Ghastly Gaming: Celebrating 20 Years of Silent Hill

It's hard to believe, but 1999 was twenty years ago now, and with this new year comes a whole new host of anniversaries to make people like me feel old. However, we here at Ghastly Gaming we are excited to celebrate one such anniversary in particular: Silent Hill.

With the success of CAPCOM’s Resident Evil in 1996 and Resident Evil 2 again in 1998 it was inevitable that other developers would take not of the new Survival Horror genre, it was just a matter of where and when the next hit would come from. It was another Japanese publisher, Konami, who was next able to break through. While Konami wanted to develop a game that would prove popular in the west and be breakthrough title for the company, the powers in charge did not know how to proceed and go about that. As a result, Konami created a new development team, Team Silent. Made up of talent that had all failed at their previous projects, Team Silent immediately had a chip on their collective shoulder in what truly was a do-or-die situation. In fact, only one key member of the development team was assigned to it at their request, composer Akira Yamaoka. HIs music would go on to become one of the most iconic and memorable elements of the series, seeing numerous stand alone album releases. With minimal guidelines, no real direction, and a parent company with no interest in the project beyond financial, development labored in stagnation with no clear concept.

Directing this untitled project was rookie director Keiichiro Toyama (who would eventually leave Konami to join SCE and create the SIREN series), who tapped his personal interest in UFOs, the occult, and David Lynch to push the team in a direction to explore the “fear of the unknown”. While Resident Evil had used and manipulated more traditional horror tropes in a zombie apocalypse story, Silent Hill focused more on the psychological, and as a result drew more from the occult and demonic presence. The development of the first Silent Hill had some interesting moments as the team strove to make their masterpiece, rather than be concerned with commercial success.

First introduced in the initial game, the central focus and setting of the series is the fictional American town of Silent Hill. The town is based on how the Japanese team viewed American culture through the lens of European & Russian literature, giving it a feel and look that seems real at first glance but seems more disconnected from reality the closer you get to it. This odd amalgamation of inspirations obviously worked as the series is famed for its setting, and has since been inspiration in its own right.

Team Silent released four titles in the series from 1999 to 2004, with most of the team staying through the development, allowing for a sense of consistency and familiarity that is lost in franchises as development teams suffer reorganizations and departures. Team Silent unfortunately disbanded in 2005 as Konami - seemingly content to make less money - decided to have a variety of inexperienced developers work on the franchise due to their sudden need to have it developed by western developers. As a result, after Silent Hill 4 the franchise fell into disarray. While there are moments of brilliance and plenty to enjoy in the subsequent six games, there is a lack of focus and connectivity, due not necessarily to the talent or inexperience in any of the teams, but largely to the rapid transition between developers from title to title. Konami never gave any studio the opportunity to get comfortable with the franchise and really make an impact. However, with 1999’s Silent Hill the artists of Team Silent certainly made a strong statement. A team thrown together of failures, all on their way out the door, took the next step from Resident Evil  and brought the Psychological Horror sub-genre into play.

Silent Hill tells the story of widower and now single parent Harry Mason, who upon waking from a car accident realizes his young daughter is missing, leading him to discover the small and forgotten titular town of Silent Sill. What follows is a trip into the surreal as Harry’s search for his daughter leads him to discover an all but abandoned town, a mystical cult, and a sadistic plot to revive an ancient evil. Distancing itself from its peers, Silent Hill tells a more personal, emotionally driven story, with player choice that determines the fate of characters, and multiple endings depending on what the player is able to accomplish before reaching the end. Team Silent set the standard for the franchise in their initial release with the now famed art direction and visual themes, enemies, signature puzzles, and a narrative that is coherent yet leaves plenty to guess about. Indeed ambiguity in another hallmark of the series established early on as the multiple endings lead players to wonder what -if anything- actually happened. Oh, and of course, Silent Hill introduces right out the gate, the series’ secret joke endings involving UFOs abducting characters.

The game saw great success in Japan and in the Western markets as Konami had hoped, with an aggregate review of 86/100 and selling two-million copies (becoming a PlayStation Greatest Hits title). Many reviews noted that while there were similarities to Resident Evil the game set itself apart with the focus on the psychological, and in creating horror through its atmosphere rather than traditional jump scares. In sort, Team Silent was successful in what they set out to do, creating their literary horror story plumbing emotional devastation and the terror of the mind. They had a hit on their hands, and a team thirsty for more.

The Silent Hill franchise would go on to grow, and Team Silent released three more games before they were disbanded. In 2001 Silent Hill 2 was released for the PS2 taking advantage of the new hardware to introduce new gameplay elements, and furthering to flesh out the town itself. With critical acclaim leading to an aggregate review score of 89/100, and selling one million copies in its initial release, Silent Hill 2 built on the success of the first game and proved that neither the series, nor Team Silent were one hit wonders. Following the release of Silent Hill 2, development immediately began on what would be the final two games from Team Silent. Silent Hill 3 released in 2003 and Silent Hill 4: The Room followed in 2004. Following trend both games received critical acclaim upon release While Silent Hill 3 topped sales charts upon release, it was knocked some by critics for lacking any true innovations. Silent Hill 4:The Room on the other hand received mild criticism for its departures from series norms.

Despite the current state of the franchise - best described as dormant - the influence and impact of Silent Hill both as a stand alone game, and a franchise, are undeniable. What Resident Evil did for breaking horror into gaming, Silent Hill did for exploring the psychological and emotional elements of characters, motivations, and of course terror. An iconic setting, time-tested characters and moments, and original scores that have stood on their own, have helped establish Silent Hill as  permanent resident in the video game hall of fame.

So a Happy 20th Birthday to Silent Hill, hopefully there will be more from you in the future.