Silent Hill 2: masterpiece of horror

Feature

– Karly Taylor

I was a tender fifteen years of age on my first trip to the sleepy town of Silent Hill. Deep in the bowels of the Historical Society, I stood at the end of a large, winding hallway. The choking darkness enveloped me as faint static crackled from my pocket radio, indicating that there were still enemies nearby, despite the gore dripping from the end of my rusted pipe. With my heart lodged in my throat, I realised I’d come to a ladder, going straight down, seemingly into the mouth of hell at this point. How much further could I go without landing in the devil’s lap, I wondered? What truly awaited me at the bottom of this ladder, I did not know. Nothing good, I suspected. I paused the game and hurriedly messaged my friend, who I’d more or less been giving a running commentary of my playthrough.

“DUDE,” I typed, in that obnoxious, teenage all-capitals way. I explained the situation. We are big on playing horror games together, my friend and I, whether it’s seated side by side on a couch or long distance through Skype or phone messages. One particular evening together, we came up with a theory about horror games. The terror in this genre comes from feeling helpless, right? From feeling vulnerable. And how do you combat that feeling? By becoming a badass. By cranking some heavy metal music, you go from being victimised to feeling unstoppable. You pity the fool. Naturally, she reminded me of “our method” for curing chicken shit, so with my headphones on and my resolve renewed, I marched down that ladder with my head held high…

… Straight into Pyramid Head’s waiting arms. I haven’t looked back since.

Pyramidhead70

He indeed does have a pyramid on his head. The name is apt!

Roughly fourteen years ago, Silent Hill 2 hit the shelves in Japan and North America, followed by a European release of the game a few short months after. In 2012 it deservedly received a HD remaster, packaged together with Silent Hill 3, for last gen consoles. Upon initial release on the Playstation 2, it was a critical success, receiving praise for its innovation, design and haunting soundtrack. To me, this is the ultimate Silent Hill game, if not the greatest horror game of all time. It’s no small claim to make, especially considering the great horror games that have been released since. So why would I make such a bold declaration, in the face of games like Amnesia and Penumbra, horror titles that fans would likely argue with me are more deserving of the title “Scariest Game Ever”?

For one thing, Silent Hill 2 holds up ridiculously well in terms of style and graphics, even in the standard version. The character models have a tendency to look a little goofy, but the town itself and all the individual buildings you can visit on the map, coupled with the ambient fog, look awesome. There’s no better wording for it. Thinking about it seriously, SH2 would’ve been considered revolutionary for the series visually back in the day. The first Silent Hill, while being a great game in its own right, is pretty ugly. Let’s be honest. It’s a pixeled mess. We are talking almost Minecraft-esque character models. The buildings and overall design of the second game, however, are smooth and immersive. Blood effects, shadowing, colour scheme – all these aspects play important roles in stitching this game together to create an incredible, macabre atmosphere.

silent hill 2

Wouldn’t be surprised to find Dr Lawrence Gordon’s foot in here somewhere…

And where would we be without that soundtrack? Arguably the most important aspect in any horror game, it’s the sound that allows you to build tension to almost painful, teeth-gritting levels. Anyone who has played this game undoubtedly remembers the ghostly wall banging in the prison level, or the soft, ominous whispering in the apartments. To this day, nobody has been able to decipher what that chilling voice actually murmurs, but it’s the kind of thing that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up (unless you’re of the opinion that the ghost is whispering about doing the laundry, which I suppose, unless you’re me, really isn’t that horrifying.)

Taking into account everything I’ve mentioned, what made SH2 so unforgettable to me was the story. When I first played this game, I was fairly young, and had no idea how deep and complex a video game could actually be. The amount of detail was inspiring, and helped me realise how badly I wanted to be a writer. I was also surprised by how much I connected with the main character James, and how determined I became to see his story through, no matter how terrifying it got. I wanted to reunite him with his estranged wife, who had sent him a letter begging him to meet her in Silent Hill. The more I played and the more the story unfolded, however, the stronger the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach became that this story wasn’t going to have a happy ending. Turns out, James’ fate was entirely up to you as the player. The decisions you made through the story affected what ending you ultimately got. I’m not talking Bioware-level world shattering decisions, but instead, incredibly subtle choices, such as what plot items you interacted with in your inventory the most, or how long you went without healing after taking damage from enemies. I was – and still am – floored by how intricate Silent Hill can be.

silent hill 2 doll

The jury’s still out on whether dressing mannequin gets you the fabulous ending!

To me, no other game matches this one in terms of enemy design. Pyramid Head, the man, myth and legend I mentioned earlier, is an iconic villain, right up there with the nurses. Even if you’ve never touched a Silent Hill game, or have only seen the movies, you likely know who this guy is. Each event has a certain symbolism and reason for its existence, tied to either the main character or the supporting cast. Pyramid Head, for example, represents judgement and punishment. He is the executioner in James’ fragile psyche, his subconscious demanding that he suffer and seek retribution for reasons that don’t become wholly apparent until the end.

This game, and the Silent Hill franchise in general, has never shied away from including heavy content and taboo topics. But it’s never graphic, always subtle. If you care about the story and the characters, and have been paying attention while playing the game, these things are easy to pick up on. But due to its veiled nature, the game never explicitly forces you to face these issues. It’s left up to fan interpretation and discussion, and part of what makes these games so special and unique, and what helps them stand the test of time, no matter how many years pass.

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