A Trip Down Horror Lane: the freakiest town in America

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Following the resurgence of the survival horror genre with Resident Evil, other developers attempted their own horror games. The first Silent Hill was compared to Resident Evil, as it shared the gameplay and basic combat system. However, the sequel for the Playstation 2 not only elevated the series to stand on its own, but also delivered one of the most atmospheric (and arguably disturbing) games around.

After the jump, trying to make sense of that image

Silent Hill 2 is considered by fans as the best of the series and part of that is the atmosphere. A common factor in the franchise is how the designers don’t try to explain everything. In Resident Evil, we have a virus and the Umbrella Corporation to thank. By the end of the game we get the entire plot. In Silent Hill however, chances are there will be more questions at the end of the game than at the beginning.

The world of Silent Hill 2 was mysterious and disturbing and the designers did their best to show that in every environment. Each building the player explored was run down and dank and looked like no one had lived there in years. There was very little music in the game, with the main noises being footsteps, whatever noises the unearthly denizens made, and the player’s radio that acted as an early warning system.

Silent Hill 2 loved to pull at the player’s nerves, with enemies appearing in otherwise safe areas to keeping the player in perpetual darkness in each building. The first time I exited a room and saw a monster staring at me from behind a gate, my heart started to beat like a machine gun. One of the hallmarks of a good horror game is making the player question his resolve to keep playing. And with unusual enemies, dark hallways, and minimalistic music to distract, Silent Hill 2 did a great job at freaking out the player.

However, the best part is that all that happened in what’s considered the “safe part of Silent Hill”. The crap really hits the fan when players are introduced to “the other Silent Hill”. For those not familiar with the series, the town of Silent Hill exists in two forms, the first being the normal world. The second is a nightmarish world that is built from the visitor’s nightmares and fears. For Silent Hill 2’s protagonist, that was James Sunderland’s sexual repression and guilt over his wife’s death.

His fears manifest in the form of the enemies he encounters such as the non-anatomically correct mannequin monsters and nurses without faces. But the most recognizable would be Pyramid Head, the guy in the screenshot above. Continuing the theme of shocking the player, Pyramid Head was introduced in the cutscene from the screenshot above, in which he was raping one of mannequin monsters.

When I first played Silent Hill 2 I had no idea what the hell he was doing in that cut-scene. It was only afterwards when I talked to people online and looked at people’s impressions that I realized what was going on. I’ve always had thick skin, so the scene didn’t shock or offend me. But in all honestly, I’m surprised we didn’t hear any outrage over this imagery in a video game. This is what made Silent Hill as a franchise stand out. It was willing to go into some really dark territory to shock the player.

Pyramid Head did triple duty as a part of the story, as a boss fight, and chasing the player. Wielding a giant cleaver, he appeared throughout the game to torment James. He became such a prominent figure in the universe that he would also appear in the movie based on the game, for no continuity reason other than to look badass.

Silent Hill 2’s gameplay also began to split from Resident Evil. For instance, the dual difficulty. At the start, players could select from combat and puzzle difficulty settings. Combat affected how hard enemies would be, while puzzles determined if any hints were given. I believe it also modified the puzzles as well.

Silent Hill 2 also established a greater focus on close range combat compared to other horror titles. The main theme of the series was that the player was controlling regular joes, who didn’t bring an arsenal with them. Guns and ammo were sparse, requiring the player to go toe-to-toe using two-by-fours, knifes, and other random armaments. Guns were preferably saved for the boss battles such as when Pyramid Head is lurching after you.

Silent Hill 2’s exploration was split between major buildings in the town, and the town itself. While players explored they could find additional clues and items, and they got a sense for how eerie the abandoned town is.

Sadly, the Silent Hill franchise has fallen on hard times, as each sequel failed to live up to Silent Hill 2. Shattered Memories removed combat and focused on exploration, while the latest, Silent Hill Downpour, boasted an increased focus on combat. At least we’ll always have our memories of that magical summer when we were chased in the dark by a freak with a cleaver.

Up next, a trip to the Emerald Isle
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Josh Bycer has had nightmares that make less sense then the Silent Hill series. As he continues to search for his place in the industry, you can find him over at Gamasutra, on his blog, or posting in the forums as Jab.