This article takes a critical look at the Silent Hill franchise and presents ideas for how to revive it by returning to its psychological horror roots.
Silent Hill is easily one of the greatest survival horror video game franchises out there. While not all the games are great, there is a very good reason the franchise has a passionate and dedicated fan base. The earlier games were made with love. There’s no other way to describe it. The first four games showed that the developers cared about every small detail. The developers were Team Silent and they were nothing short of amazing.
A quick review of the problem
The first signs of trouble came about with Silent Hill: Origins. Konami went to Climax Studios to develop the game. It was an exceptional game, considered to be a tribute to Team Silent and the excellent work. The story’s structure mirrors the previous games and provides some truly scary moments. Despite all that, the first cracks were seen. Climax Studios originally envisioned the game to have an over-the-shoulder perspective like Resident Evil 4. That style of game was perfect for Resident Evil 4. Silent Hill is not a Resident Evil game. It plays differently. Fortunately, they backed off on the idea.
The next sign came from Silent Hill: Homecoming. This time, Konami went to Double Helix Games to develop the next Silent Hill. As stories goes, it was okay. It was largely based off the movie Silent Hill. While the story was quite disturbing, this game represented a huge move away from the writers paying attention to primary source material and only paying attention to Silent Hill tropes and lore. For example, Pyramid Head was in this game without any explanation. He didn’t represent anything to do with the protagonist. He was just there. Also, this was the first Silent Hill where the developers focused on improving the combat system, giving the player the ability to dodge and multiple ways to attack. It was by far the most complex battle system of Silent Hill, and unfortunately not in the spirit of the franchise. In Silent Hill, the protagonist should be somewhat over his head. If he can dodge attacks and have plenty of options to counter, it is very difficult to feel truly overwhelmed or outclassed.
Next came the game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. This game was exceptional. Make no mistake on that. Climax Studios was tapped again to create another Silent Hill and they delivered a masterpiece. This game was a reimagining of the first Silent Hill. So it had no story connection with the original series. In other words: non-canon. This gave Climax Studios the freedom to pull out all the stops, creating an entirely new experience for the player. And that they did. This was the first Silent Hill where the protagonist could not fight back against the monsters at all. All he could do was run. This gave the game an entirely different feel than the rest of the series, as before there was always the possibility of fighting. This one, you run or you die.
Silent Hill: Downpour was developed by Vatra Games. This one was upsetting as it was released with bugs making the game unplayable. Despite Konami releasing a patch, some gamers still could not play the game due to an incredibly choppy frame rate. Unfortunately, I am one of those gamers. Before the game became completely unplayable, I was able to notice a few slight differences. Vatra Games created an open world for the player to explore and find things to do. Unfortunately, it was very easy to get lost in the open world. This is what happened just when the game’s frame rate was so bad I ended up feeling sick. From what little I could see of the story, it was more of a mystery trying to discover who the protagonist was and what he did to deserve punishment.
The problem with the direction of Silent Hill is two-fold. First, it has to do with the direction of the game mechanics. The developers wanted to give the players more options. An open world. More control over the combat. All the while, missing that the story is what takes precedence rather than an open world. Exploration will ultimately derail the player from what was going on in the story. They will be pulled out of the moment. Combat is a trickier one, though it is a problem. The player should feel outclassed by the enemy, but have the possibility of fighting back at the same time. The first three games did this exceptionally well. It is important to update the game mechanics to fit the newer games, so it is only natural for combat to become more and more refined. There should be a way to balance the feeling of being overwhelmed that doesn’t include the tropes of ‘not much ammo’ and ‘weapons breaking,’ as those two don’t exactly fill people with a sense of dread. It fills people with the idea to conserve ammo and find as many weapons as humanly possible.
How To Save Silent Hill
- Play test the games better. Not only in cases like Silent Hill: Downpour (there was no excuse for releasing a game with that sort of bug). Other Silent Hill games were terrible. There was a re-release of Silent Hill 2 and 3 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. The voice acting was terrible and they got rid of the fog, which helped create the general feeling of dread (you can’t see the enemy until its too late). It turned the entire experience into a lackluster one. Proper playtesting should have caught that.
- Remember that the story is what takes precedence with Silent Hill. Don’t just go back and reference past games, take a look at how the story used to be approached. Team Silent was inspired by the classics of horror. Go back to the same source material and see if you can pull out something that’s your own. Not only can you continue the growing narrative of Silent Hill that way, you will keep it fresh at the same time with a new perspective.
- Make the game mechanics match the story. While having an open world is nice, why would there be one in a story-driven game like Silent Hill? An open world means chances for exploration. When the player is in Silent Hill, exploration is the last thing they would want to do. So if the next game developers want to go for an open world, the story has to justify it in some way.
- Silent Hill was never about the monsters. It was always about the overwhelming atmosphere. Look at Silent Hill 2. One of the reasons why the game was so successful was the never-ending sense of dread. There was never a huge payoff.. never a giant monster to jump out of nowhere which the player could defeat to relieve the tension. The player believed they were in danger, even when no danger existed. Put more focus on the atmosphere. Use the surrounding environment to create that sense.
- Do not be afraid to experiment with new things. Don’t be married to the past. Just because fans like seeing Pyramid Head doesn’t mean he should be in the game. Every enemy in the game should make sense in some way. Look at what Climax Studios did with Shattered Memories. The enemies were these strange faceless things that grew and changed based on player decisions. That was within the spirit of traditional Silent Hill monsters (symbolic representations of character’s hidden sins) as well as putting a highly unique spin on it.
- Most importantly, the focus should be on psychological horror. Things should be terrifying for the player as well as the character. Focus on creating feelings within the player. Not just blind fear. Perhaps making them feel hunted. In Silent Hill 4: The Room, there was feeling of being trapped and claustrophobic. This was brilliant.
Plea From A Longtime Fan
It’s hard to say what Konami will do with Silent Hill. Ever since the fourth game, they allowed other developers to have a hand at it. To those credit of these developers, they tended to have someone from Team Silent on there. These developers tried to bring on people who were familiar with the series. That’s great. It really is.
I want a return to the roots of Silent Hill. Psychological horror. This requires something that is story heavy, sort of like what you tried to do with Silent Hill: Homecoming. This should be something that’s building off the established story while still being fresh. Your first four games did this perfectly. The first game was about Harry Mason and the quest for his daughter Cheryl. We learned something about Silent Hill, the cult that exists there, and the unspeakable darkness that tore at the fringes of reality that dwelled within the town. In the second game, we saw the world through James Sunderland’s eyes as he looked for his dead wife. The game took on a dark turn, where everything had great symbolic and historical meaning. The third game gave us Heather Mason, who was actually Cheryl from the first game. The game was terrifying, filled with psychological horror as well as interesting story links to the first game. The fourth game was unbelievably terrifying in its own right. Team Silent experimented with the idea of Silent Hill, having most of the game occur outside of the town’s borders. The focus of the game was claustrophobia… making the player feel trapped.
This is what I want. I believe this is what fans of Silent Hill want.