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VICE vs Video games

Games That Scare the Shit Out of You Are Having a Renaissance

And much of it is thanks to Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 4.

by Steve Haske
04 December 2014, 6:00am

James from Silent Hill

There's something about unknown figures in interiors. Early on in PT, a few times after you've successfully made your way around its demented purgatorial hallway, you're just waiting for something bad to happen. Around and around and around you go – nothing. Then, when turning the blind corner to complete another possibly mundane, possibly terror-stricken circuit, you see something standing there. You get closer and the foyer light cuts off. You have nowhere to go but forward into the dark.

It's scenes like this one that follow me straight through the TV, figures becoming half-formed shapes I think I'll catch staring at me out of the corner of my eye. In my old place it was the long dark down the hall from my bedroom. Now it's the black corner in my tiny studio that refuses to be penetrated by outside light pollution. These delusions are largely the fault of Silent Hill.

During the series' PlayStation 2 heyday – before the various members of Team Silent mostly disappeared into relative obscurity (if not, even more strangely, outright retirement) –Silent Hill had a way about it, and that way was psychological torture. It makes sense that, given the opportunity to flee misshapen deformities or zombies and worry about ink ribbon supplies, horror games would be more interested in tapping into fear throughJacob's Ladder-like mind games. What's scarier than not knowing what's real? Or being watched?

This wasn't always the case. After Team Silent vacated Konami's own Scaretown, USA around 2004, Resident Evil 4-style intense combat against the hordes replaced psych-horror's chest aching, paranoid feeling that something was just wrong. If PT is any indication – and holy Christ it 100 percent is – then 2014-period horror's starting to regain the essence that makes you just want to put down the controller, with newcomers like Alien: Isolationand The Evil Within nipping at the heels of the infamous "playable trailer". Congrats: that means Team Silent is basically, by influential proxy, still fucking with you more than a decade later.

The Silent Hill 2 trailer

Back to figures in hallways. Protagonist James Sunderland's first encounter with Pyramid Head in 2001's Silent Hill 2 might be credited for starting this awful trend. In the blackened corridor of the derelict Wood Side Apartments, you suddenly see the thing shining in the harsh glare of your flashlight, observing you from behind a makeshift barrier of long, crooked metal bars, just to disappear after you enter and then leave a nearby apartment. (Later, walking in on him raping mannequin monsters in a filth-covered kitchen is no less unsettling.)

It's a microcosm of how SH2 is when Team Silent really started getting into players' heads. James' delusional menagerie of abstracted metaphorical abominations turned horror upside-down – SH2's images crawl into your brain and nest there. Its sound is a wet, thick metallic slop that imprints itself on you even in eerie silence. It inspired one of the weirdest music videos ever made.

Pyramid Head further fills a hole (much to the detriment of post-Team Silent series attempts) the original game's basic 32-bit proto-otherworld lacks. An atypical antagonist, he repeatedly traumatises James as punishment for killing his wife. Luckier for you, that narrative weight also makes him a symbol of dread that grows in your mind. You can't shake him, regardless of whether he's there or not. (Pointedly, James is the only character to share your curse.)

SH2 isn't afraid to push the directorial boundaries of horror, either. Team Silent understood the need for the genre's grit, an idea recently echoed by The Evil Within's art director Naoki Katakai. Dense noise crawls across the screen like a living organism, a bold trend that intensified as Team Silent's work continued.

The manifestation of James' desire for punishment, Pyramid Head commits several savage acts in Silent Hill 2

With Akira Yamaoka's deeply uncomfortable orchestrations already weighing down your psyche, it's easy to wither along with James' surreal progression through a Silent Hill increasingly disconnected from reality. The latter half of the game is a series of drops into ever-deeper pits, miles underground. Then James kills a door-man hybrid manifested from its daughter's history of sexual abuse.

Though modern horror can't outright be Silent Hill, it can't deny those psychological roots. The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation both give you an optional noise filter, while the latter provides in spades the unease in exploring the darkness of a moaning, creaking station abandoned in deep space.

The Alien is Isolation's Pyramid Head. It if isn't stalking you, it's lurking in the vents. You're nervous to make the slightest sound even when escaping across the ship, afraid you'll accidentally summon it. You're never free from the idea of the creature, if not the creature itself. Expectedly, trudging around the Sevastopol knowing the Alien's loose somewhere makes your abs tighten every time you hear the scrape of metal or have to go anywhere that sounds like it's without power (which is everywhere).

What's interesting is that reacting to the Alien is irrational. If you see it, it'll probably scream and stomp quickly after you. When you turn away in a useless bid to live, that bloodcurdling shriek finds the fear centre in your amygdalae – no matter that in three seconds you'll be dead. (Consequently, when you're without a motion-tracker, skulking around in the dark is terrifying; though in close proximity to the Alien the gadget offers little assurance.)

The launch trailer for Alien: Isolation

Your heart can also lodge in your throat during those two-minute windows you're given to run forward, desperately looking for a save station and praying you don't find the Alien. A sudden camera jump triggers the same panic when you blindly stumble on Pyramid Head just outside his lair in SH2's late-game labyrinth. Maybe (in some ways) the Alien has Pyramid Head beat there.

Pyramid Head's effect is repeated in 2004's Silent Hill 4: The Room, arguably the most unhinged and off-kilter of Team Silent's games. (It's also the most invasive, and yeah, perhaps their least appreciated.) Here, the crazier art direction of SH3 dares to find new highs, taking risks with a Lynchian approach to horror and shifting-perspective dysphoria to make sure you're thoroughly unnerved.

How? An often-overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and a touch of voyeurism. When you wake up in Henry Townshend's apartment (he's been mysteriously sealed in – the game is called "The Room", after all) you quickly find a grotesque web of chains and locks haphazardly bolted to the walls and front door. Then you hear about Walter Sullivan.

Through almost the first half you only learn snippets about the serial killer (also a ghost). Aside from a patchwork of grisly clues you discover (any characters Henry meets inevitably resurface as Walter's mutilated victims), Sullivan's a question mark. Your imagination fills in the blanks. SH4's otherworld is also plagued with unstoppable spirits, often giving you no choice but to run.

Walter Sullivan

When Sullivan finally shows up, he's an unkempt vagrant – hardly one of SH2's abstract horrors, yet undeniably creepy in his detached manner. He is Team Silent's sucker punch: health items abruptly become scarce and Sullivan starts haunting the otherworld (he's immortal, obviously). Anxiety gives way to stress, making everything that started out weird close to nauseating (even, somehow, the mundane bits).

Simultaneously the vice tightens around the sanctuary of Henry's apartment. Giant growths appear on the walls. Malevolent phantoms try to force their way through covered in black tar. SH4's peephole is notably effective at this point – look out and you may find the dead-eyed Walter staring back through. That you're constantly being watched makes SH4 a recipe for an ulcer.

While not quite hitting the violent distension of SH4's art design, The Evil Within still effectively takes advantage of The Room's best idea: taking a relatively normal setting and tweaking it just enough to trigger a response. It follows suit that, without warning, Sebastian Castellanos winds up hanging upside down in a dungeon as a maniac carves up a corpse on a gurney – before, he was just routinely walking through an (admittedly unwieldy) crime scene at an old mental hospital.

While sneaking away from the psycho butcher as strains of Bach play on an old Victrola might smack of mid-2000s torture porn – to say nothing of Sebastian's flight down a rust-stained chute straight into a massive reservoir of blood – it's the transition away from the asylum's corpse-strewn lobby that's more important. After finding its footing beyond its first few chapters, you figure out that The Evil Within's settings shift and jump around with erratic regularity.

The gameplay trailer for The Evil Within

The game is called Psycho Break in Japan, so the idea fits. Resident Evil has traditionally been ornate – or, barring that, utilitarian and anti-septic in the way that military complexes and secret mansion bio-labs tend to be. Not even Raccoon City felt really all that concerned with debris and texture the same way that Silent Hill often is. Dirt and grime are collected everywhere in The Evil Within, dust and smudges obscuring the camera lens. So what if the dank basements and hospital corridors Sebastian is thrown into are populated with disgusting RE4-like freaks? This is Shinji Mikami we're talking about. Not interested in RE's current action stance, an amalgamation with psych-horror is to be expected, and The Evil Within often bears more than a passing artistic resemblance to a new Silent Hill.

As for those jarring directional shifts, The Evil Within frequently takes stylistic risks that graduate from Team Silent. Sebastian may unexpectedly find himself in a ward-within-a-ward in the hospital. You may sneak past some monsters only to find Sebastian strapped down as administrative figures watch him in blooming red. The camera often cross-dissolves forward, then drops you into strange scenes like close-up black-and-white sections. Sometimes rooms move you to nowhere, paralleling SH4's dreamlike style.

Sebastian using mirrors to travel back and forth from the asylum's safe zone (which also "corrupts") may also be a reference to SH4's holes on principal. Another (possibly) overt Team Silent reference: more than once Sebastian falls through his current reality into the shaft of another, standing on end until the camera rights itself, revealing you just fell down a hall – seemingly an homage to one of the holes in SH2's underground prison. It's almost impossible to tell what's going on – and despite having few nerve-wracking figures to haunt you, that sounds a lot like Silent Hill.

Which brings us full circle, back to the crippling fear of PT's own spook (you can thank Hideo Kojima for using SH4's first-person for that one). It's still completely up in the air what Silent Hill really is, and it's probably a long shot to guess it'll reflect Kojima's so-called playable teaser in anything but ideology.

No matter – aside from wanting fans to shit their pants, it seems like Kojima and other developers have given us reassurance that Team Silent isn't forgotten, dooming me to keep glancing at shadows.

@afraidtomerge

Previously:

'I Am Bread' Is the Weirdest Video Game of 2014

Twenty Years On, 'Donkey Kong Country' Is Still as Terrible as It Ever Was

The Best Video Games of 2014 Are Exactly the Same as Last Year

Tagged:
Gaming
Video Games
resident evil
pt
Silent Hill
Alien Isolation
The Evil Within
Silent Hill 2
Team Silent
Pyramid Head
Silent Hill 4
Naoki Katakai