Like any great film, a video game is often only as strong as the sum of its parts. Music can be just as important as gameplay or visuals to making or breaking a game. In his new column Audio Play, Deadshirt Video Games Editor Kyle Herr showcases some of his favorite composers from the past and present.
I’m a big fan of video game soundtracks, which I’m sure is starting to show by now, but I’m also a huge fan of horror games. Really, the whole genre of horror is a passion of mine. There’s nothing like coming face-to-face with the creeping sensation of dread and the fear of the unknown, but in a contained, safe environment. One series in particular, Silent Hill, has long satisfied both of these loves in one psychologically frightening package. So it only makes sense that I take the opportunity in this most spooky of months to unveil Audio Play: The Silent Hilloween Special. Over the course of four weeks, I will take you on a musical journey through my favorite cursed mountain town and into the mind of longtime series composer Akira Yamaoka. Now turn down the lights, plug in your headphones, and relax… for now.
A staple of each Silent Hill game is an intro theme that has become synonymous with a particular title in the series. The song posted above is the titular track from the first game, the original Silent Hill on the Playstation. Each intro song is unique to the tone of the particular installment and based around an actual hummable melody, something that can’t really be said about the body of these soundtracks.
Even with the melody and more rock-like sensibilities of this song, the opening motif played by the mandolin and guitar that permeates this song provides an unsettling feeling, perfect for ruining a night drive in the rolling hills of the rural Northeast.
Something particularly special about the original game is the prominence of the dissonant, uncomfortable, and sometimes sickeningly overbearing music. It’s the perfect kind of oppressive noise to accompany protagonist Harry Mason’s personal descent into hell as he searches for his missing daughter, Cheryl, through the fog-choked streets of a ghost town with only a small flashlight to light his way. As odd as it may sound, I absolutely love the electronically distorted and static blasted sounds of this score, a combination of industrial music and the scores of David Lynch films, specifically those composed by one of Yamaoka’s chief influences, Angelo Badalamenti.
Another important factor contributing to the atmosphere of these games was Yamaoka’s involvement as the head of sound design as well as composing the score. This gave him almost complete control of how the game’s audio played into the cacophony of noise. This can be heard throughout the series through various motifs that carry over and play important roles, perhaps the most important of which are the sounds of the small radio that each protagonist stumbles upon, which lets out bursts of static when monsters approach. This leads to endless tense moments, particularly in sections when the music is mostly comprised of ambient buzzing. Sure, this may help you anticipate attacks, but the effect that this has on the game’s rare calm moments is often much more unnerving than the noisier scenes. Here’s an example of an ambient track and some of the radio sounds that often punctuate these otherwise calm scenes. I recommend playing both of these simultaneously to experience the described effect.
Silent Hill is not completely about scares though, as the series often turns to tragedy as the games progress. Without dropping too many spoilers, here is a short song that plays over a cutscene in which a character learns that they are not what they think they are. I think that this scene in particular is probably the most powerful scene in the first game, which is unfortunately hampered by some very dated voice overs and plot points.
But along with those somber moments of tragedy come climactic moments of terror. Silent Hill is first and foremost a series about building tension and fear. In the case of the first game, Harry learns through his journey that he and Cheryl may have more of a connection to the events transpiring around them than he initially believes. By the final confrontation, the opposition and stakes could not be more frightening and the final boss theme perfectly capture the feeling that there is no happy ending awaiting.
Even after the story ends, the sense of relief that arises from these games is often one of exhaustion, not because you’re glad that the nightmare is over, but because they often leave the player emotionally drained. When it comes to horror, not many things can affect me in the same way that Silent Hill can. So if you consider yourself a fan of horror games, films, books, or whatever else, you should give this series a shot. If you’re still not sure though, or you find that you just can’t get enough, tune in next week when I will be showcasing the music of the second installment in the series. Until then, I’ll leave you with my favorite song from the original.
Audio Play will return in a week with more Silent Hill music!