As usual, I picked a ridiculously large subject and wrote a ridiculously long post about it, so you'll have to go to my actual blog for the entire thing: http://electricdragon80k.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-problem-with-silent-hill.html
Contains light spoilers for Silent Hill 2 and heavy spoilers for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour!
Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the anime convention Saboten Con after hearing at the very last second that video game composer and producer Akira Yamaoka would be performing songs from his legendary Silent Hill soundtracks along with collaborators Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Joe Romersa, and Troy Baker as well as doing a Q&A. Not only is this an extremely rare occurrence in the States, it's extra rare for a place like Glendale, Arizona. Having followed the series since it's initial release, I showed up without hesitation.
The Q&A ended up being mostly about sound design but Yamaoka-san did answer one question in a way that I found fascinating: when asked about technical limitations that may have hampered previous games and what he'd do now, he responded instead that the lack of limitations were the problem. Given my hearing problems and the J-Rock show going on the next room, I'm pretty sure that he was trying to make a point about horror games that many have made about horror movies as well: with an unlimited budget and the ability to create anything, how do you find the scares? Horror is about being in some sense confined, inside the game and out. Without deliberate limitations, there's no fear. For a psychological horror series like Silent Hill, one that's been looking down the barrel of declining sales and quality for at least the last decade, I'm wondering if the series isn't in the best possible place for a resurgence.
Survival horror games filled a hole in my I didn't know was empty. Back when my brother and I were renting Playstations from the grocery store for the weekend, Resident Evil was a constant. The atmosphere, the helplessness, the long odds of survival, it hit home for me in a primal way. I never did beat the game. I never felt like I had to. Silent Hill was the same for me, but moreso. With all the goodwill in the world, Resident Evil did had a level of cheesiness to it that was hard to dismiss. Silent Hill felt more grounded... just a normal guy looking for his daughter and dealing with all of this insanity that's just thrust upon him. I never beat that game either.
I did beat Silent Hill 2, though. Played it right through to completion without a second thought. Not only was I in a dark place in my life personally, it also tapped into that post-9/11 sense of doom that seemed to pervade everything. The story, a man returns to a haunted town after receiving a letter from his dead wife, worked in a way that very games had at the time. While it did have problems (the original voice acting was pretty flat) it represented everything that video game storytelling could be in a world that was, and still is, dominated by cookie cutter shooters. It was a psychological horror game in the truest sense of the word: the enemies were drawn straight from the lead character's subconscious fears and desires. Akira Yamaoka also turned in his best soundtrack of the series, with his usual range going from pants-wetting industrial clangs to sad and gorgeous guitar solos.
Silent Hill 3 was a return to the original game's rather convoluted mythology, which was fine, but it didn't resonate with me the way that the second game did. It was more notable to me for introducing Yamaoka to his musical muse, voice actress Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Her voice, alternately smoky or strident depending on the mood, matched perfectly with what Yamaoka had been trying to accomplish in his instrumentals...
The Problem With Silent Hill...
Blog entry posted by The Defenestrator, Sep 15, 2012.