One of my favourites… Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 was an absolute monster of a game. It induced levels of terror and tension that no other Survival Horror game has come close to achieving. When I first played it upon release I had to repeatedly pause the game and put down the controller to sever my physical connection to that God awful town. I would fool a friend into coming over under the pretence of a fun evening with videogames, and would toss them the controller every time the nerve shredding hiss of static from the radio signalled some approaching monstrosity. It was a masterpiece in horror and, in my opinion, has never been bettered in the genre.
It was a game that did so many things right. The creature design was excellent. Each monster having a unique psycho-sexual slant that played with the central character’s subconscious fears and desires. Pyramid Head was the stand out for many, his blood red angular helmet and disgustingly stained apron becoming the iconic visual of the game, if not the series. His first appearance in the game elicited a girlish scream from me on my first play through (and if I’m honest, subsequent plays as well). Though for my money the most disturbing creature was the Daddy, a grotesque mass of writhing muscle and flesh trapped and bound in a bed frame. Two figures combined to make the Daddy, the smaller figure moaning and fighting as the larger dominant figure hunched over it. The smaller figure screamed from a vaginal mouth on the base of the beast. Like all of the creatures, the Daddy was the embodiment of a character’s trauma, in this case representing sexual abuse. Each and every twisted, lurching grotesque in the game was perfectly designed to make your skin crawl.
The soundtrack is widely considered to be one of the all time greats in videogames and it’s easy to see why. It’s terrifying. As the composer Akira Yamaoka’s contribution to the game cannot be overstated. In horror atmosphere is of paramount importance, and it’s through the soundtrack that Silent Hill managed to create one of such dread. The soundtrack was a heady mix of ethereal ambience and clanging cacophony. The quiet moments, which occasionally broke into sombre melody, didn’t act as a reprieve from the horror but as a nerve shredding build up to it. There was no escape from what was coming, and the off kilter song structure and piercing tones served as a constant reminder of that. It was the noise of Silent Hill 2 that kept that knot tied tightly in the pit of your stomach.
Both the design and the sound went a long way towards making Silent Hill 2 great, but those two components alone were not what earned it classic status. Much like any game what really mattered was the game play. And it’s there that Silent Hill 2 became something unique, because it achieved its greatness by being unwieldy, infuriating and, if looked at objectively, not all that good.
The game begins with the central character, James Sunderland, staring into the mirror of a public toilet. You took control of James and were required to simply exit out of the door. When playing this for the first time it took me over ten minutes to find the door. The camera angle didn’t change to show the exit. Admittedly, every time I’ve played the game since, I wince at how obvious the door’s location is. Light is pouring in from the outside signalling the way out, but way back then, on my first attempt, I had to refer to the internet as a guide. The only instruction it offered was “Leave room”. It did not help. In that particular instance it’s fair to say it was more my fault than that of the game, but it illustrates a problem none the less: The camera angles in Silent Hill 2 (and most Survival Horror games at the time) were awful. They were often fixed, offering only a distorted, claustrophobic view of the world. On numerous occasions James would enter a room and stare into it, witnessing some fresh horror. But I was not granted the same sight, the camera had decided what I needed to see was the door James had entered through and a bit of the faecal smeared wall behind him. I would slowly edge James forward, ever further into the room, tension rising with each step, waiting for that angle to change. Things were heard before they were seen, the presence of something lurking was felt long before it ever emerged from the shadows. I couldn’t always see what James was seeing, but because of that, I always felt what he felt: Unrelenting dread.
The camera wasn’t the only thing obscuring the view of Silent Hill. There was also the thick, impenetrable fog. Draw distances used to be pretty limited, so to hide this limitation the outdoor scenes were shrouded in fog, making it impossible to see past James’s nose. It didn’t matter how wide open the area was, James could never see more than a few feet in any direction. On top of that, to hide the poorer textures, the game was dimly lit and had a harsh dirty grain, like an aged film stock. The colours were muted, the entire world bathed in either a grey monotone or a grimy brown and red hue. Everything looked dark, and dank and dirty.
Then there were the controls. If Survival Horror as a genre used to be notorious for anything, it was the controls, particularly in combat. When moving around exploring without some beastie breathing down James’s neck, it was basically fine, if occasionally a little awkward. But when a fight or flight situation arose, either option caused problems. Hand to hand combat resorted to button mashing in the hopes of bashing something to death before it killed me. Pipes and bats were recklessly swung as if wielded by a blindfolded child at a piñata, except in the game I could see what I was swinging at, making each miss even more inexplicable. Guns were just as frustrating. Feet rooted to the floor, unable to move whilst aiming, I’d take a shot. Chances are I missed. If the shot was a little low I’d correct my aim by raising the gun ever so slightly. Except there was no “ever so slightly” in Silent Hill. I could point directly in front of me, up at the roof, or down at my own feet. When trying for a headshot I’d have to raise my pistol to the heavens and patiently wait for the enemy to move its head in front of the gun. All of this made the fight or flight dilemma somewhat easier to solve. Run. This resulted in me running into every wall, object, and enemy in the surrounding area, insanely swinging a steel pipe and screaming as I did so. In Silent Hill movement was sluggish and imprecise. The creatures that inhabited those worlds threw the character off balance, their mere presence hindering the character’s ability to think and act to the point where moving from one end of a hallway to the other was a gargantuan effort. The game once again pulled me into the central character’s headspace. I could not trust in my abilities.
Even the voice acting is off in Silent Hill 2, though this may have been down to choice rather than a technical limitation. Each line was delivered with a stilted detachment, an emotional monotone whether talking to a little girl or listening to a madman confessing to blowing someone’s brains out. Dialogue didn’t ring true or always make sense. Performances were wooden and unnatural. Everything came across as skewed and dream like. Nothing was ever fully understood, the game only granting hazy glimpses at the plots bigger picture.
Judged by the standards of today Silent Hill 2 is a deeply flawed game. But all of those “flaws” coalesced in a manner that left me feeling completely useless, not adequately prepared to deal with what was happening, and unwilling to do so. It was the absolute distillation of how the character was feeling, and was perfect for a Survival Horror game. Many Survival Horror games, and none more so than Silent Hill 2, are not great despite their flaws, but because of them. Which is why the genre no longer inspires the terror it was once capable of. The flaws enhanced the experience, but in this day and age those flaws can’t be tolerated. Graphics can’t be hidden by the dark, or masked with thick fog, this is the age of HD. Everything must be crystal clear. Controls have to be precise. Combat has to be effective. The camera angles must actually reveal environments and the player’s position within them. The Survival Horror of today has adequately addressed those problems, resulting in a flaw far harder to forgive: An absence of terror.
The Dead Space series is a prime example of Survival Horror today, and I found my recent foray into its world to be a reasonably enjoyable one. It ticks the usual boxes for the genre: gruesome monsters, dimly lit areas, an abrasive, piercing soundtrack, and a lead character with an unhealthy dose of psychological trauma. But that’s wrong, isn’t it? An enjoyable experience? What happened to the knot in my stomach? Why do I no longer feel the need to pause the game and throw away the controller? I’m not supposed to be enjoying myself. I am supposed to be terrified. In Dead Space I can clearly see what I’m fighting and the environment I’m doing it in. If I need more room, I can turn and run, or simply hack my enemies to pieces with an arsenal of brutal weaponry. The central character, Isaac Clarke, isn’t just capable, but a decked out, armoured badass wielding serious firepower. The vicious creatures vying for his blood are little more than a minor irritant. It’s a situation that does little to inspire dread.
In Silent Hill 2 the game’s limitations mirrored the character’s weaknesses. Those weaknesses made the player vulnerable and heightened the tension, which in turn became the game’s strengths. But as technology continues to improve then the limitations will decrease, as will a player’s tolerance for them, and so characters will become ever more capable. It doesn’t matter how monstrous a creature’s appearance is, how much torn flesh we can see in its perfectly rendered HD fangs, if it don’t actually pose a genuine threat. Survival Horror has lost something, the very something that once made it special. But, and I say this without doubt, there will be good Survival Horror games in the future. The Amnesia games, which I’ve yet to play, look like a clear example of this. It is not a dead genre. It is evolving. It will find that something new that makes it special and strikes fear into its players. It just hasn’t happened yet. And until it does, Silent Hill is the town I call home.