Last year in July, I did a preview for the then upcoming release of Silent Hill: Downpour, but more importantly than the actual preview, I did a bit of an introspective on one of the greatest games to ever be released, Silent Hill 2. Ask anyone who’s regularly played this franchise and they will tell you that 2 is definitely the best. Everything about it is great: genuinely sympathetic character, phenomenal soundtrack, expert pacing, haunting atmosphere, creepy monsters, and even the games clunky controls and combat add this level of charm that just seems to fit perfectly in the game. It truly was a masterpiece in the PS2 era.
The problem with having a game that hit on the mark on so many points is that it makes it nearly impossible for the developers of the game to replicate that kind of perfection. Which would be understandable in an of it self, but since Silent Hill 4: The Room and every game after that (bearing in mind we are at about 8 now) they have promised that the new installment will go back to what made Silent Hill 2 great. And every single time, they failed to do so. Release after release of games trying to recapture the magic. Some of them were close, some of them missed the mark completely. After playing and reviewing Silent Hill: Downpour I can see that they are figuring out some of the formula, but they still miss stepped in a lot of areas.
Look, I am a sucker for these games and if they are going to refuse to let this franchise die, I thought it would be a good idea to look back at the series as a whole and see which games had the best elements if we were to rebuild Silent Hill. Who knows, maybe one of them might read this and take some of the ideas to heart.
STORY: Silent Hill 2.
What makes the story from two so much better than the rest of the franchise is that it manages to shine a focus on the town being haunted without ever directly addressing it. In Silent Hill 1, 3 and Origins they try focus on what caused the town to become haunted in the first place. In two, none of this is ever explained. Very little is mentioned of the cult, virtually nothing about the slaughter that took place before it, and nobody who you actually meet in the town was actually from the place. Everything about the town is scarier, more desolate, and unnerving because nothing about it is being addressed. Since the framework of two’s story didn’t focus on the town, it gave the player more time to become focused on and immersed with the character. The dangers of the city were always ever present but they were never greatly highlighted, which just made it scarier because you had less control over the situation. Just trapped in a town with monsters that might not even know they are there. The other big problem that some of these games have, is that some characters basically have no reason to be in the town of Silent Hill other than chance. It made more sense for James, Harry, and Heather to all be in Silent Hill because they had past ties that brought them back. People like Murphy, Alex, or Travis have only tangential reasons for being there so it’s difficult to sympathize with protagonist who has pretty much nothing stopping them but some holes in the road. So here is what I recommend for future games: If you are going to make a new Silent Hill, really sit down and construct the story first. Develop a character who as a justifiable reason to be there, and set it up the decisions of the game affect the outcome, and not the backstory. Having the decisions you make in the game affecting the backstory tends to cheapen the effect of any of the symbolism the game might use. It is better have the game have multiple endings on how you played it, such as James falling into deeper depression and ending it all , or realizing that he truly wanted something other than his wife in Maria, or that he was distraught without her and wants nothing else but to bring her back, rather than changing the cause of the events like why Murphy ended up in Silent Hill in Downpour. Keep the number of characters in the game to a minimum, Two had 4 characters that you saw sporadically during the course of the game, and if you were escorted it was brief. It makes everything they say that much more important because you get it in such small doses. Having so many support characters, even some who fight like in Homecoming, cheapens that crushing fear of loneliness that adds to Silent Hill’s brilliant atmosphere.
SETTING/ATMOSPHERE: Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill: Downpour
As I said about 2 sentences ago, loneliness is a big set point in the atmosphere in this game and this is best captured in the first two games. Wandering around a cold empty town, the occasional shuffling of something terrifying and unknown in the distance. This is increased by the games iconic layer of mysterious fog, highlights its emptiness. Simply crossing the street was heart pounding because of the limited vision. This was best emphasized in the first two games because the town was open and empty. But Downpour, while lacking the fog had a similar and interesting effect using rain. When the rain and thunder started to kick up, monsters became more prevalent and you more often found yourself running for cover rather than trying to fight. It worked well because it’s something you cannot explain or control, it’s a great compliment to a haunted town. One other thing that I felt worked better in the earlier games was the transition from real world to dark world. In the earlier games sirens would go off in the distance and the character would black out, coming to in a twisted, chain-link fence reality with even more twisted monsters. In the newer games you see the transition happen as if the world turns to ash in a fire and flutters away to reveal its darker reality. I feel the former works better because it eludes to the idea that this grotesque reality is born of their own psyche and gives this sense that it all might be in their head.
The iconic fog should be thick, but not completely impairing visibility.
Just enough to make you feel alone.
MUSIC: Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill 4 (McGlynn)
My brain still can’t process the fact that the brilliant composer Akira Yamaoka left the franchise and instead chose Daniel Licht and Korn to make the soundtrack. They didn’t do a horrendous job in Silent Hill: Downpour as much of the music felt like it should for a Silent Hill game but the soundtrack was far from memorable. Korn would make sense if the game was more action based because then their rock / progressive / whatevertheyplay sound would have a better aesthetic fit to it. While I at first didn’t care for Mary Elizabeth McGlynn or her kinda soft rock sound, she did manage to produce some memorable songs that play wonderful compliment to the scores that Yamaoka produces and this pairing has become synonymous with what Silent Hill is. However, The main thing that I always felt helped the first Silent Hill scare you, was the gradually increasing mus… Well you can’t even really call it music, just a increasing aggression of beats, clangs, and riffs almost like a metallic techno or industrial sound without a melody. If you can find the first soundtrack of Silent Hill or even some of the music from the film “Jacob’s Ladder”, try to listen to it in your car alone at night. It’s nearly impossible because the music is genuinely terrifying, and its steady increase in volume as shit starts to go haywire tends to exacerbate the effect. One of the greatest examples of that is one of the first scenes in the first game, as you walk through an alley and things get darker it starts to grow louder, and then when monsters appear its practically blasting. So if you are going to make a new game, bring in McGlynn to come up with a theme and maybe a few situational songs, and then beg Yamaoka to go back to doing what he does best with creating the score, but bring back some of that cold and angry aggression that’s only been seen in the first game. Leave out the shitty bands that stopped being cool in the late 90’s.
COMBAT AND CONTROLS: Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill: Downpour
This has always been a bit of a plague to this series of games because it’s always seen as a fault , rather than a compliment to its atmosphere. Silent Hill as a franchise has always had legendarily awful controls. Think the original Resident Evil’s tank style controls only a bit more sloppy and unfocused. And the combat was never much better with character’s making sloppy wild swings at monsters ending with half hearted stomp on their neck(?). Yet through the whole front half of the franchise they refused to change that despite complaints, why? Because in Silent Hill the main character is almost always just some regular person who should have no previous combat skill or experience. The bad control actually compliments their characterization and by not being able to expertly dispatch enemy after enemy, and because it increases over all difficultly of the game, it causes genuine fear in you, the player, when you see a particularly tough monster on the prowl it gives you moment of fight or flight knowing it might eat 2 or 3 health drinks in the process. The reason I picked Silent Hill 3 over 2 for this category is because I liked the fact that they implemented a block and improved upon Silent Hill 2’s combat engine. Yes, some of the weapons were a little ridiculous such as finding a katana, but even with a strong weapon you knew you were probably still going to take a hit or two. And while Downpour’s combat wasn’t perfect, it was one of the few examples of weaponry that breaks as you use that actually worked a bit. Yes it would suck when a weapon would shatter mid fight, but unlike Silent Hill: Origins where you were bogged down with an excessive weapon menu, weapons in Downpour were usually scattered enough to the point where you were never completely screwed without breaking the flow of the game. If they just tweaked so they wouldn’t break as frequently or set up certain items to take forever to break or never break then I’d be more ok with it. Perhaps set it up that you can keep one or 2 indestructible weapons in your inventory when you find them but items that you break you can’t. Having fast movement, unbreakable weapons, and lots of bullets diminishes any sense of fear that might be generated in the game. The combat was fun in Silent Hill: Homecoming but it wasn’t scary.
Having bad aim, bad controls, low ammo, and nowhere to hide
promises all combat is intense without being frantic
MONSTERS: Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, Silent Hill: Homecoming.
This is another aspect of the game where subtlety and subtext needs to play a critical role. This is something many of the American developers of the game seem to miss every friggen time, and most specifically with Silent Hill: Downpour. The monsters should be some twisted representation of why the protagonist is there or being punished. The iconography was at its best for the first three titles. The monsters made sensible storyline connections as each character had ties to hospitals, children, or women. But in The Room and Homecoming some of the beasts only had tangential relation aside from the bosses and in most cases their symbolism doesn’t relate to the protagonist, or in the case of Downpour weren’t even monsters at all (which was fucking stupid). They reason I chose 2 and 3 is because the monsters were creepy and meandering. They appear to be threats but at the same time not, just struggling wretches trying to stumble their way around. I’ll even give a nod to the Twins from Silent Hill 4 for being the creepiest monster in that game. I give Homecoming a commendation here not because their monsters a lot of sense, but they had some fantastic designs with monsters like Asphyxia and Scarlet. Even though your fighting abilities were better in that game there was some desperation in those fights, so in that regard I would like to see boss fights come back. What needs to go away is the general humanoid monsters. I understand the nurses have become somewhat iconic to the series now, but really it’s become very played out at this point. It only made sense for maybe the 1st or 2nd game. Perhaps the 3rd as well if you look at the Alessa tie in, but they haven’t been creepy or scary since two and the more human they look the less frightening they are. Unless the new protagonist spent time in hospitals or unless the nurses are deformed beyond belief, it might be time to bid farewell. Lastly, I’m glad we’re all in agreement that Pyramid Head is fucking awesome. But having him walk in to stare at the camera and then leave like in Homecoming might have been the world’s biggest Silent Hill cocktease. Don’t put him in the game if we don’t have to fight him. He should be like the Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, constantly chasing, relentless, and nearly impossible to fight against. The first thought when you see him should be “Oh Shit, I need to get out of here now!” A perfect example of this concept is in the later stages of Silent Hill 2 when he is in pursuit of you in the prisons. By this point in the game you know he is after you and your handgun is barely registering as a pea-shooter against him. He appears with practically zero buildup which causes you to immediately scramble to get away. He basically emphasizes a deserved menacing punishment and just hearing him trudge behind you raises your tension immensely. He is the biggest baddie in the Silent Hill universe, that should be reflected in game play.
As an interesting side note, The Silent Hill Wikia has a pretty comprehensive list of the monsters featured in each game the symbolism they represent. It is an entertaining read for any SH fan and they manage to draw connections and symbolism to pretty much everything.
PUZZLES: Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3
The last thing I want to talk about here is the puzzles that this game has, or used to have. If you can recognize patterns, you’ve no doubt noticed that I am borrowing from the first few titles quite a bit. One thing that separates this series from other survival horror franchises is that while many of them have puzzles, few of them were so mind-bendingly well thought out that I could bring the action of the game to a screeching halt. This could be seen as a detriment in some cases, but for many a good puzzle is a wonderful addition to this game. Sadly, the puzzles in the series have been gradually declining since the 3rd in the franchise, reducing the puzzles to just finding keys, numbers, or matching up wires. These are not puzzles, these are fetch questing or color matching. Perhaps it’s to slow things down for the thicker action game troglodytes, but I feel it takes away from the game as a whole (I’m being facetious people, relax. Go back to COD). I remember back when I first seriously knuckled down with the original Silent Hill and literally cruised through the game for the most part, until I hit one zodiac puzzle near the end of the game. For those who played you know exactly which I’m talking about. There is virtually no hints or clues to go off of and it stumped me for close to six hours. I seriously had to call for help because I couldn’t finish the game. From around Silent Hill 2 many of the games featured puzzle difficulty settings, so you could dumb them down or smart them up to your taste, which is a good idea that should be implemented in games like this. Some locked doors or key finding is fine, but throw in some mind benders so I don’t feel like you are treating me like I’ve been kicked in the head by a horse.
Perhaps this is all coming off as a bit of a ranting by an excited fanboy. Well, That’s what it is you idiots. I love the what Silent Hill was, and I continue to remain faithful to the franchise, but if developers are going to keep trying to drag out this franchise then some things need to change before it gains a rep for being awful. Stop trying to promise us a new Silent Hill 2. It will never be Silent Hill 2 again no matter how much we all want it to be and to keep expecting it to be. It will be to continually disappoint in each new title instead of letting us appreciate them on their own. Second, change and experimentation are fine just don’t try again with something that didn’t work the first time. They took some swings to mess with the combat and it didn’t work in 4: The Room and Homecoming. So instead of shoehorning it back in they went another route in Downpour and it felt better for it. Third, respect the past but do not copy it. You want to look at the franchise as a whole and look at the concepts that made the game fun or scary, and find a way to implement that again without doing the same thing. Pyramid Head is bad ass, I’m glad we all agree, but instead of putting him in for fanservice, how about devising a new terrifying monster to chase us from room to room without copying him (*coughcoughbutchercough*)?
Konami and whatever development team gets control of the series would be wise to take a year or three off of this series to really reflect on the franchise, and really put some work into the next one. They have a devoted fan base and we are willing to wait. I don’t want to see this series end tragically as much as the next guy, and maybe if they take a look at some of these ideas or just reflect more on the concepts that made the game great, maybe it won’t have to. But we all know all good things must come to an end eventually and if the series is never going to regain that luster of the old days, maybe we should close the door on a new editions to the series and enjoy what we have and be content with that. That’s not to say if another one is due to come out that I won’t be the first in line to get it. I loved this series, I still love this series. I want it to return to the pants wettingly terrifying form it once had. So take this article for what it is and use the concepts to generate new innovative ideas instead of trying to recapture the magic that has been gone for 11 years. Silent Hill has always been a game about theme, undertones, and subtlety, but it doesn’t mean that we have to reject innovation. Try going off on a limb with a totally different character archetype, give them a very interesting background and try to turn that around on us by the end. Resident Evil 4 showed us all that a series can reboot and become something greater than it was and with games like Beyond coming up the character models are getting more and more human, I think with the right bit of tooling of the mechanics and closer focus on the traditional concepts Silent Hill has the potential come back to being something incredible once again.
But one thing I can say for sure is, whatever is coming over that foggy horizon next be it good or bad, its been one creepily enjoyable ride so far.
” In my restless dreams, I see that town… Silent Hill. You promised you’d take me there again some day… but you never did.”