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. Continue reading How Silent Hill Inspired My Writing