From fog to fire: a historical guide to Silent Hill
Move over, St. Patrick. This year, March belongs to Silent Hill. Konami is stocking shelves with not one, but three games this month. The first, Downpour, hit stores on March 13. The Silent Hill HD Collection, which compiles the second and third games, arrived on March 20, and Book of Memories will follow for the PlayStation Vita on March 27. Whether you’re new to the series or a veteran player, come with us on a tour of the town as we revisit the biggest moments and landmarks in series history — from “our special place” to room 302. Minor spoilers are ahead, but don’t worry. We’ve kept the darkest secrets hidden in the fog.
Silent Hill (1999)
The first Silent Hill epitomized more than a rip-off of Resident Evil, which at the time was about as fresh as reanimated corpses can be. Team Silent was on to something when it introduced a world populated with dramatically different spooks than those of the nascent zombie series. The developer led gamers into Silent Hill, a town submerged in fog and snow, and for many, the surreal opening sequence branded them permanent fans.
Combined with unnerving camera angles, the dooming call of sirens, and the visual nightmare of the Otherworld, Silent Hill gave gamers an experience that was heavy on psychological horror — even if that did mean starting a chain of clueless protagonists, the first honor belonging to Harry Mason.
Favorite scare: demon babies gone bad.
Silent Hill 2 (2001)
The second installment stands as king among the other games in the series. Silent Hill 2 deepened the psychological appeal of its former title with a story expertly plotted and superbly characterized. Dozens of essays on the game’s narrative brilliance are tucked in corners of the Internet, but their flattery hits most of the same notes: James Sunderland is a hopelessly desperate character with more complexity than his troubled mind lets on, and the characters around him pass like ghosts through Silent Hill, housing within them reflections and pieces of James’s personality that complement, rather than overwhelm, their own identity and purpose for wandering alone in the derilict town.
With more foreshadowing than you can throw a book at, Silent Hill 2 also reaps the benefits of great monsters and atmosphere. From this game comes the series’ most iconic creature: Pyramid Head. If you can endure the clunky controls, an unavoidable staple of the series, then you’ll find yourself descending farther into the mouth of madness as the town and the gnawing ache of memories swallow James whole.
Favorite scare: “See my dead wife, come home to do some laundry …”
Silent Hill 3 (2003)
Aside from the previous game, Silent Hill 3 tops many people’s lists as their favorite in the series. Personally, I hate this one. But despite its problems, even I can appreciate what the game offers fans.
Silent Hill 3 immediately earns points for starring the series’ only female protagonist and also the gutsiest. Heather never hesitates to tell off the other characters or react to the bizarre events happening around her in a way that’s faithful to her personality. As scared as she might be at times, she’s much smarter and more reasonable than the fatefully dumbstruck protagonists from past titles.
The game itself is a perhaps unnecessary successor to the first Silent Hill, carrying on the spirit of Harry Mason through his adopted daughter, Heather, but it smears on the atmosphere more thickly than most of the other games (except Silent Hill 2). And for good reason: Its monsters are better evaded than dealt with, which makes for a suppressive and uneasy environment — unless you’re packing the firepower of one of the game’s unlockable weapons. These provide a compelling incentive to replay, not counting the alternate endings and extra costumes.
Heather’s story puts a nice cap on Harry’s unintended stay in Silent Hill, which he managed to physically leave but not escape from entirely.
Favorite scare: creepy mirror room.
Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)
Team Silent’s successful development of the series came to end with The Room, which for many lacked the essential traits and style of a typical Silent Hill game. In that respect fans are right — for the most part. I once argued that Silent Hill 4 shared more in common with SH2 than most people thought, even if the games differed greatly in their respective approach (extreme voyeurism as opposed to the pervading feeling of isolation in SH2).
The approaching fulfillment of the 21 Sacraments ritual gives the game a frenetic intensity as Henry is brought within inches of his demise. The streak of killings happening outside his chained and locked apartment, the mysterious room 302, trace back to a single perpetrator: the serial killer and psychopath Walter Sullivan. Only able to reach the outside through the gaping holes that appear in his apartment walls, Henry meets his neighbors and the violent Sullivan himself in the Otherworlds — and comes back to find the safety of his home compromised, as well. With each murder, Sullivan steps closer to entering the real world, where even more power awaits him.
The Room is the first Silent Hill game to be set outside the accursed town, but the game is closely linked to the cult history of the series, and Walter Sullivan was once but a passing rumor in Silent Hill 2 — along with the mention of portal-like holes that appear and vanish without warning.
Favorite scare: giant, disembodied Eileen.
Silent Hill: Origins (2007)
Taking over for Team Silent was Climax Studios, which turned Origins for the PSP (and later the PlayStation 2) into a hodge-podge of the previous games. It’s one of the weakest titles in the series by far, following a trucker named Travis Grady as he stumbles into Silent Hill and a nightmare that recycles plot notes from horrors past.
Origins bears too much of a resemblance to the story of the first game, retreading the same punishing affairs of the town’s cult and reviving characters such as Dr. Michael Kaufmann, Lisa Garland, and Dahlia and Alessa Gillespie.
The game’s central monster, the Butcher, pales against the might of Pyramid Head, the boss from Silent Hill 2 that he’s shamelessly modeled after.
Favorite scare: floating head glitch.
Silent Hill Homecoming (2008)
Development duties were passed on to Double Helix Studios, which created Homecoming — a game that introduced Alex Shepherd, whose background as a soldier lent him a competency in combat not present in other Silent Hill games, which tend to use “normal” characters to instill a sense of helplessness during enemy confrontations. While melee weapons double as functional items, allowing Alex to enter otherwise inaccessible areas, the sensitive timing involved with many combat situations can be frustrating for gamers who’d rather swing and mash without a fuss.
Between quick-time events and an overloaded story, Homecoming was met with mixed reviews. Maybe it should have ditched the cult fanaticism and paid more attention to the underlying connection between Alex and his younger brother. The psychology, as they say, got buried under a lot of baggage. Homecoming could have been worse, but it wasn’t suited for everyone.
Favorite scare: spiders and an old friend.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)
The series returned to the hands of developer Climax Studios for another lackluster entry, this time on the Wii (and PlayStation 2 and PSP the following year). Shattered Memories creatively re-imagines Harry Mason’s story by seating him (and the player) on a psychologist’s couch for some much-needed therapy.
Shattered Memories reserves any attempts at horror for its nightmare sequences, which are too infrequent to leave a real imprint on the gamer. Instead a careful reading of the player’s psychology, along with a surprise twist at the end, distinguish the game. It’s much lighter on actual gameplay than the other titles, and combat is virtually nonexistent, but at least Climax Studios and publisher Konami experimented with something new rather than resorting to the same tired formula, whose magic departed with Team Silent.
Favorite scare: none.
Silent Hill: Downpour and Book of Memories (2012)
Long without Team Silent’s vision and now lacking composer Akira Yamaoka and singers Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Joe Romersa, the Silent Hill name has inexorably lost much of the unparalleled flavor that inspired a strong following. But fans shouldn’t lose hope. With two new developers (Vatra Games on Downpour and WayForward Technologies on Book of Memories) taking control and Konami pushing the series in different directions, the series might just break into fresh territory.
No new game can flawlessly reproduce the classic Silent Hill feel, but with multiplayer service in Book of Memories and new locations to explore in Downpour, at least fans have a lot to discover — and after routine trips to the hospital and one too many rounds with the cult, that’s not such a bad thing.