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News Article

Urban Renewal: How to Revitalize 'Silent Hill'

This Tuesday marks the release of Silent Hill: Downpour, kicking off the first of three Silent Hill titles to be released in as many weeks.  This is a bold move on the part of Konami, giving a huge focus on a franchise that, in the wake of its classic original trilogy, has seen its quality spiral down faster than the sanity of its many protagonists. 

The question to ask is how can one restore Silent Hill to its former glory?  After many long hours spent mulling over the options, I think I've developed a proper plan to get Silent Hill back on track.

Less Action, More Survival

With each new iteration of the franchise, developers crow about how advanced their combat engine is, and how capable and empowered their protagonists are.  "Our character is a former soldier," they explain, "so he's skilled in hand-to-hand combat!"

No.  Just no.

The brilliance of the original SH trilogy comes from the fact that it was borne from the survival horror boom of the PS1 era, and as a result you weren't playing a badass martial arts expert, or a one-man battalion.  No, you were playing as Harry Mason, or James Sunderland, or Heather Mason, a normal human being facing off against extraordinary odds.  Combat was almost an afterthought because you were supposed to feel like Joe or Jane Average, and as a result you were about as capable of defending your life against the unspeakable horrors of SH as you would expect. 

Plus, horror is often about feeling helpless and insignificant, an emotion that used to ooze out of every crack of Silent Hill's fog-shrouded streets.  If I'm a badass who can wield a lead pipe with ease and bludgeon some shambling horror into a pulp without any particular effort, I don't feel fear but rather a sense that these monsters are little more than signposts along the path of destruction that I am carving.  That's more than survival, that's exceeding your goals.

Let's bring it back down a notch, Konami.  Don't make me a grizzled soldier or a life-hardened badass.  Make me a mother, a father, a college dropout, a normal human being who is scared for their life in a very unfamiliar, very threatening place. 

Personal Demons, Personal Hells

All right, I'll be honest.  I frigging love Pyramid Head.  His reveal in Silent Hill 2, rife with sexual energy, is one of those fantastic moments that's burned into my memory, and I'm sure this holds true for a lot of you as well.  The further idea that he's a wraith borne of the anger and sexual frustration of James Sunderland (I think 11 years is outside the statute of limitations for spoilers) is positively bone-chilling, especially when coupled with the disfigured nurses.   He's menacing, terrifying, and most of all iconic.

So let's give him a rest, please.

Silent Hill has always been a personal hell for its unwilling inhabitants.  Its monsters are protean, changing their appearance to run parallel to the psychological scars of the particular game's protagonists.  James Sunderland's stewing sexual frustration birthed the disfigured-but-sexy nurses and the raging, blade-wielding erection that is Pyramid Head (the pathos are Freudian to the extreme), so why did we need to see both characters show up in Silent Hill: Homecoming?  These were not the demons of Alex Shepherd, so why are they projecting from the recesses of his mind?  Even the prequel Silent Hill Origins featured a blatant Pyramid Head analogue called the Butcher, who wore a butcher's apron, a large metal helmet on his head, and wielded a monstrous blade.  I understand that Pyramid Head is a popular character, but he doesn't need to be in every Silent Hill game.

In fact, while we're on the topic of character psyches, projections, and manifestations, why can't we have a different take on the game's infamous Otherside?  While the steel, rust, and fire aesthetic is horrifying, it's also getting a little samey.  Why can't we see some other ideas to reflect on the protagonist's personal experiences?  Silent Hill: Shattered Memories tried to do this with its ice-caked aesthetic, so why not try some more?  Downpour looks like it might be giving that a shot with a rainy weather pattern, so let's give some of the other elements a shot, hmm?

Another Time, Another Face

There has been one common characteristic shared by literally every single one of Silent Hill's protagonists over the course of the series' 6 games: they're all white, and 5 out of those 6 were adult males.

Silent Hill 3 is a classic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the unique choice of protagonist: the 17-year-old girl Heather Mason.  The more psychological aspects of SH had her facing off against a very different cadre of enemies than her male counterparts simply because her mind works differently, her fears were different, and she was in a vastly different place in life.  Silent Hill 3 was a success because it showed a different side to the franchise from a storytelling standpoint without losing sight of what made it tick.

A similar issue arises from the fact that virtually all SH games are set during the late 20th or early 21st century, offering up pretty much the same narrative drive across all of the games.  There's some question as to when Silent Hill: Origins takes place (some theorize the 1970's), but besides that title the rest are locked in the same era.

The best thing Konami could do is take a cue from some of the IDW-published Silent Hill comics and branch off from their usual modern-day adult while make protagonist.  Give us a woman, give us a character of color, hell, give us a child.  Give us something to show that, as I mentioned before, Silent Hill can be a different experience for all of its tortured souls.

The same goes for the timeframe.  While it's natural to want to keep expanding the mythology in a linear fashion outwards from the original title, but it could be thrilling to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Take, for example, Tom Waltz' take on a more historic Silent Hill with Sinner's Reward, a tale set in the 1860's.  It still retained the flavor of the Silent Hill franchise while offering a distinctly unique look at the mythos.

In fact, let's get even more specific and kill two birds with one stone: why not have a Silent Hill game set pre-Civil War, where you play as an escaped slave trying to make a run to the North?  Or how about a title set in the ‘40's where you play as a woman left alone as her husband fights the Axis powers over in Europe?  Give us an experience that shows just how deeply rooted the horrors of Silent Hill are to the human psyche, and how each individual mind can make for a fresh, terrifying experience.

Any ideas of your own to make Silent Hill great again?  Post 'em in the comments below!