Silent Hill turns 15 today.
A few days ago I saw a thread on a forum that asked “Has a game ever changed you?” Responses were pretty sarcastic all around, as the concept is a little weird to contemplate. Media rarely changes people, at least in a way they would say so seriously.
However my response, which I didn’t post, is that Silent Hill most definitely changed me–both as a player and as somebody making the games. It’s fairly unbelievable to consider that, but since the series is celebrating a birthday let’s talk about it a bit.
I got the original game for my birthday, which is in a month, and my mom had been suckered into buying the strategy guide as well. GameStop employees were good about that, and it wasn’t the first or last time they’d tricked her. However, I never looked at guides until I’d completed the game, so I didn’t expect it to affect my view of Silent Hill. Imagine my surprise when I did check the guide (the unofficial Prima guide) and discovered they didnt’ know what the Channeling Stone did. They openly admitted they didn’t understand the purpose of this item! This game was so mysterious and deep that it eluded even its own strategy guide! Incredible.
Silent Hill taught me what a scary game could be. I’d played Resident Evil 2 with its effective jump scares–but that opening to SH is still unmatched, with the freaky camera angles and forcing the player to die. These are real actual cinematic tricks, but in a video game. Of the people I knew, I was the only one brave enough to play beyond the school–several of my friends had declared the game too dark, too evil to continue.
Silent Hill 2, a few years later, taught me several things as well. First, it taught me that horror games never show well on the floor of a convention like E3 (something only disproven once–by Climax–with Shattered Memories, which supported constant play on 8 kiosks). I remember coming across it and giving it a shot. There were 2 kiosks devoted to it and both were empty. The player before me left off during part of what I later learned was the Blue Creek Apartments… and there were no enemies to see and no mood to appreciate, given the loud noises and bright lights all around me. I knew the game would be great (after SH1 how could it not be?), but I was saddened imagining what other showgoers might think of it.
It also taught me, through its plot, to appreciate the perspective of other people. Not to simply be aware that other people have their own perspective and baggage and beliefs–but to understand how that shapes their perception of the world around them. This is a very powerful theme of SH2 that is often ignored as people are absorbed by James and his grief, but it’s there and it’s important. Speaking of James’s plot, at the time it was unprecedented and it elevated what game narrative could be.
Silent Hill 3 – I gotta be honest – didnt’ teach me a whole lot. It’s my least favorite in the original four, easily. Sure, Heather is a great character, the graphics are amazing, and that drive to Silent Hill is wonderful. But it’s got a huuuuge stretch at the beginning with no driving force (“Get home, kay?”), and at the end of the day it’s just a story. It doesn’t have the emotional resonance of SH2 or the sheer “what is going on” of SH1. It’s a story in a series–and that’s fine!
If anything, I guess SH3 saved me a little bit? When I got the game, my girlfriend had come over to hang out and we didn’t communicate very well. She played coy like she didn’t want to hang out, so I kept on playing SH3. She broke up with me not long after and a while later she teased me about choosing SH3 over her. So for all you folks who think I couldn’t possibly love the series as much as you because you’d choose it over the opposite sex… there you go.
(It did have some great tableaus, and it did create the carousel, which meant years later on the set of the second film I got to RIDE the carousel, surrounded by fire and everything. So I can’t be too disappointed.)
Silent Hill 4 is (was?) an under-appreciated gem. It locked its most powerful scares into a single room and then forced you to return time and time again, always uncertain what you could be faced with during your visit. It taught me how much the fanbase hates change. Despite its shining moments (the apartment complex level, the Room, Walter himself), everyone focused on the shortcomings. They desperately searched for an answer–anything at all to separate this…thing…from their beloved franchise, and they quickly accepted the idea SH4 had never been intended to be a Silent Hill, and Marketing basically placed it in a Silent Hill box and released it onto an unsuspecting public. This was a warning of what was to come.
While I’ve always been a fan of Silent Hill, I’ve never been “part of the fanbase”. I was very active on the internet when the original game came out, but it never occurred to me to seek out like-minded fans. I never even really considered there was a growing “base” of fans until an acquaintance on 1up told me how much she hated SH4 and what an abomination it was. For some reason I’d only talked to the few personal acquaintances who played it, or random strangers at parties (oddly enough).
This is really weird considering I read plenty of forums about Final Fantasy games (earlier on), Metal Gear Solid, Zelda, Mega Man, etc. I think the differences is how personal the Silent Hill games are. Their stories and themes, unlike any other game, really approach you as an individual, and your interpretation and your experience are valuable parts of the whole. With Mega Man and Mario you experience levels–obstacles to overcome that thousands like you have also overcome.
Silent Hill is different. Silent Hill has a conversation with you. A long, disquieting conversation, and that conversation is unique to you. It’s a personal thing. And discussing that with others is revealing a part of yourself.
This is part of the reason fans are so precious about it.
This is the reason I was honored and intimidated when a few scant weeks after starting at Konami, I was giving feedback on Origins, getting glimpses of Homecoming, and pitching a Wii version of the game. If this thing was going to be developed in the West, in the same office where I worked every day, I was sure as anything going to put in my two cents.
Being a Silent Hill insider taught me to trust my gut. Reading this, you will never know the concerns I brought up. You will never know the arguments I started, the battles I won, or the battles I lost. You likely have your own opinions based on who-knows-what, but the one thing I most definitely learned was that my gut–which told me how the fans would react–wasn’t wrong. Not once.
This definitely does not mean I was always arguing for what the fans wanted. Silent Hill is personal. It was personal to me as a player, and it was personal to me as a guy making the games. This is because to the original creators, Ito and Yamaoka and so on, it was also personal. You don’t get resonance by giving people what they expect. You get it by communicating ideas that you feel, that you care about.
I argued for the fanbase as often as I argued against it (and again, won and lost both types of arguments)–but I always let everyone involved know exactly what the fans would think. Whether or not they listened was up to them. But once those decisions were made and the games came out, my expectations were proven accurate.
What my gut DIDN’T foresee was the degree of those reactions. It’s one thing to know “people are going to hate this” and it’s another to have a 2 hour video devoted to hating whoever made that decision (which was always assumed to be me, whether or not it was).
And so, while the first half of the series had taught me the power, the beauty, and the cruelty of humanity’s darker emotions; the second half of the series strung me up as a target for them, like some weird performance art version of Silent Hill itself. Of course, there are many fans who do like (or appreciate, or tolerate) the recent games, and I love them all dearly. When you put out a personal thing (even when it’s your personal thing mixed with a hundred other peoples’ personal things), it’s nice to get some acknowledgment that, yeah, your thing is okay. There is value in what you did.
I never got to tell my Silent Hill story, the one that SH2 planted, and grew inside me in the years since. I pitched it twice, and I hinted at it in a joke ending, but it remains untold (but you know, if you read Edge magazine……). Instead, the stories we told in Shattered Memories and Downpour were the works of many different people, all with different opinions, and all with different stories to tell. This is the same magical cauldron from which the original games sprung. And yet, the fanbase as a whole didn’t like these games much, some even offering opinions having never tried the games. These personal stories were offered up to the masses only to be spat back out again.
It’s a very discouraging cycle. Especially to have a hard-working dev team essentially snubbed by the public because your name appears above theirs in the credits. Being “right” about fan reaction is little comfort when the games are left unplayed. I wrote a story about it, actually. This guy finds a book that lets him rewrite the world. It doesn’t go the way he planned. Really, it’s a lot less subtle than you’d think, reading the forums.
Because if they were making me create a Silent Hill that felt nothing like the series… I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to put a personal story into it.
It ends with a song that you could have listened to instead of reading this entire post. As is their way, Troy and Mary say it best of all.
Happy 31st birthday, Silent Hill. The world is better for having you in it, and I hope dearly for your continued existence.