This article contains spoilers for Silent Hill 1 and 2.
My partner and I recently started working on a horror game together, and it’s become this really interesting tool for revisiting my favourite horror media to try and disassemble things down to their component parts. If you want to make something good, I think the best way to do it properly is to figure out why something you already like was really good, and then thoughtfully copying as much of that information into your brain as possible (and then doing this a bunch so you’re copying twenty indistinct things instead of one distinct thing).
Something I’ve really focused on during this process is the kind of inarticulable sense of upset that the best horror games can occasionally manage to utilize. These are the scares that really linger in your brain, bothering you long after you’ve actually finished something. They are not designed to elicit screams, but something stranger: the odd kind of pit in your stomach you get after reading something like Charles Dickens’ unfinished mystery novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and realizing that you’ll never entirely know who the killer was. In other words, the horror of an unfinished sentence.
So, there’s this moment in Silent Hill 2.
James Sunderland is continuing his search for his wife, Mary, in the misty confines of Silent Hill, a town in which something is now very clearly wrong. He ducks into the Silent Hill Historical Society, a building which seems to recount the town’s various historical atrocities (and where the familiar Pyramid Head monster gets a subtle origin story). After a short round of exploring, the player is drawn to a staircase that seems disconcertingly separated from the rest of the building, as if a hole in the wall is revealing something that was meant to be bricked up. With no other option, you proceed down.
The resulting sequence is difficult to describe, so I encourage you to watch the timestamp above if you haven’t experienced it before. What’s odd is what doesn’t happen, which is almost anything. The staircase takes about a full minute to walk (or more likely run) down, and it is a minute largely defined by the dread that something is going to happen. James travels farther and farther down, far below where any man made structure could reasonably be, his entire body a small pinprick against a seemingly endless, pitch-black hole.
The only thing to denote the descent is the sound of a distorted ship’s horn, which plays at the start of the room and plays more frequently the farther you travel down. Note that it doesn’t increase in intensity, at least not meaningfully. Instead of getting louder, it starts to play over itself, skipping and cutting itself off like buggy audio. Instead of starting to sound scarier, it starts to sound more broken, behaving in a way that actual sound typically does not. Controlled artifice.
Then the minute is up and, instead of an encounter with Pyramid Head (like the portrait upstairs may have implied) or some other distinct scare, there’s just a door. You exit, and you’re in a new area, the abandoned and grimy Toluca Prison. The ship horns are replaced with a harsh ambience track, and the game continues. The staircase marks the start of a new area, but not in a way that offers foreshadowing or any particular logic. The staircase happens, and then it stops happening. Without closure, it simply stops.
When I was trying to figure out why this sequence had always stuck in my brain, I closed in on that phrase: it simply stops. The thing about all storytelling, particularly the emotional cadence of horror fiction, is that we are taught that it has structure. Early in life, you typically learn that a good story is told when all of its unnecessary parts and scenes, the stuff that doesn’t seem to feed into anything else, are taken away. If tension is created, it is intended to be released; its existence must be justified by its evaporation.
So it’s logical that horror has a particular archetype of scare, in which tension is built up and then released in a discrete moment, whether that’s a loud noise or a frightening visual or the simple appearance of something. Even in the classic Alfred Hitchcock example of the bomb ticking under the table to create suspense, it still explodes at some point. As an audience, we believe that a storyteller has rules, and we invariably believe they will follow them.
This is typically a great source of terror! But as anyone who’s experienced enough of this stuff knows, it’s also liberating. When the monster finally appears in a horror movie, it’s there; you can see it, or you at least know roughly where it is or whether or not it’s doing anything. Different kinds of tension often follow, but that specifically potent dread of “what’s going to happen” disappears in that moment, because something has happened and now we can proceed from there.
The moment in the Historical Society does not do this. The trek down the stairs is excruciating, and the horns build up this awful sense that you’re approaching something bad, or worse, that something is approaching you. It’s an entire minute dedicated to building the palpable sense that something awful is about to happen. And then… nothing. Your release into the prison is equal parts anticlimactic and desperate, but it is not remotely liberating. It isn’t one of those fake scares where you realize that you never had anything to be afraid of; the mere appearance of the prison suggests that you definitely have something to fear, but it does not appear at the end of the buildup. The scare lingers because the fear that you have no idea what the fuck happened will invariably linger, through the rest of the game and beyond.
I use the word “anticlimactic” because it is, on paper, deeply unsatisfying. Most horror creators seem understandably puzzled by the notion of building something up only to leave it there unfinished and unformed. It’s no surprise that most horror games are filled with sequences that culminate in something real. Silent Hill was no stranger to this: there’s a moment in the Midwich Elementary School of the original game where you open a banging cabinet that’s seemingly empty, only to be jumpscared by a body falling out a locker as soon as you move forward. The banging of the cabinet remains mysterious, but it becomes structurally logical as misdirection. If you ask yourself why the cabinet was banging, the creative in you understands that it was banging to set up the locker sequence. It was not just banging.
Scares like these are super well-constructed and obviously quite memorable, but I’m not sure they’re what made the first handful of Silent Hill games so timelessly scary in a way their contemporaries never managed. What’s really great about Silent Hill is this willingness to subvert structure and payoff in ways that would be easy to sabotage in the planning process; how many people would be able to resist putting some kind of special enemy encounter at the bottom of those stairs? It feels right to finish your sentences — but then again, unfinished sentences feel wrong. It is the unique disquiet that only comes from something that is forever unfinished, with the complete lack of closure that implies.
If you need to be convinced of how great this stuff is, look no further than similar examples elsewhere; Lord of the Rings fans are still arguing over what the fuck Tom Bombadil is supposed to be; fans of Pulp Fiction are still trying to figure out what was so important about that briefcase; Beatles listeners are still trying to figure out if the walrus from I Am The Walrus was actually Paul. The things in art we can’t readily justify are often the things that stick around in our brains the longest, regardless of whether or not these non-sequiturs have true answers to the questions they pose in the first place.
But doing this stuff right is hard. There’s a reason that Silent Hill 2 remains a completely unique artifact, despite how “influential” it was. Mostly people took all the wrong lessons from it, which is why a lot of psychological horror games now are about a character’s subconscious guilt over an event they’ve managed to forget — once a remarkable twist, now an incredibly tired trope that most of us wish would go away (Bloober Team says hi).
AAA horror has largely stepped away from this kind of deliberate anticlimax, focusing on (excellent) flagship franchises like Resident Evil, where structure is concrete and payoff is inevitable. As with all forms of horror, the most interesting deviations of form are found on the indie circuit, where games like Iron Lung and Signalis (the only Silent Hill successor to truly reach the same heights as its source material), as well as less popular titles like Hypnagogia: Boundless Dreams continue to find new ways to scare and disquiet players.
Not just with the unknown, but with the strategically unfinished.
Making an exceptionally rare plug to say that the aforementioned horror game we’re working on is called Feed the Astronaut, and we’re really proud of it so far. If you’d like to see the stuff I was just talking about in other games, follow us both on Twitter and you might like what you end up playing!