The Evolution of Silent Hill

When Silent Hill was first released in 1999 for the original Sony Playstation console, many critics and gamers alike were quick to label the game as a Resident Evil copy.  The survival horror genre was quite fresh, but even in 1999 it was clear that the two games were quite different.

In this article I’m going to examine several elements of each of the games and examine how they have changed throughout the series.


Storyline

One of the key items that sets Silent Hill apart from any other game that you’ve ever played is the story.  Silent Hill often tasks players with looking at the dark side of humanity, examining issues such as cultism, guilt, murder, repression and mental illness.

This is just a short run-down of the story that the Silent Hill franchise has taken over the years.  A more-detailed description of the plots of all of the games would run much longer.  I have tried not to reveal the endings of the games, but I must warn that there are major elements of the plots revealed in the following section.

Silent Hill 1, told he story of Harry Mason, looking for his daughter Cheryl.  The two of them have come to Silent Hill for vacation—Silent Hill being a bit of a tourist destination.  However, when the player arrives, they are not greeted to the amusement park, hotel and beautiful Toluca Lake, but instead to immense fog, broken streets and a town that’s pretty much devoid of people.  Demons and monsters, on the other hand are plentiful.  The whole town is also slowly being overtaken by an Otherworld—a hellish nightmare brought to life by a cult intent on resurrecting a God.

Throughout this journey Harry meets up with police officer Cybil Bennet, a woman named Dahlia Gillespie, Dr. Michael Kaufmann, and a terrified nurse by the name of Lisa Garland.  He hears of the young girl, Allessa Gillespie and her story.  Harry learns of how his daughter ties into these events.

As in all of the games, each of these characters add something unique to the story—they tell of the town itself, its rampant drug problem, and in essence how Harry, and all of these characters found their way here.

In essence, Dahlia sacrificed her daughter to the fires seven years ago, splitting Alesa’s soul into two.  The God that this cult is trying to resurrect, Samael, could not be born at this time because Alessa was split in two, so a spell was cast by Dahlia that would ultimately draw the other half of theAlessa’s soul back to Alessa, so Samael could be born into the world again.  The other half of Alessa was—you guessed it, Cheryl.

What happens in between, you’ll have to play the game to find out.

This is pretty much main storyline of Silent Hill (as it should be, it’s the first game).  It is retold again in the film adaptation (with several liberties included) and continued on in Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill 5, and Silent Hill Homecoming.  It is also “re-imagined” in the latest release in the series, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

The second game, released in 2001 for the Playstation 2, follows James Sunderland, who has come to Silent Hill to look for his wife, Mary.  In a letter, Mary requests James to come to Silent Hill, to their ‘special place’ at the Lakeview Hotel.  Ordinarily, no big deal—except for one thing.  Mary died 3 years ago from an untold disease.

As James explores Silent Hill, he encounters others searching the town as well—Angela, whom he meets at the beginning of the game, is longingly looking for her mother.  Eddie appears in the town as well, suspiciously near corpses, denying anything to do with their deaths.  In addition to these two characters, James meets Maria, a woman who “could have been be Mary’s twin,” as James states.  Laura, a young girl, also is present in Silent Hill, who seems to have no knowledge of the dangers of the town—not even the monsters.

Each of these characters have their own influence on the game, each of them revealing something about the town and the impact that it has on James.  This is different to the previous game in that it isn’t told why the town is the way it is.  The only real constant from Silent Hill 1 to Silent Hill 2 is the town itself.

Silent Hill 2 also introduced one of the most identifiable enemies of the franchise—Pyramid Head.  While often touted to be a psychological representation of James’ repressed guilt over the incidents of Mary’s death, Pyramid Head also appears in the Silent Hill film adaptation, and Silent Hill 5: Homecoming (presumably—not as James).  The game’s dark messages are brought out through Pyramid Head’s actions, as he’s shown repeatedly defiling various enemies in the game.

Silent Hill 2 stands on its own—it is not directly tied in to any of the other games.  Its endings  are not officially made clear—(but you could say it’s fairly obvious).   Many fans of the series cite Silent Hill 2 as their favourite for its dark plot and the implicit meanings of the enemies throughout the game.

The third instalment in the Silent Hill series is a direct sequel back to the first game.  It is set approximately 17 years after the events of the first game, and follows Heather, who is drawn to Silent Hill’s reality after an experience at the mall.  In short, she ultimately discovers that she is a part of the plans of the town’s cult, and becomes entrapped within the cult itself.

At the beginning of Silent Hill 3, Heather evades private investigator Douglas Cartland, who tells her that he has information on her past.  She escapes him into the shopping mall, which is, in traditional Silent Hill style, full of monsters.  Heather meets Claudia, the priestess of Silent Hills’s cult–who speaks of her strangely.  Heather is knocked unconscious and when she awakens, finds herself in—Silent Hill style as well—in the Otherworld.

When Heather finally makes it home, after having run into Douglas and a chance meeting with Vincent, who is affiliated with Claudia, she finds that her father has been killed by a monster.  Although the game never shows his face, it is assumed that Heather’s father is Harry, from the first game, as judged by his clothes.  Heather resolves to go to Silent Hill to kill Claudia.  Douglas meets her in her apartment and drives her to Silent Hill.  En route, Heather reads a note left by her father before his death, which explains the events of Silent Hill, revealing that the baby girl that was left to him at the end of the game was her, and that Claudia is seeking Heather to birth the cult’s god, since Heather is a reincarnation of Alessa.

Silent Hill 4 is set in the town of South Ashfield and focused on the character of Henry Townshend.  Henry awakes one day to find himself trapped inside of his apartment.  Silent Hill 4 is also unrelated to the original storyline of Silent Hill, as it was unintended to be a Silent Hill game.  It follows the story of Henry’s conflict with an undead serial killer.
Henry’s first destination is an abandoned subway station where he finds a woman named Cynthia Velazquez, who is convinced that she is in a dream.  She is killed.  On a radio that Henry has picked up, he hears confirmation that she is dead—the same thing seems to happen to the other people that Henry finds on his trip out from his apartment—Jasper Gein, Richard Braintree and Andrew DeSalvo.  All of these murders are uncannily similar to the seemingly deceased Walter Sullivan’s killings.

Scraps of the diary of Henry’s apartment’s former occupant, explains that Walter was an orphan who had been led to believe that his mother was the apartment.  It is also revealed that Walter was attempting to carry out some sort of ritual—and that Henry was a part of that ritual.

The first game for the Playstation Portable, Silent Hill Origins is a prequel to the original Silent Hill.  This game follows Travis Grady—a trucker who suffers from haunting nightmares.  Out on a job near Silent Hill, he sees a figure walk out in front of his truck and collapse.  In an attempt to go after the girl, he finds a burning house.  Travis pulls a burned body from the fiery house and collapses outside.  When he wakes up, he is in the same twisted town of Silent Hill.

Wondering of the fate of the child, Travis heads to Alchemillia Hospital, a recurring location in the series.  Here he finds Dr. Kaufmann, from the first game.  He denies that there was any patient that fits the description of the child.  Yet in another room, Travis finds the little girl looking back at him through a mirror, beckoning him to come through the mirror, which, like a window, sees into the Otherworld.  In touching the mirror, Travis is taken there.
Throughout the game, Travis finds strange, triangular pieces that resemble the Flauros–the tool that Harry used in the first game.  Each time he finds a piece, he is treated to flashbacks that suggest his mother attempted to kill both him and herself when Travis was young, after becoming angry with his father.  Along the way Travis meets Dahlia Gillespie, who informs him that it was her house and her child that were consumed in the fire.  The girl continues to appear in mirrors throughout the town, but Travis is unable to get answers from her.  Travis finds his way to the cult’s ritual grounds, where he sees various cult members surrounding the body of the burned child he rescued previously.

The final instalment of the series (as of writing), Silent Hill Homecoming, released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, tells the story of Alex Shepherd.  Alex is returning home to look for his younger brother, Joshua.

Alex is a discharged solider of the US army after being injured and spending some time in a military hospital.  Upon returning home, he discovers that many people have gone missing in his home of Shepherd’s Glen (named after a distant ancestor who helped to found the town).  His mother is in a near catatonic state, and his father has gone to find his missing brother.  Alex promises his mother to find Josh.

Along the way, Alex runs into childhood friend Elle Holloway, the delusional Mayor Bartlett. Dr. Fitch and Judge Holloway (Elle’s mother)—all staples of the town, who also have distant ancestors that go back to the town’s inception.  Along the way, Alex learns that his father was part of the town’s dark secrets and attempts to get answers from back home.  When he arrives, several members of Silent Hill’s cultists (known as The Order) have kidnapped his mother and taken her, with the others, back to Silent Hill.  In essence, it’s up to Josh to save his mother, and find his missing father and brother.
What happens, as any true Silent Hill fan can tell you, is often far different from what Alex set out to do.

Each game in the series often has multiple endings.  Which one the player receives all depends on certain prerequisites that have been met during the game.  For example, if you wandered around with low health and collected certain items, examined Angela’s knife enough times, you were bound to get the bad ending (figuratively speaking).

Graphics and Visuals

Obviously as time passes, the power of the machines running Silent Hill games grows.  The original Silent Hill used the Playstation 1’s limitations to its advantage.  Instead of wasting resources with a large draw rate, the creators kept the visible area of the game often to just a few feet around the player.  With the inclusion of fog, and darkness, the player was limited in what they could see and often had to rely only on what they could hear.

This is something that has remained the same throughout the series, even as the machines running the games advanced.  In keeping with the psychological horror aspect, each game was shrouded in darkness or fog.  That isn’t to say that the series hasn’t progressed from its jagged edges and grainy visuals.  Each game has remained and remains fairly consistent with other games of that console generation, not overly above or below that grade.  Cutscenes however in each game are rendered beautifully, even if with a certain grit that fans are used to, that adds to the effect of the game as a whole.
Silent Hill is a dark series, and as stated at the beginning of each game, it contains depictions of violence and gore.  Whether it’s a corpse hanging off of a fence, blood smeared all over Robbie the Rabbit, or Pyramid Head defiling a Bubblehead nurse—Silent Hill is definitely a mature game, not for the weak-hearted.

Audio

Composer Akira Yamaoka has been a staple of the Silent Hill series since its inception.  He has composed dark and emotional music for every game in the series.  His work ranges from post-industrial music to trip-hop and alternative rock music.  In addition to player only being able to see a few feet around them, Yamaoka’s music has intensified the psychological horror aspect of the game.  In certain areas of the game, you must hear the enemies around you in order to actually fight them.  In the Otherworld, music volumes are heightened so that it is difficult to hear these enemies around you through your radio (you pick one up every time).  Hearing the radio go off when you’re low on health is often just the right thing to get a player’s heart pumping.

Each soundtrack has been made available for separate purchase, or sometimes included with the game itself.  The game’s soundtracks are often haunting within themselves.

Gameplay

In each of the games, the player assumes control of the protagonist in a third-person perspective.  Except in Silent Hill 4, where much of the game is viewed through a first-person perspective (as in Henry’s Apartment).  In Silent Hill 5, the camera takes an over-the-shoulder view instead of using mostly fixed-cameras as in previous entries.  Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is set to also be an over-the-shoulder view game.
Gameplay in each of the games is fairly consistent—players will explore various areas of the town in both the real world and the Otherworld, fighting enemies and solving puzzles along the way.  One can argue that the puzzles of previous games are much more complex and time consuming of more current games in the series.  This can be explained by the shifting emphasis on combat (with the exception being Shattered Memories, which is set to be primarily a puzzle-adventure game).

While combat has always been an element in Silent Hill games, the latest entries in the series have more advanced combat systems, involving targeting systems and positional damage.  While firearms are present in the series, melee combat is a preferred favourite.  Many of the enemies in previous Silent Hill games can be run past, which is often preferred.  However in Origins and Homecoming, it is often easier just to defeat the enemies and continue from there.

The difficulty level of enemies has also seen an increase—which could also be explained by the combat/puzzle emphasis shift.  It should also be noted that in previous games, there was often a lack of enemies in the town.  The number of enemies encountered in a game appear to have increased over the years, in balance with the combat/puzzle emphasis shift.

This has remained a constant in the series, used in later entries to intensify the psychological thriller aspect of the games.  While in Homecoming and Origins, you may be able to see further around you, developers utilized a “Noise Grain” effect (this has been used since Silent Hill 2).  This can be compared to grain on film, which gives the game a constant feeling of movement, or noise.  Objects further away might appear as if they are moving—even if they are stationary.  This inhibits the player’s sight, and really makes reliable visibility only a few feet around the character.
In most of the games, the Heads Up Display (HUD) was non-existent.  Only in the latest game, Homecoming, were players treated to this particular mechanic.  When Alex would be injured, his health would flash onscreen.  This gave you a hint as to when to use an available Health Drink or other health item.

Lasting Appeal

It’s not uncommon to play through a Silent Hill game and not be able to grasp all that the game has to offer.  With multiple endings available for the games, a second or third playthrough was often necessary just for closure.

The game that I most frequently like to refer to in illustrating this point is Silent Hill 2, however there are many other instances in the series where this also holds true.  As I’m sure many of you know, many of the enemies in Silent Hill 2 have a distinct feminine appearance to them.  It’s no coincidence that the enemies present throughout Silent Hill 2 have a deeper meaning to them.  Once you discover what it is, a whole new chapter of the story is opened up to you, giving the game a much more lasting appeal.

A personal inference that I like to make is also with Homecoming.  It took me a while to figure it out, but many of these enemies also have a feminine appearance to them.   In looking at the deeper meaning, it can be said that they can be assumed to be weak and vulnerable, much like Alex’s brother Josh.  These enemies are not defenceless though, as they can very easily hurt you (and they do—a lot).   Maybe this is also what Alex believes to be of Josh?  The enemies that lurk under the surface of the water in the Shepherd’s basement reflect on the state of the Shepherd home, even in good times.  What appears to be serene on the top is not always so, upon closer inspection.

There is still much to be said about the Silent Hill universe.  Even after 10 years as the franchise has changed hands, from Team Silent, to Climax games to Double Helix, each game in the series has a dark, lasting appeal on gamers, enough to keep them coming back for more.  Through dark storylines, jarring visuals and haunting audio, the series promises to hold that lasting effect well into the future.

Spawning six sequels and with one on the way, as well as a series of comics, novels and a film adaptation of the first game, Silent Hill has become known to gamers as a deep, psychological probe into the deep recesses of their minds.

               
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