Twenty years ago, a peculiar combination of circumstances – involving a faulty mod-chip and an NTSC import – made Tom’s visits to Silent Hill scarier than everyone else’s.
“It can’t be that bad,” a friend told me, “because the man who does it for you is a policeman. If it was that illegal, he wouldn’t do it.”
If it was illegal, then a policeman wouldn’t do it. Ah, the innocence of youth. It was a different time, then. The conversation, circa 1998, was about getting a Sony PlayStation fitted with a mod-chip. He’d had his done and was trying to persuade me to get mine done for twenty quid. I’m not convinced he wasn’t on commission for his dad’s mate, the policeman.
“And anyway,” he continued, “my dad says the guy told him that putting a mod-chip into your PlayStation isn’t even illegal. Yes, it invalidates the warranty, but it’s not illegal. It’s playing copied games that’s the illegal bit.”
Which sounded right, to be fair. The “YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR” copyright adverts always focused on the shady blokes handing over bootleg VHS tapes in the pub, not the means to play them. The fact that the policeman-turned-console modder included half a dozen burned copies of PlayStation games – including, from memory, Ridge Racer, Tekken and Point Blank; I don’t know what he had against paying Namco for its games – rather undercut his “it’s not illegal” stance somewhat.
But I didn’t want my PlayStation chipping to play illegal copies. I wanted – needed – to be able to play NTSC imports.
There was a rumour going around Final Fantasy Online – which, at the time, was an online forum and IRC community, not an MMO – that Final Fantasy VIII wouldn’t be released in the EU. Squaresoft had previous in this regard, with only four of the seven mainline games to date translated into English, and only one of those, Final Fantasy VII, released in the UK. It eventually did, of course, nine months after the Japanese release and one month after it hit the US, but in the intervening period I’d handed over a grubby twenty-pound note to my grubby friend to give to the grubby policeman.
It was one of the better decisions I made as a teenager. While Final Fantasy VIII’s PAL release wasn’t a problem, other Squaresoft games were. I got to play games that nobody I knew had, including Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Parasite Eve and Final Fantasy Tactics, thanks to money transfer services, trustworthy forum friends abroad and, of course, that modded PlayStation.
In those days, the notion of synchronised global releases was basically unheard of, particularly for Japanese developers like Squaresoft. Games would receive an NTSC-J release in Japan first, then get an English-language NTSC release in North America six months later, then… some unspecified handwave of time after that, we’d get an English PAL release in the UK. Maybe. If we were lucky. Even for games that were coming to the UK eventually, I took advantage of my own personal grey-market supply chain to play things early.
Silent Hill, unusually, released in the UK on or around the same day it released in the US – I forget the exact date – and actually a little earlier than in Konami’s native Japan. But I’d already sent an order for games to a friend in the US and, a few weeks later, a brilliant brown parcel turned up filled with NTSC goodness, including Brave Fencer Musashi, Parasite Eve, Xenogears and Silent Hill.
As did most people, I devoured Silent Hill immediately, its setting universally unsettling, its atmosphere acrid and oppressive. While the first Resident Evil felt stilted and the sequels tilted toward action, Konami’s seminal, singular psychological horror – with the fog and ash and siren, the radio static, and the thumping heartbeat on the PlayStation’s DualShock controller – felt like a truly terrifying and unifying horror experience.
Midway through a second playthrough, I reached that puzzle in the Otherworld version of Alchemilla Hospital for the second time, where Harry must find square plates in the hospital and place them in panels in a locked door to open it. It had perplexed me the first time around and it made no more sense on second attempt. You know the one, with the cryptic poem:
Clouds flowing over a hill.
Sky on a sunny day.
Tangerines that are bitter.
Violets in the garden.
Dandelions along a path.
Unavoidable sleeping time.
Liquid flowing from a slashed wrist.
It felt random, with no obvious clues, like I had no choice but to brute-force a solution. I spoke with friends about it later, explained that I was struggling with it for a second time, but they couldn’t understand why I found it so difficult.
“You just match the tile colours up with the colours of the things described in the poem, right?” They said, nodding approvingly at one another.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “the what?”
“What do you mean, the fucking colours?”
Fast forward through an hour of arguing and we decamped to my house. I fired up the game as everyone crammed into my too-small box bedroom, and the issue with the Alchemilla Hospital puzzle was immediately apparent: my copy of Silent Hill was completely in black and white. I looked around at confused, ashen faces and it dawned on me that this wasn’t normal. This wasn’t the way the game was supposed to be played.
Later, a friend would show me Silent Hill running on an unmodified PlayStation with a PAL disc and it was a revelation. Suddenly, so many things made sense. But back on my copy, with fresh eyes on something I’d grown accustomed to, things were getting weird.
It wasn’t just black and white. There was an odd, rhythmic flicker to the display with occasional hiss and distortion to the picture. There was a sort of natural patina to it, spiderwebs of craquelure in a digital work of art. Occasionally it would lose the image entirely, or devolve into full-on Poltergeist static, but the sound would continue in the background. And the sound. The sound. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was wrong with the sound, but something was off about it. The gnashing of the dogs and the hissing of the radio were as you would expect, but the higher-pitched sounds, the town’s siren and the odd whimpering sound that stalked you, it felt broken somehow.
My friends couldn’t understand how I’d been playing this, how I’d completed the game, how I thought this was the way Silent Hill was supposed to be presented. But remember, around this time we were also playing Metal Gear Solid, with subversions like Psycho Mantis that seemed absurd and unheard of… until you tried it for yourself and learned it was real. If a tactical espionage game was that weird and that creepy, why shouldn’t Silent Hill, a psychological horror, be even more disturbing again? It felt like they were playing Silent Hill entirely in the real world, and I was stuck in the horrific Otherworld the entire time.
I’ve pitched this article to a few outlets over the years with little success. That’s not to say they weren’t interested in the story, in the experience, but when I couldn’t produce video evidence that they could utilise on their social media channels to accompany the article, they all lost interest. Funnily enough, six years before YouTube and a dozen before Twitch, I wasn’t in the habit of recording footage from console games. Nor could I adequately explain how this happened. No other grey imports had broken my mod-chip in the way that Silent Hill had, but it was behaving as though it couldn’t process the NTSC signal correctly. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was haunted.
But if you want to picture it for yourself – though I don’t know why you would, because it still traumatises me, two decades on – you should imagine a disembodied experience, watching Silent Hill on VHS cassette on a broken CRT television, scrubbing Harry back and forth through the footage using a remote control low on batteries, with all of the imprecise control, tortured noises and visual artefacts that come with it. Oh, and did I mention you were in David Lynch’s Red Room? It’s important to feel like you were in the Red Room. Because I did, every minute I tortured myself through my haunted copy of Silent Hill, bumbling around through the fog, the dark, the static.
It’s funny, two decades on, that the “haunted PS1” aesthetic is driving an indie horror revival, with game jams and collections inadvertently replicating what only I (and my friends) experienced on our trips to Silent Hill.
Modding my PlayStation wasn’t illegal, then, but in those moments, it felt like I did something very wrong.