Interviews & Articles

Fear Factor

October, 2001 by OPM - Archived from Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (October, 2001, pg. 121-130).

"In my restless dreams, I see that town, Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again some day. But you never did. Well, I'm alone there now... in our special place... waiting for you."

As creepy beginnings go, that has to rank highly, especially when you hear it softly and calmly spoken by a woman's voice as Silent Hill 2 leads you through its opening moments. For the first 20 seconds or so, it seems like a romantic and almost poetic note from a loved one. As its predecessor established back in 1999, though, the Silent Hill franchise cranks the creepy dial up to 11 almost as soon as the experience begins when you learn that this is a letter from the lead character's James' wife. Scratch that--dead wife. A wife who died three years agao leaving the hero alone, desolate and, frankly, somewhat freaked out now that she's taken to writing love letters from idyllic lakeside resort towns.

As the first scene unfolds James has arrived on the edge of Silent Hill. He's stopped at a fairly typical-looking public men's room, presumably not to admire the muck streaks daubed across the walls and puddles or indeterminate origin, but to freshen up. The urinals are dirty and damaged, grime encrusts the wash basins, and from the wall hangs a mirror, smeared and damaged. As he peers at himself, he's clearly questioning the sanity of the quest he is about to embark upon. Is his wife really waiting for him by the lake of Silent Hill? Or is someone just yanking his crank?

The half million or so of you familiar with the original Silent Hill have no doubt been looking forward to this for some time now. Previewed way back when the PS2 was first announced, the prospect of technology "catching up" with the concepts of the original game is genuinely thrilling. While the franchise hasn't yet garnered the cachet of Konami's "other" big game, Silent Hill 2 is certainly looking to be one of those all-important "event games" of the fall.

With Resident Evil-Code: Veronica X already out, the "survival-horror" genre is certainly heating up. But is Silent Hill 2 even the same kind of game? In some ways yes, although it's far less violent, relying more on spooks and psychological terror than ridiculous-looking tentacle monsters. Is it the scariest game ever made? Well, unless there's something out there that we haven't seen yet, we have to say "yes."

It's not that it necessarily makes you jump with fright, although it does from time to time. It's not that there are really any particularly revolting monsters; in fact, the majority of them look faintly ridiculous if you manage to get up close. What's unique about Silent Hill 2 is that it just makes you feel uncomfortable. Like a really good horror movie, it magages to evoke a paranoia that "something bad is going to happen any second now" for its entire length. Remember how the first time you saw The Exorcist you felt so tense that you ached by the end of the movie? This game manages to produce the same kind of response, and somehow the emotional release of action is never quite enough to make that tension completely go away.

"Rather than just making people scared, I would like to offer a world in which you cannot experience in normal daily life," producer Akihira Imamura explains. "If you actually become scared, I would be very much pleased as a creator."

Come late September, he should be glowing with please of a job well done. Late-night play sessions with an almost-finished version have prompted quite disparate reactions from the OPM staff. While some feel that the whole imagery is simple too much and really not the kind of thing they'd like to indulge in, others have been drawn in simple to watch the story unfold. What everyone has in common, though, is that after extensive exposure, it gets under your skin in a big way. Normally stable folks become nervous walking across an empty parking lot in the dark. The slightest sound in the otherwise idyllic silence after a late-night gaming session becomes reason to exhibit signs of nervousness. This is not the kind of thing a game is normally able to induce. You may think that we're just being over-sensitive, or being drawn into the hype of what is, after all, the game we've bet our cover on this month. But Silent Hill 2 really is that scary.

"There are things that we had to tone down."

Takayoshi Sato, CG director and character designer

Despite the early press on the game, and the impressions posted online by enthusiastic fans of early trailers and videos, Silent Hill 2 is from the orgy of carnage, depravity and violence that you might expect. Sure, it's disturbing as hell and has some nasty imagery depicting the aftermath of untold violence, but it's rare that you ever really see anything actually violent and akin to "slasher-flick" content. Telling anyone who has already been exposed to the prerelease hype this and it usually provokes the same response: "Yeah... well what about..." followed by a brief description of something implied by the already released footage.

Like any truly great psychological thriller, though, the majority of the horror occurs when your imagination "fills in the blanks" between the scenes. "I suppose it is a technique of not telling everything." Imamura explains. "By leaving some parts mysterious and leaving it up to your imagination, you can boost the fear and anxiety much more."

Consider, for example, that in Pyscho, you never actually see the knife making contact in the famous shower scene. You know it's happened, but you don't need to see it to comprehend the horror. "There are things that we had to tone down," CG director and character design Takayoshi Sato confesses. "We try not to make any expressions that may cause a moral problem," adds Imamura. "I consider showing bodily harm in detail to be too extreme."

In fact, the majority of any particularly nasty violence in the first few hours is almost entirely perpetrated by the player. If you choose to wale on anything creepy that happens to cross your path, you have the option to do so. But as with Metal Gear Solid, if you choose to simply avoid the bad guys, you seem to be able to get by without any bloodshed.

When pushed on his inspiration for provoking a response from players, Imamura explains that the thing he believes scares people the most it "to lose something." The game provides you with a story of loss, and then continues to relieve you of things as it progresses. First, it's your sense of direction because of the fog that enshrouds the town. Then it's your vision in the darkness of the buildings that your explore. And finally, it's the sense of reality as the game world slowly devolves into something that defies normal logic. "The fear of not being able to see what's ahead or around you is something that really disturbs human beings," Imamura ponders, as he tries to sum up the very core of the game's psychology.

"I consider showing bodily harm in detail to be too extreme."

Akihiro Imamura, producer

If you've already checked out all of the screenshots throughout these eight pages, you'll no doubt agree that Silent Hill 2 is a strikingly good-looking game, both in the way that the visuals look and the camera angles used to convey the action. "I watch quite a lot of horror movies," Imamura explains (like we couldn't guess). "They are great references for tricks, production, camera angles and picture respresentation."

In fact, production values in every aspect of the presentation are truly superb. Take, for example, the gritty look of all the environments. Whereas so many games have a shiny, sharp and pointy-edged look to them, this is a far more organic-looking game. This is due to a number of factors. First, the claustrophobia of the architecture and the way that it's lit means that an awful lot of detail can be packed into a limited field of view. The building interiors are lit by flashlight at best, so every scratch, every flake of old paint and every dubious-looking stain appears as realistic as you could want. Second, all of the graphics have been treated with a grainy filter effect to give a film-like appearance. Check the screenshots again and you'll notice that everything looks a bit grimy--that's intentional. "We're really proud of the analog film kind of style," Imamura enthuses. "We wanted to create a non-polygonal-looking image, and that's why the game has the noisy look."

While the graphics are the most obvious point of interest, once you spend some time playing it becomes clear the sound actually contributes to the majority of the "scariness."

As with the original game, the haunting guitar-rock accompanying the more dramatic moments certainly has a certain spooky quality, but few instances exist where anything melodic is really heard. As you can see, the town is almost entirely deserted, and consequently entirely silent. You hear the steady trudge of your feet as you walk, but aside from that the sonic "baseline" there's little else. As the tension builds, layers of white noise amd rhythmic clunks, screeches and groans are added to the scoundscape, as nasty things are about to happen.

"It is a technique of not telling everything. By leaving some parts mysterious and leaving it up to your imagination, you can boost the fear and anxiety much more."

Akihiro Imamura, producer

The original game made use of a pocket radio to help you detect when a bad guy neared you, its presence causing interference and a familiar crackle of sound. Silent Hill 2 uses this sonic device also, but there are subtleties to the cacophony that not only help build the tension, but also attunes you to the slightest changes in sound, both in the game and in the real world. Some of the scariest moments occur when you walk into a room and a burst of white noise explodes through your speakers, evolving into an industrial rhythm. Often this is a precursor to something terrible happening, but often it simply draws your attention to the environment. Play the game for any length of time and the sounds simply induce paranoia.

"You will notice instantly if you play without the sound," Imamura tells us. "Although I leave all of the music and effects to the sound director, he always creates sound which is beyond my imagination."

"Not being able to see what's around you is something that really disturbs human beings."

Akihiro Imamura, producer

Despite the claustrophobia, the darkness, the fog, the horrific sounds and disturbing stories, a game like this needs some character to help drive the story along. While James is a nice enough chap, it's his interaction with the other characters that really helps drive the story. Only a few humans really make contact with you, but each adds a different dimension to the experience.

In some ways, it's seeing how these characters react to Silent Hill itself that drives the creep factor upward. Take, for example, the woman you meet in the graveyard on your way into town. At first she seems level-headed and pleasant. But the second time you cross paths with her--once she's given up her own personal quest--it's clear that she's nuttier than a fruitcake. If you don't like those freaky moments in horror movies where clearly disturbed people describe events with a surreal sense of detachment, then you will find some of these scenes unpleasant.

Speaking of unpleasant, Silent Hill 2 also boasts the most grotesque puking scene ever witnessed in a video game. As with everything else. you never actually witness the technicolor yawn itself, but the chap praying to the porcelain god as you watch over him make some of the most convincing noises we've heard since, well, the last time any of us threw up. All the embarassing little noises that no one ever talks about can be heard, including the nasty little puke-burps. "The scene originally had a lot more vomiting in it," Sato confesses. "For some reason, during our editing, the computer we were using crashed and we lost it. I figured it was a message from God telling me we went too far."

"...the game also boasts the most grotesque puking scene ever..."

The monsters, on the other hand, are the types that work best when you just catch a glimpse of them, just like those in the majority of horror flicks. "It is as if we give an idea of fear a shape," Imamura enthuses. If you analyze the weird "two pairs of legs joined at the hips" monsters too much, they really are a bit silly. But when you catch a glimpse of them scuttling away down a corridor, barely lit by the glow of your flashlight, they take on a far more terrorizing persona. So do the seriously creepy creatures that look like they're wearing a skin-straightjacket. It's hard to describe quite what they look like, but the first time one drops to the floor and scuttles away like a giant insect (complete with horrible clicky sound effect), you'll feel a prickle on the back of your neck. Wait until they start jumping out of places at you too... then you'll really freak out.

But ultimately, that's all part of the fun.

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