WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Silent Hill 1 and 3.
I remember that it was a sunny and beautiful Sunday afternoon when I first cracked open the shrinkwrap on my copy of the original Silent Hill. I knew very little about the game, only that it was similar to my beloved Resident Evil and that the main character’s daughter would go missing. I popped in the disk, shuttered the blinds in my room, grabbed myself a glass of Coke, and prepared to dig into the unexpected. Fast forward thirty minutes, and I am now under a blanket, despite it being a surprisingly warm day. The blinds in my room are now slightly more open than they were previously, my Coke has sat untouched, and I am more terrified than I have ever been in my entire life. This is the beauty of the Silent Hill series…it managed to freak me out on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in broad daylight.
There are numerous examples of which I equate to "defining moments" of early survival horror; the dog jumping through the window in the original Resident Evil, the T-Rex blasting through the wall in Dino Crisis, and everything and anything pertaining to the Licker from RE2 and the Nemesis from RE3. What Silent Hill did, more so than any other game, was stretch this "defining moment" from beginning to end, with no moments of calm to rest your mind. There is never a moment in Silent Hill that you are not uneasy, nervous, or downright frightened. Some games will ease up the tension by throwing a lot at the player at once, and others will build up towards a nerve-wracking ending that tests all the player’s abilities. Silent Hill does both of these, but also does something that no other game series has done: cast the player into a hopeless situation.
From the moment that you press start to begin the game, you realize that what you are playing will not end well. You realize that there will be no ‘happy’ ending, no moment where everything goes back to the way it was before for the characters. You realize that what you are seeing and what is happening will only get worse, and the further along you go, the more dour the situation will be.
The music, brilliantly scored by series producer Akira Yamaoka, goes from hauntingly beautiful melodies to the jarring use of grinding metal and inhuman screams to put your mind into a completely uneasy state. You are thrust into a constantly changing environment with very little weaponry and medicine, and almost no indication as to whether or not your daughter is alive or dead. Your only friends are a flashlight and a radio, and you cannot see more than 10 feet in front of you because of the thick blanket of fog. Monsters, themselves deeply seated representations of your internal emotional struggles, appear from all angles, and the only other humans you encounter cannot be trusted. All of this weighs heavily on your mind during the entirety of the game’s 8-hour runtime. There is never a rest period, you never feel safe, and you are constantly unsure of what you will find when you turn the next corner or open the next door.
The original Silent Hill was released in 1999, and there was nothing else in the gaming world at the time with such a bleak outlook. The most comparable experience that I can relate the feeling in the original Silent Hill to was in the film The Dark Knight, where the city of Gotham continually descended into a nightmare and nothing the heroes tried to do to help things made it any better. In Silent Hill, the best possible ending that you can get does not even return your daughter to you. Instead, your daughter is "rebirthed" as a new baby, and you carry this child to safety as the world of Silent Hill implodes behind you. If this wasn’t disheartening enough, you find out in Silent Hill 3 that the main character of the original Silent Hill was brutally ripped to pieces by creatures during the events of the third game, and that his daughter, who is SH3‘s main character, is being haunted by the town and its creatures despite not returning to the town since her father escaped it.
I was 17 the first time I played through Silent Hill, and the experience has forever been ingrained into my memory. The sequel arrived a few years later, and much to my surprise, improved upon the original in every imaginable way. As great as the sequel was, the first Silent Hill still holds a special place in my mind, and is truly an experience worth discovering if you have never played it before.