When you think of video game survival horror the two titles that typically come to mind are Resident Evil and Silent Hill. While not the first games in this genre, they are, nonetheless, two of the most consequential and their respective debuts on the original PlayStation changed what gamers expected from “scary” video games forever.
Employing entirely different styles yet tied together by a spirit of horror and shock, the two games wear their inspirations proudly, each showcasing an understanding of both Western and Japanese horror that is not easily replicated. Resident Evil, for its part, can probably be credited with kicking off the zombie craze that swept much of popular media throughout the 2010s. Though always a popular horror sub-genre, Resident Evil’s introduction of the survival element combined with overwhelming dread is found in a lot of titles even today. Though the franchise transformed in the past decade into more of an action film series, it recently rekindled its horror roots with Resident Evil 7.
Silent Hill, on the other hand, has always maintained a strong horror tradition, and one that is distinctly horrific at that. Silent Hill also carries the “survival horror” moniker as well even though action is less emphasized in that game.
Released in 1996, Resident Evil took the PlayStation by storm when it dropped into retail store. A spiritual successor to Capcom’s Sweet Home for the NES, Resident Evil reveled in its B-horror presentation and storyline. As either Chris Redfield or Jill “the Master of Unlocking” Valentine, players made their way through a mansion filled with secrets and flesh eating zombies…among other things. Simultaneously combining elements from several games, Resident Evil featured a fun story, well-crafted puzzles, exploration, innovative graphics, and a distinctive form of controlling your character that, at times, served to heighten frustration and tension. Even though no one would call Resident Evil’s plot original or groundbreaking, in video games it was quite a big deal. There really wasn’t anything like Resident Evil for home consoles and gamers turned it into a sensation that spawned tons of sequels and even a series of films. The action elements of the game have become more important with each successive iteration but the series has rarely strayed from its horror roots.
Debuting three years after Resident Evil, Silent Hill from Konami (makers of Castlevania, among other things) is one of the most prominent titles to come at the end of the PlayStation’s cycle and is perhaps one of the greatest horror video games ever made. Unlike Resident Evil, Silent Hill is very psychological and takes inspiration from the likes of Japanese horror cinema as well as Stephen King and Richard Bachman. In fact, there are so many different influences converging in Silent Hill it is hard to keep up with them all.
Unlike Resident Evil, Silent Hill’s story is one of the most complex narratives in a survival horror game. There’s a cult, sacrifices, alternate realities, demons – you name it, Silent Hill has it. Employing a washed out aesthetic through much of the game, the team behind the game worked within the PlayStation’s limitations which only succeeded in furthering the game’s horror. The iconic Silent Hill fog was because of the PlayStation’s inability to render a ton of stuff at once and the fog has now become a series trademark.
Comparing these two titles is always strange but not completely out of the question. After all, when it was released in 1999, initial comparisons were between Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Having broke ground for the genre and turned it into a sensation with its sequel, Resident Evil was a natural starting point for many critics but it isn’t very fair to either Silent Hill or the aforementioned Capcom title. Resident Evil revels in its absurdities and wears influences that are decidedly more science fiction horror than anything else. A decidedly cheesy plot interwoven with modern subtexts about corporations and environmental concerns with a cast of characters ripped straight out of a police serial and you get a game that is Hollywood ready, a case demonstrated by the series repeated success at the box office with its films. Conversely, you have Silent Hill which is deeply psychological and disturbing for many people. If you were to compare the two, the cinema comparison is more apt. Resident Evil is B-movie horror while Silent Hill is more art house than anything. But Silent Hill also strays into the sacrilegious as well as the sexual, two things rarely seen in the Resident Evil series.
A viewing of each series respective first films will reveal this difference almost immediately and it is a real mark of one series from the other. In addition, the protagonists of the Resident Evil series tend to hew closely towards established hero stereotypes whereas the protagonists in Silent Hill are always complex and a bit more murky to the player. That is, their motives are never quite clear, their trajectory never quite certain whereas the protagonists of Resident Evil, more often than not, find themselves fighting on the side of the “good guys.”
Is one game better than the other? That depends on your tastes in horror games. If you like to think about your story and really puzzle things out then Silent Hill might be more your style. On the other hand if you enjoy more action elements and a lighter tone at times, then Resident Evil is the perfect choice. Does this analysis still hold up in the face of the new Resident Evil 7? We think so. Resident Evil 7, while different from other games in the series, is still a survival horror Resident Evil game. Even in its attempt at being more “intense” than before, it still retains the Resident Evil trademarks we’ve come to expect. If any, the new game reminds one of Silent Hill in its attempts at horror, but the “black goo” sci-fi trope brings it back to Earth and places it firmly back in the Resident Evil wheel house. One thing is certain, both games are amazingly good titles that are more than worth your time.