The lights are on
“Look, there’s that dog thing from Silent Hill!” I said to my sister in early 1999. We walked down to our bus stop, fog rolling in over the canal. We had stayed up watching my father play Silent Hill in the dark and we stood squinting through the fog at a canine shadow. I half expected to see it bounding at us over the fence. I was young, naïve, and not yet desensitized to all Silent Hill had to offer. It terrified me, but I loved it. But since the release of Silent Hill: Downpour and the film Silent Hill: Revelations, the franchise has obviously begun to show its age, its withered face contorted from years of delivering terror and now softened to appeal to newer audiences.
With the release of Silent Hill 2 in September 2001, the series reached its peak. Silent Hill 2 embraced the terror from the first game and pushed it to another level. Video game horror had never seen anything like it. The atmosphere of Silent Hill was a new tactic in survival horror design. It wasn’t just the low visibility, but the distant noises down the street, the eerie soundtrack, the crackling radio, and the gritty, barren nature of a cursed town.
As the series progressed, the stories and elements of the Silent Hill gameplay became progressively weaker. It felt as if each game missed another little something after the second installment.
I remember when Silent Hill: Homecoming came out in 2009. This had been a big deal for me since the last one I tried playing was The Room, and I hated it. I started playing Homecoming and realized, “Wow, this game is difficult.” I spent countless hours trying to get through the Scarlet boss, a giant china doll creature who just wouldn’t die. I got bored with Homecoming because the narrative was weird; Alex Shepard and his whole family had an intense history, but it just wasn’t frightening enough. It was nothing like Silent Hill 2’s James Sunderland and his long-lost wife.
In 2012, Vatra Games released Silent Hill: Downpour. I followed its progress all summer and counted down the days until its release. I rented the game and prepared myself, withholding conflicted enthusiasm. Vatra stated they had tweaked Silent Hill to make it a better experience, but did that mean they changed the face of Silent Hill for the worse? I beat the game in five days before I had to return it. I have never beaten a Silent Hill game by myself, let alone in five days.
I sat back with the controller in my hand and let out a sigh. It was the single worst Silent Hill experience of my life, topping the moment I saw the first Silent Hill film in theaters. Downpour played on the theme of water and starred Murphy Pendleton, a convict who was being transferred between prisons, but his bus crashed and he landed in a part of Silent Hill not yet introduced in other games. Vatra got rid of the falling ash and the siren, the selling points of Silent Hill, so Silent Hill may as well have been the mountainous town presented in Alan Wake. This part of town was now an open world, which opened up opportunities for quests. The creatures in Downpour, however, lacked creativity and were humanoid and tedious. I found myself uninterested, but I kept going because it was effortless. When has Silent Hill ever been easy? I felt like Vatra insulted me, like I was too dumb to figure out other Silent Hill games, so I needed something easier, something my 6-year old cousin could play if he wanted. Downpour didn’t rely on gore and grotesque scenes, but tried to focus on psychological fear. It didn’t work. It completely lost the atmosphere that so many past games worked hard to create, something Silent Hill was prominent for. After beating this game (and refusing to play through it again), I found myself crawling back to Homecoming, ashamed for doubting it. Though I can’t stand to look Downpour in the eyes anymore, I still have hopes that one day someone out there will bring back the Silent Hill glory that I once knew as a kid. I’m like a Detroit Lions fan, still hoping for that trip to the Super Bowl. “Someday,” I say. “Someday.”
Silent Hill began as something different from its brothers and sisters in the horror genre. The ambiance of the town with the rolling fog and poor lighting gave it an edge. The creatures were unlike any others; something from a nightmare. The early games struggled graphically, but the later games lost creativity and that special Silent Hill feeling. The perfect Silent Hill game would incorporate all the best aspects of the series, from the (early) soundtrack to perfect creature design. I’m still waiting for that perfect game.
Silent Hill and I are old friends with a past. I’m angry at how it’s grown up and the game it has become, but I relish the younger years and the time we spent together. Some days I hate the way Downpour tarnished the Silent Hill name; other days I think back to how blissful I felt after I finally beat the Scarlet boss in Homecoming. Silent Hill will always be a part of my childhood. Forever, I will compare every other horror franchise to Silent Hill.