A Deep, Dark Silent Hill Franchise Retrospective.

Posted: December 23, 2012 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic

As I often do at the end of a console cycle, I’ve been knocking things off my bucket list.  One of those was to finally see all the endings in Silent Hills 1, 2 and 3.  It takes a while, since the first three are a lot longer than the later games.  Now that I realize I’ve played every scrap of Silent Hill ever (besides the new PS Vita game, which is non-canonical), I thought I’d do a big old super feature.  I’ll be covering all of the games in the main series as well as quick bits on the two movies and the comics.  In addition to having put far too much time into the games, I’ve put an even more disturbing amount of time into researching them.  Interviews, production gossip and leaked facts, I’ve gone pretty geeky.  This is more a look back at the relevance of each game to the series in hindsight.  I’ve reviewed each of these games ages ago on some site or other and you’ve probably read someone’s review if not mine, so let’s not retread.  It’s not often I focus on a specific series for an entire feature, but I love me some Silent Hill.

Silent Hill

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No you don’t.  Trust me.

Looking back now, the first Silent Hill stands apart from the rest of the series.  While each following game had a self-contained central theme and style, the first game was kind of a magnum opus.  Team Silent thought at the time this would be their last game together, so they tried to put every great idea they came up with in one product.  It resulted in a game that is basically its own miniature world, much like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, where you may spend as much time doing the unnecessary as the necessary.  There are many secrets to discover, many hidden items and scares that you have to go pretty far from the beaten path to find.  The plot brings in demons, cults, serial killers and even aliens in a superstar lineup that is almost like a horror version of The Expendables.  Although at points it’s a long string of cliches from popular horror, the huge variety of creepy moments and themes in the first game makes it a please-all effort in the end.

The second thing that really marks the first game looking back, is how the depiction of America is not quite right.  The developers even said that they based the town’s design and the design of the characters not entirely on American horror movies, but also on European and Asian depictions of America.  The objective was to fit with as many people’s stereotypes of American small towns as possible to have worldwide appeal, but the result was even better.  Team Silent’s small town USA just has something slightly off about it.  The streets are a bit too wide, the stop signs are a bit too tall, everything is just slightly off kilter.  It feels almost like a lot of our hometowns, but these out of place elements just make it feel wrong enough that it’s creepy.  In the following games the town looks much more realistic and was based on real traffic maps, so the effect was lost.  Many of us will remember the dreamlike quality of walking those endlessly wide, foggy streets fondly though.

Silent Hill 2 (subtitled Restless Dreams in later versions)

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Oh, good.  It’s nice to know workplace safety is improving every day.

The unexpected success of the first Silent Hill clearly gave Team Silent a giant shot of adrenaline to the heart, because they came out swinging with the second game.  When developing Silent Hill, they were almost trying to pull one over on Konami, secretly developing an ‘artsy’ game that they thought would get them all fired.  When they were specifically asked to crank it up a notch, they did not disappoint.  Silent Hill 2 is based loosely on the novel Crime and Punishment.  In a survival-horror video game.  That’s pretty audacious considering the Resident Evil series is to this day about people with big guns yelling wrestler dialogue at giant monsters.  Once again it worked against all odds and Silent Hill 2 was a success.  In a perfect storm of game development that may never happen again, one of the deepest games ever made actually got fully developed and released in finished form.

Although I mention the novel as the game’s inspiration, the major element that carries over is your relationship with the protagonist. One thing Dostoevsky is famous for is protagonist does not equal hero.  In a single novel, you may love, hate and be totally indifferent to the same character at different points.  Silent Hill 2 does this with a popular concept called unreliable narrator.  This means what the narrator tells you could be a lie.  In the case where the narrator is the protagonist, this means what you see may be a lie.  In Silent Hill 2, it is suggested right from the beginning that you are in fact insane and have visible and auditory hallucinations.  The plot and the character plod right along without even trying to hide it and as the player this means you never truly know if you are the “good guy” or “bad guy.”  Although told in a different manner, this was the drive of Crime and Punishment the novel.  So somehow, Team Silent did in fact do exactly what they set out to do, while still playing to the strengths of their chosen medium.

Silent Hill 3

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Warning: consuming rare or uncooked meat may be harmful to your health.

Silent Hill 3 is the most personal of Team Silent’s games in the series.  This is the game where they unabashedly reference their inspirations and finish telling the main story they came up with from scratch.  While many have criticized that Silent Hill 3 is weaker on its own because it lacks such a unique vibe as the first two, I disagree.  Silent Hill 3 was the game where they didn’t have to please anybody.  The Konami execs were convinced that Team Silent pretty much shit gold at this point, so they had a free hand and a comfortable budget to finish their main ‘trilogy’ the way they wanted to.  The way they chose was to tweak their technology to the max and focus on resolving major plot ends.  Silent Hill 3 is one of the most technically impressive games ever created on the PS2 and the fact that it still looks good in the HD release stands to its design.  While some of the locations were recycled and one area was mostly just a reference to Jacob’s Ladder that was irrelevant to the plot, every inch of it shined… err didn’t shine in a beautiful way.

I personally do not have a problem with one sequel in a series every so often existing only to answer questions.  If Lost and BSG had done this every once in a while, I think they would have had it much easier later on.  Silent Hill 1 & parts of 2 had slowly built this concept of the cult and their god and all the naughty stuff they did.  But at the same time, the games made it clear that the cult was just one in a long line of bad things in Silent Hill.  So you expect that plotline to be resolved and devoting the entire third game to this was a good call.  Especially since the series would soon be given to new developers who could potentially do anything they wanted.  The last thing any fan wants is a situation like Resident Evil and it’s movies where the two have almost nothing in common because the new guys were given the right to re-use the same plot and villains over and over again.  Resolution is good.

Silent Hill 4: The Room

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Oh baby can’t you see?  You belong to me.  Makin’ my heart ache, with every step you take.

Team Silent’s last game for Konami was not originally intended to be in the main Silent Hill series at all.  Originally titled Room 302, the game was supposed to be a new direction for Team Silent.  Playing it, you can really tell that this didn’t happen the way they intended.  Konami must have sensed that the golden goose was about to fly the coop and strong-armed them to make it into one last sequel.  The final result was a game with main series elements feeling out of place alongside some refreshing new ones and some unfinished concepts.  Even the requisite multiple endings seemed tacked on.  One of them literally has the characters saying “Oh well, fuck it” and moving right back into the haunted apartment building as if nothing happened.

The worst thing about this game (which is still a halfway decent game, I should clarify), is that you can see constantly that it could have been an original concept that re-energized Team Silent for the series, but instead it killed their relationship with Konami.  You can almost see the parts where the developers said “just put it in, I’m quitting next week anyway.”  If you ignore the parts of the game that were clearly tacked on, you get a glimpse of a truly original and innovative horror game that we all might have enjoyed.  Some of it later appeared in Siren, but without the whole dream team, it was just never the same.

Silent Hill (movie)

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What is this, the third act?  I’m alive?  What the fuck?

The first Silent Hill movie is still probably the best example of a video game movie that is good in every sense of the word.  Director Christophe Gans took the concept and made it his own, while still pleasing the fans as well as general moviegoers.  In a market of Resident Evil movies that slap the series in the face, this unexpected triumph legitimized game movies in a way that no other has still yet followed.  Although the script writers took some unusual liberties with the main plot, the result was still satisfying.  That’s a statement not many movies inspired by another medium can boast.  The thing that really made this movie work was that the director was able to recreate the feel and horror elements of the games in a way that felt authentic.

Much like Silent Hill 2, the creation of the first movie was almost too good to be true and not to be duplicated.  The reason we don’t see many good videogame movies is because it’s rare that they are made by people who care about the franchise.  You can clearly tell that the people who made the Street Fighter movie did not give a crap about Street Fighter.  Silent Hill was made with care and respect and the resulting movie increased the fanbase of the series without turning fans of the series off the movie.  Bravo.

Silent Hill Origins

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Don’t mess with me bitch, I learned to fight watching Roadhouse.

The first of Climax’ Silent Hill games was a very safe effort.   A good call, considering the shoes they were trying to fill and the attitude of the fanbase after 4.  Originally the game was developed for the PSP (sorry for the pun) and was later ported to the PS2.  As a result, it was fairly short and had limited replay value as it was designed for the attention span and time allowed by portable users.  What we got was a 3-5 hour bite-sized Silent Hill that felt pretty darn authentic.  Sure it was pretty feature-light as the series goes and the plot remained mostly in the shallow half of the pool, but after The Room, it felt a lot more like Silent Hill.  Travis Grady wasn’t as likeable or hateable as Harry or James, but he was far more unoffensive than Henry’s mannequin like personality.  Even the plot itself was a prequel, so as not to threaten any of the other games too much in terms of story elements.

Giving consideration to its portable aimed development, Origins fit right in with fans hopes that the series would survive after Team Silent.  Featuring hidden secrets and weapons, multiple endings and a little of the quirkiness that defined the first game, Origins was one of the better efforts to capture the feel of Silent Hill by a Western developer.

Silent Hill Homecoming

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Who would you describe as the victim here?  Whole problem with this game.

Homecoming is one of those games where my gut reaction does not agree with the bullet-point summary of the game.  On paper, Homecoming is a solid game with some fun concepts.  The plot tries to go more Western in its horror, covering themes like abuse and intimidation that are popular in American pulp horror.  Feeling like a stab at a classic Steven King plot, it works a lot better than the similar concept of Alan Wake.  In my gut though, I just did not like this game very much.  It was pretty fun while I played it, but it never felt like Silent Hill.  Part of it was how functional the combat was for the most part.  Feeling like a badass most of the time really diminishes the feeling of terror.  It’s odd to say that the clunky movement and controls of previous games were part of the fun, but that’s the case.

The other huge problem that Homecoming has, that is repeated in Downpour, is how the different endings ruin the game.  I won’t spoil the basic plot, but the choices you make and the ending you get basically change whether your character is good or evil.  In Silent Hill 2, James is always a crazy murdering bastard, he just gets punished or rewarded for it depending on your choices.  The fact that the basic resolution of the plot and your character is not set, just makes it feel like a casual either/or choice.  If you don’t like who you turn out to be in the end, you can just load an earlier save from an hour ago and fix it.  While Homecoming wasn’t a bad game in any glaring way, it just didn’t taste right going down and I mostly put it behind me and moved on.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories

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Hmm, how to get more pervert points?  Oh, I know!

This is a game where I disagree with a great many others.  I loved Shattered Memories.  No, it felt nothing like any of the other Silent Hill games.  To me, Shattered Memories was a game where the developers wanted to try something new and really got to run with it.  It’s the sort of game I think The Room could have been if Team Silent had gotten their way.  While the game takes free license with the gameplay concepts and basic story elements fans hold dear, Shattered Memories also retells the first Silent Hill in a way maybe even more audacious than the movie.  The most prominent gameplay element is the psychological tests you take in the first person, in jarring sequences that interrupt the main narrative.  The segues are more than just minigame filler though, as they actually end up being arguably the biggest plot twist in series history.  When I found out who I was actually playing at the end of the game, it tickled my fan-bone in a way that I never expected or hoped for.

The drawback of the aforementioned tests is that the gameplay mechanic they represent is less amazing in practice than concept.  Basically your responses give you points in several categories like “sex” or “violence” and change specific parts of the gameplay based on your total result.  It’s really cool until you realize that you just arbitrarily get “Sexy Cybill” once you get enough “sex” points.  There’s no subtle mixture of different elements of your own psyche.  You are either a pervert, a drunken maniac or Jesus, no gray area.  Each of the things in the game that is altered can only be one or the other based on the amount of points you have racked up.  It still makes for fun replay and a somewhat personal experience, but it wasn’t the personalized horror rollercoaster the developers lead us to expect.  Overall though, Climax’ second Silent Hill game was a triumph in creative and original design and one of my favorite games in the series.

The Silent Hill comic series (various)

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Uhh… what?

While many of these comics have been good reads, let me spare any series fans the trouble if you haven’t read them: don’t read them for canonical information.  The Silent Hill comics are probably even worse than the Star Wars expanded universe when it comes to taking free license to go way the hell out there from the established plot.  While most of them contain series elements and characters of some kind, there is nothing here that adds anything to the Silent Hill games.  Each of these stories is totally self contained and often even gets major series plot points wrong when they do reference them.  It’s pretty much just a collection of horror stories loosely inspired by Silent Hill.

Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t crap.  It’s not like the writers are abusing the license completely, they’re just definitely telling their own stories without treading much on Konami’s turf.  So download them for a lark on your e-reader, don’t go out and buy the trade paperbacks thinking you’ll be getting a bunch of juicy Silent Hill backstory.

Silent Hill Downpour

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Now THIS, feels like a vacation.

This game is just all over the place.  Trying to be the do-all, be-all Silent Hill game, the developers tried to do everything done well before in one effort.  As anyone who played it knows, they didn’t quite pull it off.  While the town exploration and item collection returning are a big win and the multitude of things to do in Silent Hill give it arguably the most replay yet, it just isn’t the best Silent Hill game as a result.  The biggest flaw is the characters and plot.  The story of Murphy Pendleton is reminiscent to that of James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, having to do with crime, guilt and loss.  The difference is that James, Maria and Pyramid Head were compelling characters.  Pretty much the only reason I wanted to play as Murphy was because he was in Silent Hill at the time.  He’s just a boring protagonist, who doesn’t seem very conflicted or confused.  He’s supposed to be, but whether Murphy is innocent or guilty is more up to me and some arbitrary gameplay segments than his own tortured psyche.  He doesn’t seem to care either way.

This brings me to the other glaring flaw that Downpour shares with Homecoming:  Who your character is as a person changes based on the endings.  You are good Murphy who always did the noble thing and didn’t deserve his harsh rap, or you are bad Murphy who is an evil murdering psychopath.  Which you turn out to be is fairly cut and dry and is nowhere near as personal as Silent Hill 2’s “how much do you love your wife?” system.  Downpour reaches to be Silent Hills 1 and 2 at the same time and outreach them both, but grasp does not measure up.  I hope we someday see another full-budget Silent Hill game, but with this one combined with the recent movie, I’m starting to worry.

Silent Hill Revelation (movie)

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You want us to say what?  But that’s just terrible writing!

This one takes the cake as the worst thing to ever bear the Silent Hill name so far.  Taking a page from Resident Evil’s book, this is the movie adaptation that makes you hate yourself for having ever given money to this franchise.  It breaks the plot, it ruins the characters, it commits every sin a licensed movie can possible aim for.  There is even a scene where Pyramid Head faces off against another boss to defend the main characters.  Because, although you didn’t know this, Pyramid Head is actually under Alessa’s control, even though he has nothing to do with her in the games and does not even appear in the games about her.  Yep, it’s that bad.

I hate to say it, but this turd may actually be the death of the franchise.  Its total insipid buffoonery combined with some lackluster game sequels and spin-offs are a pretty heavy blow to Silent Hill’s credibility as a series.  To add insult to injury, the movie references almost every Silent Hill game in the last 2:20 of the film in the most jarring and tacked-on fan service in history.  I hated this film like I hate the poetry of Billy Corgan.

Looking back now, I have to say that the Silent Hill series is not so cut and dry in it’s ups and down as other series.  The Final Fantasy series abruptly changed character without Hironobu Sakaguchi.  The Zelda games directed by Eiji Aonuma are very different in style than those directed by Shigeru Miyamoto.  With Silent Hill, there have been ups and downs since the beginning.  Fans have always been divided on certain games and I myself as a super fanboy disagree with the majority of fans on a few of them.  Regardless of your rating of the individual games, all of us who love Silent Hill agree on many things we like.  It’s getting harder to guarantee those elements will show up in further Silent Hill games, especially with new entries like the PS Vita game that totally throw the series roots out the window.

All isn’t necessarily lost though as this is the age when our generation gets what we want.  We’re turning into the middle aged, middle class people with the money to buy entertainment, so what we want is getting made more and more.  Hopefully Silent Hill will follow in the footsteps of the Xeno series and the dream team may ride again, at least enough of them to make another A+ game.

Postnote 6/15

It’s kind of depressing reading this article now, because the conclusion is like a prophecy that almost came true.  We almost got a dream Silent Hill game, but then Konami decided to blackball Kojima and that went belly up.  I hope you have a copy of P.T. on your PS4.  Personally I’m never giving this PS4 up and I’ll have to back up my hard drive before it fails.

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Comments
  1. […] A deep, dark Silent Hill franchise retrospective […]

  2. Lee Davis says:

    Great article! I’ve been a huge fan of Silent Hill for a long time….

    • ryanlecocq says:

      Thank you Lee. If you’re holding out for another good Silent Hill game, you might try Deadly Premonition in the meantime. A little low-budget, but a great game, especially if you like Twin Peaks.

  3. Cryio's Qax says:

    A really good read.

    I tried played SH1 on a PSX and found it captivating. This happened in 2012. Something happened back then and I never found the interest in playing it again. Maybe someday 😀

  4. omar neely says:

    Right? I just bought a ps2 just to play sh 1,2,3,4 over again. I just showed a friend part 2 and he was not too interested. Then, I MADE him play part 3 and he can’t wait for 4. That’s the simple beauty of these games. It’s a different experience depending on who plays. I agree 100% about homecoming lol. something was just off. I hope my friend still enjoys 4 as I use to. I also have a PT Ps4 lol (side note you can still download it from your psn account if your ps4… you know, Kicks the bucket ).

    • ryanlecocq says:

      Good to know about PT Omar. I sold my PS4 when I heard the PS4K was coming out. There wasn’t anything I needed to play in between and I wanted to get rid of it while it still held the most value. There is some good news on that front as Kojima productions and Norman Reedus are partnering on a new game, Death Stranding. Now word on whether Del Toro is involved, but I have high hopes that it will be something like what PT would have been.

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