I will very openly remark upon how difficult it is to return to the first PlayStation era. Graphics were blocky while most games featured rough controls. The fact I played the original Silent Hill a decade after the fact and it still managed to terrify me is a testament to how the development team created something magnificent within these constraints.
Silent Hill succeeds by actively attempting to hide these graphical limitations with ideas which build upon the horror. The perpetual fog is the most famous example. Harry Mason’s visibility is limited to only a few feet, making even outdoor sections awfully claustrophobic. If we could simply see into the distance, nothing at all would be scary. It’s this sense that an enemy could stumble into range at any time which ramps up the tension.
At certain points, the world shifts another layer closer to hell. This transition is signified by an air raid siren. The first transition is unforgettable. Harry stumbles into an alleyway which slowly gets darker. The camera remains angled to prevent the player from seeing where he’s headed. This first encounter is presented almost as a nightmare, but it’s the second time as Harry travels through the elementary school where the player must truly confront this other world. Everything becomes rusted and covered in blood while an all-consuming darkness replaces the fog.
Few locations in video games are as iconic as Silent Hill. All of these elements add up to the suggestion that this wretched resort town preys upon the psychological fears of its visitors. Where a series like Resident Evil was focused entirely on external threats, Silent Hill went straight beneath the skin. To truly praise the atmosphere, Silent Hill manages to be more terrifying when no enemies are present. This game thrives on the anticipation of something worse. And, boy, do things get worse, and that’s saying a lot when the streets themselves are terrifying. The music adds to the experience, with the soundtrack jumping back and forth between dark ambience and violent industrial pieces.
While video games started pushing toward cinematic ideas during the PlayStation era, most which made this attempt like Resident Evil or Metal Gear Solid were happy to wrestle with B-movie shlock. These obviously worked – most games were still pushing toward sheer fun, and these stories perfectly matched traditional game design. But Silent Hill feels like the first real success at going beyond blockbuster fare and really pushing into the territory of art films. Silent Hill is a game with the ambience of the most terrifying David Lynch films, throwing horror after horror at the audience with only a sliver of context.
The real kicker is the completely ordinary nature of Harry Mason. He’s not a trained cop like the Resident Evil protagonists. He’s just a writer. There’s no confidence in him getting through these encounters, which encourages avoiding conflict whenever possible. There are few other humans he runs into along the way, and there’s this dreadful sense that he can’t help any of them – not that Silent Hill would allow their escape, anyway.
Despite its age, Silent Hill still stands as one of the best examples of ambient horror. While its sequel would improve upon this experience on nearly every level, it cannot be understated how much this first game pushed narrative presentation to new heights. The original game perfectly established one of gaming’s most iconic locations, and the simple fact is that we might have never gotten this specific design if not some ingenious handling of the PS1’s technical limits. I struggle to think of another game which benefited so much from working within the constraints of this era.