Stories with exceptional world building stick with you long after you put them down. They invite you on detours to take in the surroundings: the blimp filled skyline, the gear filled horizon, the towers of steam. These things leave an impression. Stories that veer away from their champions to explore strange civilizations, with nonsensical norms, invite us to image how we’d fit in. Universes with different natural laws, where magic is real and sorcerers can recreate their results lead us to conduct our own thought experiments.
Stories with exceptional world building take up prime real estate in our imaginations. Their authors build the steel frames of civilizations, but leave us with enough ambiguity to fill in with our own details. That’s why people keep returning to the shires of Middle Earth, the dunes of Arrakis, and the rose fields of the Dark Tower.
This phenomenon transcends mediums, down yellow brick roads, through galaxies far far away, and even virtual Matrixes. In fact one of my favorite imagined universes comes from a videogame series called Silent Hill.
I want to explore what makes these games so haunting and what they can teach writers about the importance of world building.
What is Silent Hill?
For those of you who’ve never been to Silent Hill it’s a ghost town in rural Maine. A place where the mist hangs low and ash falls like snow. A mining community that went up in smoke when a coal deposit ignited, perhaps from a accident, perhaps from a ritual sacrifice gone wrong. The fires rage to this day, pumping plumes of smoke through cracks in the street, concealing the town’s tragic history beneath a fog of toxic fumes.
While other ghost towns are a draw for urban explorers Silent Hill attracts a different type of visitor.
Silent Hill through James Sunderland’s Eyes
James Sunderland receives a cryptic letter from his wife Mary, inviting him to join her in their “special place.” The problem is their special place is in Silent Hill at the heart of a burning hellscape. The bridges there have collapsed. Highway patrol officers guard the roads into town. Oh and Mary has been dead for three years. James goes anyway, parking at a rest stop, and trekking through the wilderness until he finds himself in Silent Hill.
On his way James encounters Angela and Eddie, others like him, summoned by the ghosts of their pasts. They mutter to themselves, thinking aloud on past sins. They all seems too far-gone to make for helpful companions.
Shortly after finding a radio James encounters a figure in a tunnel. It staggers into the light revealing its arms are bound in a straight jacket of flesh, its feet are fused with stiletto heels, and its face is featureless apart from a long zipper leading to a gash from which it spews acid vomit. The creature’s very presence makes the radio burst with static.
From here on James embarks on violent journey into the fog, through boarded up buildings, rust strewn corridors, and unspeakable horrors.
Battered and shook James makes it to Mary’s special place in the park, where he encounters Maria, Mary’s physical double and emotional opposite.
This is when story takes a turn for the abstract and James starts to question the authenticity of what he sees. Just as the town reveals its darkness James reveals the darkness within himself.
We learn Mary had a terminal illness and spent her final days in hospice, where she grew hostile to her husband. James responded by drinking himself into a deep depression. He should’ve known his wife was dead when he came into town, because he’s the one who killed her. James smothered Mary with a pillow. He’s been in denial ever since he entered Silent Hill. His journey through the city mirrored the stages of grief.
It turns out the monsters are manifestations of things James has tried to keep buried. The knife wielding nurses in their low cut shirts and short skirts represent his pent up sexual animosity, as do the leggy mannequins chasing him through dark hotel rooms, but the ultimate manifestation of James’s repressed feeling comes in the form Pyramid Head.
Pyramid Head is a giant with a Judas Cradle on its shoulders, a long apron stitched together from human skin, dragging a sword the size of a surfboard across the floor. This unrelenting boogieman represents James’s desire to punish himself.
What is Silent Hill Underneath the Surface?
Silent Hill acts as a psychic Venus flytrap, summoning damaged people by posing as dead loved ones, abducting living ones, or on occasion embedding portals in their homes. The city behaves like a trial for lost souls, testing their character, passing judgment, and ultimately sentence. The outcome of the game changes depending on the player’s choices. One ending will have you limping away with your arms draped over other survivors; another will have you being fitted with a pyramid head of your very own.
In Silent Hill reality is all in the eye of the beholder.
In the 3rdentry, Vincent, a local, scolds Heather Mason for vanquishing the creatures that have been attacking her throughout the game.
“You come here and enjoy spilling their blood and listening to them cry out. You feel excited when you step on them and snuff out their lives.”
“Are you talking about the monsters?”
“Monsters?… They look like monsters to you?”
As for what the people passing through Silent Hill are actually experiencing that all depends on them.
Are they so fraught with guilt that they don’t realize they’re the ones tormenting themselves? Are they victims of the town’s cult, sacrifices to a God from an all but unheard of mythos? Is the town itself a kind of organism feeding on psychic turbulence?… Or is it aliens? The series keeps the answers to these questions ambiguous.
What Silent Hill is really depends on who’s walking down its sidewalks at the time, which is what makes its psychological horror resonate.
I’m disappointed when I read horror stories with great action beats and no description. Like the story doesn’t have time to let me imagine what’s lurking in the darkness. The author essentially says, “It’s a rundown farmhouse. You’ve seen a farmhouse before. Fill in the blanks yourself.”
There is such a thing as giving too much information and robbing your reader of their part in the transaction. Reading and writing is a collaborative process, but I’m not content to plants seeds in your imagination. I want to scoop a little fertilizer on. My locations have stories to tell. I leave evidence for eagle-eyed readers. I lean heavy on the atmosphere.
This storytelling technique is front and center in the fog-strewn streets of Silent Hill, where long shadows peel the paint off the walls, where wheelchairs roll on their own, and reflections bleed. Explore the storefronts and you’ll find a window covered in newspaper with the phrase “There was a hole here. It’s gone now,” written upon it. Visit the amusement park and you might happen upon a rabbit mascot sitting motionless on the bench. Go down the wrong back alley and you’ll find a blood drenched sheet draped across a gurney.
The town is filled with empty dilapidated buildings, where every wall tile has started to crumble, every support beams is exposed, and every floorboard creaks.
Not only is the atmosphere of Silent Hill haunting, it’s lonely, and at times strangely tranquil. You can go a while without encountering a monster, rowing through the calm waters of Toluca Lake, wandering the woods, or the mausoleums of Monroe Cemetery.
It’s the different environments that make Silent Hill feel like a richer spiritual experience than just another Hell-themed game.
The creatures creeping through the allies of Silent Hill aren’t from the pages of known mythology. They don’t look like feral fauns. Games like DOOMare all too happy to depict traditional demons with horns and hooves, but most monsters in Silent Hill buck tradition, opting instead to play on our fear of the unknown. Rather than relying on esoteric scares the team behind Silent Hill made their monsters Freudian.
In each game the monsters are reflections of the protagonist’s fears and their deepest twisted desires.
In Silent Hill 2 James Sunderland’s repressed sexuality attacks him at every turn in the form of sultry nurses with backward faces and figures with gargantuan arms with vaginal lips for hands (yes, you read that right).
Another character, Angela Orosco, finds herself haunted by a creature called the Abstract Daddy, a lump of twisted flesh with a bed frame for hips, created by the city to trigger traumatic memories.
Silent Hill’s conjoined walking bondage tumors are even more abstract than the cenobites roaming the labyrinths in Hellraiser. They are phantasmagorical, hypersexual, grotesque oddities.
Akira Yamaoka’s 7 Silent Hill scores have been my writing soundtracks for years. They are the perfect mix of calming trip-hip, chilling ambience, and mechanized terror.
Slow synthesizers reverberate over quick picking mandolin, Halloween sound FX whisper over the metallic screeching of old industrial machinery.
Yamaoka’s textured soundscapes always put me in the mood to write scary stories. If you’re a fan of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s film scores than you must check out the Silent Hill soundtracks.
Silent Hill 4introduced an enemy type unheard of in games before it. Imagine you’re running through an abandoned subway. It’s pitch black apart from a light mounted to your pocket. You crawl beneath some scaffolding until you see an old homeless man.
He’s hunched over, his skin is egg white, his eyes are sunken in so deep they’re black, and what’s that? He’s floating? You back into the scaffolding and metal bars scatter in all directions. You turn back to find the old man has closed the gap between you. When he yawns his jaw sags off his skull, letting out a terrible bellow. You scurry backward, grab a loose piece of scaffolding without thinking and swing at the pale-faced man. You knock him back, but before he’s down for the count he slithers away. You run back the way you came and slam the door behind you. That’s when you hear the strangest sound, like raindrops in a puddle just over your shoulder. You turn around to find the pale-faced man pushing his torso through a bubbling muck, bleeding through the door.
InSilent Hill 4you could knock the ghosts down, outrun them, and put several doors between yourself and them, but they just kept coming. Even in the apartment the player returned to between levels. There were ghosts oozing through the mildew and seeping in from the ceiling.
Silent Hill 4captured that classic nightmare scenario of being chased by monster that’s always licking your heels. Resident Evil 3: Nemesisdid this too by sicing a weaponized zombie on you, but it only happened in controlled spurts that felt scripted. Since then games like Amnesia: The Dark Descentand Outlasthave amped up the nightmare chase scenario to eleven, but Silent Hill 4was the first time I felt like I was playing a waking nightmare.
Ever since Dante’s Infernothe idea of a hell mouth on this mortal plane has been very attractive setting for horror writers. Silent Hilloffers a bold creative take on the concept. Silent Hill1-4 are master classes in world building and I implore horror authors to check them out.