Silent Hill: A Retrospective Part 1 of 2
The Team Silent Era: The Rise of Silent Hill
When it was released in January 1999, Silent Hill grabbed the attention of the gaming community by being unlike anything people had seen before. Instead of relying on cheap thrills and jump scares like its closest competitor and obvious inspiration, Capcom's Resident Evil, Silent Hill was leisurely paced, psychological, and slowly drew you into its world and story. Instead of playing as a heavily armed commando, you were Harry Mason an "every man" who was looking for his missing daughter, and had little to no combat training. Sure, he could eventually arm himself with a gun or a lead pipe, but his fighting was intentionally somewhat clumsy and awkward, as he was a grieving single father, not a martial artist or a superhero who usually dominated lead roles in gaming at the time.
The game was released quietly, as its publisher Konami did not have a lot of faith in the project. Much to their surprise, the game not only won over the critics, but gamers as well, who loved the bizarre atmosphere and the deeper than normal storyline that dealt with issues like the Occult, drug addiction, and child abuse. With its tense atmosphere, genuinely creepy moments and a surprisingly deep and emotional plot (though somewhat hampered by a lame translation and comical voice acting), Silent Hill was truly unlike anything else out there, and not only did it become a franchise, it became one that was embraced by millions who devoted hours to dissecting the plot, themes and characters in the series.
For a while, Silent Hill became a phenomenon, inspiring books, comics, and even two theatrical movies. But over time, its influence faded due to some disappointing later games, the disbandment of the team that made the original what it was, and a general lack of caring by its publisher, who basically treated it like a busted cash cow and kept on throwing out one uninspired game after another. And when it seemed like the series was finally going to have the comeback it deserved, it was suddenly canceled due to a falling out between Konami and the game's designer, Hideo Kojima, of Metal Gear Solid fame.
Today, Silent Hill is all but forgotten. The only thing that remains of its legacy is the memories of fans like myself who used to throw themselves deep into the lore of the games, creating detailed plot synopses and throwing out fan theories about the symbolism that was prominent in just about every title. With this article, I will trace the Silent Hill franchise from its humble beginnings all the way up to its tragic end. It's a long story, and the best place to start is with a small group of programmers who were basically seen as failures in the eyes of their company...
THE DEVELOPMENT OF SILENT HILL:
The story of Silent Hill begins in 1996, when Konami had the desire to create a Hollywood-style cinematic action game that would appeal to American gamers. The team that they gathered to create this game was made up entirely out of people who had not been successful in their past projects. Many of these people were not happy working with the other teams at the time, and were even planning to leave Konami. This team, which would be known as Team Silent, was made up of talented people who just did not fit in on the other game projects, and the hope was that their combined skills would lead to them making a successful game.
Unfortunately, the project was not exactly going along smoothly. Team Silent was uncertain of how to make the game according to their bosses' wishes. Over time, the heads of the company lost faith in the project, and pretty much left the team to their own devices, thinking that maybe it would just all fall apart. This was perhaps the best thing that could have happened. Without the corporate heads constantly breathing down their necks, Team Silent was pretty much free to make whatever game they wanted, since no one was really paying much attention to them. With Team Silent basically being treated like a bunch of outsiders, they decided to go against the action-heavy and cinematic game that they were originally tasked with making, and instead steered Silent Hill into psychological horror, and a game that would play upon the emotions of the gamer.
The streets of Silent Hill were named after different Sci-Fi and horror writers who inspired the developers during the making of the game.
The team wanted Silent Hill to stand out, so they went against the norms of the gaming industry in a lot of ways. Aside from the sympathetic and somewhat weak hero that I already mentioned, the developers decided to set the game in a fictional American small town, the titular Silent Hill. The name was chosen by the team because they thought the title could be either tranquil or ominous, depending on how the player looked at it. The game would start out simply enough, with Harry Mason arriving in the town with his seven-year-old daughter Cheryl for a vacation. After a car accident knocks Harry unconscious, he awakens to find Cheryl missing, and an eerie fog covering the town which seems to have been completely abandoned, except for a few random locals that Harry encounters throughout the game. Since the player was just as clueless as the main character as to what was happening in the town, and why demonic monsters were now running rampant, the player felt a sense of urgency to uncover the mystery not only behind Cheryl's disappearance, but also behind the town itself.
To add to the intrigue and confusion, the game would frequently warp Harry into a twisted, dark and bloodstained alternate reality called the "Other World", which was essentially a nightmarish mockery of the town Harry was exploring. It would turn everyday environments that the player would explore like an elementary school, a hospital or a cheap roadside motel into hellish encounters that usually included a number of puzzles that the player would have to solve in order to return to reality. Only by playing through the story to the end would Harry and the player uncover a secret underground cult that worshiped a demonic entity, and its connection to the town and everything that was happening. The development team even threw in multiple endings that would be based on vital and key decisions that Harry would have to make throughout the game. This not only added replay to the game, but led to a lot of debate among fans as to which ending was the "true" ending. This would eventually be answered by Silent Hill 3 in 2003, but at the time, it was really fun to speculate.
When the game was finally finished and released in early 1999 for the original Sony Playstation, Konami quietly pushed it out with little fanfare or advertising. Regardless, the game was able to become a word of mouth hit, with many proclaiming it as being better than Resident Evil, the current reigning survival horror franchise at the time. Critics were taken in by the game as well, praising it for its dark story and unique gameplay elements. This took Konami by surprise, but they were happy to make it into a franchise if the fans wanted more. And wanted more we did. The first follow up was released only in Japan, and was a stripped down text adventure-style remake of the original game released for the Game Boy Advance for its Japanese launch in March of 2001. It essentially told the story of Harry Mason's adventures through the haunted town as a choose your own adventure-style text game, rather than a 3D adventure. But later in 2001, we would get the true follow up to the original, and Silent Hill would cement itself as a household name among Survival Horror fans.
SILENT HILL 2
When Sony announced the Playstation 2 in 1999, one of the early games announced for the new system was Konami's Silent Hill 2. Personally, this is one of the titles that made me choose to go with Sony's console, rather than the Sega Dreamcast, or Nintendo and Microsoft's upcoming consoles. For fans of the first game, the idea of a sequel sparked the imagination, and led to a lot of speculation as to what it was going to be about. Would it continue the adventures of Harry Mason? There was even a rumor floating around the fan communities that it was going to focus on Cybil Bennett, a police officer who played a large supporting role in the first game.
As it turns out, Team Silent had other plans. Rather than continue the story, the team wanted to tell an entirely new plot that would be set in the eerie and deserted town of Silent Hill. The game mechanics would be similar to the first, but they would be much deeper and more robust, and obviously the graphics would take advantage of the new cutting edge hardware. Many of the people who worked on the first game would return for the sequel, although the director of the original left Konami to work for Sony of Japan shortly after Silent Hill was released. While there, he would create his own horror franchise, Siren, which never quite hit the heights of his previous work, but still enjoyed some success. As for Silent Hill 2, it would go on to be released during the first year of the console's life on September 25, 2001. Not only would it become a bigger success than even the original, but it would go on to become known as an instant classic, and one of the best horror video games ever made.
If Silent Hill was a story about a father searching for his missing daughter, then the sequel stepped the emotional turmoil up by being about a haunted man named James Sunderland who was dealing with the loss of his wife, and a whole lot of personal demons. At the beginning, we know very little about James. He is a grieving widower whose wife Mary succumbed to a disease. Since then, he's been unable to piece his life back together. But one day, he receives a letter in the mail that seems to be written by his late wife, beckoning him to return to the town of Silent Hill, where they had vacationed once before she fell ill. (And supposedly before it became a living hell pit for demonic monsters.) Wanting to get some answers about this mysterious letter, James drives out to the town and finds it in very much the same supernatural state that Harry found it in the first game. But, he is determined to find out if Mary could somehow possibly still be alive, and enters the foggy nightmare town.
Just like Harry before, James would have to explore the town of Silent Hill, and would occasionally meet up with some other people who had been drawn to the ghostly town because of some deep guilt or personal pain just like him. This time, however, the goal was not to unravel the mystery of the town, but rather to unravel the mystery of James himself. As the story unfolded, more information about James and his relationship with Mary would be slowly revealed to the player, and since some of the information would contradict what you knew about James early on, it would make you question what was real and what was not. The game dove deep into some psychological ideas about relationships, guilt, dealing with loss, and how we view our own memories. It was a much more personal and involved story. There was no evil cult or really a villain this time around. It was basically James fighting his own personal demons taking physical form, and having to confront some painful truths about himself. It was this mature and truly adult storytelling that made the game stand out from the crowd at the time.
The personal exploration of the main character extended to just about every aspect of the game. Even the monsters that James fought would be somehow tied into his past, and would offer visual clues that the player would not realize at first, but would pick up on when replaying it. The most famous monster in the game was undoubtedly Pyramid Head, a hulking demon taking the form of an executioner who would hunt James down throughout the game. With his imposing figure and massive blade that he would drag behind him, he represented James' own guilt and desire to be punished for his past sins. Only by coming to grips with himself could James overcome the towering beast. It was this kind of psychological element that struck a nerve with fans. This aspect would even reach into the gameplay, as how you played throughout the game would determine James' mental state, and thus impact the ending that you would receive. If you kept James healthy and healed up throughout the story, the game would see this as James wanting to overcome his guilt, and you would get a happy ending where he overcomes his demons and gets to leave Silent Hill. If James suffered a lot of damage throughout the game and you were not quick to heal him, the game would see this as James lacking the will to live, and you would get a much darker ending where he takes his own life after the final revelations.
Silent Hill 2 perfectly captured what made the original great, while expanding on it with better gameplay, and definitely a deeper and more human storyline that was an early example of the kind of adult storytelling that could be achieved with games, but seldom were at the time. Critics lavished the game with praise, and it went on to become one of the early big sellers for Sony's system. It even was ported to Microsoft's X Box in December of 2001, with some tweaks added to the gameplay, and a new short scenario set before James entered Silent Hill focused on one of the key supporting characters in the game, and expanding upon her backstory. More so than the original, it was Silent Hill 2 that turned the series into a juggernaut that was a threat to Resident Evil's crown as the Survival Horror King, and the future for the potential of the franchise seemed unstoppable.
SILENT HILL 3
Given the monumental success of Silent Hill 2, a sequel not only seemed inevitable, but what excited me more was what direction would Team Silent take it. After the last game established that the programmers were willing to go in a different direction with each title, I couldn't wait to see what they would come up with next. Little did I know, Team Silent was not working on just one sequel, but two. The first would be the obvious Silent Hill 3, which would be released again for the Playstation 2 in the US on August 6th, 2003. For some reason, Silent Hill 3 was released in Europe in May of that year, 3 months before America. They even got it before Japan did. Because of this, I remember having to personally avoid any and all message boards and chat groups regarding Silent Hill, less some lucky European fan would try to spoil the game for me.
As expected, Silent Hill 3 again took things in a new and unique direction. Rather than playing as a single father or a grieving widower, you played as a teenage girl named Heather Morris. She seems like a typical girl who likes to hang out at the mall, loves her father, and doesn't exactly seem like the kind of tortured soul that one would expect to see headlining one of these games. But this seemingly ordinary girl is dragged into a living nightmare when she starts encountering strange people while being out at a local mall. First, a private detective approaches her, saying that he wants to talk to her "about her birth". After she loses the guy by ducking into a bathroom and escaping out the window, she reenters the mall, only to find it has been transformed into a dirty, decayed and appropriately Silent Hill-like environment. It's then that she meets a strange woman who talks in riddles, and tells Heather that she must remember her "true self". At this point, every environment Heather enters such as a subway station or an apartment complex keeps on transforming into a nightmarish mockery filled with demons and grisly images, such as a bathtub overflowing with blood.
While Silent Hill 3 did certainly have its share of personal character mystery and hidden revelations for the player to discover, this was a much more straight-forward and conventional narrative than what we had seen in James' adventure. The evil cult from the original Silent Hill were back, and were tormenting Heather for reasons the player would not discover until about halfway through the game, when the player learned about Heather's true connection to the town of Silent Hill, and would have to travel there in order to confront her forgotten past. This game existed in order to clear up some unanswered questions regarding the original Silent Hill, and featured a lot of references, call backs and tying up plot issues that made this game a lot of fun for fans who had been with the series from the beginning. It could still be enjoyed by newcomers or those who had not played the first, as the game offered plenty of thrills and some genuinely creepy moments.
At the time, Silent Hill 3 stood out for having some of the most detailed graphics in the series to date. They were so detailed and beautiful that the programmers decided to use the in-game graphic engine for the cinematic cut scenes, rather than switching over to CG cinemas like they did in the first two games. The game again improved upon the successful formula that had been established, and built upon it with improved gameplay, such as better weapon mechanics and smoother character controls and movement. But if Silent Hill 3 is remembered for anything, it's that the programmers packed the game to bursting with hidden extras and codes for players to discover. You could unlock a wide variety of clothes for Heather to wear which would be revealed via a code each time you beat the game. You could even enter a code that would make Douglas the private detective who follows Heather throughout the game appear wearing nothing but his coat and boxers underneath if you so wanted. You could also unlock a wide variety of weapons that got pretty crazy, ranging from a Star Wars-style lightsabre, to a magical transforming device that would allow Heather to change into a Sailor Moon-like Magical Girl superheroine, complete with transformation sequence and hyper cute voice. The programmers crammed so many secrets and crazy extras into the game, it got kind of ridiculous.
Unfortunately, there was a very good reason as to why the programmers felt the need to put so much hidden stuff into the game. Silent Hill 3 was easily the shortest game in the franchise so far, and could be beaten in a day or two without trying too hard. Yes, a lot of the areas Heather had to explore were quite vast, but the story was nowhere near as complex and involved as the previous titles, and it all seemed to end rather quickly. That doesn't mean that Silent Hill 3 was bad, not in the slightest. There were plenty of memorable moments in the game, and though the story was short and lacked complexity, it was still strong, due to its connection to the original game. There was a lot to like here, just less of it.
When it was released, Silent Hill 3 got a good response from critics and fans, though it was somewhat muted compared to the response the first two received. The beautiful graphics were praised, as were all the extras. In fact, the game even shipped in the US with the full CD soundtrack composed by series musician, Akira Yamaoka. Even if the game did not blow people away like the previous title, the fans were still pleased, and expectations were high for the next title, which was being developed at the same time as Silent Hill 3, and would be released just one year later. However, what we would get is probably the most divisive game in the series, even to this day...
SILENT HILL 4: THE ROOM
Team Silent's next effort was developed simultaneously alongside Silent Hill 3, and was officially announced by Konami in October 2003, just two months after 3's release in America. It was then released for both the Playstation 2 and X Box just one year later on September 7, 2004. Due to the short turnaround and release schedule, there was a popular rumor among fans that the game was originally intended to be a standalone horror game not related to the Silent Hill franchise, but that Konami insisted on making it a part of the series. This would prove to be false over time, but due to the divisive response the game would receive from fans and critics and how certain aspects of the game strayed from the traditional Silent Hill formula, it was certainly easy to see how the rumor originated.
Before we get to all that, though, the game's plot does seem very much steeped in Silent Hill lore. You play as Henry Townsend, an introverted man in his 20s who recently moved into Room 302 in an apartment building in the fictional city of South Ashfield. One morning, Henry wakes up to find that he cannot leave his apartment. The door has been chained and bolted shut, and none of the windows will open. All communication is impossible as well, as the phones are dead, and no matter how much noise he makes or tries to get their attention, none of the other tenants seem to be able to see or hear him. Henry is trapped in Room 302 for a few days, until a mysterious hole suddenly forms on his bathroom wall that's big enough for him to crawl through. Happy for any kind of escape, Henry climbs through the hole, which will lead him to a wide variety of locations including a nearby underground subway station, a forest on the edge of the town of Silent Hill, and even an orphanage that was used as a front for the evil cult from Silent Hill to spread their message to children.
Henry will cross back and forth between these different and seemingly random places and his own apartment, which increasingly becomes a nightmare itself, as Henry's apartment is eventually and slowly becoming haunted by malevolent spirits that can slowly kill him the more time Henry spends at home if he doesn't find some objects that can ward off evil spirits. Eventually, Henry will make the connection to all of this supernatural evil that seemingly sprung up overnight. The connection is Walter Sullivan, a young man who was born in Room 302 years ago, and has a deep personal attachment to it. As Walter grew, he turned into a serial killer who became obsessed with the occult, and an ancient ceremony that supposedly would give Walter immortality if he murdered and sacrificed a certain number of innocent people. As Henry unravels the mystery, he will learn not only of the twisted history of Walter Sullivan, but also the role some of his neighbors in the building played in the story.
Silent Hill 4 was a mix of traditional third person exploration and fighting elements that had been a stable of the series from the beginning, and new first person sequences that the game would employ whenever Henry was in his apartment. The first person exploration was a unique approach to the series, and allowed you to get an up close view of the little details all around Henry's apartment. It was essential to visit Room 302 from time to time, even when it was being haunted, as it was the only way you could save the game. Whenever Henry would climb through the hole in the wall and be magically warped to a different area connected to Silent Hill, the game would switch over to a traditional third person action-adventure view. However, even though the view was the same as before, there were still some extreme changes to the gameplay. For one thing, this was a much more combat-heavy game than previous titles. The emphasis here was more on fighting and surviving, rather than solving puzzles or riddles. This led to a much more frantic game than previous entries in the series.
There were some other changes, too. Certain weapons could now break if Henry used them too often, so it was often good to carry more than one weapon at a time. However, you also had to strategize about what to take with you when you left Room 302, because unlike the previous three titles, Henry had a limited amount of storage when it came to carrying items. He could only carry a certain number at one time. Anything extra or things you did not need could be kept in a storage box back at the apartment. So, not only did you have to routinely return home if you wanted to save your game, but also to handle inventory management. Another new addition was the introduction of ghosts to the storyline. In previous games, all of the enemies were physical monsters that could be shot or beaten to death by the hero. This time, Henry would encounter the ghosts of Walter Sullivan's past victims, who would torment him and could slowly drain his life meter if they got too close to him. The only way to defeat these enemies were with special wards or charms to keep evil spirits away. If you didn't have any in your present inventory, you would usually have to run until you escaped from the ghost. And as the body count in the game's story grew with Walter's murder spree, new ghosts based on these characters would be introduced and begin haunting Henry.
Um, Henry? Look behind you. Or rather, don't...
These were some pretty big changes, and Silent Hill 4 would probably go on to be one of the boldest games in the series at the time. But in this case, many of the innovations proved to be divisive among both fans and critics. Yes, the game had a lot of the traditional elements that you came to expect in a Silent Hill game, and the story was appropriately twisted and engaging. However, there were a number of flaws that turned gamers off. First and foremost is that Henry Townsend is probably the least developed and least interesting hero to ever headline a Silent Hill game. We learn next to little about him during the course of the game, and aside from a few exceptions, he is not that involved in the plot for a majority of the time. He acts more like an observer rather than an active participant. After memorable and personality-filled protagonists like James and Heather, Henry made even the somewhat dull Harry Mason from the original game seem like the life of the party.
There were some other issues that turned some fans off as well. One major factor was that although there were numerous references and throwbacks to past Silent Hill titles, the game just did not connect all that much to the overall lore of the series. That didn't mean there weren't any Easter Eggs for fans to look for, such as the fact that the super of Henry's apartment building was revealed to be James Sunderland's father. Heck, even the presence of Walter Sullivan was tied into a newspaper article that you found lying in a garbage bin early on in Silent Hill 2. But on the whole, there just wasn't as many ways for fans to connect this story to the past three. There was even a glaring translation error to be found here. At one point, Henry visits an orphanage called the Wish House. This too was a reference to a newspaper article in an earlier game (Silent Hill 3), however in that game, the orphanage was called the Hope House. You can call it nitpicking if you want, but continuity errors like that tend to bother me.
Unlike the previous games, Silent Hill 4 was met with a decidedly mixed reaction from critics and fans. While many admired the ways the game tried to add new features and thought the plot was interesting, there were also a lot of annoyances that turned people off. One of the big issues was that the entire last half of the game basically turns into one long escort mission, where Henry must lead a crippled and injured woman named Eileen through the entire game, constantly protecting her and making sure she doesn't fall behind. It was not only annoying, but slowed the pace of the game down. It also didn't feature as many fun secrets or crazy unlockables that the previous entries had, especially Silent Hill 3. Certain people also complained that the graphics, while still good, did not match up to the previous two games. When all was said and done, Silent Hill 4 had some merit and some good ideas, but they were not implemented into a satisfying experience on the whole.
AFTERMATH AND THE END OF TEAM SILENT
The opening intro to the original Silent Hill.
Silent Hill 4 would prove to be the final original game in the series for the Playstation 2, as any future games for the system would be ports from other systems, which I will discuss in Part 2. Not only that, but it would also prove to be the final game made by Team Silent or made in-house at Konami's studio. The team was disbanded by the corporate heads of the company. The reason for this is not completely determined. Some say it was due to the mixed response to Silent Hill 4, while others say that Konami wanted the series to continue, but to have it be developed by Western and European developers. The true answer is probably somewhere in between. The Silent Hill franchise would continue well into the next generation of consoles, but it would not be a smooth journey, which I will also talk about in Part 2.
Next time, I will discuss Silent Hill getting its own movie, as well as what happened to the series after it fell out of the hands of its original creators.
Until next time, fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive.