The Greatest Games: Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Team Silent)

The original Silent Hill was one of the first big hits to match the cinematic possibilities of third-dimensional gaming with a truly mature narrative. Silent Hill 2 amplifies this experience. The story is better, the monsters scarier, the atmosphere denser. This is everything a survival horror game should aspire to be.

The biggest element which makes Silent Hill 2 stand above the other games in its franchise is how it conceptualizes the town. The dense fog and darker realms have always been intense, but this game adds a narrative aspect which casts a shadow over the entire experience. Silent Hill 2 presents the idea that the town is a reflection of any visitor’s inner psyche. Thus, every element of the experience can be analyzed as symbolic of James Sunderland’s experience.

This means that the monsters are more than mere obstacles. Being two sets of feminine legs, the mannequins come off as obvious symbols of sexual frustration. But many other monsters are related to James’s repressed memories, meaning their meanings are obscured through a lack of information. As with anything, fear of the unknown weighs heavily, made even worse by the expectation that nothing here is inexplicable. Visual design can only go so far, but knowing these come from within makes everything so much worse.

Pyramid Head has become an iconic villain not because he personally has depth but because he represents James’s darkest parts. His abuse of the mannequins suggests something being very wrong before we find out why. In a game otherwise filled with feminine monstrosities, it is the masculine Pyramid Head who relentlessly pursues James throughout the town. In fact, his masculinity is so overdone that his obvious phallic symbol actually weighs him down – yet that hindrance never stops this symbol from being as terrifying as intended.

Video games rarely confront sexual themes. Additionally, many games which do largely take a juvenile approach. There will be sex jokes, there will be scantily clad women, and there might even be an embarrassing cutscene as a reward for romancing a party member. Buried within all the surface horror of Silent Hill 2 is one of the medium’s greatest takes on human sexuality. In a game about people being eaten alive by their inner fears, the narrative never shies away from acknowledging this as an obvious source. It’s rare for a video game to even have a meaningful opportunity to confront issues such as lust and sexual violence, and Silent Hill 2 dared to tackle these themes in an era where even the most narrative-rich contemporaries were still focused on supersoldiers and summoners. This game so easily gets under our skin because its horrors are both human and familiar.

Even without these themes, Silent Hill 2 is absolutely terrifying. The first encounter with Pyramid Head is one of my favorite moments in gaming. The scariest moment in a franchise like early Resident Evil is a zombie jumping through a mirror – a literal jump scare. Here, the most intimidating sequence is Pyramid Head simply standing at the end of a hallway, cast in an eerie red light. There’s a grate between the two of you, giving only the slightest sense of protection. You must walk down this hall, toward the monster, to reach a room, and he’s gone when you step back out. This establishes a lingering dread – now you know what the monster looks like, but it felt so much better when you had a sense of where he stood. And, naturally, the game forces you to find your way to the other side of that grate. This is a work which understands that the expectation of a threat tends to be worse than the threat itself.

One of the worst feelings Silent Hill 2 gives is the sense that James is doing this all to himself. Other horror protagonists are typically trapped or at least pursuing a solid goal, but James made the trip to this town and keeps going even when things appear off. In a horror film, it’s easy to chide a character for making poor decisions. Having to make those poor decisions, on the other hand, can be a nauseating experience. The game keeps diving into deeper and darker places, and the dissonance between player and protagonist helps build the unease.

With ever more realistic graphics, video games have only grown better at providing scares. Yet this early PS2 game manages to be completely terrifying, even as someone who played it for the first time in the last few years. There’s an unease to this experience like few others, like you are doing something wrong by pursuing this course of action. Even as the Resident Evil characters dive deeper into secret labs, there’s always the sense that they’re ultimately trying to get out – getting out is at the heart of nearly every horror story. Silent Hill 2 sticks with us because James Sunderland seems dead set on getting in, and we’re being dragged along for his self-destructive ride.

The Greatest Games: Silent Hill (1999)

Silent Hill (1999)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (Team Silent)

I will very openly remark upon how difficult it is to return to the first PlayStation era. Graphics were blocky while most games featured rough controls. The fact I played the original Silent Hill a decade after the fact and it still managed to terrify me is a testament to how the development team created something magnificent within these constraints.

Silent Hill succeeds by actively attempting to hide these graphical limitations with ideas which build upon the horror. The perpetual fog is the most famous example. Harry Mason’s visibility is limited to only a few feet, making even outdoor sections awfully claustrophobic. If we could simply see into the distance, nothing at all would be scary. It’s this sense that an enemy could stumble into range at any time which ramps up the tension.

At certain points, the world shifts another layer closer to hell. This transition is signified by an air raid siren. The first transition is unforgettable. Harry stumbles into an alleyway which slowly gets darker. The camera remains angled to prevent the player from seeing where he’s headed. This first encounter is presented almost as a nightmare, but it’s the second time as Harry travels through the elementary school where the player must truly confront this other world. Everything becomes rusted and covered in blood while an all-consuming darkness replaces the fog.

Few locations in video games are as iconic as Silent Hill. All of these elements add up to the suggestion that this wretched resort town preys upon the psychological fears of its visitors. Where a series like Resident Evil was focused entirely on external threats, Silent Hill went straight beneath the skin. To truly praise the atmosphere, Silent Hill manages to be more terrifying when no enemies are present. This game thrives on the anticipation of something worse. And, boy, do things get worse, and that’s saying a lot when the streets themselves are terrifying. The music adds to the experience, with the soundtrack jumping back and forth between dark ambience and violent industrial pieces.

While video games started pushing toward cinematic ideas during the PlayStation era, most which made this attempt like Resident Evil or Metal Gear Solid were happy to wrestle with B-movie shlock. These obviously worked – most games were still pushing toward sheer fun, and these stories perfectly matched traditional game design. But Silent Hill feels like the first real success at going beyond blockbuster fare and really pushing into the territory of art films. Silent Hill is a game with the ambience of the most terrifying David Lynch films, throwing horror after horror at the audience with only a sliver of context.

The real kicker is the completely ordinary nature of Harry Mason. He’s not a trained cop like the Resident Evil protagonists. He’s just a writer. There’s no confidence in him getting through these encounters, which encourages avoiding conflict whenever possible. There are few other humans he runs into along the way, and there’s this dreadful sense that he can’t help any of them – not that Silent Hill would allow their escape, anyway.

Despite its age, Silent Hill still stands as one of the best examples of ambient horror. While its sequel would improve upon this experience on nearly every level, it cannot be understated how much this first game pushed narrative presentation to new heights. The original game perfectly established one of gaming’s most iconic locations, and the simple fact is that we might have never gotten this specific design if not some ingenious handling of the PS1’s technical limits. I struggle to think of another game which benefited so much from working within the constraints of this era.