Video games have been a part of our lives for decades now, evolving from simple 16-bit games to complex, immersive 3D experiences. For many of us, the transition from childhood to adolescence was marked by a shift in the type of games we played, as well as a greater understanding of the world around us. In this article, we’ll explore how one game, Silent Hill, became a quiet cataclysm during this era of evolution and metamorphosis, and how it drew in players with its dark and unsettling themes. George Daniel Lea takes a closer look at the impact this groundbreaking game had on himself and the players, and why it continues to be a cult classic to this day.
Silent Hill: A Chimerical Kaleidoscope, My Life In Horror
We all remember. Those of us who were at the right age; old enough to have grown up with the evolution of video games from 16-bit, two dimensions to the experimental new frontiers of 32-bit and 3D:
That sense of transition, of things ending. For many of us, the era marked transition and transformation in so many ways: Not only the realisation that things end (only a few years earlier, it would’ve seemed impossible that the SNES and Megadrive would ever become obsolete), but also that we ourselves are subject to change. The quantum leap from adolescence to teenage years was marked by such transitions in media: In very short course, we went from obsessions with the likes of Sonic The Hedgehog and Super Mario to more sophisticated fare such as Resident Evil, Final Fantasy VII and Tomb Raider. The world changed, and we changed with it, often painfully, traumatically.
On an existential level, the transition became associated with the death of childhood; the flowering into nascent identities that were often painfully realised. Speaking personally, those early teenage years were ones of profound existential crisis, marked by escalating
depression, anxiety and the beginnings of what would become profound suicidal ideation (the accompanying problematics of blossoming into a queer identity notwithstanding).
This period also marked a greater general engagement with and understanding of the world into which we’d been born, in all of its manifold corruptions and injustices. Again, for my part, that blossoming into realisation brought about a profound detachment and disassociation from the systems and traditions I was expected to revere: Even at that early stage, it was so perfectly clear that said systems and traditions were moribund; collapsing structures of filth and atrocity that I wanted no part of. Identification with them felt like capitulation, a surrender I wasn’t prepared to make (and still aren’t). Layer on top of that endless narratives of systemic failure (from political corruption to climate change), and you have the perfect conditions for ripening millennial ennui.
We found not merely escapism from our unwanted conditions through video games, but -increasingly- expression of them:
Whereas the likes of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil were light on narrative and satirically referential respectively, writing and conception in video games was evolving as rapidly as their technical elements:
The likes of Final Fantasy VII and The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver had already shown us what could be achieved in terms of narrative, world-building and mythology.
Silent Hill dropped into this era of evolution and metamorphosis as a quiet cataclysm: Relatively humble in terms of marketing in comparison to the likes of Tomb Raider, the game largely relied in schoolyard rumour -and no small amount of myth-making- to establish itself.
I first came across the game in that exact fashion: As a whispered rumour in a darkened school corridor (itself not a million miles away from certain environments within the game):
A pair of friends discussing their experiences in hushed, almost reluctant tones; teenage boys whose hormone-flushed egos generally wouldn’t allow for the acknowledgement of any weakness, here telling of moments that terrified them to the point of turning off the console, putting away the game and never touching it again. It soon became a matter of myth and rumour; stories circulating of moments that disturbed or terrified players out of their wits, the nightmares they inspired. Stories even began to circulate of effects the game purportedly had in waking life, upon people’s states of mind: Schoolyard fables of friends of cousins of friends who were driven to insomnia, anxiety and even violence by the game. Even more outlandish tales proclaimed some supernatural quality; curses or occult rites woven into its code or aesthetics, engagement with which could result in very tangible calamity.
Needless to say, I couldn’t resist.
As with Hellraiser’s Lament Configuration, the rites that summon demons in film and literature, I was drawn to Silent Hill. A depressed, anxious and powerfully disassociated teenager, the bleak, broken-down metaphysics of the game appealed to me, seeming to express in visual terms what I increasingly felt about the world and myself (i.e. that nothing could sustain; that historically entrenched disease and corruption would claim everything in the end).
That willingness to stare directly into the abyss is something even most horror fiction skirts around, attempting to cushion or divert from with the promise of redemption, some mechanistic “get out” clause or emshrinment of a mythic status quo. The putative queer in me always rankled at those cowardices, seeing them for the deceits and delusions they are. My lived experience, even at that tender age, demonstrated the lie of them by its nature (whatever existential or identity crises teenagers in 1990s UK experienced were exacerbated to the power of N if one happened to be queer).
Here, in this video game, I found something close to the cinema and written fiction I most powerfully identified with; the work of horror writers such as Clive Barker or Billy Martin (AKA Poppy Z. Brite), directors such as David Lynch and Cronenberg: A work powerfully unafraid of engaging with the spiritual dirt of human existence in the late 20th century, that not only stared directly into the abyss, but found its own bleak poetry there.
It’s difficult to describe the immediate experience of playing Silent Hill for the first time. For one thing, the fifteen year old who did so is long gone; a thing of ashes and echoes. I can presume to recall his condition, his mindset, but he’s effectively alien to me now. All I can provide are descriptions of whatever impressions still resonate in memory (which is a story all of its own):
An uncanny sense of coldness, abandonment; of being lost. Somewhere familiar, yet distorted; a crude video-game rendition of reality, its disturbia augmented by the nature of its rendering. An awful, tautening sense of inevitability; the eponymous silence certain to reveal something terrible. The fog blanketing the empty streets of the town pregnant with horrors, a place where imagination paints abominations beyond any video game’s capacity to render. A contrasting sense of verisimilitude fostered by the relatively familiar streets, stores, houses. Silent Hill itself rendered unsettling by its own normalcy.
Then, the sirens, signalling the approach of something truly momentous, freighted with the most terrible historical significance (recalling air-raid and natural disaster sirens, the largely impotent Cold War warnings of imminent apocalypse). The camera more dynamic and emotive than any we’d seen in similar games, swooping and diving through the fully 3D environment (a far cry from Resident Evil’s static perspectives and pre-rendered settings), exacerbating our confusion and dislocation. A subtle transition from the “fog” world into the “dark” or “hell” realm, where the colour palate shifts from greys and whites to black, red and rust. The first encounter with the broken metaphysics of the game occurring in the form of a crucified and hideously mutilated corpse, displayed in a manner redolent of the Cenobite’s victims in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series.
Then a manifestation, an assault from behind and slightly off-camera, all the more unsettling for being unexpected and impossible to defend against:
Panic, desperation, only the most fleeting impressions of deformed and mutilated, child-like creatures before player-avatar Harry Mason slumps to the ground, seemingly dead.
To say we’d never seen anything like this before in the medium is an understatement. Likewise, to proclaim we were all commonly horrified out of our wits by it in no way does justice to the profound disturbance we experienced in the game’s opening quarters.
Nothing we’d thus far experienced in the medium prepared us. Nothing came even close to the sense of spiritual dirt and nihilism the sequence evoked. Whereas Resident Evil horrified in the manner of self-aware, referential B-movie horror, Silent Hill strayed into territory closer to Jacob’s Ladder or Hellraiser.
Exploring the town itself became obsessive, but also a factor of dread:
Following the intro, Harry finds himself awakening in a nearby diner, seemingly spirited there by the only resident cop, Sybil Bennet. The town is, from this moment on, free to explore, with various houses, streets, alleys and buildings open to Harry’s trespass.
The sense of immersive freedom -despite being an ostensibly linear experience- leaves the player feeling lost and alone, isolated in the ever-present fog that blankets the town (originally a technical limitation designed to cover the limited draw-distance of the game, it has since become an iconic factor of the series). There are very few directions from the start; only oblique clues that have to be deciphered before progress can be made, encounters with seemingly spectral entities (one of which may or may not be Harry’s lost daughter, Cheryl) suggesting the path, but far from delineating it.
The game evokes a sense of almost incomprehensible expanse alongside an incongruous claustrophobia. It achieves this by cultivating an environment that never feels quite stable or real (unlike contemporaries like Resident Evil, the setting is irrational; a liminal space that feels somehow sentient and hostile). At any given moment, the world can alter or upturn itself around Harry, leaving him either in the hellish “dark world” setting (a reflection of the game’s nightmare metaphysics) or any number of other states born from his own memories and psyche.
This liminality makes for a supremely unsettling experience, as there never seem to be any set or concrete rules in this world; no formula by which to ensure safety or a clear path.
Whereas Resident Evil had its “safe rooms” to provide some solace, nothing of the same sort exists in Silent Hill. The result is a uniquely fraught, unsettling experience that lodges, splinter-like, in the player’s psyche and lingers long after the console has been turned off.
The game has none of the jocularity, irony or bon-homie of many of its “survival horror” contemporaries: Despite its referential nature, Silent Hill aims to create a unique experience of interactive horror, the like of which would drive players to the edge of their seats (and sanity).
For my part, Silent Hill became a formative text: It upended and expanded every assumption I held of what video games were capable of, and demonstrated a species of intense, introspective horror whose poetry and symbolism is as nuanced and complex as examples in any medium.
To be so young, only just developing critical faculty and learning what my tastes in horror were, and exposed to something so removed from anything else, in a medium that, at the time, was devoid of anything even close to it…I find it difficult recapturing -let alone articulating- the experience.
It was a window onto another world; a world comprised of influences as diverse and significant as David Lynch, Stephen King, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and myriad others. Whilst ostensibly aware of most of those influences -and thereby able to appreciate them for what they were-, the game takes certain essential elements -their themes, their aesthetics, their styles of storytelling- and recontextualises them.
Unlike Resident Evil -which is happily comprised of its own inspirations-, Silent Hill takes what inspires it and weaves them into something wholly unique.
My abiding emotional impression of the game is of a waking nightmare; one of the very few pieces of media that sincerely captures the look, logic and ethos of that phenomena. Even its many technical limitations become part of its mystique: The omnipresent fog of the overworld was originally designed to conceal the limited draw-distance of the game engine, but succeeds in creating such a powerful sense of dreaming isolation, and defines the town so distinctly, it has become iconic of the franchise. Likewise, the strangely crude, disjointed nature of the voice acting and script emphasise the sense a Lynchian nightmare (what ostensibly might seem crude and awkward becomes uncanny to the point of surrealism, and helps to underpin the gradually-revealed metaphysics of the town as a psychosomatic space, that no two characters perceive in quite the same way).
The concept of an external environment that reflects the internal world of its inhabitants became a powerful, almost obsessive concept: Those who’ve read my own fiction will know it preoccupies itself with characters who break or reshape reality with reference to their internal conditions. Silent Hill is one of the key texts where that subject coalesced.
Beyond that, I was struck almost wordless by the pitiless, graphic and confrontational nature of the game:
Unlike many horror texts -certainly in video games-, there’s no redemption here: Silent Hill is a portrait of human damnation, of misery and intergenerational abuse resulting in a hell of our own making. Evil in Silent Hill is not external; it comes from within us, born of our neuroses, anxieties, our desperation and despair. Even what seem to be outre, supernatural forces are
shaped and channelled by human psyches and assumptions:
The ostensible “god” of Silent Hill, the Baphomet-like “Sammael,” is a sick metaphysical contrivance born out of the twisted agendas and suffering of various characters: It is not a “god” from some external metaphysics, but one quite literally born from humanity, and a profoundly nihilistic commentary on the species.
Silent Hill is one of many texts that taught me horror does not need to be redemptive, does not need to be conciliatory. Horror can be ruthlessly, misanthropically confrontational, yet still poetic, even beautiful in its abjection.
The resonance of the game has followed me deep, deep into adulthood, informing and reshaping the state of my imagination to this day. It is the nature of the text to be floridly, kaleidoscopically chimeric, to invite endless analysis and interpretation without limiting itself to myopia or banal answers.
It is important, beloved; inarguably sacred in the culture and history of video games, but also seminal in the annals of horror itself.
And, speaking personally, there’s little in any medium that exercises such consistent obsession.