One of the most distinctive traits of the Silent Hill series is its use of the Otherworld, a bleak industrial version of reality where night persists indefinitely and rusted metal and barbed wire are core components of most architecture. The Otherworld (sometimes referred to as nowhere) often reflects the layout and geometry of reality, but sometimes it the reflection is tenuous, as the Otherworld version of reality is usually twisted and confusing. The Silent Hill games contrast the Otherworld with the Fog World, a daytime locale which appears at first to be a perpetually foggy version of the real world but eventually proves to be something more sinister. The protagonists of the Silent Hill games all unwittingly step out of reality and into the Fog World, and eventually they progress into the Otherworld–this is part of the series’ formula. But the way these transitions from world to world work and the game design mechanics at play in each world differ from game to game. Every Silent Hill game has some version of these two worlds, but the use and meaning of the Otherworld and Fog World varies dramatically across the series. In this article I will discuss some of the ways that the Otherworld is used throughout the Silent Hill series. Be warned that this text is filled with spoilers about the series.
In addition to the Fog World and Otherworld, Silent Hill 1 actually has a third world: the “Dark World.” This is a transition realm, a place that exists in between the Fog World and Otherworld. The Dark World replaces fog with limitless night, but like the Fog World it otherwise resembles reality. The progression from the Fog World to the Dark World and then to the Otherworld is used several times in Silent Hill for dramatic effect. At the very beginning of the game, for example, Harry chases his daughter Cheryl through the town (Fog), into an unnaturally dark alley (Dark), and finally ends up accosted by monsters in a blood-soaked cul-de-sac surrounded by rusty chain link fence (Other). Later in the game Harry must unlock three locks to travel through the back door of a home in Silent Hill, and when he does this he immediately transitions from Fog World to Dark World. His subsequent exploration of the school culminates in a crawl through the school’s clock tower that results in a transition to the Otherworld.
The Otherworld in Silent Hill is used as a plot device. The transition from the Fog World to the Dark World increases the level of tension felt by the player, and the Otherworld is introduced just as this tension peaks. It’s a system by which the designers can slowly crank the pressure on the player up and up and up, until finally, thankfully, they are released from the Otherworld and return to the relatively tame Fog World. Though the introductory sequence to the game flows very quickly from Fog to Dark to Otherworld without obvious transition points, subsequent transitions occur at extremely well-defined points in the game. Unlocking the back door in the Fog World is a “beat” in the narrative, a small crescendo in the experience. Another, larger beat occurs as Harry crawls through the clock tower and finds himself in the Otherworld for the first time. An even more dramatic crescendo occurs as Harry finally reaches the boiler room of the school. After this peak, the tension is released and the player is deposited back into Fog World. This three-stage building of tension though the transition from one world to the next repeats several times in Silent Hill, culminating finally in the end boss fight (and, in the good ending, the protagonist’s escape to the real world).
Silent Hill 2
In the second Silent Hill game, the Dark World is dropped and focus is placed on the Fog World and Otherworld. I think the main theme in Silent Hill 2’s level progression is descent. James descends from the real world into the Fog World at the very beginning of the game by running down a long trail, and throughout the game he is required to descend deeper and deeper into the depths of the buildings he is investigating. In one memorable section, James must travel down an impossibly long staircase that stretches deep into the ground. James is also often asked to jump into holes or otherwise follow one-way paths into the depths. While the appearance of the Otherworld is still used as a peak in the narrative flow, the actual geometry of the Fog World and the Otherworld is responsible for much of the tension build-up. The repeated appearance of Pyramid Head also serves to ratchet the tension level higher, and when the Otherworld finally arrives, the spike in tension is less dramatic than in the previous title because the tension level is already incredibly high. Silent Hill 2’s brand of horror is a slow-burning one; the peaks in the drama may be slightly less noticeable, but only because the entire game is spent cranking up the pressure on the player at a gradual, linear rate.
There are other interesting things about the Otherworld in Silent Hill 2 that are not shared by the rest of the series. The story in Silent Hill 2 repeatedly suggests that Silent Hill itself, both the Otherworld and the Fog World, are a manifestation of the protagonist’s own personal problems. There are clues throughout the game suggesting this (such as a seemingly-innocent dressmaker’s mannequin wearing the same outfit as James’ late wife), but the idea is driven home in one specific scene where the players glimpse a version of the Otherworld experienced by another character.
Angela is another of Silent Hill’s troubled visitors, and in one brief but enlightening scene James meets her in a hallway engulfed in flames. The implications are that Silent Hill is a place where the problems of individuals may manifest in individual ways (Angela’s Otherword appears to be constantly burning), and that James’ Otherworld is a purgatory that is uniquely his. He is Pyramid Head, and the rusted metal and hobbling bag monsters he encounters are reflections of his own psyche. This interpretation imparts some meaning to the Otherworld, and makes it much more interesting than simply some fractured, alternate dimension created by an abused psychic child (as is suggested by the other games in the series).
The last thing that Silent Hill 2 does extremely well with its version of the Otherworld is that it plays with time and space in a way that the other games in the series do not. James visits an underground prison that probably does not exist any longer in the real world, but being the site of certain atrocities has left a scar upon the universe. Towards the end of the game, logical connections between doorways begin to break down, as doors that should lead into rooms instead mysteriously loop back into the same hallway. The message is that the Otherworld is mutable in terms of time and space; it may be a reflection of the real world (or perhaps of the Fog World), but it is under no obligation to follow the rules governing reality. This makes the Otherworld even more menacing, as the player no longer knows what to expect when he passes through a doorway. In the rest of the series, the layout of the Otherworld more-or-less follows the layout of the real world, but in Silent Hill 2 we are shown that no such consistency is required.
Silent Hill 3
The Otherworld in Silent Hill 3 is most similar to the one found in Silent Hill 1, which makes sense because the games have a related narrative. The appearance of the Otherworld is used to increase the tension felt by the player, and the game builds up towards these transitions over time. There are even a few Dark World bits (Heather’s progression to her father’s house, for example), though they are much less integral to the way tension is built than in the series’ first title. What is interesting about Silent Hill 3’s implementation is that the transition between the Fog World and the Otherworld (or indeed, the real world to the Fog World) is slow. Rather than simply passing through some special point and finding herself in another world, Heather transitions between worlds over a long period of time, with the menace of the other worlds slowly bleeding into reality. At the beginning of the game, for example, we watch as Heather slips so easily out of reality and into some other world just by traveling through a closed off section of the mall. At some points we can even still hear the voices of shoppers going about their business on the other side of a barrier, but we quickly learn that Heather is now separated from them by much more than aluminum siding. Heather’s Fog World and Otherworld overlap with reality gradually, and as she progresses through the game it is clear that she is moving further and further away from the boundaries of the real world.
This theme of presenting the Otherworld as just below the surface of the regular world is expressed in several different ways. Mirrors are used throughout the game to foreshadow the onset of the Otherworld, and eventually we are explicitly shown what happens to people on the other side of the mirror (hint: it’s not good). The Otherworld also invades reality through drains and pipes, bleeding into the world like backed up sewage. Finally, just when we believe that the Otherworld can’t get any worse, Silent Hill 3 goes into high gear and makes the walls of the Otherworld literally come alive. At this late stage of the game, everything seems to be crawling with corruption and disease, much like we might imagine bugs living in the soil beneath our meticulously-maintained front lawn.
Silent Hill 4
Silent Hill 4 is dramatically different than the previous (and subsequent) games in the series. It began its life as a non-Silent Hill title, and one of the aspects that makes this lineage most clear is the implementation of the Otherworld. Silent Hill 4 does feature an alternative world that was probably created by the mind of a psychopath and is now home to a variety of monsters, but the appearance and function of this world is completely different than the Otherworld in other Silent Hill games. The fourth game in this series finds the protagonist, Henry, trapped in his apartment. Unable to leave through the door or windows, Henry eventually manages to escape though a large hole that appears in his bathroom. However, the hole deposits him in a place far more sinister than his apartment.
In Silent Hill 4, the apartment itself is its own little world. Though Henry can see through the windows and the peephole in his door, the entire apartment has been separated from reality. Notes passed under his door come out completely different, no amount of pounding on his door can be heard by people outside, and occasionally he is able to see things through his windows that other people cannot see. Eventually the environment of the apartment begins to degrade, and the facade of normalcy slides away. This isn’t quite the Fog World from previous games, but it’s something similar; a little area of the universe dedicated to looking like reality but in fact being its own, separate location. The apartment in Silent Hill 4 serves first as a traversal puzzle hub and safe room, and then later as a centralized location for plot progression and cut scenes.
When Henry travels through the hole in his bathroom, he arrives at a number of different Otherworlds. These are not generally as sinister as the Otherworld in previous Silent Hill games have been; in fact, they resemble some sort of middle ground between the Fog Worlds and Otherworlds used by the rest of the series. They are not overwrought with decay or rust, and while they are dark, many of the locales Henry visits seem to be in the perpetual gloom of dusk rather than an unrelenting nighttime. Interestingly, each of these worlds has a distinct theme. While they share many traits, all of them have some unique visual or design element that makes them much more like individual spaces than some interconnected hell world that spans the entire town.
Most interesting to me about Silent Hill 4’s implementation of the Otherworld concept is that unlike previous games, Henry can return to his apartment (and thus escape from danger–at first, anyway) at any time. This makes his apartment similar to a Resident Evil-style safe room; it’s a place where the player can find sancutary from the pressure of the surrounding environment, save their game, deposit items in a chest, and heal. While this is an interesting game mechanic (and used very well in the Resident Evil series), it damages the Otherworld dramatically because the feeling of oppression and claustrophobia is lost. The game loses its ability to stage transitions to and from the Otherworld to build tension, and as a result the title feels like it meanders along without any real build-up or payoff. There are elements added to the mix to try to increase this feeling of danger while in the Otherworlds (unkillable ghosts, escort missions, an unstoppable antagonist), but since the player understands that he can leave at will, the feeling of tension induced by the Otherworld is dramatically reduced.
Silent Hill: 0rigins
Though Silent Hill: 0rigins is in many ways a dyed-in-the-wool Silent Hill game, its use of the Otherworld is different and interesting. Though the game follows the look and feel of the Fog World and Otherworld familiar to the series, the way it transitions between the two changes the utility of the Otherworld considerably. In 0rigins, the player can switch between the Fog World and the Otherworld any time he happens across a mirror, and there is no penalty or cost to perform the switch. This allows the designers of 0rigins to use the Otherworld as a traversal puzzle: a path that is blocked in the Fog World will often be open in the Otherworld, so players must find a mirror to switch, cross the area that is blocked, and then find another mirror to switch back. Like the first and third Silent Hill games, the Otherworld in 0rigins generally matches the layout of the Fog World, so it’s quite convenient to use the Otherworld as a sort of back-alley by which the player can reach areas of the Fog World that are otherwise inaccessible.
However, giving the player the ability to invoke (or leave) the Otherworld at any time robs it of much of its dramatic impact. As in Silent Hill 4, the ability to leave the Otherworld at any time makes it seem much less dangerous and oppressive than in the other games in the series. And since the designers cannot schedule the switch to the Otherworld (the player has much more control over the pacing), the appearance of the Otherworld itself is not a dramatic beat in the narrative; it’s just another mechanic, another implementation of the key-item puzzles that pervade this genre.
That said, there is a section of 0rigins that I though made excellent use of the Otherworld. At one point Travis, the protagonist, finds himself in a theater. When he reaches the stage in the Fog World, he’s able to bring different set pieces from a play into the audience’s view. When the switch to the Otherworld occurs, these set pieces become physical components of a new space that mimics the appearance of the set. This is a really cool mechanic because it allows the player to construct different scenes using these set pieces (three possible scenes in all) and then switch to the Otherworld to find out what kind of things such a place would contain if it actually existed. In its mirroring of the theater set, the Otherworld creates new, twisted locations that previously did not exist. This sort of hints at the idea that the Otherworld is a constantly changing mirror of the real world (or at least, of the Fog World), rather than some static locale, which is an idea touched upon by previous Silent Hill games but never reenforced as strongly as in 0rigins.
The Otherworld is one of the many original ideas that sets the Silent Hill series apart from its competitors. The concept has everything you could want in a game mechanic: it fits the aesthetic and narrative goals of the series, it provides a method for pacing the player and steadily increasing the tension invoked by the plot, and it is mutable enough to serve very different purposes across a number of games. The fact that Konami has exercised this mutability is also noteworthy; rather than just leave the concept alone, they’ve attempted to further refine it by using it in different ways in different games. The existence of the Otherworld, and the rules by which the characters in the Silent Hill series transition to and from it, is one of the defining elements of the series, even though it changes dramatically from game to game.