Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What's in the Box? (A Silent Hill Appreciation)

I read a gaming article recently that made me incredibly depressed: Silent Hills is cancelled.  The game had been surreptitiously announced through an anonymous game demo simply titled 'P.T.'.  And with the cancellation of the game, the demo was now due to be yanked from all distribution channels.

So I did what I suspect many other video game aficionados did as well: I ran downstairs, booted up my PS4, and downloaded the demo before it disappeared.  And now it sits on my console's hard drive, very likely to never be played.

Why?  Simply put: Silent Hill games are really f-cking scary.

We're not talking jump scares or zombie hordes; Silent Hill is nothing like Resident Evil.  Silent Hill is... well... check out the trailer for Silent Hill 4.

The other day I found myself trying to explain to my daughter what makes Silent Hill so scary (in very, very vague terms).  "Okay," I said.  "Silent Hill is a game where there's two worlds.  One is the normal world, just covered in fog.  Lots and lots of fog.  And the other world is this kind of ruined hellscape, where the ground is replaced by rusted grates and everything is broken and falling apart."

"Now, your character goes from one world to the other throughout the game.  And at one point, he comes to a locker which starts rattling from the inside.  And when you get open it... a cat jumps out.  It's just a cat."

"Then you return to the same place in the other world.  The locker starts rattling.  You get close, you open it, and this time..."

"... there's nothing."  (And yes, I left out any and all additional details about the trail of blood, etc.)

I'm not sure my daughter quite understood what I was getting at, but here it is: there's a lot of different ways to scare a person.  One way is a cheap jump scare: a zombie lurching out of the bushes or a killer bursting out of the closet.  It can be effective, but it can also be forgettable: it's a temporary moment of surprise.

Another way is to build tension: say, a long walk through a dark forest infested with beasts unknown.  The 'unknown' is pretty key here: put in such a moment, the mind will naturally assume that there's something bad lurking out there.  And with each passing moment, as the rustles quicken and the shadows grow longer, the mind will betray you and imagine something worse and worse.

At that point, the moment of revelation becomes a relief: you see the monster, and it's terrible, but at least you know what it is and what you have to deal with.  At least now you know you have to run.

But what happens if you take away that reveal?  What happens if you leave the audience with suspended dread?

Let me tell you.  I played the very first Silent Hill at a friend's dorm room while he was at class.  When he came back, all the lights were on, all the doors were wide open, and I was in a state of desperate terror.  I was scared of continuing on in the game, but I was more scared of not finishing it and leaving the story forever unresolved.  I was clutching the controller, huddled into myself as I fought to complete the game, and when my friend spoke to me I screamed.

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