The Sound of Silent: Music in Silent Hill

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There are jobs monkeys can do, and then there are jobs you can’t give to a monkey because the soul-smashing tedium would be considered a form of animal cruelty. Scanning the items on supermarket shelves to make sure they all have the right price was one of those soul-smashing tedium jobs – just empty aisles and buzzing fluorescent lights until nine p.m. rolled around and I could go home.

On the walk home I normally didn’t see anyone. But on this night the lights were on in a home entertainment store where a friend of mine sold expensive car stereos and huge TVs. He was still in there, working late on the books when I went in to say “hi”. Too busy to talk, he said he had something to show me and shoved me into the back room and out of his way. There was a projector hooked up to a PlayStation back there, and a new game I apparently had to try. Then he went back to his books.

That was how I played Silent Hill for the first time. Head fuzzy from a job that used such a small slice of brain the rest shut down in despair, alone in the dark, holding a controller that burred and thudded in time with the heartbeat of the game’s protagonist as he ran through the streets of an abandoned town. The locations were ordinary – a school, a hospital, shops – the kind of public places it feels wrong to be in when the rest of the public aren’t.

Afterwards, I walked the rest of the way home flinching at every flicker of a streetlight.

Two years later I bought my own copy second-hand. I immediately caught the flu and spent the next three days lying on the couch, coughing and sneezing and playing while not sure what was real and what was feverish hallucination.

I remain convinced Silent Hill dislikes being played in a normal frame of mind.

There are a lot of things working against Silent Hill. To make it easier for impatient players to skip through the dialogue each snippet was recorded separately, awkward pauses separating every line. That dialogue was also translated from Japanese to English by rough hands, and has enjoyed adventures along the way. Confronted by a broken radio that suddenly turns on by itself and crackles with static, our protagonist barks, “What’s that? Huh? Radio? What’s going on with that radio?” He talks like one of the Yip Yip aliens from Sesame Street.

That protagonist, an author named Harry Mason, then gathers an arsenal of weaponry in the traditional video game sequence: pistol, then shotgun, then rifle. Boxes of ammunition along with health kits and energy drinks are also scattered around the town for him to find, as if a kind hobo has been seeding them across the country like Johnny Appleseed only with bullets.

But what works, what pulls you into its atmosphere in spite of everything else, is the music. While the opening theme is mandolin-heavy trip-hop and elsewhere there are pretty piano filigrees, chiming church bells, and one bizarrely out-of-place (but lovely) flamenco tune, when the shit hits the fan it’s accompanied by industrial clatter and clang. Huge drums like oncoming trains, droning alarms, discordant noise: these are the basic elements of Silent Hill’s soundtrack. You can’t relax when you know that whatever pleasantly minimal ambient tune is playing over the game’s quiet scenes could erupt at any time into something that would make a German experimentalist tug at his turtleneck collar and exclaim, “Was ist das crazy klingen?”

Talking to me over email, the game’s composer and sound designer Akira Yamaoka admits, “I’ve used a lot of sounds that people normally hate.” He is not exaggerating. During the final boss fight there’s a noise made by a pitch-shifted dentist’s drill, and in the school segment he used chalk squeaking on blackboards as an instrument.

But, heard separately from the game on the soundtrack album, the music is weirdly enjoyable. The pounding drums are energising, like the thumping din of Einstürzende Neubauten or Throbbing Gristle. After a while the regular approach of metallic hammering seems almost friendly, an old pal dropping round. You can’t dance to it, but you can perform a kind of full-body heaving that’s pretty cathartic. The irregular sidelong shifts into completely different genres keep it surprising, and never last too long. Many of the tracks run under two minutes, several less than one. It’s eerie and discomfiting, but it’s never boring.

“I’ve always wanted to break the generic ‘game music’ style based on classical music or rock or techno,” says Yamaoka. “You hear it too often. It’s not that I try to use different types of music, but I choose each genre that is best suited for each situation in the game, let it be industrial or trip-hop. And I might have chosen those genres as they aren’t usually heard in video games.”

As well as being a fine addition to your collection of atonal weirdness, it’s excellent music for a game. Silent Hill had one of the first soundtracks to take advantage of the CD era’s ability for video game music to play more than three notes at once, creating something that reinforced the game it was made for in a way that’s unique to the form.

As soon as console hardware developed the potential for soundtracks to sound like movie music rather than jaunty electronic bleeps and blonks, game scores began to ape those of films. In the horror genre that meant the mood-building cliches of orchestras who were keeping busy in the off-season – hauntingly spare piano and the tortured violin strings familiar from Psycho and almost every horror movie since.

True story: Bernard Herrman, composer of Psycho, wrote the entire score for strings because he didn’t want to stretch the budget to cover an entire orchestra’s worth of musicians. Lacking drums, he made the violinist stab at the instrument as if playing percussion. Director Alfred Hitchcock had wanted the infamous shower scene to be silent, until he heard what Herrman was doing to that poor violin.

For the 1996 game Resident Evil, Capcom hired Mamoru Samuragochi, a composer dubbed “Japan’s Beethoven” because, like Beethoven, he created music in spite of being deaf. (Years later it would be revealed Samuragochi’s deafness was a ruse and all his work was done by an assistant. Samuragochi couldn’t even read sheet music.) The Resident Evil score mixed cinematic orchestral cues with the pacey drum-and-synth music games have used for action sequences since the arcade days. Resident Evil was a hit, not just in Japan but in the west as well, and it created a fad for horror games that shared its use of 3D perspective, puzzle-solving, and limited ammunition, a subgenre that was called “survival horror.”

While survival horror had ancestors like Alone In The Dark (1992) and Sweet Home (1989), it was Resident Evil that popularised it, and inspired Konami to commission their own take on the formula. Seeing Resident Evil’s success outside Japan they conceived Silent Hill as an explicitly American style of horror. “We tried to recreate the world views from American novels as the most important priorities,” as the game’s director Keiichirō Toyama explained in a commercial.

Team Silent spent hours pulling apart works of American horror by authors like Stephen King to see how they worked, arguing about them with all the passion of western horror fans discussing Ringu. While Silent Hill explicitly references King’s story ‘The Mist’, the film Jacob’s Ladder, and the tropes of American small-town horror in general, inevitably those elements come with a Japanese twist. The backstory has the special kind of escalating, mind-blowing convolution that’s a mainstay of Japanese horror movies and manga, of stories like Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (in which an entire town becomes dangerously obsessed with a spiral shape that appears in whirlpools, seashells, and pottery, then eventually on the inhabitants’ skin) and Town Without Streets (in which indestructible buildings grow out of a town’s roads until the locals must walk through them to travel anywhere, eventually eroding the continuity of their sense of home and privacy).

Likewise the music is inspired by American sounds, but twisted through different sensibilities. Yamaoka, who composed all but one of the songs and played all of the instruments, references Depeche Mode and Metallica as influences but, above all, calls Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor his main inspiration both for “really emotional sounds that you hear from Nine Inch Nails” and music that is “very sensitive and intricate as you hear in his music for movies.”

Reznor is especially well-known to game composers for his work on the score and sound design of the 1996 first-person shooter Quake. That game’s throbbing electronic beats, white-noise static, and long sections of atonal minimalism can be seen as the blueprint for what Yamaoka did on Silent Hill, but Quake’s music lacks its variety and precision. Yamaoka created music in short bursts that could be made reactive, switched between quickly in response to sudden changes of scene or tone based on the unpredictable player’s actions. Reznor’s music fills an atmospheric background, but only ever breaks out of monotone gloominess when he adds electric guitar for the theme tune. Reznor’s best scores are those he makes for movies like The Social Network, where they can reflect and accentuate the flow of an unfolding story, where nobody goes off-script and decides to run back to an earlier scene in case they missed a health kit.

Before becoming a composer and sound designer for games, Yamaoka was “a freelance artist, making music for commercials, dramas and radio shows.” He’d played guitar in a high-school punk band called ZOA, but after realising how easy it was to create songs on his computer, began entering competitions to compose game music. That led to work on “a Mega Drive game from Sega called Spark Star. Before that though, I did music programming for a game called Jelly Boy for SNES.” He spent eight years working on titles like a shoot-em-up in the Contra series, cutesy console games like Smart Ball and Poy Poy 2, as well as a couple of almost forgotten sports games.

But when Konami put together the development group called Team Silent, they weren’t looking for strong résumés. The group was made entirely of rejects from other departments, tossed together for a money-spinning project aimed at a profitable foreign market that might be their last chance to prove themselves.

Knowing this could be their final project, Team Silent threw themselves into it. Where before he’d usually been part of a team of composers, Yamaoka volunteered to create the music and also be the game’s sole sound designer, believing only he could get it right. Unlike the usual system of bringing composers in towards the later stage of a game – like the writers, they’re often given a batch of levels and half-sketched character concepts then told to go to town – Yamaoka was there from the start to suggest ideas and influence the mood as it was being created.

Horror is the one genre where sound design is really given its due. Whether sound is used to evoke things better left to the imagination, or suggest something that can’t be shown like the brutal stabbing in Psycho – a noise that was made by Alfred Hitchcock plunging a knife into a watermelon – everybody knows that the things we don’t see are the most frightening. Footsteps on the stairs when you thought the house was empty are all it takes to give you a chill, and Yamaoka, who continued working on the later Silent Hill games after the first proved successful, infamously recorded hundreds of unique footstep noises for Silent Hill 2.

But in the first game, with a smaller budget, he concentrated on repeating a smaller set of well-timed sounds to evoke dread. When monsters appear Harry’s radio (“What’s going on with that radio?”) screeches with static, as if the creatures are so unnatural even electromagnetic radiation reacts to the wrongness of their presence. Shocking at first, this noise becomes something you rely on, an early warning system that lets you know something is out there in the fog or darkness.

Fog and darkness are the two states Silent Hill switches between, an unpredictable cycle that replaces true day and night with impenetrable mist alternating with pitch blackness that reshapes the ghost town into a rusty, chain-link nightmare. It’s a portrait of Hell updated for the industrial age, where buildings have the same outlines but are re-cast by torchlight into grinding steel, inhabited by things twisted like the faces in a Francis Bacon painting.

The shift from fog to darkness is accompanied by another noise, a wail like that of an air-raid siren or an approaching fire engine, a warning that disaster is on its way and there’s nothing you can do about it. When the darkness gives way to fog, the same sound recurs. Silent Hill in fog may be full of things hidden by the mist, wingbeats and four-legged footfalls heard shortly after the radio’s staticky warnings, but like the static the siren announcing the fog’s return becomes an odd comfort – things may be bad, but you’ve seen worse. The static and sirens become your friends. A climber getting used to breathing thin air, you grow acclimatised.

You get acclimatised to the music too. Like a metalhead scoffing at old people who say “It’s just noise!” you get used to its rhythms and begin to see order in the chaos, and even beauty. As the other Francis Bacon said, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” and the music of Silent Hill has plenty.

  • Moe Nwala

    well written! I love Silent Hill and its music. At least when team Silent Hill worked together

  • Alazmi

    This is a very well written article. Accurate information, good metaphors, and good choice of words. I admire Silent Hill 1, and it is always a lovely thing to hear other people’s experiences from their perspectives.