I remember playing Silent Hill – the first one – in my junior year of high school. I played it in the dark, as one does. To the left of where my TV sat in my basement at the time, was the door to my dad’s office (or as I called it, the room of many Playboys). While I was playing, the door creaked open. There wasn’t anything there, of course – the bolt just lost its grip on the strike plate.
I could’ve been the first 17 year old to have a heart attack, the way I reacted. The game had pulled me into its world so thoroughly that a small thing like that was enough to just about kill me.
I’ve never found Dead Space to reach those heights even once. A few jump scares, sure, but nothing looming, nothing that could ever give me a nightmare. So what’s the difference? Why does Silent Hill still scare me
The big, easy answer is the location. Silent Hill is a smallish town with twenty-some-thousand people. Harry, James, and Heather all move through the homes, apartments, stores, and buildings of the town, and everywhere there are things to remind you that you’re in an American town. A burger joint, a mechanic’s garage, a parked car here and there. When the fog rolls in, any small town looks like Silent Hill.
The USG Ishimura and the Sprawl, on the other hand, are literally otherworldly. The Ishimura is one of my favorite game settings, no question. Like the recent Batman movies, everything feels like it has weight (even the zero-g sequences!). Even though it’s not a real place, it feels like it could be. If we ever figure out the secret to Faster-Than-Light travel, how long will it be before we have massive ships like the Ishimura tooling around the galaxy? For all that weight though, the game never lets you forget for a second that you’re in deep space. Regular zero-g sequences, rooms open to the vacuum of space, and constant references to the planet below keep that idea at the front of the player’s mind. Dead Space 2 goes even further with big, epic windows filled with gorgeous vistas of Saturn and space.
It’s the same thing with movies like Aliens. I adore the first two Alien movies, but I’m never going to have a nightmare about a Xenomorph, because Xenomorphs are on other planets and in space ships. Event Horizon scared the crap out of me when I was 15 though, I wonder if that still holds true, especially since a lot of the visual inspiration for Dead Space seems to come from that film, in my opinion.
But it’s not just the location, either. The armor plays a big role. While Isaac Clarke isn’t a security officer, he’s properly equipped for working in the sorts of environments he does. He’s clad from head to toe in iron ribbing and the coolest goddamn helmet since the Ninja in Metal Gear Solid. When he stomps, heads explode. When he fires, limbs go flying. That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful, but Isaac Clarke is a badass, while Silent Hill’s protagonists are always regular people with questionable aim (not to mention sanity) and enough luck to find a handgun before Pyramid Head shows up.
The monsters, of course, play a central role in both. In terms of sheer terror, the necromorphs may beat out Silent Hill’s monsters. They’re faster, meaner, and they will tear you apart. The Silent Hill monsters, with a few exceptions, more or less shamble. Turning off your light and running past them is often the preferred method of dealing with them. Speaking strictly to the danger they present, Silent Hill’s monsters just aren’t as threatening.
That said, there’s something about them that makes them frightening in a much deeper way. Like the necromorphs, Silent Hill’s creatures very much resemble humans. While the necromorphs are humans turned into walking biological weapons, Silent Hill’s residents are deeply disturbing images with a more than passing resemblance to things like bondage and sex. As if a creature made of legs wasn’t creepy and sexual enough, one scene in Silent Hill 2 depicts what appears to be the infamous Pyramid Head raping or otherwise having sex with one of the mannequin monsters. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is an entire game about a girl with some very creepy daddy issues as well, though that game did a lot of other stuff that killed the scare factor.
If I hadn’t spent so much time in Silent Hill, maybe Dead Space would scare me. It doesn’t keep Dead Space from being one of the coolest, most intense experiences in gaming, but it’ll never keep me up at night either.