Back when I first started looking at music in games I took a gander at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and while that piece of work is lost to time and cyber space my own shattered memories of the original Silent Hill still fucking haunt me to this very day. Silent Hill was one of the first games I ever played and while college frat boys were shitting themselves a 5 year old me was being traumatised by both disturbing imagery, a confusing as fuck story and THE MUSIC. CHRIST THE FUCKING INTRO SCORE FUCKING SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME.
Now to be perfectly honest here, Silent Hill was mostly a rather music free game, it used a lack of a score during the majority of game play to emphasise that you were alone and in a REALLY FUCKED UP TOWN. But, when the music did come into play, it was always to do one thing, add even more layers of atmosphere and freak you the fuck out. The main track that sticks with players is obviously the intro theme. Why? Well before we ask that question we must first ask this, how many gamers in the 90’s had ever heard a mandolin or something similar? Unless you were in a folk band or in World War 2 Germany not many. The use of unfamiliar instruments and clashing scores unsettles the player on a number of levels, mainly culturally and personally. For Japanese audiences, the track included instruments they had probably never even known existed and for the Western audiences who probably expected some kind of synth intro like in most PS1 games it just wasn’t expected. It made us uneasy. Uncomfortable.
It got under our skin.
You couple that with the lack of any music during actual game play for the most part and suddenly you’re not just playing a game anymore. You’re living a nightmare. You don’t know what you’re supposed to think or how the game will pan out without a score to indicate crucial points in game play. You’re all alone. Silent Hill broke the trend of using music to establish atmosphere in games by using its lack of music to create the atmosphere of isolation and helplessness within the game and player. The sheer effectiveness of this makes up for the complete lack of depth with characters and sub-par dialogue (not that I’m complaining, Christ at least it’s more refined than Resident Evil).
Now that’s not to say you play the game in complete and utter silence oh no no no you complete fool you. Here’s love presentation of a blind man playing Silent Hill done with onomatopoeias.
Clop, Clop, Clop, Clop (this will never end throughout the entire game no matter how badly you want it too), ssssssssssssssssssss, wah-thud! Wah-thus, shee shee shee, chaaa, chaaaa, chaaaaa.
And with the exception of entering a building and hearing the same organ note over and over and over that’s your lot for the majority of the game. Music does come into play during dialogue between characters, “boss” encounters and cinematics. And by god when it comes into play its unsettling as all hell. The music takes a passive role, never really jumping out at you unless it want to and for the most part you’ll be too engrossed in avoiding enemies or figuring out where the fuck you’re supposed to be going to really take the time to notice the music.
The main thing you’ll hear the most in Silent Hill however, is that fucking radio. Seriously, every 5 minutes or less you’ll hear it buzzing or crackling away. While this does add in interesting game play element giving you a heads up on nearby enemies it does make me want to stick knitting needles into my ears, especially if I’m playing with headphones. I suppose it can be argued that maybe this was the point, as a way of punishing the player for being stupid enough to hang around monsters and what not and it adds to the whole “you’re in the wrong part of town motherfucker” theme the music plays on but all in all it can get more irritating than immersive.
In a nut shell Silent Hill uses a “less is more” strategy which works to great effect. The lack of a constant musical score in place of repetitive sounds creates an atmosphere of isolation and uneasiness in the player while emphasising the helplessness of the characters in the town and when a score is implemented it always has some impact. All in all this games music (or rather overall lack of music) scared the shit out of me when I was a toddler and still makes me feel like pissing myself in the corner while playing it.
Check this out if you want to send some shivers down your spine or need some jams to murder your ex to.