’s giving you a gun. Silent Hill is truly a strange place. I was instantly struck with how open the town of Silent Hill is from the get go. I was not expecting the open-world style map that I mentioned above. Enemies wander this open world and are more than happy to jump your business exactly .0001 second after you leave the diner. A lot of my playthrough was comparing Silent Hill Original with its contemporary: Resident Evil.

I am happy to say that the things that annoy me on a replay of the original Resident Evil just don’t exist in Silent Hill. I breathed a sigh of relief to not see artificial difficulty barriers like a limited inventory in Silent Hill. I was free to hold as much as I wanted and it didn’t matter if it made sense. Inventory management in the Resident Evil franchise is only good in Resident Evil 4, is my stance. I was jazzed to be able to carry a lead pipe, knife, 10 health drinks, 13 med kits, a pistol, a shotgun, a hunting rifle, ammo for all of those, and various other items without worrying about managing them through save rooms and item boxes. The most surprising thing about playing Silent Hill was seeing how easily it beats Resident Evil. By 1999, when Silent Hill was released, there were three Resident Evil games on the market, and none of them came close to the scares or accessibility of Silent Hill.

The combat is smooth and responsive, way too much so for a PS1 game. I hate to bring up the comparison to Resident Evil again, but I will. In Resident Evil you have to point the gun at the zombie, adjust up or down for shots at head or legs. In Silent Hill original, the game understands that combat is secondary to trying to scare you, and is more streamlined in it’s execution. You ready your weapon, and if a monster is close enough, you’ll lock-on to them. Also in 3 entries, Resident Evil was perfectly pleased with giving you a combat knife for close encounters, whereas Silent Hill has a bevy of melee weapons with unique animations for each. Playing through Resident Evil knife only is a challenge, but playing through Silent Hill melee only is a valid playstyle on par with a firearms only run.

I talk about Silent Hill original focusing on the scares, and the absolute fuck-ugliness of the visuals actually bolsters the scares. When you enter the otherworld, where everything is rusty and metal grates, the short draw distance and fog, coupled with the blaring air sirens in the background, build a sense of palpable dread through technological limitations and simple sounds. The monsters are equally low fidelity; their shambling forms made up of jutting polygons lurching -and sometimes flying- out from the fog to do violence to poor Harry Mason. All of these visuals and sounds culminate in this complete picture of sheer, unrelenting strangeness. Silent Hill is, at its core, a “stranger in a strange land” story. Harry Mason doesn’t belong here, but he’s thrust into this place and must find his way out.

There is, I think, a story to Silent Hill original. Later games would introduce a strange overarching story about thoughtforms and guilt manifestations, but the first Silent Hill is fairly story sparse until near the end. You’re given breadcrumbs of a story, most of which won’t make sense. You’ll eventually get an info dump near the end about a cult trying to rebirth a dead deity and this all involves Harry’s daughter. It’s fairly self-contained, not begging for a sequel. Taken in a vacuum, Silent Hill is easily one of the best PS1 horror games. It’s simple combat, challenging yet logical puzzles, and memorable location and monsters could never exist as one game, though it should have. Silent Hill walked so it’s multiple spin-offs, sequels, and movies could run.

Silent Hill earns its place honestly, and if you haven’t played it, you definitely should. Forget that Pyramid Head exists for awhile, and go back to the town that started it all. It’s a trip you won’t regret.