Silent Hill has come a long way from its humble beginnings on the PSOne. Many gamers remember it fondly as one of the best survival franchises to ever hit the market. I'm speaking in past tense here, because Silent Hill simply isn't what it used to be. In fact, many fans consider Silent Hill 2 to be the best Silent Hill game ever released. Sure, some enjoy Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill 4: The Room, but ever since then the series has been rife with needless pixel-bitching and uninteresting plotlines. Why is this?
Well, part of the reason our beloved Pyramid Head has been slacking off on the job is because of the Silent Hill design team. The original designers are long gone at this point. Heck, Silent Hill: Downpour was outsourced to a studio in the Czech Republic. The original oppressive atmosphere of a town that hates you for some awful act that you've done in the past is pretty much gone at this point, as it the rest of Keiichiro Toyama's vision. Frankly, it doesn't appear as if the original design team will ever pick up Silent Hill again, but that doesn't mean that that all future Silent Hills are fated to be horrible games. In fact, Shattered Memories was actually quite good for an outsourced Silent Hill spinoff, even though it paled in comparison to the originals.
So where does Silent Hill go from here?
Recent Silent Hill games have been following a trend of depowering the protagonist, and that probably won't go away. This is mostly in response to the 2008 release of Silent Hill: Homecoming, which gave your protagonist far too much power. When you are able to easily take down the horrible monstrosities that want to torture your very soul, they cease to be threatening. Shattered Memories was a game where you were unable to fight your enemies at all. Instead, all you could do was run, and this was frightening, although tedious. Downpour tried to scale it up a bit by giving you weapons that easily break and that are hard to renew. However, this more often than not resulted in camping weapon respawn points like a bad game of Halo.
Essentially, Silent Hill is trying it's hardest to not be Resident Evil. If Harry Mason walked around Silent Hill with a briefcase filled with rocket launchers, those faceless nurses wouldn't seem all that threatening, now would they? However, there is a fundamental contradiction here that makes this problem hard to solve. Essentially, the developers of the next Silent Hill will have to find a way to depower the protagonist without making the game seem too hard or too easy. Silent Hill 3 actually did a great job with this formula by allowing you to throw beef jerky in order to distract your monstrous pursuers.
Future Silent Hill games will probably follow the trend of limited inventory space and sparse weapon choices. Unfortunately, this means that we are going to experience many frustrating Silent Hills to come. Developers will try to find new and interesting ways to deprive the protagonist of a simple gun, and in doing so they will likely oscillate back and forth between protagonists that are frustratingly weak and protagonists that are far too overpowered. Maybe they will finally figure out the balance after a few games, but until then we will just have to wait.
There is a fine line between innovation and gimmick, and it appears as if Silent Hill stumbles over that line every time. Every recent Silent Hill release has had some gimmick that makes it "different" from other Silent Hills. Shattered Memories had the psychological analysis, Downpour had waterslides and rips in space-time, and the upcoming Silent Hill: Book of Memories will be a multiplayer top-down isometric adventure game.
Unfortunately, this trend won't be going anywhere anytime soon either. You see, with different developers taking the reins on each new Silent Hill project, each one is going to try and make their game seem different from the last. This usually means some kind of gameplay element that stands out from all the rest, and that means more gimmicks. However, what fans want is a simple, solid survival horror experience, which is unfortunately hampered by gimmicky gameplay. For example, Book of Memories is a co-op game. It's hard to hammer home the feeling of isolating horror when players have a buddy helping them kill zombies and push blocks around. The producer Tomm Hulett even said that the game will focus on multiplayer action rather than psychological horror, and that totally misses the point of Silent Hill.
There are a couple recurring elements which simply won't go away. The town itself will stick around, as will the fog and the concept of a "nightmare world." Pyramid head will probably return, even though he seems out of place anywhere outside of Silent Hill 2. Strange juxtapositions of horror with sexual themes will also stick around, as that's a surefire way to make players feel uncomfortable. I'd say that the radio is probably here to stay even though Downpour got rid of it, instead replacing it with a flashlight, which may also become a recurring gameplay element. However, other things such as the Masons, the town's cult, and the god that the cult was trying to resurrect may unfortunately be lost to Silent Hill's history. Nothing is sacred in this nightmarish world of reboots and remakes, after all.
Why haven't we had a real blockbuster Silent Hill game in the past few years? Well, that's partly because everyone wants to make the next Silent Hill 2. Silent Hill 2 was all about personal horror. We came to care about the protagonist, only to find that he was essentially a murderer. It was a powerful plot twist in an emotional journey. Unfortunately, that trick only works twice. Before Silent Hill 2, we simply assumed that our protagonists were the good guys. Now we are expecting every Silent Hill protagonist to be a murderer or rapist or something. So when you turn the tables on us in the end, we just aren't surprised anymore.
Unfortunately, it's hard to say how much longer the Silent Hill franchise will last. Without a studio that really understands the concept of oppressive Japanese psychological horror, the franchise will just continue its downward spiral. As time goes on, the chances of such a studio picking up the franchise become slimmer and slimmer. Just like a Silent Hill protagonist, the question is not really "what lies in the future?" but rather "will you I survive long enough to see it?" In Silent Hill's case, the answer is foggy indeed.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: March 29, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*