Resident Evil vs. Silent Hill: Tone
StoryScan: Versus compares and contrasts specific aspects of multiple game narratives that share narrative features. In this essay, we’re covering Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) and Silent Hill (Konami, 1999) , two definitive titles in the survival horror genre. This essay will touch on critical plot points from both titles. Players who have not completed these games may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for their main storylines.
When it comes to survival horror, two franchises define the genre: Resident Evil (Capcom) and Silent Hill (Konami). These much-loved titles, both launched in the 1990s, set the standard for horror in three-dimensional games and spawned franchises with over a dozen entries to date. Their similarly grim visual styles, gameplay, and subject matter have led fans to compare the two series for decades, yet the titles have as many differences as they do similarities. One of the most important distinctions between the two titles is their wildly different tones. Although both franchises are undeniably horror stories, Resident Evil revels in the absurd and the outlandish, while Silent Hill explores the psychology of the unseen and the unknown. In each case, the first titles in the series establish these disparate tones through their chosen plots, characters, and settings. It’s the combinations of these chosen elements that make both games so memorable, both for their differences and their similarities.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill both tell stories that facilitate the exploration of unfamiliar, threatening places, but the differences in their stories help set the tone for their respective franchises. In Resident Evil, the story opens with a pulpy mystery: a team of Raccoon City police officers has gone missing while investigating grisly murders on the edge of town. The player, controlling one of two different RCPD officers, is in charge of rescuing their missing colleagues. Unfortunately, their mission takes a dark turn when their helicopter goes down in the woods, and they’re forced to take shelter in the nearby Spencer Mansion. There’s just one catch: the mansion is crawling with violent mutants, and they’re not interested in letting the officers leave alive. To survive, the player must navigate twisted halls and an even more twisted plot, complete with corporate espionage, terrifying experiments, and betrayal from within the unit. It’s not a story that prompts any introspection from the player or the characters, but it is a fun, schlocky adventure that draws on the history of low-budget horror to deliver a familiar yet exhilarating experience.
Silent Hill takes a different approach to horror right from the start. Instead of starting with an exciting mystery like Resident Evil, Silent Hill begins with an ordinary man, Harry Mason, driving along a mountain pass with his daughter. When Harry swerves his car to avoid a girl in the road, the maneuver forces the car into a rock wall and knocks him unconscious. Upon waking, he discovers that his daughter is missing, so he heads to the nearby town of Silent Hill to look for her. He quickly discovers that Silent Hill is no ordinary town; it’s an abandoned, fog-drenched ruin where the border between reality and fantasy is blurry at best. The few people left in the area have troubled histories and questionable motivations, and Harry’s struggle to trust them becomes as big a problem as his inability to trust his senses. It’s psychological horror at its best: a story about sacrifice and fear and how much one man is willing to risk to save someone he loves. It won’t leave players laughing and gasping in unison like Resident Evil, but it will leave them with a profound sense of unease long after the game is over.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill take extremely different approaches to characterization in their stories, which contributes to their contrasting tones. In Resident Evil, players can choose to take on the role of either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, two police officers in the Raccoon City P.D. Although Chris and Jill have different strengths and weaknesses for gameplay purposes, they’re both competent officers trained for difficult situations. As a result, the story unfolds similarly regardless of which character you choose. This is because the individual characters don’t drive the narrative; they’re just stand-ins for the player to experience the story. Jill and Chris may have unique personalities and personal lives, but those details are nothing more than background trivia in the grand scheme of the story. They could be replaced with just about any other officers from the squad, and the narrative would unfold in a similar fashion. Ultimately, Chris and Jill aren’t so much characters as they are cars on a roller coaster: vessels designed to take the player on a terrifying, thrilling ride.
Silent Hill’s approach to character is completely different than Resident Evil’s. The story of Silent Hill is driven by its protagonist, Harry Mason, an everyman whose goal is to rescue his adopted daughter from a living nightmare. Harry’s desire to save his daughter is driven in part by a previous loss—the death of his wife—which hangs over him and the resulting narrative. Everything that happens in Silent Hill is colored by Harry’s desperation and grief, which adds a layer of depth to his struggle to separate reality from fantasy. For him, the true horror isn’t the demonic threat slumbering in the decrepit down, but the possibility that he’ll lose his only daughter: the last connection he has to his late wife and the last reason he has to keep living. A threat this personal would never work in Resident Evil, with its interchangeable characters and twist-driven mysteries, but it’s a perfect fit for the sorrowful Silent Hill, a game shaped by its protagonist.
Resident Evil and Silent Hill both take place in strange places that require copious amounts of player investigation, but the similarities end there. To support their differing tones, Resident Evil and Silent Hill take wildly different approaches to their settings, resulting in a unique experience for players of both games. In Resident Evil, players are locked inside the Spencer Mansion, an elegant lab filled with narrow corridors, locked doors, and deadly traps. The addition of an underground bioweapons facility turns this stereotypically mysterious manor into something new and unexpected, adding a science fiction flair to an otherwise standard horror setting. With its ridiculous origin story and improbable layout, the Spencer Mansion invites players to revel in the bizarre decisions of its owners and architects. Anyone who thinks about it for more than five seconds can find aspects of it that make no sense, which makes it a perfect playground for courageous officers, murderous mutants, and mad scientists. In other words, it’s the ideal setting to celebrate the very best that schlock horror has to offer.
The sleepy town of Silent Hill couldn’t be more different than Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion. In Silent Hill, players have access to the entire eponymous town, but their movements are limited by otherworldly enemies and oppressive fog. The addition of a secondary, nightmarish underworld further restricts the player’s freedom, as Harry is tossed between worlds like a leaf on the wind at crucial points in the narrative. While the rusty, bloody hell that is the ‘Otherworld’ is one of Silent Hill’s most memorable features, the misty Maine town is just as unsettling in reality. It’s a lonely place—as lonely as Harry—and its unearthly quiet is intermittently punctured by a distant ringing phone. Unlike in Spencer Mansion, the horrors of Silent Hill are often implied, rather than shown, leading players to question their perceptions in the same way that Harry questions his. This technique invokes a subtle, disquieting kind of terror that would never work with the bombastic tone of Resident Evil, but it’s a perfect fit for Silent Hill, a game that wants you to doubt everything you know.
Silent Hill and Resident Evil couldn’t be more different, yet they both played significant roles in defining the survival horror genre. One of the reasons they’ve both achieved lasting success is because they picked plots, characters, and settings that matched their distinctive tones. Writers and developers who want to make their mark on the horror genre should first consider what kind of tone they want for their story, then develop the components of their story accordingly.
Tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme, as well as the source of mood and atmosphere.
Frequently used in theater, Five-Act structure marks the midpoint as the height of tension, rather than the closing.
StoryScan: Super Mario RPG and Tone
Super Mario RPG makes the most out of its lighthearted, comedic tone by integrating it in both story and scene.
* Reference Footage (Resident Evil): Dfactor Longplays. “Resident Evil Remaster Chris Walkthrough [No Damage].” YouTube, 2015.
** Reference Footage (Silent Hill): Andy Jake. “Silent Hill All FMV Cutscenes (4K – AI Machine Learning Upscaling).” YouTube, 2021.