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I recently played a bit of Amnesia: The Dark Descent late at night, lights turned off, door closed. Before I had seen even one monster, I wanted to turn the lights back on and watch a nice, boring episode of The Office. That’s not a feeling I got from watching hours of scary movies like Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist.
So why do some dark rooms and creepy noises freak me out more than Linda Blair spinning her head around and puking on everything? Other than a hint of subtlety? The immersive nature of video games make them inherently far scarier than a movie can ever be. You’re not just watching Jamie Lee Curtis run from a homicidal maniac, you ARE Jamie Lee Curtis.
That’s not to say that all horror games are created equal. The Resident Evil games, particularly the most recent ones, have abandoned atmosphere altogether in favor of pitting the player against gigantic, squirming science-experiments-gone-wrong. But the truly scary experiences come from games like Fatal Frame, which pit you against shambling undead abominations instead of having zombie dogs jump through windows at you.
An unsettling atmosphere is far more effective at invoking fear in the viewer than any amount of gruesome onscreen murder. A huge, many-mouthed tentacles beast is scary, sure, but not as scary as something making a gurgling sound beyond the edge of my vision. Your brain fills in the gaps with the worst thing it can imagine and with the knowledge that this unknown horror could appear at any moment. No game understands this better than Silent Hill. Or to be more precise, Silent Hill from ten years ago.
When the original Silent Hill was released, it was presented as a Japanese take on western horror, and it cleverly used the limitations of the original Playstation as a means of enhancing the fear of the unknown. Thick fog and blinding darkness cast a shroud of apprehension on your exploration. What was originally was a limitation would turn out to be the series greatest strength.
It also started the series tradition of having a protagonist who can’t figure out what the hell is happening.
So it’s been really depressing to watch the series fall into mediocrity since it has been passed off to western developers who seem to misunderstand what Silent Hill is at its core.
When British developer Climax first took a crack at the license in Silent Hill: 0rigins (Pronounced Silent Hill Zerorigins), things started to look bad early in development. The game featured a Resident Evil 4-like over the shoulder camera complete with laser sight. It starred a protagonist with no apparent connection or motivation to get involved in the game’s story. And it aped the unreliable narrator or Silent Hill 2, as every western-developed Silent Hill would do from then on. At this point it what would really surprise me is if the next SH game had a narrator that told the damn truth.
What was ultimately released was close to the trusted Silent Hill formula, but had fundamental problems on an atmospheric level.
This did not improve as the series continued.
American developer Double Helix then took their turn with Silent Hill: Homecoming. Apparently setting out to capitalize on the fame of the execrable Silent Hill movie, the game imitated the film’s visual style and the notion that Silent Hill was a mining town. Essentially changing the entire background of Silent Hill was not the worst offense of Homecoming, as the game as tried to fix the series’ awkward combat by overhauling the fighting system.
Silent Hill was never about fighting. The true scares came from not knowing was was out in the fog, not actually fighting the faceless, limbless beast staggering toward you.
Combine all that with a nonsensical story that again leans on the tired unreliable narrator trick from SH2, a tone-deaf torture sequence, and an extremely out-of-place buddy cop vibe, and it was easy to feel that the series had reached it’s nadir.
Until I began seeing trailers for Silent Hill Downpour.
We knew that losing series composer Akira Yamaoka would be a blow to the games’ trademark sound that was the most important factor in the atmosphere, but I never imagined they would get Korn to do the game’s theme song.
Even as I read that back I can hardly believe it’s true.
Compare this nu-metal garbage slideshow to an early trailer for Silent Hill 4. While SH4 didn’t quite live up to the hype it created with this trailer, the makers seem to understand how subtlety, obfuscation, and sound design could make you worried about playing the actual game.
And every time I think that they can’t mess up the series any worse, I get an unpleasant surprise. If you had told me in 2004 that I would some day have the chance to play an overhead, co-op, twin stick shooter based in the world of Silent Hill, I’d have laughed, then cried, and asked you if you were being serious. That is Silent Hill: Book of Memories.
I can’t begin to explain how many things are wrong with this trailer. The producer, Tomm Hulett, master of extraneous extra consanants, says that “fans needn’t worry” as they show shots of generic characters casting area of effect spells while GODDAMN DAMAGE NUMBERS APPEAR OVER ENEMIES. WHAT IS THIS, SILENT HILL: CRYSTAL CHRONICLES?
Hulett reassures that Dan Licht returns as composer, even though any Dan Licht composer games have yet to be released, and hypocritically the trailer uses the soundtrack of Silent Hill 2 as background music. The fact that developer WayForward, who normally does a great job with licensed games, is responsible for this makes me feel like this is an elaborate practical joke.
It’s an endless cycle, and we never learn from it. They keep saying they’re going to get better, that they’re going to go back to what they used to be. For a while, it seems like they’ve really turned their act around. You start to hold out hope. And you support them, because you want them to succeed. So when things inevitably fall apart, you can be assured the cycle will start over again due to your enabling of the process.
In the video game industry, this is what is known as “The Sonic Effect.”
I want to believe Silent Hill can be good again. Maybe the next game in the series will be developed by a team that actually understands it. And hey, that new Sonic game looks pretty good.
Or maybe that’s just Step 1 of the cycle.