Running Up The Silent Hill (The Top Four)

It’s taken me way too long to update this blog with the nerve-shatteringly exciting conclusion to my personal ranking of the thus far released ‘canon’ games in the Silent Hill franchise (I’m not including stuff like the Arcade game or “Book of Memories” because they don’t exist). Batman got in the way, as did some work-related stuff, but now I’m back to finish up this bitch.

Here’s part one, for those of you just now tuning in.  Anyway, moving on to the top four: the original games developed in Japan by team SILENT.

4. Silent Hill 3 (2003 / PS2)

My favorite piece of Silent Hill art
It’s almost painful to put this wonderful game here, but then again, it would be painful to put any of the first four games next to “Homecoming”. I’m putting “Silent Hill 3” in the fourth place because, out of all the original titles, it’s the one with the fewest ambitions. After “Silent Hill 2”, which completely deviated from the original game in terms of story, “Silent Hill 3” took an unexpected turn and decided to continue the plot of “Silent Hill” through Heather, the series’ first ever female protagonist. However, despite this admittedly shallow change, “Silent Hill 3” felt mostly like an updated expansion of the first game rather than a new title—an awesome expansion, but ultimately something of a rehash in terms of gameplay.

 “Silent Hill 3” stumbles in the same areas all the games in the series do—a flawed combat system that actually works in favor of tension, some annoying (albeit purposefully so) camera angles, and questionable voice acting. Also, the choice of continuing the already convoluted and confusing story of the first made this game’s storyline borderline incomprehensible, and its only ending was a bit of a letdown. Even if the drama is constant and Heather’s conflicts are clear and powerful all the way through, almost everything else surrounding her story was one big question mark. Unless, of course, you spent hours after hours reading plot guides and discussing details online—which many fans, including myself, were more than willing to do. And hey, how many games can claim to have oral abortions and unborn vore?

Cool thing is that when “Silent Hill 3” succeeds, it rockets through the roof like some manner of rocket-propelled bison who can’t write similes. It had an immaculate visual style that even managed to improve upon “Silent Hill 2”’s, graphics that even now look phenomenal (and somehow better than “Downpour”, which wanted huge maps at the expense of shitty textures), some crazy awesome plot twists, an incredibly likable lead character and most importantly: a perfect sense of horror. By far the scariest game of the series, 3’s many horror set pieces had me dropping fudge dragons in moderatto. We all remember the hospital room with the mirror, the Haunted House, the mannequin room or the mysterious bathroom visitor. If this is a series that’s famous for being scary, it’s mostly thanks to “Silent Hill 3”.

This isn’t the fourth best game in the series because of its failures, but because of its peers’ accomplishments. All in all, this is a terrifying fantasy/horror journey, and the epitome of Silent Hill in terms of visuals and horror.

3. Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004 / PS2, X-Box, PC)

The fourth title in the series is here because I’m doing my best to be objective (lol!). “Silent Hill 4: The Room” might be my second favorite game in the series because, despite its heavily flawed gameplay, it appealed to my sensibilities better than the “Number 2 Of This List” did. The premise of someone mystically trapped in his apartment immediately captured me, the first trailer sent me into a nerdgasm coma, and it came out but one year after “Silent Hill 3”, when my excitement was still orbiting Neptune (no Uranus joke, sorry).

The thing is, the gameplay does have some unforgivable flaws, and this comes mainly from the fact that the second half is a retread of the first, in which you’re supposed to again go through the same locations you went through already. Sounds bad? Get this: this second time time you do it—get ready for this—taking care of a severely incapacitated, slow and weak side character, the fate of whom determines not only a possible game over, but the ending you might receive in the end. Escort missions are the bane of my Batman, and they had absolutely no business taking up the entire second half of a Silent Hill game.

“The Room” also made the mistake of getting rid of the claustrophobic spaces and yawning darkness that made the first three games scary. Good chunks of this game take place in the bright outdoors (not during town exploration, as this game interestingly never goes into the actual town of Silent Hill though still adds a gigantic amount of information to its mythologies). Masahiro Ito, who designed the visual style and monsters of the three original games, was also MIA, so the overall look was slightly bland in comparison.

However, the story is truly creative, complex, and at one point very epic; it was a mindfuck, but it had the right amounts of confusing and straightforward to make it both involving and creepy. The lead character was a bit of a downer, though a fantastic subject to fan theories, and the supporting cast is one of the series’ best (Eileen was just the cutest damn thing). The villain though? Definitely the series’ best. Walter was terrifying, likable, insane and badass all at the same time. Sure, some of the ideas behind his psychology are goatshit bananas, but the idea of him, and those moments when you just see him staring at you from afar—or from outside your apartment in one particularly terrifying bit— just creeped the hell out of me.

It also incorporated the new concept of first person POV during the segments in which Henry explores his apartment. I was a bit wary of this at first, but it turned out to be an excellent addition, as it provides the games few scares. As the game progresses, Henry’s apartment becomes increasingly haunted, and by the end you’re scared to even look out the window in fear of seeing a severed head fall just outside. Because that actually fucking happens.

I really appreciated the psychosexual aspects of the story, which remitted me to “Silent Hill 2”. Voyeurism and isolation become important themes, and are often used to get under the player’s skin in a very profound, intimate way. The ability to peep into Eileen’s room was a fantastic device to stir guilt into the player, and that one hospital room that left me with unremovable mind-scars was the perfect way to accentuate upon this.

“Silent Hill 4: The Room” was heavily underappreciated—and still is, though for understandable reasons—but I loved playing through it mainly because, like “Silent Hill 2”, it felt like a fresh and different stratum of something I already loved.
                                                            

2. Silent Hill (1999 / PS1)

This game is brilliant. It was brilliant back in 1999 and it’s brilliant thirteen years later. “Silent Hill” was a game that gave the Survival Horror genre, which was back then dominated by the fun but dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers “Resident Evil” franchise, a new more sophisticated spin. “Silent Hill” was not only a million times more terrifying than almost anything available, but also presented new and engaging gameplay and visual elements previously unseen.

Silent Hill has always been about two things: the psychological nature of its horror, and its unparalleled visual design. These aspects weren’t perfected until its 2001 sequel, but this first title made its ambitions immediately apparent, and boy did they work. The setting of an isolated town was nothing new, but using the town itself as a volatile character, prone to betraying you at any moment, was never done this brilliantly. The fog, back then used as a ploy to cover for the PS1’s limitations, made even the otherwise mundane explorations of the bright open spaces a tense thing no one looked forward to. The addition of copious amounts of gore, creatively designed monsters and a constant sense of passive aggressive what-the-fuckness sent the horror to an extreme.

And that’s what made “Silent Hill” so perfect: it could always outdo itself. Exploring the school was already incredibly scary, and seeing it become something far more nightmarish and dark turned it all the way up to 11. And not only was it scarier than anything else back then (sorry, “System Shock 2”) but the added drama, made better by a wonderful soundtrack, intensified the experience.  There was one scene involving Lisa—everyone who’s played it knows which—that to this day still breaks my heart.


I don’t need to say again that “Silent Hill” suffers from a poor battle system and poor voice acting and such—it’s true, and it’s already been said and doesn’t need to be said again. But even when it fails, “Silent Hill” succeeds. Everything works in its favor because what it does right swallows everything else. The sucky combat system and weird-ass camera angles makes you hate and fear monsters so much more, and the complexity of the puzzles really sends your mind into overdrive. Puzzles are something the series has always done right and, with the exception of “Shattered Memories”, still does. The piano puzzle here is one of my all-time favorites in the medium.


“Silent Hill”, like its sequel, is timeless. Yes, the graphics look outdated now, but it’s still something you can still experience without diminished value, and playing it nowadays is exactly what makes you realize why this game started what, until 2004, seemed to be a faultless legacy.

1. Silent Hill 2 (2001 / PS1, X-Box, PC).

Quite possibly my favorite video game of all time (it’s always waged a war with “Final Fantasy VIII”), and the reason why I still think video games can be worth the time of even the snobbiest arthouse asshole, “Silent Hill 2” is a complete triumph. It’s not just its absolutely brilliant and still unparalleled storytelling, its ground-breaking graphics, its perfect soundtrack, its revolutionary gameplay or timeless and sophisticated visual design—it’s the fact that a group of people managed to create something that pretty much succeeded in everything it tried, and completely incinerated any other title that has tried to compete with it.
Despite how serial-killery itmight be, I'd hang the shit out of this on my wall.

“Silent Hill 2” tells the story of James, who receives a letter from his dead wife, beckoning to come find her in their sanctuary of memories: the town of Silent Hill. Yes, the premise might not be the most original thing, but the manner in which the story unfolds, and the elements the game uses to tell it, is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Never before, or since, has someone used the setting to tell a story to such an exultant effect. Never have confusion and mystery been used to make the audience question more than just the goings-on of the story.

This is true because “Silent Hill 2” uses interactivity, an element unique to video games, to tell the most intimate and profound details of its story, and it’s impossible not to become personally involved—you practically become James, and every turn the game takes, up to its devastating final act, is a personal experience. This way, “Silent Hill 2” is almost cruel—when something has you by the short and curlies for hours, it takes a certain level of mean-spiritedness to pull and twist before letting go.

And this was such a huge surprise because no one expected the brilliant but flawed first game to have an immediate sequel that perfected everything that made it great. The psychological nature of the horror, the artistically disturbing design, the dramatic storyline, its then shocking use of taboo topics such as morality, sexuality, murder and suicide, are all accentuated versions of “Silent Hill”’s ideas. It’s incredible how team SILENT immediately understood what they had done right in 1999, and took it to the extreme by 2001. It’s a feat no one has really done this way since, but think in the difference between “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”—that’s more or less the kind of leap I’m talking about.

I could go on and on about all the ways “Silent Hill 2” revolutionized both the genre and the medium, but you get the idea. Like the first game, all its faults work in its favor, but even if it didn’t, the strengths of “Silent Hill 2” lay in its storytelling, making any annoyance in the gameplay an absurdity—flaws that only reinforce its perfection.

And that’s it for now. Even if I’ve been continuously disappointed by the new releases in the series, all of which have desperately tried to capture what made the first four—and number 2 in particular—great, I’m still this franchise’s gimp. I’m its slave. I’ll probably always be, because there’s always the hope that maybe, one day, someone can use the tools at their disposal to deliver another experience of the first games’ caliber.

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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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2 comments:

  1. Great read and as a life long Silent Hill fan I almost entirely agree with you. The only thing I really disagree with is 4 being so high on the list. One of the worst things about that game for me and something that puts the game design flaws in perspective was that one of the primary villains (the ghosts) were faster then you, hurt you by being in proximity and couldn't be killed. This coupled with the breakable weapons, doubled levels and escort aspect really took me out of the game where I couldn't enjoy the story.

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    1. I won't argue about the ghosts; the fact that they couldn't be killed, only stopped (and that if you had a very specific item that's not very easily found) was needless and annoying. That's one of the unforgivable mistakes I mentioned, even if I didn't specify it. Thanks a lot for reading!

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