Silent Hill 4 Deserved Better

[This will have some discussion of some of Silent Hill 4’s scares, I’d recommend playing the game before reading.]

Over the last few months, I’ve been going through all four of the original Team Silent-developed Silent Hill games, and let me say right off the bat, I loved them all. I know, praising the original Silent Hill games is nothing new, but they really are that good, easily some of the best horror games ever made. Silent Hill 3 is my favorite, for the record.

But that’s not the one I want to talk about here, I want to talk about the one that most people don’t actually really like — that would be, of course — Silent Hill 4: The Room. I heard very mixed things going into it, a lot of the people I’ve talked to hate it, others love it, and… well, I get it.

Silent Hill 4 is a weird game. The combat is the worst in the series, the lack of tank controls makes the fixed camera angles disorienting, the level design is bland, the characters have the personality of a plank of wood (except for one, and weirdly not the protagonist), the visuals (especially lighting) are a big downgrade after Silent Hill 3 and give the whole game a cheap feeling, and most commonly used as a point of criticism – the entire second half of the game is an escort mission with retreads of the same levels… it’s not a great game. So why is there a somewhat sizable amount of people that love it? Why did it stick with me enough to write an article about it? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple. The eponymous Room.

It begins with a simple premise, Henry Townshend is locked in Room 302 of his apartment. His door is covered with padlocks, and no one can see or hear him. He’s completely helpless and alone. The game immediately conveys this sense of isolation very well. The room is explored in a first person perspective, and there’s no music and barely any sound effects. Henry can look out the windows to see that the world is still going on without him, which instills both a sense of comfort and dread.

Silent Hill 4: The Room screenshot

At the same time, Henry begins to have strange nightmares that connect to the outside world in ways he doesn’t really understand. The majority of the game is in these nightmares, exploring surreal dreamscapes and having odd interactions with strange people. I know I said earlier the level design is bland, and I do think it is, but the areas do convey a sense of something being wrong very well. 

For some examples; the Forest World has a room where, once you pick up a key, the screen you’re in starts looping endlessly. Figuring out how to escape the loop is a small puzzle, but you might not even realize what’s happening at first, just that this doesn’t feel right. The Water Prison World has a structure and geometry that doesn’t really make any sense at all, and it’s hard to tell if it even is a prison, it might be some kind of orphanage, or maybe both?

Silent Hill 4: The Room screenshot
The whole game is just like this.

While exploring these sections, you find a hole in the wall every so often, entering these has Henry wake back up in his apartment. There, his health refills automatically, and he can manage his limited inventory with an item chest, it’s also the save point in the whole game. It’s a hub area, essentially, and like any hub area in a video game, it begins to feel like a home. It starts out feeling strange and isolated, but you begin to grow comfortable in it, this is your safe haven.

It’s still a little strange at points, sometimes you feel like something’s off, maybe something moved? Maybe it didn’t, you can’t say. Did you actually just hear that sound, or was it your imagination? Who knows? It doesn’t matter, you’re safe from those nightmares for now, right?

Remember how I briefly mentioned the second half of the game, and how it’s a redundant escort mission that no one really likes? Let me offer another perspective, the second half is why Silent Hill 4 is a masterclass of horror design. Now, I’m not gonna say the escort mission is, uh, good, but the other defining part of that second half is that it completely shatters the status quo.

Around the end of the first half, the player goes back to the apartment, not expecting anything weird to happen, probably. Why would they? It’s been the same the whole time. However, something is wrong, there’s a grainy filter over the view of the apartment, and Henry’s health is no longer refilling. There’s a crashing sound upon entering the apartment, and after walking further in, you see the ceiling fan collapsed on the table.

It’s hard to really put into words how discomforting this is, it’s a place the player has spent the whole game getting used to, and it’s different now. They probably aren’t really sure how much it’s different yet, but they’ll very quickly realize that Room 302 is now haunted.

What does this mean? Well, a lot of things. The hauntings are selected randomly from a list each time you re-enter the apartment. Maybe the clock will start ticking wildly, maybe the chair in the room will be covered with blood, maybe strange cracks will manifest on the wall. Going near any of these oddities will do damage to you, and the only way to get rid of them is with the Holy Candle and Saint Medallion items you find in the nightmare worlds, the former can be placed near one to get rid of it, and the latter can be equipped and will get rid of any hauntings you stand near after doing so, breaking after a couple times.

This is incredible horror game design, establishing then ripping away feelings of safety and forcing the player to face their fears are Horror Game 101, and this does both in a way that really messes with the player’s head. It immediately changes what was once a sigh of relief to a pit in the player’s stomach.

The unfortunate part of all of this, is that the game surrounding all of this is a pretty weak Silent Hill game. I’ve already said a lot of the problems, and unfortunately the phenomenal horror design of the room itself doesn’t really make those things go away. It’s genuinely saddening to me that something this good is trapped in a game that just… isn’t very good overall. I would go more into detail on what makes it not great, but frankly that’s been discussed enough.

Silent Hill 4: The Room screenshot
Combat funny.

This should’ve been groundbreaking for horror games, this should’ve spawned dozens of games using Silent Hill 4 as an inspiration, but it just didn’t. Not many people really care about Silent Hill 4, and I get why, it’s blatantly unfinished and rushed. I just wish it’s amazing ideas could be acknowledged, and learnt from.

To my knowledge, there’s not really any other horror games that do anything like that, and that’s depressing. You could argue Hideo Kojima’s P.T. was inspired by Silent Hill 4, and I’d agree, but it’s 15 minutes long so it can’t really capture the same feeling at all.

At the end of the day, it’s still my second favorite Silent Hill game, and a game I really do love despite it’s massive flaws, but I wish it got the chance to be more, and I wish others would be willing to learn from its good ideas. Unfortunately, with Konami’s current state, it probably never will get a remake or anything of the sort, so it’s eternally doomed to be The Bad Silent Hill Game.

On that note, I would absolutely encourage anyone looking to make a horror game to play it, (and the rest of the original series but everyone has told you that) and who knows? Maybe it’ll be a good source of inspiration. It inspired me a lot, at least, and I hope it can do the same for others.

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