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When Two Game Designers Argue About Silent Hill

(This is an archived old post from the previous version of the page.)

It all started with a game developer Jurie Horneman asking what is the example of a sequel better than the original game.

Easy. Silent Hill 2.

Well, not according to Thomas Grip from Frictional Games (Penumbra, Amnesia, now SOMA). He claimed Silent Hill 1 was better than its sequel.

Thomas was kind enough to write a Twitlonger. I did not want his amazing essay to die in the Twitlonger graveyard, buried under all other tweets, so I asked him if I can re-publish his answer on this here blog. He agreed, and I am quoting his reply below.

But then, I make my case too. Because Silent Hill 2.

Silent Hill

Since this is not a direct conversation (Thomas is busy finishing SOMA!), I am not addressing Thomas’ points specifically. It would not be fair. So I actually wrote my thing without reminding myself of what Thomas originally wrote (I have also limited my take to comparing the opening minutes of both games only).

In result, you can actually read these essays in whatever order you like.

But here I start chronologically, with Thomas.


by Thomas Grip

There is a common belief among many people that Silent Hill 1 is somehow inferior to Silent Hill 2. I am here to convince you that is not the case at all, in fact on many levels Silent Hill 1 (hereafter referred to as SH1) is far better than Silent Hill 2 (which I will refer to as SH2).

First of, let’s start with the opening. In SH2 James reads a letter from his dead wife and look himself in the mirror while babbling a bit on how she is dead and so forth. All this is a cutscene. Then you set off through a forest where something is moving in the bushes, meet another character, more cutscenes happen and only then finally arrive in Silent Hill.

In SH1 however, Harry is first in a car crash where he almost hits some mysterious figure and then end up in the town. The game starts now. No more cut-scene bullshit.

Silent Hill

Harry’s daughter is gone and you (remember, this is interactive, you are in control now) have to chase her through the foggy and snowy streets. She leads you into an alley where things get increasingly creepy and where you take part in one of the most awesome camera sweeps ever.

Eventually, you come across your first monsters; small kids with knives (unless you are European like me, where you get some so-so lizards things. But think about that, SH1 is the only modern horror game I know that got censored. That gotta count for something). But you have no weapons! You try to escape but the exit is gone. You struggle to keep alive but eventually you fail and die. All of this was interactive.

The first time I played it I was like: “Shit, I tried really hard, this is not fair!”. Your heart is pounding and then you wake up in a diner. “Damn, it was a dream? Or was it something else?..”

Silent Hill

Now SH2 builds up a nice atmosphere alright. But SH1 is bloody amazing. It is not at all what you expect at all, it creates a mystery that you just needs to solve. SH1 has a way better opening than SH2.

While we are on the opening let us talk about cool INTERACTIVE sequences. SH2 has a few nice ones. For instance it forces you to jump through a dark hole, that time you are stuck in the elevator with a crazy talk-show host, or when you need to row across the lake. This is good stuff. But SH2 has a lot of stuff in cutscenes. The pyramid head rape scene, the final reveal, etc. And two of the scenes that I mentioned earlier are not THAT interactive, you just stand around and listen or press a button.

SH1 is way better here. The opening is brilliant. Picking up the radio and then having the encounter through the window (it is not that interactive, but it connects to the action of picking up items in a tightly narrative fashion and it introduces us to the radio static mechanic). You then have the first crossing into the dark world, which is brutally disturbing.

Silent Hill

The first puzzle is also all about picking up drawings from your daughter. This is a nice narrative connection that SH2 lacks in its puzzle set ups. You have one scene where you need to follow the sound of church bells to find your destination. And you got a great boss-fight on merry-go-round.

Speaking of the merry-go-round, let’s discuss the different locations. SH2 can be quite bland. It is stuff like an apartment building, a club, streets, some generic underground prison, etc. Apart from rowing over the lake and the room filled with corpses (where you have the showdown with Eddie), none of the settings really stand out to me.

On the other hand, SH1 has some really, really great stuff. Sure it also has that bland stuff that SH2 has too. But it mixes it up with pure greatness. Like when you run around the town you notice how the road has just crumbled into a bottomless hole in places and you even need to climb down the ruins to find some needed items. It has got an amazing lighthouse where you have to run up some spiral stairs, which is one of my all time favorites.

Silent Hill

The dark world simply looks best in this game too. That mixture of blood and industrial metal leaves mental scars in you. And it has the entire outside world turning into dark world too, with distant, steel-made windmills and other unsettling stuff.

Another good one is the room with all the TV screens that show your daughter calling for you. Alessas’s final room where you finally understand all the hints the game has left you is great too. The snow in the fog adds that extra touch, one I feel SH2 cannot match. And I also mentioned the merry-go-round, which is just brilliant.

Now let us talk music. SH2 has a really celebrated soundtrack and it works great as an album. But that is where I think people are confused, because while SH1’s OST album is not as great as SH2’s, the music works better in the actual game. The tunes are simpler and sneak into your subconscious in way that SH2 does not manage to. The industrial noise grind is more raw and primal, and it also has builds up tension by dynamically adding tracks to the music, which I cannot recall SH2 doing.

Again, SH1 is more focused on being interactive, and true to the medium. It also has these sort of weird, unsettling tunes that SH2 lack, such as this one. Finally, it is clear that the theme song for SH1 is the best one.

Silent Hill

Next up let us talk about monster encounters. Oh, let us talk about them. Because, let us be honest, apart from one great, and totally unexpected, encounter with the unkillable Pyramid Head, they sort of suck in SH2. The enemies have no interesting AI, they are all bipedals who just go around and do close range attacks. They are also extremely simple to avoid and there are repeated over and over and over. You find the streets crawling with the same straightjacket monster far into the game. Like it’s the case with most of SH2’s monsters, you can easily just run past them, or occasionally hit with a lead pipe for the fun of it. They are not very exciting, lack variety and are way overused.

SH1 on the other hand has tons of good stuff. First of you got the dogs that are kind of easy to run away from. But then you also have these flying creatures that can be quite difficult to put down and you often end up wasting your precious ammo doing it. It also has these gorilla-like creatures that wrestle you down and become really annoying and scary. The monster children can be quite vicious when in close range, plus you have a ghost version that can set off your radio, scares the hell out of you, but is really harmless. Brilliant stuff.

And then you also got those damn creatures in the sewers that crawl on the ceiling and drop down when you least expect it. Extremely tense section that’s able to make something as boring as a crawl through sewers feel exciting as hell. The boss fights are also quite good in SH1 and again are varied in the AI and overall mechanics.

Silent Hill

One thing though. SH2 totally wins on creature design. Demon kids are creepy and all, but SH2 monster designs are freaking amazing. SH1 cannot beat SH2 there, not by long shot.

However, SH1 has something that SH2 lacks in the encounter department, and that is the extremely creepy way in which the creatures materialize pixel by pixel in the distance. Because it’s so lo-fi, SH1’s creatures are very hard to make out until they are close up (and often hard even then!), which make your mind race all over the place. Because of this, I think that SH1 manages to make their creatures FEEL scarier, despite their designs being far inferior.

When it comes to general story I feel it is a draw. SH1 is about external horrors, SH2 about internal ones. For my part I like both pretty much the same in this area. But I feel that SH1 is better at its interactive storytelling. SH2 is over reliant on cut-scenes and much of the good stuff are things where you just sit back and watch. In SH1 I get to play the horror, while in SH2 I am mostly just a passive member of the audience.

And that is what just settles it for me. SH1 is simply the better horror GAME. As I have gone through above, it also got a tons of other stuff going for it, and therefore I think it is fair to say that SH1 is the superior title.

Silent Hill


by Adrian Chmielarz

I will try to make the case that what Silent Hill 2 does amazingly well is how it transforms the player’s mind from “I want to play” to “I am present, immersed, engaged – I am playing”.

This transition is crucial to a video game. When the players press START, they are not ready to play the game yet. Even if they are already physically comfortable, gamepad in hand and all — their mind is not. What is the setup? What do I do in the game? What are the rules of the world? What is the controls system? All of these questions and more are running through the player’s head.

It’s only after these questions disappear when the cognitive buffer is now unloaded and waiting to be filled with the actual experience of an immersed player.

The game begins with a short cut-scene.

I think opening the game this way is perfect. Humans like to think of themselves as of highly intelligent, multi-tasking species, and that’s not exactly true. We cannot process too much information at once, which is why it’s a bad idea to sell important story beats during shootouts, for example – when the player’s brain goes into the survival mode, cutting off all input it considers noise.

Silent Hill

So SH2 begins with the story set up, and the first thing it shows us is the protagonist. This is a TPP game, so it makes sense to understand that this is the guy we will be playing as. We do not know that this is the protagonist yet, of course, but we can easily suspect so from the context (eerie but pleasant music, and focus on the man behaving as it’s his story we are witnessing).

Note the mirror symbolism. The beautiful thing about symbolism is that the recipient (the viewer, the player, the reader) does not have to understand it in order to have their story-analyzing consciousness affected by it. And such is the case here. I am pretty sure no one really remembers that scene when the game ends, but it still manages to help the player understand that Silent Hill 2 is about evaluating one’s life – just like James evaluates the way he looks in the mirror, metaphorically staring into his own soul.

Also, mirrors are often used in horror (including making a movie literally titled “Mirrors”). They fascinate us, and “look at your twisted self” is still popular among both kids and adults at theme parks. They are sometimes used as portals to other — usually less pleasant — worlds, and in the case of SH2, it’s the foreshadowing of the true nature of the town ahead of us.

Silent Hill

The second camera shot is a slow twist, world going from normal to skewed, with a dirty urinal in our face, and the evidence of rot and corruption everywhere. The first words that the hero says are: “Mary… Could you really be in this town?”

There’s a couple of things we consciously and subconsciously understand from that single shot. First, we now know there is a woman, probably a love interest (could be a daughter or a friend, of course, but the most obvious interpretation is the love interest). The man has not seen her in a long time, but would really like to. Second, the surrounding decay suggests that the man is ready to go to great lengths in order to find Mary. Third, him talking to himself, and the “could you really” phrase show us the man’s disbelief, suggesting there’s a certain mystery to it all.

After that very short scene we already know we play as a man looking for a certain girl or a woman. Very simple but effective message, as the stories of love lost and reborn are amongst the most powerful.

This is where the story pauses for a moment, anticipating that the player is eager to do something, to interact. There’s a reason they hold a gamepad and not a TV remote. The mood was set, the goal was set, now it’s time to touch the world.

Silent Hill

We take the control over the protagonist while he’s still looking in the mirror. Moving away reveals it’s all real-time 3D graphics. In 2001, the game was a marvel to look at. Obviously, fourteen years later it’s hard to believe that SH2 was a visual masterpiece – the progress in graphics is too great for that – but those of us who played the game in 2001 remember the crisp textures, the real-time reflections (even if earlier games had it before) and other vfx like the animated fog.

Silent Hill

Before the next cut-scene kicks in, you can explore the restroom and wonder on the unusual graffiti. The player is given more freedom than it seems on the surface. I am not even talking about the fact that the game does not insult and bore the players with “move the left stick to walk” tutorial messages. I am talking about the fact you can check your inventory and examine the photo of Mary and her letter. It’s not just a way to dig deeper into the story and grow the connection to the characters, it’s also simply a great reward for advanced gamers who like to prod and poke.

Silent Hill

After giving the player that short moment of interactivity, the game take the freedom away for a longer, very static, very important cut-scene. We hear Mary’s voice, making her that one bit more real, and we hear James reflecting on Mary’s letter. We learn Mary was his wife, she died three years ago from “that damn disease”. It’s impossible she wrote the letter that invited James back to Silent Hill, to “their place”

…isn’t it?

I honestly think this is one of the best setups in anything ever. It’s the mystery at its best, mixing the powerful themes of love and death with the supernatural enigma.

Silent Hill

I mentioned that the shot was very static. For a good reason, I believe. The scene explains Mary to us …twice, and that is after the intro in the restroom that already was sort of an explanation itself. So not only we learn about Mary three times in a row, we learn it all in a static, distraction-free environment.

This is important because, as I mentioned earlier, humans are not that great at insta-processing new information, especially if it requires multi-tasking. In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter we have made the intro so it’s a non-interactive journey into a long dark tunnel, with the narrator’s voice explaining who is who and what is what, and yet we still had people reporting they didn’t know who they played as and what was their task in the game! Which is why we added sort of a reminder when you leave the opening forest area and enter the bridge.

So this long static shot in SH2, and the triple reminder about who Mary is help to embed that “you look for your dead wife” message into the players’ brains. The message that will stay with them throughout the entire game.

The environment in the shot is not 100% free of distraction, though. One element stands out, and that is James’ car.

Silent Hill

This element serves two functions:

1) After the scene, you can pick up a Silent Hill map from the car. But the game does not force you to do so. Honestly, I don’t know for sure that it doesn’t, because I and everybody I know picked up the map right after the cut-scene ended. And the reason is exactly because the car stands out in the environment during and after that cut-scene. So it’s a perfect example of the illusion of freedom: the players are guided, but they consider their actions as their own.

2) The car is badly parked, the door on the driver’s side open. But there is no reason for that, James is not in a rush, that’s not how we find him at the beginning of the game. So I’d like to think the car is yet another thing that shows us how important Mary is to James: his lack of care about the boring, mundane things like proper parking or closing the door suggests dedicating his mind entirely to the mystery of Mary’s letter. We will get a confirmation of that later, when he gets into the town of Silent Hill despite being warned that it’s dangerous.

Note how the game builds certain type of empathy towards James. Protagonists in FPP games work better as the embodiment of the player, while TPP works better for games the heroes of which are flesh and blood, three-dimensional beings.

After the cut-scene, we have a longer gameplay segment that is entirely an embedded story-telling. The tunnel leading to the town is closed, we have to go through a sort of a park area. There’s fog everywhere. Our run is accompanied by an eerie music and rare disturbing sounds of monsters we cannot see. The monotony of the run is interrupted by the changes of the camera angle.

Silent Hill

There is a purpose behind this run, but I’ll get to that in a second. Sooner or later we arrive at a cemetery gate. Earlier, advanced players — the explorers — are rewarded for their curiosity if they examine a nearby well. Opening the cemetery gate is not optional, and it triggers another cut-scene.

Remember that the pacing of this article is different to the pacing of the game. Here it may seems as if the game is one cut-scene right after another, while in the actual game there’s enough gameplay time between them for the players to accept them.

This cut-scene is different. It’s the first human interaction, and the dialogue, while not worthy of an Oscar, cleverly mixes fantasy and reality, making us believe in the existence of the cemetery and both characters despite the fact that the whole scenario seems to be taken straight from a dream.

Silent Hill

Observe how often the so-called Dutch tilt cinematic technique (“the kooky angle”) is used. To quote Wikipedia, it “is one of many cinematic techniques often used to portray psychological uneasiness or tension in the subject being filmed.”

Believe it or not, but this cut-scene reminds us of the whole Mary ordeal once again. It’s the fourth time this happens, but the first time after a few minutes of peace. The creators treat us like children, and they are completely right. We need this reminder. We need this information carved into our brains with a blunt knife. Although, to be fair, “blunt” and “knife” are probably not the best words here, as the game does it in a way that is invisible and painless to the player.

What happens next is one of the most important elements of the opening minutes. The player needs to run through various foggy areas again, this time for much longer than previously. We are again accompanied by the eerie music and disturbing howls and growls.

Silent Hill

The fog is not only here “because horror”. It’s not just so we’re slightly afraid of any new piece of the environment appearing right in front of us. It’s also to make the run more interesting.

The “visible target” is why for example Dear Esther bores some people. In that game we cannot run, really, and we have to move through a lot of open space in order to reach the target (e.g. a house) we can already see in the distance when we start the walk. And that slow walk towards the constantly visible target is an equivalent of turning the key in a lock and knowing that the door will open only after two-minute delay. Unless you’re chased by a vampire horde, that wait is quite simply boring.

But the horror elements and cleverness of the fog is not why this section is so important. Now, kill me but I can neither recall where I read it nor I can find it on the net, but in an old interview with the creators they explained that the long run in the fog was to make sure the player disconnected from the old world. The world that James came from.

And it’s exactly what this section achieves. When the game opens up and we finally find ourselves in the streets of Silent Hill, we are fully ready to play for real. Just as James left the real world behind, so did we. At that point, ten minutes into the game, we’re familiar with most controls, we know who we are, we know what the goal is. We are invested in the character and his story, and we are intrigued by the mysteries surrounding everything that happened so far. We were introduced to all of that without overloading our cognitive buffer, step by step, with pacing that was – however paradoxical that sounds — both calming (we’re not chaotically testing the boundaries of the game anymore) and unnerving (because of the story and audio-visual stimuli).

We are motivated, present, engaged, immersed – and it’s only then that the game truly begins.

Silent Hill

Now, why is that all better than the opening of Silent Hill 1? Doesn’t that game also open in with a missing woman and running through the fog?

There are similarities, indeed. But here are the top five things that did not work for me.

One, the setup. It is bad, mmkay? It’s way too short. Blink, and you’ll have no idea what’s going on (especially if you skipped the movie that appears before the menu, one that is a weird mix of intro and a game commercial). But even if you do, it’s all just not very interesting. So I crashed the car and “Cheryl” is now missing. Okay, I guess? Let’s find her? It cannot compare with “the woman I loved the most died, and three years later I got a letter from her”.

Two, the tired trope of following a child who runs away. I never bought it, not even in 1999. Me and my daughter had an accident, then she leaves the car and happily runs around a foggy town? It does not matter than soon it turns out it’s all a dream. At this very moment all this achieves is that it makes me mentally de-invest myself a little from the game.

Silent Hill

Three, the idiot hero. Many games feature one, but that does not make the SH1’s protagonist’s constant “…what is that?…” less annoying. It’s a pool of blood, mister. It’s a mutilated corpse, mister. And God damn it, yes, you were dreaming, what gave it away, the fact that you just woke up and the monsters disappeared? But, in typical fashion, the hero questions the most obvious of things, but easily buys the weirdest. “It’s getting dark unnaturally fast, oh well, let me light a match, problem solved.”

Silent Hill
Look, it’s not even about the fact that the dog is here. A design bug, it happens. But dude, really? Yes, it’s a doghouse.

Four, bad story-telling. Okay, so the guy had a dream he crashed the car, then he chased after his daughter in the fog, then monsters killed him, then he woke up. Fine. What happens next? Well, we find our hero in a diner, in an empty town. How did he get there? Was the crash real? That’s not explained. He’s just …there. Oh, and also a policewoman is there as well. She warns the hero not to go look for his daughter, but when he refuses, she… She… She gives him her gun. She. Gives. Him. Her. Gun. “Okay, stranger I have never seen before, since you’re not listening to me, and generally weird shit is happening, here’s my gun. Good luck and don’t shoot me.”

Silent Hill

This is not just a bad story-telling. This is a bad story-telling for a video game. And that is really saying a lot.

Five, the twist. Now, I know that this is one of the most admired moments of SH1. The stuff that legends are made of. But in my opinion, it did not work.

Here is why. It was clever. But the emotions were all wrong. It was the relief that I don’t have to replay the section, and not a relief that it was only a dream.

The reason is simple enough: at such very early point of the game I am still not confident in the world or the controls (note that the game has much faster pacing in the opening section than SH2). I am not even sure how to examine or pick up items, let alone fight monsters. So when the monsters attack, I am frustrated with the game, and not with the world. It feels unfair to be overwhelmed by the monsters, when I am not even sure what button is “Punch”.

So when it all turns out to be a dream, I feel cheated instead of relieved. Yes, it is all very clever, but so would be forcing a girl to solve ten mathematical equations to find the engagement ring – and yet we would not call it the best idea ever, would we?

(No. Stop it. Bad idea. Really. Engagement ring is not something she has to earn. It is you who has to earn her “yes”.)

The idea of the twist is good. It’s the execution that is flawed. One example good execution is the “Belly of the Beast” mission in 2010’s Medal of Honor. GamesRadar describes it this way: “Arguably the game’s best mission takes place around the middle of the campaign, and doesn’t involve either Tier 1 team – it’s as an Army Ranger that you charge up the side of dusty mountain and desperately hold off a Taliban ambush in the most Spielberg-esque moment of the game.”

The mission is constructed in basically a “house defense” way, and you kill waves after waves of enemies, each wave getting closer, more dangerous. Meanwhile, your ammo is not magically replenished, and there was a moment when I was totally empty and had to resort to a knife. I never felt despair and hope lost so strongly in a video game before, and when the cavalry arrived at the last second, I might have screamed in joy.

The thing is, at that point of the game, I was not struggling with the control system and I was not figuring out the rules of the world anymore. It was all my second nature by then. So I was in the moment, focused on the experience, deeply immersed. That is why the twist worked. And I say the twist because as a designer I have no doubt the mission was scripted to the point of the cavalry arriving exactly when I was out of ammo.

But in SH1? Again, clever. But being relieved I don’t have to restart from a checkpoint is not the same as being relieved I was alive.

Silent Hill

There’s so much more to talk about but this piece is already quite long. Simply, SH2 is my favorite SH, as it is for Team Silent themselves. Every moment of that game felt like being in the presence of something crafted with care, attention, depth, and fearless discipline — and that is extremely rare in the world of story-driven video games.

Finally, here is a key quote that, I think, partially explains my issues with SH1 and my love for SH2:

Making Silent Hill, we just thought about making something horrific first, and then worked on the plot. Generally, we’d make the scary environments first, and then make a story to fit into those environments. So, when making Silent Hill 2, we already knew roughly what the environment was going to look like, so we could build the entire story before designing the game. We think that this makes the town of Silent Hill a more realistic place overall. — Takayoshi Sato (SH character artist)

So here we go, two different opinions expressed under the game design angle. I think that Thomas raised some fantastic points and if SH1 is your favorite, I will not really fight it very hard. We all know SH2 is not without sin, and attaching a horseshoe to a hatch with wax is not the best puzzle ever. But whatever is your own verdict, I simply hope we both managed to tell you — and each other — something interesting here.

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