Friday, November 01, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Silent Hill (PSX)

To say my experience with the horror genre of games is lacking would be an understatement. I've made that clear in a previous post about my relationship with games intended to scare the crap out of you. Still, it’s Halloween and ‘tis the season for games like Dead Space, Amnesia, and Resident Evil. However, I thought that starting my foray into the horror/survival genre with something modern like Outlast would be a bit unfair to some of the classics. Since I had a PSX and N64 on hand I thought of maybe starting with a game from that generation. After putting it to a vote on my blog between Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Nightmare Creatures, the readers chose the original Silent Hill.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed (sorry readers!), mainly because I've always heard such amazing things about the Resident Evil franchise; plus it did release before Silent Hill making it sort of the “father” of modern survival horror. But what to do, the people have spoken and I’m not one to disappoint. However, to say that I was excited to play this game would be an outright lie – in fact, I was terrified.

And that fear turned out to be justified. One of the first things Silent Hill did was get under my skin. Every step I took in the first hour was torturous because I knew it brought me closer to some sort of danger. Every creak made my skin crawl, even though I hadn't encountered a single enemy yet! Now obviously this is the purpose of horror games – to make you squirm – and I’m definitely not the pinnacle of bravery when it comes to this genre, but I have to give credit where credit is due. The thing about Silent Hill is that it doesn't rely so much on jump scares and the feeling of complete helplessness like many games today. You’re almost immediately equipped with a weapon and the game usually gives you fair warning when danger is nearby. No, Silent Hill does a great job of just being plain old creepy. It makes you feel uncomfortable about where you are: every corner, every door (whether locked or not), and every room becomes a battle of sheer will to continue, because you never know what awaits you.

Trust me, mailboxes and fire hydrants can be friggin' scary.

And what’s awaiting you isn't always a monster or trap. Sometimes it’s the empty spaces that mess with your mind the most. There were plenty of hallways and rooms that contained nothing, yet they made me uneasy. Some of those rooms would give me a scare with a random noise that sent me running for the door as quick as I could, but most of them were completely and I left them unscathed, but not unnerved. For a game made almost 15 years ago to effortlessly get me off guard – even with the extremely poor graphics compared to the modern games – is quite a feat in my opinion, and shows that the creators of Silent Hill knew their craft.

Okay, so now you know that Silent Hill is scary (yea, I know – duh), but what about the controls? Well I have to admit that I hated them at first. I honestly almost gave up completely on any hope of finishing the game because of the awkward way you control your character, Harry Mason. You use the thumbstick to turn your character and then press up on that same thumbstick to move Harry forward in whatever direction he happens to be facing. It’s very awkward and if this is your first experience with the game you’ll likely run into a few walls like I did. However, two things happened fairly quickly: I got the hang of the controls and I realized that they were a part of the horror experience. It would be very easy for the developers to program the character’s movement in any direction as effortless and turning corners a cinch; however, this would have eliminated any feeling of vulnerability in the game.

Just because you have a gun doesn't mean you’re always safe and it’s easy to fend off enemies. There are times when I had to back away from some demonic being or put some distance between me and monster in order to effectively kill them without sustaining damage. The reason this is important is due to the lack of first aid kits and health drinks around the town. If you’re careless and run towards danger with an itchy trigger finger, you’ll likely still take out any and all enemies, but you’ll also take unnecessary damage that can quickly drain your reserves. So in a way, the confusing controls aren't so much a frustrating lapse in game design, but rather an ingenious way to keep the game from becoming a FPS and too easy. Truly brilliant work by Konami.

Hey buddy...WHACK!

Now, a game can have good scares and creative controls to add to the horror/survival feel, but there’s always one very important thing I look for in games outside of the FPS genre if they’re to become memorable – story. It’s the reason why games like Final Fantasy VII and Mass Effect sit so high in my personal gaming echelon, and I can be quite harsh on a damn great game if it relegates story and plot to the backseat. Therefore, I was curious to know what my incentive was if I was going to risk my sanity to help Harry Mason through so many horrifying trials. Well, it’s a pretty standard motivational tool to use the threat of harm against a loved one, especially if it’s your daughter, and this is exactly what drives Harry to fall deeper and deeper into the twisted world of Silent Hill. But the story gets even more intricate from there, with some exceptionally eerie, dark arts at work, and somehow Harry seems to be the key to it all. I’m not going to give away too much because I hate spoilers no matter how small, but it’s safe to say that once I was pulled into this twisted world I actually wanted to keep going further down the rabbit hole.

Most of the motivation came from the desire to see how far I could go, this being my first trip through a horror game, but there were other factors that made the experience enjoyable. One of those factors was the almost open world feel of the game. Furthermore, as not to misconstrue the game at all, Silent Hill is purely linear; doing a good job of pointing out destinations and, using roadblocks of sorts, cleverly guiding Harry to the next area to explore. Still, I thought it was great that I was allowed the opportunity to run around town a bit exploring alleyways and looking for hidden health packs or potential weapons to give me an edge in my next dark quest. You eventually end up in the same places, but the journey can take as long as you want should you choose to explore.

All in all, I think it’s the various characters you encounter throughout Silent Hill that make the experience memorable and actually enjoyable. Perhaps it was because these NPCs made it feel as if I wasn't truly alone in the world, dealing with all the creepiness lurking in the darkness me as I looked for Harry’s daughter, but I soon found each scene with these characters not only distracting but enjoyable. Sure the voice acting is sub-par at best, but their presence was truly comforting. Eventually, I started to eagerly await these moments of bliss, and at certain parts would get excited if a loading screen took a little extra time because it meant that I would soon experience a cut scene with a new or old companion to share my misery with. Sure, I treated these random citizens from Silent Hill as security blankets of sorts, but they also helped drive the story forward, by adding a little bit of context to the twisted situations I found myself in.

She's 10 years younger and 100% more badass than Harry. Hold me, Cybil!

I wish at this point that I could say more about this game, but in all honesty it’s hard to wrap my head around. I've been so used to playing RPGs and action/adventure games over the last two decades that my first experience with a horror/survival game was mainly a research study in how well I respond to being scared and having to carry on. That being said, I was more than happy to find myself enjoying the game despite the scares. I initially took it upon myself to “nut up” and continue forward, even during the times when all I wanted to do was run to the nearest save point and call it a night. But the further I got in the game, the more I found myself actually enjoying the experience, even the parts where I got a mild form of Tourette’s due to an unexpected scare. I think at the end of the day, the true success of a survival horror game like Silent Hill is whether or not they can scare you but also keep you engaged before, during, and after the scares. A game purely meant to scare would be no fun for me; but if combined with a good story, a spine-chilling ambiance and imaginative controls that actually added to ones engagement with the game, then you've got a winning combination that would keep even the biggest pansy in horror video games for entertained for hours.

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