Silent Hill is a video game series that, even in 2019, seven years after the last main entry in the series, still has a strong and adoring fanbase. The bizarre and dark world of Silent Hill has enraptured horror game fans for decades with its strange enemies, dark storylines and mature themes. Silent Hill is a game series born of love from a group of game developers in Japan, known as Team Silent.
Horror games had existed beforehand, with the likes of Dracula and Splatterhouse in the 80s, and the game credited the first ‘survival horror’ game Sweet Home in 1989. But the widespread use of 3D polygonal graphics really seemed to bring the genre alive, and by the end of the 90s, everyone was looking to get a piece of the action. Konami was no different, and put together Team Silent in order to create their own horror game.
Team Silent was a relatively young team, with many team members having limited experience in Konami. Silent Hill’s director, Keiichiro Toyama, was only in his 20s when he took on the role. Takayoshi Sato was a recent art graduate who began working at Konami in the 90s,who’d previously worked on 2D games, but continued growing his skills to work in 3D. In fact, he was a more of an expert in 3D than other members of the team, despite being younger.
Being the youngest, Sato was limited to smaller jobs when working on games, but really felt that he could add something to Silent Hill, so created a demo to show off his skills. He was added to the team, and was responsible for creating the fantastic (for the time) CGI cutscenes that Silent Hill used.
Masahiro Ito came on board to work on background and monster design, and he would later go on to create the Silent Hill series’ most famous antagonist, Pyramid Head. Akira Yamaoka was a generally self taught musician, who would go on to create music for many of the Silent Hill games until 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and was credited as working on one track for Silent Hill: Book of Memories.
Silent Hill’s director, Keiichiro Toyama, wasn’t a huge horror fan, so began looking elsewhere for inspiration for his new game, which is when he discovered a Stephen King novel, The Mist. They initially looked at turning The Mist into a game, but copyright would prevent that. Not to be dissuaded, they continued working on the concept.
The game morphed from an adaptation of The Mist into something original, a horror game set in an abandoned American resort town, and a modern gaming legend was born. Silent Hill was released on the original PlayStation in 1999 and was a critical and commercial success for Konami, who greenlit a sequel immediately, with the majority of Team Silent returning.
One person who did not return was Silent Hill’s director, Keiichiro Toyama. Toyama left Konami after the release of Silent Hill to join Sony Interactive Entertainment Japan Studio, and he would go on to direct the Siren and Gravity Rush games. Masashi Tsuboyama, who worked on the original Silent Hill, took over as director. Silent Hill 2 released on Playstation 2 in 2001 and would become the benchmark in survival horror. It remains a classic of the genre to this day.
With the success of the second game, the third game was released in 2003 with Silent Hill 2’s character animator, Kazuhide Nakazawa, taking on directing duties. Unlike Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3 was not a standalone story, and was actually a sequel to the first game, catching up with the daughter of the original protagonist Harry Mason, Heather.
The game received good reviews, however some criticism was leveled at the lack of innovation in the game, as well as the camera and control methods. Developers were learning how to effectively use the analog sticks in games, and more and more games were moving away from ‘tank controls’, which were largely designed with the d-pad in mind.
Konami attempted to address many of these criticisms in the fourth game in the series, Silent Hill 4:The Room. Suguru Murakoshi took over as director for this latest release, and had been working on the series since the first game. Silent Hill 4 wanted to mix the formula up a little bit.
The Room kicks off in the apartment of Henry Townshend, who has been locked inside for some time. The door is chained and padlocked, and no one from the outside world can hear him, despite him being able to see and hear them. Silent Hill 4 went under the codename of Room 302, leading people to claim that it was actually an original game, which had Silent Hill elements tacked on at a later date.
But it was always meant to be part of the Silent Hill universe, even if it wasn’t one of the main games, as confirmed in a 2004 interview with Murakoshi and Akira Yamaoka:
“In a sense this is true because the game began life as simply Room 302. However, it was always at least a spin-off of Silent Hill and the most important thing was simply that it be different to the previous games. Certainly if Silent Hill had not existed we would not have gotten the idea for The Room, so in that sense they have always been together.”
You’re able to explore the apartment in first person, a first for the series. Other new elements included on screen health bar and weapon menu, and The Room leaned closer to the ‘over the shoulder’ view of modern titles. However, as SH4 also became more combat focussed with Silent Hill’s trademark puzzles becoming simplified, this may have upset many of the series’ long term fans.
While the reviews for Silent Hill 4 were good, they were slightly below par for what people expected of the series. The game came out only a year after Silent Hill 3, and while it entered the Japanese charts at number 1, it dropped quickly from the charts. Silent Hill 4, from the information I can gather, sold reasonably well, but for Konami, not well enough.
And so, Konami disbanded Team Silent, and thus began a slow deterioration in quality for one of the world’s biggest video game companies. The members of Team Silent were moved around the company. Keiichiro Toyama, as mentioned before, would go on to work on the Siren games, Masashi Tsuboyama would later work on a number of Wii titles as well as Yoshi’s Crafted World. Kazuhide Nakazawa would go onto work on the Pro Evolution Soccer series as well as Metal Gear Survive at Konami, and Suguru Murakoshi would later work on Metal Gear Solid 4 and The Evil Within 2.
The next mainline games would be created by external companies, to mixed success. The fifth title, Homecoming, would lean heavily on the style of the 2006 movie adaptation, and while it actually didn’t receive terrible reviews, the change from having a regular person as the protagonist to a soldier felt at odds with the series’ style. The sixth game, Downpour, received a much more mixed reception, with poor monster and level design being the biggest criticisms.
The Movie and the Myth
One thing that people, even fans, always get wrong about Silent Hill is the story’s origins. Watch any YouTube video or read a list about Silent Hill ‘facts’ and you’ll often be informed that Silent Hill was inspired by the real life abandoned town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. This is not true. In fact, designer Masahiro Ito doesn’t seem happy that this rumour has spread so far. After asking him on Twitter about the rumours, he said:
“There is no town where inspired the design of SH town.”
There is no town where inspired the design of SH town.
It would seem that much of the misconception comes from the development of the Silent Hill movie. Roger Avary used the story of the real life abandoned mining town, which still had coal fires underground, as the basis for the movie. He recently said:
My interest in Centralia dates to an ancestor on the Marr side of my family, who was the defense attorney for the Molly Maguires, and the anthracite coal reserve rights which will eventually fall to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It all made for good thematic background.
“My interest in Centralia dates to an ancestor on the Marr side of my family, who was the defense attorney for the Molly Maguires”.
The Molly Maguires were a secret Irish society of coal miners active in the 1800s, and were apparently responsible for the murder of Centralia founder, Alexander W. Rea.
The coal mines, and the fires burning underneath them, were a large part of the movie. The snow was replaced with ash, and another dimension was added to Silent Hill. No longer did we have the fog world and the otherworld, we also had a ‘real’ reality. Much of the early reports of the movie included this information about Silent Hill (the movie) being based on the town of Centralia. It seems that this has bled over into people mistaking the game’s origins as being the same.
People seemed to really grab onto this idea that Silent Hill is based on Centralia, or indeed that Silent Hill is based on somewhere in the real world. Part of this is down to us as humans. For centuries, we’ve always wanted to believe that myths, legends and creatures were real. Silent Hill seems to embody of fear of the unknown and embrace it.
There would be a number of games released following the disbandment of Team Silent. Outside of the main game series, a number of (pre-smartphone) mobile phone games were released, as well as iOS game Silent Hill: Escape. Spin-off titles would actually outdo their main series games critically, with the ‘reimagining’ of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and the prequel Silent Hill: Origins both receiving positive reviews. There was also the oft-forgotten arcade rail shooter, Silent Hill: Arcade, which Destructoid described as ‘playing vomit’.
Then there’s P.T., a playable teaser for Silent Hills, a cancelled seventh game in the series. I think everything possible has already been said about P.T., but I couldn’t ignore it. It is probably the most influential game demo of all time, and people still lament its removal from the Playstation Store, as well as the subsequent cancellation of Silent Hills. P.T. has influenced so many horror titles, from AAA titles like Resident Evil 7, to indie games such as Layers of Fear.
However, if I had to play devil’s advocate, I’d actually say that, in some cases, P.T. has caused a rush of imitators that have stagnated the horror game market in recent years. So many indie horror titles have copied the storyline of ‘family member killed family/loved one reveal’, the looping of corridors/locations along with with a ghostly antagonist or featuring mundane locations that could be found in everyday life, similar to P.T.’s residential setting.
With the loss of Silent Hills, the future looks uncertain for the franchise. It has been seven years since Downpour, the last entry into the main series, and five years since the release of the P.T. demo. In recent years, Konami has leaned upon the likes of Pro Evolution Soccer and Metal Gear Solid as their main releases, as well as anniversary collections or remakes/retro sequels of classic Konami titles.
While other games have tried, few have managed to get close to Silent Hill’s level of success. Is the kind of psychological survival horror that Silent Hill portrays unpopular with a mainstream audience? Probably. The failure of Silent Hill can be compared to many former big budget games from the recent past. Their sales, while not poor, are not enough to warrant the millions of dollars it costs to make a modern AAA game.
Silent Hill managed to blend Lynichian horror with Japanese ghost stories and weird body horror in a way no game has since. Looking back, it’s amazing that I didn’t see how unique the games were at the time. Maybe we’ll see Silent Hill again, but only if there are massive changes to the way publishers and developers go about making games. As an indie title, Silent Hill could be huge, but if Konami are still looking over at the Resident Evil sales numbers with longing, then we’ll never see another.