We’re rapidly approaching 10 years since P.T. left a seismic imprint on the horror video game landscape. It was a playable teaser that was terrifying in its own right, but it also promised a gateway into a familiar town ready to provide new scares – Silent Hills. It’s a promise left unfulfilled, and one, sadly, we’ll likely never see completed. But what we do now have is Alan Wake 2, Remedy’s superb survival horror and arguably the best we’ve seen in the genre since P.T. jumped out at us a decade ago. It’s not Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills but it might just be the closest we ever get to playing it.
There’s no denying the impact the original Silent Hill games had on the creation of Alan Wake 2. Small towns covered in mist whose lurking horrors are to be navigated by unreliable narrators, both dealing out their fair share of psychological terror. But what about Silent Hills? Well, comparisons can be made there too, even from the smallest of snippets we’ve seen. Both the reveal trailers for Silent Hills and Alan Wake 2 share eerily similar imagery: a man alone on a lamplit misty street, light source in hand as he stares into the camera lens; the colour palettes match, as does the mood, so much so that when Remedy’s latest was revealed at the 2021 Game Awards, I briefly mistook it for a revival of Kojima’s lost project.
Its gameplay may remain a mystery but we can infer from P.T. that Silent Hills would blend some of that creeping dread with traditional Silent Hill survival horror action. It’s something Alan Wake 2 does with aplomb, even borrowing certain techniques from P.T., such as looping corridors where the smallest changes create the biggest ripples of fear. Of course, P.T. itself wasn’t original in this, taking inspiration from the likes of The Shining and Danny’s tricycle rides around the Overlook Hotel’s seemingly endless hallways. It’s the build up of tension as he wheels around each corner that creates the terror, the anticipation of a jump-scare that works so effectively, almost so the appearance of something like two terrifying twin girls feels like a moment to let your held breath out.
Alan Wake 2 utilises similar techniques including clever uses of repeated locations and playful experimentations with the concept of time – its Oceanview Hotel sequence conjures more than a few images of Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. It also very much uses anticipation as a basis for its tense combat, making it as much about which of its ominous shadows will attack and when as it does the scrappy battles themselves.
Another leaf taken from the Silent Hill series playbook is the prospect of the danger lurking around each corner is (almost) always scarier than what appears. The fear is in not being able to face what may confront you rather than the ability to take it head-on with a shotgun. It’s a concept lead designer of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories Sam Barlow described to IGN when discussing the absence of combat in the game:
“You’re alone in a nightmare, there are several freaky creatures coming for you – what would you do? Hitchcock said that all horror goes back to childhood, that’s why it’s a universal thing – it’s a fundamental. How many children wake up screaming because they had a dream where they beat up a zombie with a baseball bat? You wake up screaming because you ran and you got caught.”
Hitchcock may have given us scares in the sixties through the likes of Psycho and The Birds, but Kojima looked to a much more modern master of horror when concocting Silent Hills – Guillermo del Toro. While we don’t know the full extent of del Toro’s input into the development of the never-to-be-seen game, we do know the idea was to lean into that traditionally cinematic framing of the town of Silent Hill and the unique atmosphere of the location the Mexican director fell in love with.
“What we wanted to do with the game – and we were very much in agreement on this – was to take the technology and make it as cutting-edge as we could in creating terror in the house. The idea was very, very atmosphere-drenched”, del Toro told us back in 2015.
The meeting of the film and game worlds has long been something in Remedy’s DNA, stretching all the way back to Max Payne’s hard-boiled landscape. Live-action has long been a part of its games too, and is used very effectively in Alan Wake 2 in many of its off-kilter talk show scenes, which do a fantastic job of cranking up the tension but also shattering it with hilariously bizarre sequences such as full-blown musicals. Incidentally, it’s a technique that Shatter Memories’ Barlow also used to great effect in 2022’s Immortality.
As with Immortality, another part of building Alan Wake 2’s unsettling atmosphere is Remedy’s fourth-wall-breaking moments. Max Payne may have picked up a note telling him he was in a video game in his first adventure, and now 20 years later Alan Wake is reading pages from a novel of his own creation that he happens to be living through. It all hits a crossroads when creative director Sam Lake appears as detective Alex Casey, who wears the same face as Payne, as layer upon layer of metatextual ideas are constructed.
Of course, Hideo Kojima is another director who’s never shied away from being meta or smashing through the fourth wall. Metal Gear Solid’s Psycho Mantis boss fight is still one of the best examples in games. We don’t know how it might have worked in Silent Hills, but the rumours of how it might send text messages or emails to your real-life devices don’t seem something too out there for a man who came up with the idea of reading PlayStation memory cards. If P.T. was anything to go by, it would no doubt be terrifying whatever unexpected mechanic was used.
It’s this shared ambition to create new ways of pushing the medium forward – combined with a clear reverence for Silent Hill as well as horror cinema – that links Alan Wake 2, P.T., and the subsequently canceled Silent Hills. If Alan Wake 2 shows us anything, it’s that when the most creative of developers in the industry – like Remedy and Kojima Productions – focus on the horror genre, they can scare us like no other.
Simon Cardy saw that town in his restless dreams. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.