I have loved precisely three consoles in my life: the Atari 2600, the SNES and the original PlayStation. I got the PS back in 1997 right when Final Fantasy VII came out, a game that made owning the console absolutely necessary. That PS kept me company through the last couple years of college, and I devoured quite a few of those pixelated grainy masterpieces. Other than FF7 on the platform, only one other game had such a huge impact on my life. A little title called Silent Hill.
I first heard about Silent Hill when reading a games magazine and they were raving about its unique (for the time) features — the directional sound coming from wherever the enemies were, for instance, and the fog. Of course, as we all know, the “fog” and dark of the game came about because of the PlayStation’s limited draw distance, and it became an elegant solution, turning a limitation into one of Silent Hill’s greatest assets: atmosphere.
I’d played a few titles in this infant “survival horror” genre before, such as Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil 2, and like many gamers, found myself simultaneously compelled to play them even though I was freaked out every time I picked them up. Silent Hill blew those two games out of the water by ratcheting the creepy factor up to a level that would make most horror movies cry in sheer self-loathing. (Ironically, the Silent Hill movie fell short of the game experience as well.)
It was a pretty bizarre and cool setup: your character, a dad, gets into an accident on a highway because he sees what he thinks is a girl on the road. When the dad wakes up, his daughter is gone, and he hoofs it into Helltown USA, population 4 humans and 269 monsters. One of the very first things he experiences is being cornered by demonic children and being hacked to death.
Yup, this was a game that killed you off in the first few minutes, then brought you back for no apparent reason right after.
Even though your character kept bumping into other humans, everyone was completely *off*, as was the setting of the town. Silent Hill nailed every scary small town vista, with an eerie quiet, ever-present fog, and light snowfall. You could be attacked at any moment as you searched for clues and gradually started to understand that this town was one seriously messed-up place.
Then, the second masterstroke of genius — as you went to the town’s elementary school, a noise sounded and the world shifted into a terrifying night mode, where everything was rusted, bloody and corrupted. It made you honestly long for the day mode the longer you were in it, as the developers and artists crafted a world that felt more horrifying than most of my nightmares. It wasn’t one of those places where Freddy kept chasing you or Jason kept popping out of closets, but where kids voices would float across cut telephone lines and you’d have to battle with things you couldn’t quite see in the shadows.
Nevertheless to say, I became a nervous wreck trying to get through Silent Hill, to the point where I’d have to invite friends over to be in the same room just so that I could get enough courage to play it. But I couldn’t quit either, and beating that title felt like clawing my way out of video game hell.
I never could get the nerve to play any of the sequels after that, or even anything else in the survival horror genre. Well, that’s not true, I did Eternal Darkness, but that’s a tale for another day.