Games That Changed Our Lives #15: Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 -2-min

Funnily enough, during my first playthrough of Silent Hill 2, 3 and 4, I never actually touched the controller. I sat on a couch, covered in a cocoon of blankets, and watched my friend (we’ll call him Josh) play the game for me. This didn’t dilute the scare-factor, but rather enhanced it. You see, Josh simply wasn’t very good at the game. The only thing more frightening than watching James Sunderland walk down a dark corridor filled with twitching mannequins is watching a panicked James stumble drunkenly through that corridor, flailing his wooden plank with the reckless abandon of a cat being sprayed by a hose.

Luckily, years later I would emerge from that blanket cocoon a horror-loving young adult, and I would play through all original Silent Hill titles on my own. And what a feeling that was. In a dark room with headphones on I was finally able to soak in the game’s atmosphere, able to take in every detail I could. The game oozed symbolism and I scrambled to discover what it all meant, squinting at my television in an attempt to make out the scrawled graffiti on the bathroom walls of the very first area in Silent Hill 2. Turns out the graffiti was gibberish, but still. It was meaningful gibberish.

In Silent Hill 3 and 4 I did much the same, and I even got some enjoyment out of Silent Hill 1, though I still wish I had been exposed to that title earlier on. Unfortunately, Harry’s ridiculous low-fi running animation tended to kill my immersion; his legs flapped around the wings of a great, flightless bird, and his character model had so few polygons that he looked like a cross between a man and an ice-cream sandwich. Nonetheless it was interesting to see the series’ pixelated roots.

“[Silent Hill 2] shifted focus away from the cult; from Silent Hill as a realm that has associations with hell and demons, and shifted it inwards, to the hell we make for ourselves”

And though I enjoyed all of Team Silent’s games, it is my firm belief that Silent Hill 2 stands above them all, and indeed all other horror titles, partially because of its focus on what time-sink TVTropes dubs “Adult Fear”. Adult fear refers to horror derived not from the supernatural or monstrous, but from things that are very much possible in the real world; things that scratch at our collective psyche. These are things that we hear about in the news and think, “But what if that happened to me, or to the people I love?” Or the even more troubling question: “Would I ever be capable of doing such a thing?”

(Major spoilers start here! If you haven’t played this wonderful title yet, then begone with you. I know the game is fifteen years old, but still. Oh my god, Silent Hill 2 is fifteen years old. Excuse me as I fight off the existential dread slowly setting in.)

Silent Hill 2 -1-min

This focus on adult fear is what I believe sets Silent Hill 2 apart from the other entries in the series. It shifted focus away from the cult; from Silent Hill as a realm that has associations with hell and demons, and shifted it inwards, to the hell we make for ourselves. It is fitting that what I believe to be the most resonant moment in the game has nothing to do with creatures or with pointy-headed butchers, but is the point in which the source of James’ guilt is revealed.

It is a quiet scene, backed at the end by a sombre piano melody. We watch as the camera very slowly pans around a defeated, despondent James. This scene, coupled with the revelation that his wife was quite sick before he murdered her, was frightening to me. It didn’t make my heart race or my hands sweaty, and I didn’t require a new pair of pants – it was a more pungent fear than that; the kind that you keep with you in your everyday life. It not only forced me to question James’ motivations, and my feelings toward a character that I had fully invested myself in, but it made me question my own morality and integrity. Could I still sympathise with this man? Could I, the player, forgive him? Look past the initial repulsion and try to understand him? Should I?

“[Silent Hill 2] didn’t sacrifice its creep-factor to accommodate its heavier themes; it didn’t see itself as above that form of horror”

The revelations related to the other characters in the game didn’t quite make me question myself in the same way, as I didn’t become as attached to them as I did the monotone, awkward James (what a relatable fella). But they were frightening in how disturbingly human they were, and how common the moral crimes associated with the characters are. Whereas James had me questioning myself, they made me question the moral integrity of humanity and its capacity to victimise and to terrorise, and the affect that has on the individual.

Silent Hill 2 was a mature sort of horror, and the type of fear that resonates with me, even if I don’t necessarily want it to. Even better was the fact that it didn’t come at the expense of the game itself. It still had convoluted puzzles and frustrating, tank-like combat, as survival horror games of the era were meant to have. It was as good as any Resident Evil gameplay wise (don’t kill me), and had depth to it. It also nailed traditional horror, in addition to the “mature” horror I mention above. Pyramid Head may have been meme’d to death, but he was frightening. The nurses, the grimy, water-stained environments – they were creepy and had a physiological and psychological affect on me. It didn’t sacrifice its creep-factor to accommodate its heavier themes; it didn’t see itself as above that form of horror.

Silent Hill 2 -4-min

As I said, the other “Team Silent” games are good, but for me they simply don’t have that raw, human core that Silent Hill 2 has. Or as much of a core, at any rate. Silent Hill 1 and 3 focused on the cult, and Silent Hill 4 had a complex character in Walter Sullivan, but the main character was a blank canvas and had the personality of a sunbathing seal.

The post-Team Silent Silent Hill games are best left undiscussed, because they make me sad, but Silent Hill: Shattered Memories does come close to Silent Hill 2 in terms of effective “adult fear”. In fact, I quite liked it. But this story focus did come at the expense of its gameplay, which was a shame. I enjoyed exploring the environments but being chased by skinny pink creatures with blocky heads got a little bit old after a while. I missed my drunken flailing.

Silent Hill 2 is therefore a game that not only affected me greatly, but also changed how I view effective horror. It scratched an itch that hasn’t quite been scratched in the same way since, though many games have obviously been inspired by its focus on adult fear, symbolism, and general degradation and decay. One day I do hope to find a modern Silent Hill 2, but for now I’m content to replay the game and feel that same sense of dread as I run down an endless staircase, listening to the screech of metal and that distant, otherworldly thrumming.