August Saint Freytag

Concept and Experience Designer, Video and Story Artist
Best in landscape.

Counting Polygons

A traversal through the streets of the fog-covered town of Silent Hill, lured in by the attempt of finding a suitable visual presentation for a planned game project. Exploring a constructive modern day application of retro graphics.

I’ve recently started getting into Unity, a popular game engine widely used across the ever-expanding landscape of independent game development. This has all been kicked off by a new interactive project that began with an initial idea spark towards the start of pandemic+1, the year of 2021.

Me and a good friend of mine were in an evening session playing Amnesia: Rebirth by Swedish studio Frictional Games, then completely stuck on a weirdly designed puzzle in what seemed like a spacious underground ritual chamber, idly hopping around from pedestal to pedestal and becoming progressively more and more distracted by this new thing. It was a philosophical concept first that was sculpted more and more into something game-mechanical, something with a setting and a mode of exploration. Even if Rebirth failed on that day to be a compelling horror experience to play together in a voice call at night, credit can still be passed along to Frictional as sources of inspiration, having previously created SOMA as their official 2015 return to self-developed horror titles ever since the original Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010, all of which are excellent inspirations to what makes modern horror.

To be prepared for the development side of all this and make the first steps towards a prototype, I plunged into Unity and tried to determine how much general coding expertise I could transfer over to C#, a language I had heard a lot about but never wrote a single line of. What also had to come together in the line-up of creative decisions after the initial talks was the game’s visual presentation. The goal here was to elect a general style that would be able to stage the virtual environment we had in mind, something that could carry and envelop the story taking place there, yet also something that would allow us to stay within the self-evident limits on time and planned project size.

A picture that formed early on was most probably directed by the recent recurrence of retro graphics in the small titles spawned from various game jams and successful independent releases, most of which are 2D, though a few entries into 3D can also be named; there was the cult-and-occult-themed Dusk (2018, David Szymanski, New Blood Interactive), the randomly generated, woman-powered Nightmare Reaper (2019, Blazing Bit Games), the highly acclaimed mystery puzzle Return of the Obra Dinn (2019, Lucas Pope, 3909 LLC), also worthy of note, the accessible VR dungeon crawler COMPOUND (2018, Bevan McKechnie). Some styles are more indigent than others — borrowing the visuals of older console generations, even going as far back as to the style of text adventures like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1984, Infocom) is back on the table.

One title specifically kept creeping back into my mind while we were still discussing if the game would even be built in three dimensions at all. I knew its reputation, loved how it looked, its environments, and knew I wanted to do something just like it.

The Game

I had never played Silent Hill. Free-floating in my head were many impressions of what the series was like, though via generational circumstance, I only came to know it long after the title made its remarkable entry into the survival horror landscape it itself helped carve out.

Strangely enough, I did play one of its sequels soon after it came out, Homecoming, produced by Western studio Double Helix Games and released in 2008, an entry that was decently received but still only marked a further downturn from the original’s foundation (as summarised in rambling detail by an episode of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation at the time). I would respect the parts this entry got right in its own way, an oppressing and claustrophobic crawl through the foggy streets of a small town detached from reality, twisted characters and monsters, some puzzle elements to progress through it. All in all, Homecoming still stands closer to its original than the path its sibling series of the same genre realm, Resident Evil, took with its sixth instalment. On top of having played one of the less liked releases, I’ve also seen one of the first self-titled film adaptations (2006, directed by Christoph Gans, Davis Films, Konami) but I don’t remember much about it today.

Tracing back to today, I knew a bit about Silent Hill, the world, but almost nothing about Silent Hill, the game. Before this reignited interest, I had seen parts of one or two Let’s Plays that gave me a fragmentary impression of it being a game with an unapologetically low graphical fidelity to the point of being almost illegible, gameplay with constant stressful encounters with apparently respawning monsters and weird controls, environments that are impossible to navigate, a ton of backtracking, and puzzles unsolvable without a second monitor spewing GameFAQs, throwing around cryptic clues, pixel hunting, and generally a lot of dying. Then I actually played it.

The boot screen of the PlayStation 1

The original game was released for the first PlayStation, a console I never owned. I played the US version in OpenEmu, an emulator suite for the Mac, so the version that started up to a beautifully colourful PlayStation logo was the same screen players first saw in 1999. The game doesn’t waste any time, takes you quickly to a bare-bones menu screen and off you’re sent into (skippable) cutscenes of our protagonist, Harry Mason, driving to the town of Silent Hill with his daughter, Cheryl, for a retreat, crashing on the side of the road and coming to with his daughter gone. The premise is a simple mystery, find your missing child again, and it is immediately engaging, with flakes of supernatural strangeness in the air.

Silent Hill, prologue section, Harry running after Cheryl

When the pre-recorded intro cutscene handed the visuals over to the engine and I first gained control of Harry, I was marvelled. I expected the game to be gravely limited in its visuals, held back by the technical capabilities of Sony’s now museum-worthy console but the first moments rendered me a different image — the graphics were incredibly pleasing and resolution was obviously low but the game seemed to employ a number of tricks to refine what would otherwise be a crude picture. For a major one, the game uses dithering to blend colours, a technique that produces a certain noise that tricks the eye into perceiving more colour tones and non-existent detail in the overall image, almost like a well-applied sharpening filtering or film grain.

Silent Hill, Harry following Cheryl into the alley
Silent Hill, Exploring the streets around the diner

Of course, with the PlayStation’s consumer-grade graphical power of the late 90s, models jitter in their non-floating point coordinate systems, viewing distance is only a few metres but this comes together to bring some unique effects that are nothing if not to the game’s benefit. The low resolution, together with the dithered look on textures and the way the fog blends distant objects and creatures is beautiful. As you move through the moody streets of Silent Hill, the road, traffic signs, buildings, and every little object before you fades in and out with a charming checkerboard pattern. The restricted image and colour depth creates a visually flattering style and is one of the major attributes that solidifies the way the game sells technical optimisations as self-evident game features.

Silent Hill, Returning to the diner after waking up
Silent Hill, checking out the broken radio

As another convenient technical property made feature, the video output of the console is interlaced, meaning every frame consists of two halves of a full image, a scanning technique that is right at home with cathode ray tube monitors and televisions, the kind of screen common for the turn of the millenium. Interlacing has the convenient side effect of doubling frame rate with the same processing load on the console and gives us the wondrous takeaway that PlayStation 1 games produced double the frames per second of modern day console games in this mode (60i vs. 30p). In practice, the game isn’t always able to keep up this frame rate, especially in more detailed environments or when there are enemies around you; there are also moments when the interlacing is particularly noticeable, like switching items in the inventory screen. It still means that the controls, while clunky at first, can feel smoother than even some more recent titles on far more modern generations of hardware.

In practice, the game isn’t always able to keep up a high frame rate, especially in more detailed environments or when there are enemies around you, though it remains playable even with these occasional dips; there are also moments when the interlacing is particularly noticeable, like switching items in the inventory screen. More recent titles with sophisticated game engines may even offer interlacing as an optimisation toggle (like Resident Evil 7, 2017, Capcom).

On top of what the engine does, Silent Hill also has an obvious amount of polishwork that went into modelling, texturing, and animation. Certain effects that may be achieved today through ambient occlusion or other techniques are baked directly into texture art — every wall has grime around the edges, bricks have traces of the elements between them. It manages to achieve convincing dynamic lighting despite being years away from real-time shadows or reflections, something it immediately showcases in its prologue where Harry pulls out a lighter after sudden nightfall.

Despite having a screen resolution of 320×240, every object in the game world is recognisable at first glance. Early on, this settled one of my bigger concerns of having to hunt around for microscopic puzzle pieces in an open environment, tracing back and forth a thousand times to “press X” on just the right pixel in one of ten identical dark rooms; instead, everything that needs to be found is discernible and what I thought was tedium instead turned out to be an engaging sense of discovery.

Silent Hill, dog house, exterior
Silent Hill, dog house, interior

Following its introduction, the game sets up an environment to ease into and prepare for a more open-world the player will be moving in later on, something it has in common with other highly regarded titles like Horizon Zero Dawn (2017, Guerrilla), Fallout: New Vegas (2010, Obsidian Entertainment) and more recently Death Stranding (2019, Kojima Productions) and Breath of the Wild (2017, Nintendo). Countless games just give you a tutorial of questionable usefulness: some basic prompts, explaining how to look, jump, and crouch to any battle-hardened gal or guy who plays arena shooters with podcasts on and beats Bloodborne with a Logitech® G29 steering wheel while watching Netflix Originals on their second monitor just to calm their nerves — what the open-world games listed do instead is essentially frontload a feature-complete vertical slice, a teaser of mechanics and style, preserving player agency and accommodating for some experimentation.

The first calm area, the Café “5to2” where Harry wakes up again after his dream-like arrival, nicely offers some of the items to look out for, giving a bit of needed starting equipment and also allowing the player to get a good glimpse of how interactibles appear in the world: even if an item is not recognisable from far away and disappears into the fog a few metres more, allowing the player to learn silhouette and colour early is an excellent design decision.

*Bloodborne (2015, FromSoftware, Inc.)

There are a few other things to find in here as well. Check the counter to get a Health Drink, Flashlight and Residential Area Map. Beside these objects there is a Notepad on the counter. Examine the Notepad and you will be able to save your progress. Next move over to the other side of the counter where you will find a Kitchen Knife and a Health Drink.

— (GameFAQs, Silent Hill Walkthrough)

Silent Hill, Midwich Elementary, entrance
Silent Hill, Midwich Elementary, ground floor class room

The amazing visual style of Silent Hill is continued once you transition from the surprisingly open town streets to Midwich Elementary, the south-western school compound, a creepy interior where the former white gloom of the outside is replaced with near impenetrable blackness that seems to have seeped into every corner. Textures are sharp and full of character, rooms are believable and have traces of their now gone students: neatly arranged little work desks give subliminal contrast to the distorted figures that now crawl through the halls. The trek through the building only gets more creepy if you turn off the radio and wander through with nothing but your footsteps, ambient sounds and the occasional drone of the soundtrack fading in and out.

The first three Silent Hill games have been described at the time of their release as the “scariest game ever made.” This essential affective project to scare the gamer is inherent in the experiential route of the gamer in the course of the game(s): it is a lonely psychological journey that drags the gamer into a wealth of nightmarish scenarios.

— Excerpt from Perron, Bernard. “Introduction” in Silent Hill: The Terror Engine, page 4. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. Included descriptive from GamePro Magazine, November 2003.

Honourable Mentions

This is all just the beginning, though I have high doubts I’ll be retracting my words of praise after finishing it. There are many aspects to Silent Hill in all its well-preserved retro quality that would be worthy of sequel articles and the same is true for the other games floating through my mind before and after having played it myself.

Dread X 2, The House, enveloping contained games in a puzzle
Dread X 2, The House, ground level stairwell

First off, I’m putting forth a representative mention of all the recently resurgent horror games that voluntarily pick a retro style of limited polygons and pixels for themselves, clad in the foreboding robes of the Dread X Collection (2020, DreadXP), a binder of ten short experiences meant to be “playable teasers” for each participating developer’s “ideal horror project” (collection product page), created in, to quote, “seven sleepless nights”.

The first collection was followed up soon with the Dread X Collection 2 (2020, DreadXP), succeeded again by the Dread X Collection 3 (2020, DreadXP), still in the same year. The collections provide a wide selection of offerings for the altar, point and click, arcade-style obscurities, 2D and 3D alike — it could not hold just a single fitting label on its digital jewel case but some of its included games fit well with the other mentions in this section. Details on the kind of experiences included in all collections can be found with publisher DreadXP.

X-COM, Base management screen
X-COM, Ground mission, looking for alien craft

I was reminded of titles like X-COM: UFO Defense (1994, Microprose, on MS-DOS) that had me hooked through sheer mechanical attraction where initial impressions of limited resolution and non-rotatable isometric visuals were remodelled from an initial “Ugh” to a captivated “Ahh”. X-COM provides a comparable kind of unpredictable horror in what looms ahead, behind, and all around. Even what effectively cloaks the danger is similar; what is actual fog in the streets and alleyways Harry tries to navigate through is the so-branded ”fog of war” in the turn-based strategy framework of X-COM where you, as the player, can only ever see what the soldiers in your commanded unit can see in the field.

Both titles have mastered their distinct variant of an ongoing threat that can strike at any time, both have their downtime, both have solid action, and, most definitely, both share a certain otherworldliness.

Cry of Fear, blocked off streets in the city
Cry of Fear, making detours through a city park

A final mention is, most deservingly, Cry of Fear (2012, Team Psykskallar, Andreas Rönnberg, James Marchant), an experience breath-taking and -holding whose wide-ranging inspiration by Silent Hill went unnoticed for me until I played it for myself, long after having fallen in love. Disfigured creatures disappearing into shadows just as you’re turning the next street corner, grotesque revenants of a once busier place, confident use of nighttime, a brooding musical score, a central mystery the main character tries to unravel — but the further they seem to go, the more they invariably get lured deeper by a will-o'-the-wisp — where Harry finds paper scraps with directions written in blood in the dead end torn-up road, Cry of Fear’s lead Simon receives ominous SMS from untrustable strangers on his Sony Ericsson brick phone.

Going through all the details that make it one of the best action/horror games to recommend with all its own merits would take an article of its own. In comparison to Silent Hill as a platform-bound title that needs to be acquired first and emulated second, perhaps even going as far as procuring a second or sixth hand original game console from someone’s collection, Cry of Fear is freely available on Steam to any PC that was capable of running Half-Life and the immortalised GoldSrc engine in the day.

Closure

Re-discovering older games is a great experience. For me, it started with finding a suitable visual form for a new game project and the desire to get to know the inspiration first-hand. Despite its prevailing reputation, I didn’t have high expectations, tried it, and found something that might go to my library of favourites.

Design decisions that resonate with game mechanics can help players to connect to a virtual world significantly. For a lower budget project, I see a purposefully lower graphical fidelity to turn out to a win-win arrangement; models and maps can be created more quickly, animations don’t have to be highly intricate, the elements of the world flow together more easily than when chasing photorealism to the end of the world. Some areas might take the same time in the conceptual phase, like writing, level design, and art, but take notably less moving to development. What makes it believable is consistency, a decided style must be a style applied to everything. Higher aspirations can be put on more achievable aspects like mechanical design, sound, music, and story. All this we can see coming together with Silent Hill, where the number of members of its visionary Team Silent could be counted on two hands, just as the number of polygons in the models in the world they created — but where the resolution, meshes, animations, and voice acting are circumstantially lo-fi, the moody ambience takes over, stereo sounds panning somewhere in the fog around you, textures trying to advertise as much as fits into memory, and, of course, an unsettling set piece written for you to explore and survive.

The cover art for fictitious Raycast Magazine I created for this article is available for download. Looking into the visual presentation of games of the very late 90s also led me through the visuals of print mags of the time, most influentially PlayStation Magazine (PSM), Expert Gamer, and GamePro. I wanted to capture the look and feel of these, as if ripped out of an alternate universe 1999. This is it.

Initially published by August Saint Freytag.
Follow on Twitter to get notified of new publications and updates.