November 4, 2014

PSX20 #3: Silent Hill

In 2014 Sony's PlayStation turns 20 years old. It was a revolutionary console, exploding the Nintendo vs. Sega paradigm that had dominated videogaming for a decade and its effects can still be felt today. PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most. Today I take a look at #3: the 1999 horror game Silent Hill.

For most videogame enthusiasts it was Capcom's Resident Evil franchise that become the poster child for horror in console games. The PlayStation hosted three instalments, each of which sold millions of copies and collectively spawned their own multi-media empire of movies, comic books, toys and spin-offs. For my money, however, none of the Resident Evil games came close to Silent Hill. This was a genuinely scary game: not only peppered with 'jump' moments designed to startle the player, but soaked with a genuinely disturbing sense of unease throughout. Silent Hill generated a little empire of its own, with numerous sequels, two feature films and a string of comic books, and it all started with this first game in 1999.

There are basically two reasons I love Silent Hill. The first is it's tone: it's less interested in jolts and scares and rising dread like Resident Evil. Instead it's just weird and disturbing. Strange deformed creatures scutter towards you in erratic fashion. Weird noises sound off in the distance. The geography seems off. The whole game world is off-kilter, soaked in a fabulous sense of sheer wrongness. Resident Evil is a slick and effective franchise, but Silent Hill beats it in spades for sheer atmosphere.

Then there's the fog. There's obviously a technical issue with videogames: you've only got so much memory with which to generate the graphics, and only so many polygons you can generate at once. Most videogames - particularly in the late 1990s - covered up their 'draw distance' with a sort of fog effect. Silent Hill uses the same effect, but it brings that fog right up close and makes it part of the game narrative. The town of Silent Hill is immersed in a deep fog. You can't really see where you're going. It's easy to get lost. You can hear monsters well before you see them. It's a masterstroke that turns a technical limitation into the game's greatest strength.

Silent Hill's potential was fulfilled with its PlayStation 2 sequel, but I maintain a lot of affection for this original game. It's been well superceded, but at the time it completely blew my mind.

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