As I mentioned in my review of Halloween, several distinct elements are required to make horror work. It wasn't until the 90s where technology had progressed to the point that interactive horror could provide the same tension and dread as movies. There were noteworthy attempts throughout the decade ranging from the FMV gore-fest Phantasmagoria to the cheesy but enthralling Resident Evil. However, as far as I'm concerned, the first video game truly to get the cinematic horror formula right was Silent Hill.
In Silent Hill, you play as Harry Mason, an average guy taking his daughter Cheryl on vacation. However, in an attempt to avoid a girl that wandered onto the street, Harry swerves his car and crashes. He wakes up to discover Cheryl is gone. He heads through the pea-soup-thick fog to the nearby town of Silent Hill looking for her. That is all the story I will dare give away; just be clear that nothing is as it seems, and the plot will consume you all the way to the end.
My favorite horror film has always been Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The reason it's my favorite is because it creates the perfect atmosphere to keep the audience on edge all the way through, eliminating the need for the cheap jump-scares that plague most horror films. Silent Hill accomplishes that as well. The atmosphere slowly builds on itself to create a sense of dread that never lets go. Sure, the game has the occasional jump-scares, but, unlike Resident Evil, the game doesn't rely on them to bring on the fright.
Part of the dread comes from the fact that Harry is presented and played as an average Joe. He gets winded if he runs too long, and he is not a dead-eye with a firearm. Expect to miss a few shots. Some may claim that those elements were cheap moves to make the game tougher, but I say they were included to increase the tension. Would the movie Halloween be scary if Laurie was an Army Ranger? I didn't think so.
More of the dread comes from Konami making do with the limited PlayStation hardware. The fact that thick fog and pitch blackness with only a flashlight are well-implemented into the game doesn't change the fact that they were used to make up for the engine's limited draw distance. There are also plenty of points in which the engine struggles until it turns into a slideshow, particularly if you opt to run from fights. These issues become very apparent on an HD display.
However, while the game might not have aged well from a technical standpoint, the rest of the package is just about flawless. The monster designs are creepy without being over-the-top. The action works well. The puzzles are good even though they feel a little out-of-place sometimes. The audio is disturbing as hell, especially if you wear headphones. There are even multiple endings depending on how certain sub-plots get resolved, providing plenty of replay value.
While the sequels are mostly good, too, I still consider the original Silent Hill my favorite of the series, as well as my all-time favorite horror game. It is the perfect game to play with lights off and the sound up on Halloween. Silent Hill can get under your skin with all the efficiency of a great horror movie.