Friend of the site and winner of last year’s Twilight Zone contest, Alexis Long penned the following article on the neo-horror classic. You can read more of her work at GetMeOutOfThis.net
It was the middle of October of 2001. I was with a good friend of mine and we were at a local video store looking for a game to rent. My friend is a huge proponent of Halloween, to the extent that this year he is apparently taking a five day vacation from work to drive all around the state to every haunted house attraction he can find. Thus, even back then, he wanted to get something Halloween-focused. I had heard about Silent Hill before, mostly praise for the first game, and on the shelf was Silent Hill 2, surprisingly still unrented. I picked it up, and with our decision made, we went back to my place. My friend closed the blinds and turned off the lights while I grabbed provisions. We then proceeded to sit and play through the majority of the game in one unbroken chunk of game time, passing the controller back and forth when we got too scared to continue.
Neither of us were horror people, despite my friend’s Halloween addiction. We were complete pansies and had never played anything like Resident Evil before to prepare us for this kind of game’s combat. We ran from everything, hoarding ammunition and never using it, and basically just doing a bad job of playing. I personally could not handle the way the controller vibrated like a heartbeat when your life got low. It created an amazing sense of tension in me. I would get freaked out, make stupid play mistakes, and have to hand the controller back to my friend to have him continue until we found some health.
Still, the two play sessions in which we beat the game are some of my favorite gaming moments. I remember how much we freaked out and panicked, trying to find a piece of paper to write the questions on as the quiz show came on in the elevator. I remember arguing over whether to stay and listen to the conversation in the hall on the way to the last boss. (He wanted to go, and I wanted to stay, but I had the controller at that point, so we stayed.) It was just an overall fantastic experience, and basically made me a fan of the series, having at least tried to play every game since. I even ended up seeing the movie on opening night, making it, I believe, the only horror movie I’ve ever seen in a theater.
In any case, it is now the present. I agreed to write this article, bought a cheap copy of the game off of Amazon, and played through it again to attempt to rediscover why I found it such a huge, influential experience. This time, though, I played through it casually. I was skimming twitter, chatting with my friends, listening to a podcast, and had the lights on. I was playing in just about the least scary conditions you can imagine. Yet, when I left my room during a play session late at night to go to the kitchen and get a drink in the dark, the game still left me creeped out and jumping at shadows. Silent Hill 2 is still a fantastic game, with lots of small touches that show the level of love from the creators.
It hasn’t aged completely gracefully. The environments look really sparse and empty. While I’m sure that was, to some extent, a purposeful move being made by the creators of the game to give off an empty, lonely atmosphere, it still lacked something to me the second time around. I think Shattered Memories spoiled me somewhat to that extent, with its areas filled with signs and posters covered with text to read. You found the sort of signs you would expect to find in those real-life areas, only a bit off in unsettling ways at times. The muddied textures and occasional clips of things you get to read in Silent Hill 2 just do not measure up in that regard. Silent Hill feels like a supernatural place, a hell, instead of a real place slightly twisted. It’s hard to imagine James and Mary, or anyone really, having taken a vacation to this town, much less anyone having actually lived there. Again, I feel like this is, in a lot of ways, a decision on the part of the creators. To their interpretation, that’s exactly what Silent Hill is: a place where people go to be punished for their crimes. I just find I have a soft spot for newer interpretations like the one given in Shattered Memories.
Even with the older tech, though, the love poured into this game really shines through. I just love the detail and thought put into this game, from the maps marked with realistic scribbles and notations to the cutscenes themselves. One little detail that particularly stood out to me this time around was during the first scene when you meet Pyramid Head. The entire scene is fantastic. Watching Pyramid Head raping the enemies you’ve been fighting so far sends all sorts of messages about him as a person you’ll be running from. It’s a great moment. Near the end, though, James starts firing at Pyramid Head wildly with his handgun. The creators of the game went out of their way to make sure there were no minor plot holes by having James pick up a clip of ammo from inside the closet, and fire that off. They were that concerned about little questions such as “why didn’t that cutscene use up some of my ammo” that most players wouldn’t even notice. Videogame characters fire off guns and cast spells in cutscenes all the time, and nobody blinks an eye when their amount of MP and ammo is the same as before those events, but the creators of Silent Hill 2 weren’t willing to just let it happen and not worry about it. The fact that it also draws your attention to a key you need to pick up is a bonus.
This sort of little detail continues throughout the game. Later on, James has to jump down a series of holes where he cannot see the bottom. The first time this occurs, you see James having trouble with the idea. He makes several aborted movements to jump before finally giving in. The next time, he’s still hesitant, but after some heavy breathing, he jumps on in. Soon, he’s just hopping in with no hesitation at all. He gets used to the situation he’s in. Leaping into an abyss is simply what he needs to do to move on. The game sort of trains the player to be the same way as well. The first few times you hear that radio static, it is tense and fear-inducing, but as you near the end of the game, you’ve got your strategy down for defeating enemies. It isn’t much of a fear element, and simply becomes a useful UI element.
The radio isn’t the game’s only trick for tension-building, though. I just loved the simple fear built into most of the game’s “decisions.” As a player you know that, to progress the story, you need to make James reach into that creepy hole in the wall or dig up the questionable mound of dirt on the ground. But by giving you the prompt, the game makes you feel like you have the option to run away. Even if just for a moment, there is the illusion that there is another, safer solution, and that makes making James do the crazy thing feel scarier than it is when you reduce the question to “would you like to advance the plot?” Most games with those sorts of questions do it because of bad interface design, having to ask you constant questions because they can’t come up with a way to make the player not do things they aren’t intending to do. Silent Hill uses it for effect.
Similarly, the way the game uses safety is amazing. Right at the beginning of the game, it really throws you. This is a horror game, so you expect horror, but you don’t encounter any danger at all for quite a long time. Walking along that foggy forest path as it continues on and on and on, you assume that something is going to happen. It’s too calm. You’re just walking. The sequence has gone on too long. Finally, you meet Angela, but soon continue walking. You expect a jump scare, or something, but you get nothing of the sort. When you meet your first monster, it is head-on, and somehow, that whole period of time when you were perfectly safe, but didn’t know what to expect, is more terrifying than your first encounter with a Lying Figure. If you do manage to train yourself not to have that tension in moments of safety, the game has a solution for that as well. Silent Hill uses its jump scares incredibly sparingly, and when they do, it’s incredibly effective. The only one I can remember from this was in the bathroom of the jail, a jump scare so strong they decided to reuse it in Silent Hill 3 in the mall as an easter egg if you had a Silent Hill 2 save.
Silent Hill 2 is just a very well-crafted game. The character designs lean on and revel in the uncanny valley to make everyone seem off and creepy. The enemy designs and dialog are designed to be looked at via multiple lenses and be interpreted different ways. The sparse use of music when there is normally silence is employed to make the player squirm in their seat. I could continue to list the things that impress me for quite some time, if I was so inclined. What I am trying to get at, though, is that, like a poem, very little in this game is devoid of purpose. These days, “emergent gameplay” is an important buzzword, but Silent Hill 2 is having no part of that. Pieces are placed strategically, to create very specific meanings. The player experiences sensations and emotions created via the skill of the game’s creators, not fun you have to find for yourself. The game, with all its detail, was clearly a labor of love. That works out fine for me, because I loved it, even as I replayed it all these years later. It’s worthy of love, and I give it.
- Released: 2001
- System: Playstation 2 (Later ported to PC and Xbox. Also part of the forthcoming Silent Hill HD Collection for PS3 and Xbox 360.)
- Publisher: Konami