The Game: Silent Hill 2 (2001)
System: PS2, XBox (as Restless Dreams), PC, XBox 360/PS3 (as Silent Hill HD Collection)
Buy It On Amazon: RIGHT HERE
The Premise: James Sunderland is a widower who goes to the abandoned town of Silent Hill after he receives a letter from his dead wife, calling him back to “their special place.”
Is It Any Good?: It’s slow. Clunky. Disjointed. Terrible AI. Iffy collision detection. Camera controls are awful. You can often only tell things are taking damage because they fall over. Puzzles are obtuse, esoteric, and barely have semblance of logic.
It is one of the greatest games ever made.
You see, Silent Hill 2 is not a game you play for free-flowing, joyous game mechanics. As we know by now, any attempt to make the Silent Hill games feel closer to “normal” gameplay end up passable at best (Shattered Memories, Homecoming), catastrophic at worst (Downpour, Origins). Silent Hill 2 is a game you play because it MAKES you. For the same reasons you watch any horror movie, Silent Hill 2 beckons you forward, against all odds, against all logic, ignoring the nonsensical, and into the chill. It is a game you experience than play in the traditional sense. And what you’re experiencing is lasting, crushing dread, desolation, deep seated, Freudian fear the likes of which few pieces of media are ever able to accomplish. For all the talk of holy immersion being the end all goal of every game, Silent Hill 2 does it, with a broken gameplay system, and doesn’t even break a sweat on those Toy Story graphics the PS2 was supposed to deliver. This is gaming’s purest example of style and substance beating function to death.
The PS1 game had set a foundation of an empty town, overrun with fleshy, mindless, groaning abominations, but used it to tell a rather simple story about a missing girl, who may be some sort of Antichrist brought about to cleanse the world. SH2 is actually a step back from the paranormal damsel in distress thing into something far more psychologically unsettling. If the town were human, he’d be in someone’s basement taking his new Human Centipede for a test drive. This is a game written in the language of nightmares, the polemic of broken minds trying to right themselves and failing, which is depressingly unique to SH2 in context of the series, and a tiny part of why the others pale by comparison. The nightmares of Silent Hill 2 are personalized. Eddie and Angela, the two other folks wandering the streets at the same time as James Sunderland, are seeing two completely different towns, being tormented two completely separate ways for two separate reasons. It’s like Inception except every level is being dreamed of by a Cenobite.
James’ own version of the town is almost kind of tame by comparison to what the others seem to be going through, and what Harry Mason saw. For what it’s worth, James isn’t going anywhere to save his wife, or escape from authority. He’s going there to meet his wife, on the off chance that the undead have ever been able to make valid romantic propositions. He’s basically following his one chance at normalcy, of feeling whole again. When he pushes forward, what’s in his way isn’t anything trying to stop James, per se. It’s to torment, to ensnare, to remind. Except in cramped corridors, and the occasional boss fight, you can go long stretches without ever having one of the enemies truly pose a threat, which is a good thing. The controls are not your friend here, which does feed into the fact that you’re playing the epitome of a normal guy. Swinging a plank of wood or firing a gun feel like effort, not a primary means of interaction. The creatures are more like NPCs than enemies; hostile, but not in your way.
The terror comes in the slow, sinking realization of what James did to deserve all this. It’s a doozy, and it’s less about the climactic moment of realization from the video tape at the end–though that’s terrible enough–more about memory and/or the second playthrough, and everything the game puts in front of James to throw that act, and all the thoughts that led to the act, back in his face. The town’s cruelty is almost impressively boundless here, and the more nebulous the hint, the creepier. James is essentially having his entire concept of manhood distorted and mutilated before him at every turn, from the vaginal armless enemies, mannequins made entirely of female limbs, to puzzles telling him to sacrifice himself as an oppressor, and a sexual deviant, to Maria showing up, looking like an oversexed version of his dead wife, insulting his ineptitude at every turn. Much as I understand how good old Pyramid Head became the series’ mascot, his appearances outside of this game dilute the power of what he’s meant to represent here: A living embodiment of pure, asshole, reptilian male hostility. The game’s iconic moment of fucked up, of Pyramid Head engaging in an abstract, malevolent, blatantly sexual act with two mannequins that he promptly tosses/drags away after, is probably the most thematically brilliant, but visually horrifying moment a game has ever put forth. And that’s after an hour of gameplay.
The problem with survival horror is right there in the title. Survival as a motivator basically puts the game in a place of needing to find the tools to continue living long enough to see daylight again. That’s not necessarily at war with what actually causes fear, but it’s a really marginal facet of it. Silent Hill 2 is in a more elite caste of horror. This is the horror of the self, of just being human, of knowing there is something fundamentally wrong with this person we’re walking alongside, and knowing there is no other direction but forward, into something inescapable about them that isn’t going to magically vanish because you fired a big gun at it. Zombies, mutants, and masked psychopaths, these are things that you have to work at reconciling a mind with. A husband’s psychological trauma over a loved one’s terminal illness is an every day, mortal pain. Much in the same way The Fountain was able to twist that into something true, and bittersweetly lifting about coping and the grace of death, Silent Hill 2 works its ill magic on the other end of the spectrum, the human frailty turned angry and evil and, worst of all, unchecked by superego. You don’t shake off that kind of torment the way you can a jump scare, or a decimated corpse. You just kinda live with it. That’s the kind of horror I love. The kind you have to live with after the credits roll, rather than relishing the ride as it happens. That’s the area The Exorcist and The Shining and Videodrome live in. Even with Silent Hill 2‘s objective flaws, it lives rather comfortably in their neighborhood as a horror experience.
Bonus Points: So, the quick and dirty about the HD Collection. Yes, the updated V/O track is worth it. Yes, for the most part, the 720p upconvert looks good. Yes, it’s still got some baffling changes/omissions, but honestly, out of all of them, the draw distance for the fog is my biggest complaint. No, the half-assed patch for the PS3 version doesn’t do shit. No, it is NOT unplayable, as some may lead you to believe. But yes, if you’re okay not having some of the current gen niceties, and your system of choice is backward compatible, go Restless Dreams (XBox) or Greatest Hits (PS2)
This game is home to two of the most random wardrobe cribs ever: Maria’s outfit is copied from an outfit Christina Aguilera wore to the 1999 Teen Choice Awards, and Mary and Laura’s outfits match what Cameron Poe’s wife and daughter wear in Con Air. James also wears the same army jacket as Jacob Singer in Jacob’s Ladder, but at least that makes sense.
On the same note: Heaven’s Night is deliberately made up to look like the bar in Blue Velvet.
Technically, there isn’t a canon ending, but there’s the strongest case for the In Water ending being closest to bullseye, based on:
- Douglas Cartland hinting in Silent Hill 3 that there was a missing persons case in town not long ago and “they never found the guy”. So, happy as the Leave ending (sorta) is, James running off with Laura doesn’t make sense.
- According to a tweet last year from developer Masahiro Ito, the reason you can’t see into the back seat of James’ car at the beginning of the game is because James has Mary’s corpse stashed back there.
- That’s backed up by the Book of Lost Memories included with some copies of Silent Hill 3 which has a blurb about how James wanted to *take* his wife to a special place, not find her there.
- It’s not necessarily a deciding factor, but read up on the Japanese dramatic tradition of shinju. For the Japanese, that ending is possibly the most spiritually awful way for that story to close.
Even with the In Water ending being the strongest candidate, you might want to run through New Game + for the Rebirth ending some time, just for the sheer fucking creep factor.
In the sounds folder for the PC port of the game, there’s a hidden file that includes the missing audio from the videotape in the hotel. I’ll let that sink in.
THINGS I JUST REALIZED: “There was a HOLE here. It’s gone now.” Why has it taken me this long to figure that that might be yet another supremely fucked up dehumanizing sex reference?
In case you didn’t notice while trying to keep your bladder unpurged, most of the corpses you find lying around in this game? They’re all wearing James’ outfit.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Silent Hill 3, Alan Wake, Haunting Ground, Siren: Blood Curse