In a 1999 developer interview.
Keiichiro Toyama says “What is it that sets Silent Hill apart from other games? If I had to answer that question in a nutshell, it would be the atmosphere, which I suppose is vague and ambiguous. However, if you play the game, I think you will understand. Silent Hill is an orthodox game with no outlandish or innovative gameplay mechanics, but it is suffused with a unique atmosphere and mood, not only in its appearance but also in the story and sound.”
- Director of Silent Hill 1(SH1).
I couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion as Toyama’s answer of ‘atmosphere’
as the final credits rolled in my blind playthrough of Silent Hill 1. The atmosphere permeates throughout my time running through the titular town full of dense fog. As I controlled the main character. Harry Mason. An everyman
who has no special titles, or special powers, is neither rich nor an individual who has super connections of note. He is simply a regular dad desperately searching every house and street for any clue, to recover his missing daughter Cheryl after a car crash gone wrong. And so begins our journey, as he battles/evades otherworldly creatures all while unknowingly trying to survive in this horror-filled place.
Storywise, I found his journey to be a cross between safe storytelling mixed with a jigsaw puzzle. Looking back I can construct how the narrative is achieved by effectively omitting key details. By the time I had all the pieces, I could complete the ‘puzzle’ so to speak. In doing so I was treated to a relatively safe journey in regards to not throwing my suspension of disbelief into smithereens while spreading the plot breadcrumbs interesting enough to lure me further into the mystery. In spite of the slow threads in the beginning. Be that as it may, once I hit my stride in schools and hospitals my will to continue deepened further. Enabling me to question everything and everyone within the bounds of not delving too outside the box to conjure. The regular who, what, where, when, why whodunit. Kept my brain tingling for morsels of information to seek the answer to my relentless inquiries. And thankfully the ending I received satisfied me to a measure I cannot help but applaud for. Well at least for receiving the ‘G+’ ending. And while there are other endings I’ve seen on YouTube. The overarching narrative felt uncommonly used amongst the other horror games I've played thus far. I wish I could give more concrete examples, but that would inadvertently lose the magic and surprise.
The atmosphere toes the line between the unknown and frightening to an absurd, but realistic degree.
As I traveled deeper into the mist surrounding the locations of Silent Hill. Taking inspiration from Stephen King's The Mist among other influences
. And to its credit, the close draw distance to maximize fog nearly in our faces works cleverly to hide the technical limitations of the PS1 era. The missing inhabitants while replicating a small town out in the country oozes with mystery in a sort of “Will there be something?” is teased mercilessly. I enjoyed exploring to my delight and wasn’t scared too much despite the oppressive silence and lack of inhabitants. Instead, I found otherworldly creatures prowling the dead of the day. Hairless malformed dogs prowling the streets, as winged creatures fly indiscriminately above Mason’s head to claw at him. To the nurses and doctors who are out of their freaking mind looking like a zombie at times. I admit to being scared and simply ran away from these ghastly enemies. The dense fog adds to the intrigue with incessant questions in the back of my mind. “What's happening? Where is Cheryl? What should I do? Why is this happening? How can I survive? Am I dreaming? Is this real?” These questions and more will inevitably pop up as you stumble & struggle.
The struggle is real. As I cautiously checked for enemies in rotten corridors, clean hallways, and entering empty rooms splitting the real and unreal. Confusing me, yet a handy map can be found nearby upon entering a new location. Making backtracking painless. Allowing me to easily strengthen my will, admire the presentation and reference what I had already been to. The map updates as you explore making it a vital tool to utilize. Reinforced by how simple the mechanics are. Mason can run, walk, use guns, and melee weapons, and interact with objects in the environment. The radio too helps as a sort of sound radar for nearby enemies. Helping us to prepare for what's to come. As a result, no gimmicks or very innovative systems at work as Toyama stated above. Focusing on other elements brings the core strengths to the front and center for players to devour. Grayish mist compliments well with the dead air of the soundtrack while feeding breadcrumbs to the player early on to piece and make their deductions. It is fascinating if not slightly stressful since I am playing a survival horror game. Yet I wasn’t all too bothered by the gameplay formula.
Puzzles felt adequate without being too complex. The simple systems lend themselves again and again. Becoming cyclical as you progress further in new buildings without feeling like a drag. Encounter a mysterious item? Maybe we can use this later to open a door or slot into a mechanism to open a path. Hmm, bottle? Must be some liquid I need. Keys? Oh, a locked door I couldn’t enter before surely will this time. Every puzzle I found difficult had a nearby solution to help players give off clues to solve their current dilemma. And usually, they may connect to another component, solving a dilemma could be a key to finally removing an obstacle. Out of all the puzzles I encountered. Only one of them is incredibly difficult. This was the only time I felt compelled to check a walkthrough and once I found the solution I couldn’t help but smack myself silly. So here’s a helpful tip. Check your surroundings to make sure of any missing pieces, having a separate monitor or paper on hand to visualize text hints can offer a different point of view. There are puzzles here without a hint so visuals and any patterns as delicately as I can vaguely say will prove invaluable to the naked eye. Don’t overthink, sometimes the easiest and most gut feeling may prove to be the right one.
Combat I wasn't fighting every step of the way like tank controls. Instead I embraced the simple fighting system and abused them to my advantage. Harry can equip one weapon at a time. Utilizes a multitude of melee and ranged weaponry. From pipes to knives to a pistol, shotguns, etc. The armaments helped tremendously like a hammer and the shooting mechanics aren’t all too complicated due to the absence of a reticle. As long as you focus in the direction of the enemy. You can shoot them with extreme prejudice. And man does it feel good to lay them out on the floor and kick em when they're down. Go close to an enemy? Eat a full round from my shotgun. Enemy closing in? NOPE. Time to run in a zigzag and not look back. Dying in about one blow? Excuse me while I chug a kit and some bottles without a required animation to take effect. See several mobs? Yeah forget that, Ima run past them. Pick your battles, don’t fight everything, to conserve ammo.
Felt the resource collection and using my stockpile satisfactory. Supplies are spread throughout the town so you’ll have to do some exploring off the beaten path to see any health kits or bottles to replenish your vitality. I had a surplus of bullets and avoided combat where I could to save ammo. Didn’t need to heal every time, only when I needed to. I wasn’t hindered by any inventory limit, nor was there any sort of stamina meter. He does have a health meter once you enter the menu with a press of the button. Making the lack of any real user interface where you would traditionally see one noticeable, albeit not necessary to see. I didn’t find any major issues with finding resources.
I’ll talk more about this later, but for now, I'll praise the tank controls. The mechanic where you move the player is similar to the process of how a tank moves.
And this is a process you’ll need to contend with throughout the entirety of a playthrough. Nevertheless, as I became more familiar with tank life(This was my first time experiencing the phenomenon.) I found it weirdly satisfying to look at the element from a different angle. The controls accentuate certain camera angles to invoke a sense of anxiety and unease. The combat adds to this which I didn’t mind at all considering the game doesn’t shout to the high heavens to play for the fighting module. This in turn creates anticipation and tension adding to the already unsettling atmosphere. So I like it. For adding depth to the combat and fleeing.
Honestly, this emphasizes cutscenes when they play by displaying different camera angles while the dialogue occurs. And boy do I have some good news. I’m surprised by how little text there is in the conversations. Thereby not slobbering players with text logs or lore logs. Though as a lore nut, I firmly believe as long as you have enough relative lore in hand it could prove beneficial. But that is neither here nor there. Words and phrases are used sparingly as if to uphold a sacred tenet that fewer words equals good.
SH1 for example follows this rule to a T. I did not see any wasted text. Puzzles and hints are included. It's like a subtly minimalist Chekhov's gun
here. And oddly enough I am praising the usage of short conversations between Harry and whoever is speaking to him to excellent effect. Why? This adds mystery and intrigue to the central locations while increasing tension, fear, etc. Reinforcing the enigmatic atmosphere Toyama envisions. Seriously this is great stuff preserving minimal, but essential text to have players piece their own conclusions. Showing us, but not telling us.
In a 2015 interview from Factmag
Akira Yamaoka(composer of a majority of the Silent Hill series) talks about the franchise's soundtracks and why it continues to be as influential as ever. “One of the greatest ways that Yamaoka enhanced Silent Hill’s fear building is by using music and effects in ways that run against what you’re expecting. “I wanted it to be unpredictable: maybe during a big scare I cut everything out, and maybe if nothing was happening at all there would be a lot of sound.” You have an empty hallway? Layer a few sirens and mix it in the red. You have an establishing moment with a villain or environment? Use only the sound of a sharpening knife.”
This unpredictability by Yamaoka works to an impressive degree throughout the entire soundscape. Where I felt the absence of regular conventional instruments in favor of creepy silence, air vibrations, the beating of unconventional items like banging of doors, the scrapping of blades, and the heart-pumping scratches and fluctuating radio frequencies awakens dread. Some examples I’ll pull from the OST have silence integrated well such as: ‘Downtime, never end, never end, never end, alive, nothing else, justice for you, heaven give me say, far.’ These tracks accompany many of the gameplay segments and cutscenes in a congenial manner yet interlaced wonderfully facilitating differences from the usual effects we often hear. Creating an unsettling tone to repeat for days on end as you boot up the game. Not to the point of over-use since a lot of tracks differ in tempo, rhythm, and how untraditional sound works. Seriously listen to any of those tracks and see how it differs from classical instruments. The names of these tracks also share similar connotations. Giving off a break if you will. Or time of rest. By comparison, there is another layer. And that is the panic tracks. Imagine low drums combined with a background of haunting wails or cries of ghastly echoes.
While the foreground is immersed with a layer of banging utensils harshly being hit on steel walls in a pattern that evokes slow encroaching terror. Yeah, terrifying isn’t it? Try listening to these tracks: Die, ain't gonna rain, half day, dead end, ill kill you, bitter season, don’t cry, for all, devil’s lyric, over, until death. I had to stomach through the OST again and it is incredible if not spooky. Yet thankfully enough here’s a secret to lessen the tension and anxiety. Lower the volume, no shame in doing so. I admit to doing so! The naming sense also is interesting to note again, with most of the tracks I chose from a small sample conveying notions of death, threats, and bittersweetness. I could’ve added more, but you can see the rest here
and suit the tracks in other patterns. Regardless, I want to focus on a pattern. The silence tracks and panic tracks
from the ones I listed earlier follow a theme, eh? The former inhabits an eerie vibe throughout yet doesn’t go to the steep lengths of making the player run to the hills. In my ears, I felt they were used to excellent effect, conveying a tingle of mystery as I ran to new rooms and buildings. By comparison. The latter displays the rush, the unbearing suspense mixed with a persistent rhythm forming an incessant need to get out. Run faster and get the hell out of traps and dead-ends. As a result, the panic tracks I think work in its favor and complement the silence to a proportion, I find myself fascinated by the two accompanying themes.
However, a third and smaller portion of tracks not of the two kinds emerges. And this brings to the forefront the classical tracks to a shotgun-filled bar full of emotions and relief. These tracks finally make use of classical instruments like the guitar strings. For example in the track ‘She’ I felt they provide a profound degree of closure. Some may see this as an abrupt slap of whiplash, on the other hand, I found it comforting. In the near silence and panic-filled corridors of ambiance. I found at the end of my main character’s journey and to my great satisfaction a longing feeling of contentment and tranquility. It is apt and so powerful to hear classical instruments shine so bloody hard.
I am amazed how different Yamaoka's style conveys so uniquely and so beautifully to listen to. Granted, the effects on the unused may be perceived as annoying to hear repetitive noise effects. Although, I think it works to its benefit. Complementing the game to magically transport the player into the Yamaoka’s soundscape
. Like a puppet master controlling how we feel. Just wow. Very different from other Japanese composers I'm familiar with listening such as Nobou Uematsu, Keiichi Okabe, Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Shimomura, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masashi Hamauzu, Masayoshi Soken, Keiki Kobayashi, Kota Hoshino, Falcom Sound Team jdk, and Xenoblade composers. The OST manages to ride the fine line of not being either bombastic or slamming us with gentility. Filling the player with enough suspense to not overflow in sheer terror while giving enough intrigue to the limit of genuine courage. It is as Yamaoka talks about earlier. Unpredictable in building fear.
As much as I could continue praising and analyzing every morsel. I must talk about my mixed feelings. These are neither positive nor negative, but simply some things that gave me pause, could be better and perhaps a hot take down below.
First tank controls for the unused can make it difficult to achieve the right balance in the beginning.
When Harry moves in a single direction, turning becomes difficult. So you’ll have to swerve to the right or left before coming around. Takes some getting used to. I was never familiar with these types of old movements and considering it was my first foray into it. My first 15 minutes were clashing onto walls. I understand it's a product of its time. And while some may say it adds tension and anxiety, which I agree to a certain extent. More often than not I crashed into walls and wished it controlled better. Could be a dealbreaker for some. I’ve heard the newest entries after the first have better controls. Though for a first entry, it's not something I'll judge too harshly. Once an hour passed by I became used to them. To help, quick-turn using L1+R1. Helped immensely for my playthrough and thankfully the game’s runtime isn’t too long or medium to deal with. HLTB
estimates put this at a short length.
Second, this might be a hot take. But I think going into the game blind completely would be a mistake.
I tried playing blind for 95% of my experience and while I did have a good time, once I removed some tips to know beforehand along with some of my friend's advice I would’ve unknowingly struggled. Please check out some tips. I'll put some links further below to help newcomers. Therefore to prevent further suffering. Not required, but it doesn’t hurt to know ya know? For example, Running away from enemy mobs in the streets to conserve ammo. Quickturn if you hit a dead-end and I abused the hell out of that to counter the rough tank controls. Furthermore, going blind may inadvertently cause players more trouble when trying to achieve certain endings. They can be strict
. Without going into concrete details of spoiler territory. To get the G+ ending, players need to somehow pick up a liquid in a hospital and use it in a boss fight. Not the last one. There’s a bit more, but I'll let Before I play
handle that. Highly recommend referencing that in hand while you play. I hope that’s vague enough to say. I am not advocating for everyone to achieve that outcome, rather I think it would help in the long run when thinking about the game as a whole. It is simply a suggestion.
Third, boss fights I think could’ve been improved a little more to induce more puzzley in design without reverting into too gimmicky territory.
As vaguely as I can say. I usually evaded their attacks, then shot bullets during appropriate moments. I’m torn on this point since I think this ties into the combat not being a true highlight to look forward to. I didn’t come to SH1 to be amazed by fighting. Yet unironically Toyama in another interview back in 1999
echoes similar sentiments by saying how “The action part of the game is really just something to create the horror.”
A medium to enhance the horror if you will. Although, I still can’t help but add my suggestions on how this could be remedied to make boss fights more horrory. Off the top of my head: More on escaping, instead of traditional fights. Destroying objects in surrounding environments then switching to a different weapon like melee. Surprise me with dialogue maybe and if I answer wrong, game over. Taunt me while chasing me. I wouldn’t say they're bad by any means. The first, second to last boss and final boss do a decent job.
Fourth, I wish there was more interaction in the environment instead of literal observations anyone can make. When exploring anything of relative interest in his surroundings. Harry will make a direct, blunt phrase. “No useful books.” “Nothing unusual.” “Drugs? Better leave it.” “Just a wall.” Granted, there are plenty of notes, diaries, letters, and documents to give some relevant lore or plot hooks so it’s not all bad. Feels weird though. Why not have him say different lines like “Cheryl would’ve loved this book.” or “Ah I remember this drug from long ago my wife used to use.” See how those suggestions would’ve changed some of the stale observations? Makes me wonder if the other installments made some changes to his inspection.
Ultimately I found Silent Hill 1 to be largely a leap of faith
as one Ubisoft
franchise likes to say. While it does have some dated mechanics like the tank controls which may vary from person to person. And the story may not resonate with everyone. Along with my other mixed feelings. In the end, hidden beneath these varying qualities I found the everyman plot to be equally as satisfying as my time in Signalis.
I can only leave pretty positive after my ten hour playthrough. And oddly enough, I regret not playing this title back then in my childhood. Never played any other entries in the series either. And yet for a PSX title released in 1999, I am pretty impressed how much it holds up. Stands tall amongst the other horror games I played
. Sure the title doesn’t boast the Lovecraftian edge Bloodborne
grasps. The excellent pacing of The Last of Us
. Great lessons from Omori
or hitting the fine balance of horror and action in the Evil Within
series and Metro 2033
. Nor does it provide richly diverse cast to the gills like Shadow Heart and Koudelka.
Rather, Harry Mason’s troubled venture to recover his daughter is a powerful incentive to keep in mind. And the feelings of “annoyance, anger and incredible kind of powerlessness”
evoked by the protaganists voice actor Michael Guinn moved me enough to see what happens in the end. Strong to witness amongst the clever backtracking, colliding with interesting and well-thought-out puzzles. Constant showing, not telling, and remarkable use of minimal dialogue I found in contrast to Parasite Eve.
Demonstrating how much this little gem can achieve in a concise manner without padding. I wasn’t bombarded by useless cutscenes or tearing my suspension of disbelief a new one. Beyond the palpable unique atmosphere, intriguing everyman story and excellent sound design lies something special to anyone who has never played Silent Hill 1.
I’d even go as far as to say the game has made me appreciate horror much more than I thought.
References & Additional Material:
- Shmuplations translated the 1999 interview with Toyama and others
Wiki links - Everyman
- Inspirational works of Silent Hill
- Tank Controls
- Chekhov’s Gun
- SH1 OST
- Akira Yamaoka interview
- Another interview with Toyama back in 1999. Different from 1st.
- a 2018 interview with none other than the original Silent Hill voice actor. Michael Guinn. Fair warning does contain spoilers for SH1 & SH3. I only read the SH1 portions.
Silent Hill 1 Before I Play Tips
Silent Hill 1 manual
A short history article on the origin of Tank Controls
- Cool TIL tidbits.
My spoiler thoughts on Silent Hill 1
- Heavy spoilers from beginning to end of the game