It's no small secret that, when it comes to most horror related things, I am a scaredy-cat. Ever since I was a kid, I couldn't handle most horror movies or games, especially those with an abundance of jump-scares. Ah, jump-scares, the cheap cop-out tactic of the horror genre to elicit a reaction from the audience when they can't think of, or be bothered to devise, anything better.
As a result of my weak horror backbone, I missed out on a plethora of award-winning renowned horror games, one of the key franchises being the Silent Hill series.
I had seen a number of YouTube videos discussing the thematic elements and tactics Team Silent have employed to elicit fear from their players, but I had never experienced it for myself. And, when I saw that the Silent Hill series made little use of jump-scares and focused on a more psychological element, I was intrigued to say the least.
I began looking at ways to play the Silent Hill games on current hardware. However, I was then thrust into the controversy of the Silent Hill HD Collection. While the easiest way to play the second and third games on newer hardware, the HD Collection was universally panned by the passionate Silent Hill community. From here, I decided that the Collection was not the best way to play the games, even as a new arrival.
Then, fortune came a-knocking. I was able to borrow a physical copy of Silent Hill 2 for PC. And with the community-made ‘Enhanced Edition’ now available to me, I decided this was the way to play.
After getting everything installed, I got myself a snack, a drink and got settled in for… well… I didn’t know what to expect at the time.
To summarise the story of Silent Hill 2, the game follows James Sunderland. James is an office clerk who has received a letter from his wife, Mary, requesting him to meet her at their “special place” in the titular town of Silent Hill. There’s just one issue with this, as James state:. His wife has been dead for three years after passing away from a horrific illness. We join James just on the outskirts of Silent Hill as he contemplates why he is here and his confusion of the situation. As he makes his way into town and, after a hefty jog, comes across a strange hostile figure. Upon defeating this strange entity, James presses on to his supposed destination, albeit a circuitous route due to various obstacles. Over the course of the game, James encounter a small, but memorable cast of characters as well as horrific hostile creatures intent on killing him.
Now, we can’t talk about a Silent Hill game without discussing the sound design. The sound design of Silent Hill 2, and its compatriots, is impeccable. In fact, the sound design is one of the most heralded aspects of the series. Multiple sounds are used to great effect to unsettle the player. Be it a random sound effect heard from behind doors or from just out of frame of the camera. Low drones and groans which can either be construed as the dilapidated building shifting or a hideous large monster. Or even just silence. Silence is a sound in and of itself, and in Silent Hill 2 the impact it has on nurturing an uneasy feeling is outstanding. The sense of loneliness, being left with nothing but the sound of James’ footsteps and a crushing sense of fear at what may be around the next corner.
James also carries a small portable radio which emits static when an enemy or enemies are nearby. Some critics state that this takes the sting out of the surprise of being ambushed by an enemy tucked around the corner, lurking the halls of the Wood Side Apartments or the snaking tunnels of the Labyrinth. I would argue the opposite. The idea of knowing that something harmful and unsettling is nearby but you are unsure where exactly or the direction it will approach you from is nerve-wracking. The static also does not giveaway which enemy is nearby. The assumption that it may be a weak enemy, like a Mannequin or Lying Figure may prove your undoing, especially in a certain basement in the Labyrinth area.
Now, it is hard to find substantial criticism with the sound design of the game. A criticism I do have towards to the sound design is the
The symbolism of many creatures, events and sights of Silent Hill is also a highly coveted aspect of the series, particularly in Silent Hill 2. Though, Silent Hill 2 does not boast the same variety of enemies seen in its predecessor, its clear to see that the focus on the enemies was to make them personal to James. This aspect will be expanded upon later in the *spoiler* part of the review. The enemies met during the game are all incredibly well designed and feature very intentional characteristics and physical traits, as opposed to looking spooky and gross for the sake of being spooky and gross.
Silent Hill 2 also marks the debut of one of the most famous horror game characters ever devised: Pyramid Head. Pyramid Head also serves his own role as part of James’ psyche. Pyramid Head was deliberately designed to look immensely intimidating. His muscular physique, the bloodied executioner robes and the mysterious identity-hiding iconic headwear, coupled with his lack of dialogue, emotion and other noises apart from the dragging of the Great Knife, make Pyramid Head an incredibly spine-tingling enemy. A key piece of trivia about Pyramid Head’s design was that the pyramid headwear was designed with the intention to make it look painful to wear, inferring to the torment that the devotees of the cult, that Pyramid Head is a reference to, subject upon themselves.
The design of the main cast is, on the surface level, pretty plain. James is garbed in a forest-green M65 military jacket with blue jeans. Angela dons a grey turtle-neck sweater. And Eddie is seen in a white and blue polo(?) shirt with cargo shorts. Angela’s choice of clothing is the most obviously intentional in relation to her backstory, electing to wear non-revealing clothing due to past trauma. While, James and Eddie’s designs are seemingly plain and lacking symbolism (at least of any that I can theorise), the “every-man” attire of the cast lends itself to the relatability of the characters. As opposed to some meat-head with a leather jacket that only relates to guys named “Gaz” at the local pub. You can feasibly step into the shoes of James due to his everyday relatable characteristics and flaws. Apart from… ya know… that flaw… the one that brought him here…
The gameplay of Silent Hill 2 is definitely one of the weaker aspects of the game. Upon finding the first enemy in the tunnel, James’ weapon of choice is a wooden plank with a nail in it. The melee combat feels clunky and dated by today’s standards. I also found that I was unsure which type of attack James would make. Whether he would swing the plank from side to side, overhead swing, or stomp on the creature if it were on the ground. Many times, I would go to stomp on the creature, James would opt to swing the plank instead, and the entity would scurry away at the speed of sound. This could be frustrating at times, but not was not too obtrusive.
The gunplay does also have its own pitfalls. James encounters his first gun, the pistol, in the Wood Side Apartments. For the most part, the gun gameplay is serviceable. James locks on to the nearest entity and you press the ‘attack’ button to fire. Pretty simple. The issues with the gunplay arise with the ammo count. Unlike its horror contemporaries of the time, such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill does not throttle you for ammunition. Ammo is seemingly plentiful throughout Silent Hill and with the option to easily avoid enemies in the streets, you end up saving a large amount of ammo for all the weapons. This removes the tense feeling when you know you don’t have a lot of ammo to work with, a la Resident Evil. The lack of tension brought to the table surrounding the decision to expend ammo for safety or risk circumnavigating the shambling horror to save ammo is missed here.
Criticism can be found with the enemies and the gameplay also. The first criticism is the lack of gameplay variety between the various types of enemy and the lack of challenge. For the most part, the weaker enemies (Lying Figures, Mannequins, Nurses) behave largely similar to each other. The gameplay tactic for all of them is, when using a melee weapon, circle behind them and bonk them on the head with the hard attack a few times until they fall, then stomp on them until the radio static ceases. Or if you are using a gun: shoot them until they fall, then proceed to stomp on them. The lack of variety in gameplay can lead to the combat feeling repetitive, stale and, frankly, far too easy. Coupled with the aforementioned abundance of ammunition lying around the town, the game proves to be a very unchallenging endeavour even on the higher difficulties. Despite this, I find that the gameplay shortcomings are foregone by the themes, story and characters. Enough so, that for the majority of the experience you forget about the dated gameplay.
The different approach to horror (Some spoilers from here on out)
Not only does Silent Hill 2 stand out amongst the other entries in the series but it also takes a different approach to the horror genre in general. The entry was especially unique in 2001, with many subsequent entries trying to recapture the magic but to seemingly little success. So, Silent Hill 2 seems a bit like lightning in a bottle. But why? This is what will be covered here. When Silent Hill 1 and 2 were released, their main competitor in the horror field was the Resident Evil franchise. Konami had wished for Team Silent to create a direct competitor to Resident Evil and emulate the cheesy horror movie nature which Resident Evil is known for. However, Team Silent wanted to make something different. Entirely different. Rather than surprising the players and testing quick reflexes, the game would stimulate emotions and instil dread and loneliness to foster fear.
This is what Silent Hill 1 first tried, and Silent Hill 2 perfected. Silent Hill 2 lets you freak yourself out. Silent Hill 2 presents you with a strange event, sight or sound and allows you to warp what that may be, build it up in your head and terrify yourself shitless. In the words of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw: “All a good horror game needs to do is hand you a piece of sandpaper and shout encouragement as you vigorously massage your own undercarriage”. That creaking noise in the hallway outside the room? Well that could just be the building settling. Or it could be the towering Brobdingnagian that is Pyramid head, looking to rend your spine from your back with the blunt side of the Great Knife.
Silent Hill 2 does this amazingly. One choice moment for me was early on in the game when cautiously perusing the rooms of either the Wood Side Apartments or the Blue Creek Apartments. I was checking every door to see which were unlocked. I reached a door, interacted with it, got the sound effect of James rattling the handle, and the text prompt telling me the door was unopenable. As a I turned away from the door, I heard the same sound effect again. As if someone was trying the door handle from the other side. The fear I felt in that moment was much longer lasting and effective than any cheap jump scare, as I began to theorise in my head what it was that tried to open the door from the other side, mere inches away from me. Truly artistic.
Something I had planned to draw on in this review, in relation to these moments, is the lack of follow up. These moments occur at random. Often, nothing would happen afterwards. The sound would occur, and I’d move on. So, I had planned to make some smart ass statement about how “These moments are plentiful and enjoyable at first but the lack of any real follow through leads you to disregard these sounds as hollow”. The same also applies to the radio static. It serves as a great tool for letting you know something is nearby but keeping you on your toes in terms of direction or enemy type. Nearing the end of the game, you’ve got loads of ammo and you aren’t concerned about the basic enemies anymore. So, as you hear the static, you no longer panic. You become complacent. This is when the game has you in the palm of its hand. That’s when it does throw something like a scare at you. And its much more effective for it because you don’t expect it. An example of this was near the end of the game during the Labyrinth portion. You find yourself in a basement area. It’s a hexagonal shape with two entry points and a centre room with one entrance. The radio static starts going as soon as I enter the area. “Oh, I bet it’s just a Lying Figure or a Nurse”, I thought to myself, smugly. I then round one of the six corners and I’m faced with Pyramid Head. No fanfare, no special music, no cutscene. He’s just there. With his spear and intent on making James flavoured shish kebabs. And I promptly shat myself, I did. The radio static had deceived me, and I wasn’t even mad.
The story and the writing
As mentioned prior, Silent Hill 2 is a departure from its franchise siblings as well as the horror game genre. This comes in the form of the story. The first game focuses on a plot driven by a weird, illogical death cult which wanted to bring about the reincarnation of their god. Hence, the weird stuff that went on it Silent Hill 1. In Silent Hill 2 there is barely any mention of this cult, their acts or the outcome of the events in Silent Hill 1. No, Silent Hill 2 focuses on a select cast of characters and has the traumatic events that occur focused entirely on them and their psyche. The weird stuff in the town is explained externally that the town has always had some evil presence to it and the events of the first game just livened it up a bit. Now, its calling people with traumatic pasts to the town to hash it out, like an eccentric and violent therapist.
As we know, the story follows our troubled protagonist James Sunderland to find his dead wife who inexplicably sends him a letter to meet him in Silent Hill. On his adventures he meets Angela Orosco, a young nervous woman looking for her mother. Eddie Dombrowski who doesn’t explain why he’s come to town but has a penchant for always being near freshly killed corpses. Maria, a doppelganger of James’ wife Mary, albeit more provocatively dressed and flirtatious towards James. And Laura, an 8 year old girl who apparently knew Mary when she was in hospital last year. Laura seems to traverse the town with ease, doesn’t see the monsters and knew James’ wife despite the fact she should have been dead for two years by that point.
All of the characters are well written with tragic backstories which have led them to be called to Silent Hill. The voice acting is infamously bad; however, I feel that the unnatural line deliveries lend themselves to the uneasy atmosphere and aid in the unnatural feeling the game wants to impart upon you. Whether this was intentional in the casting of the voice actors and their performance is up for debate.
James’ actions over the course of the game effect the final ending. However, unlike many games which branching endings, the actions are much more subtle than picking two button prompts for Ending A or Ending B. The ending is effected by the total time James spends with Maria, how many times James looks at the picture of Mary and her letter in his inventory, how many times James bumps into or hits Maria and various items that James picks up over the course of the game, including Angela’s kitchen knife. Playing this game blind and not realising what actions I was making to change the ending was exhilarating. I was constantly left guessing what ending I would get. I was quite content (or as content as one could be) with the ending I got (I won’t go in to detail which one), however I don’t think the ending I got was the canon one.
The story of the game leads you through various hoops as you witness the breakdown of James and his realisation of why he’s been called to the town, the acts he had committed prior to the events of the game and coming to terms with his own desires and damaged psyche. By the end of the game, you feel exhausted. Processing what you actually witnessed and questioning what James saw and experienced as reality or fiction. Upon finishing the game myself, I found that for the rest of the day, I was thinking over what I had experienced. Tying together theories about the events of the game from what I saw. Its certainly a game that will keep you up at night.
Of course, there are the joke endings. Silent Hill 2 features the second in the “UFO ending” tradition. This ending can only be attained the Director’s Cut/Greatest Hits/HD Collection versions of the game and on a second playthrough, picking up a particular item right at the start of the game and using it in key areas throughout the story. The most infamous joke ending of the two is the Dog ending. This ending can only be attained after receiving the three ‘normal’ endings and beginning another playthrough. This ending also requires you to pick up a dog bone at the doghouse by Jack’s Inn, then using it on a particular door in the Lake View Hotel. This ending reveals that all of James’s hardships were orchestrated and controlled by a Japanese Shiba dog in an office chair controlling a cartoonish computer with two levers. James promptly drops to the floor as the dog consoles him, the credits roll and jovial song featuring the barking dog plays.
The last point I would like to draw on is one of my favourite aspects of the game. The symbolism. From immediate impressions, the creatures that James encounters throughout the game seem pretty basic. Shambling, hostile creatures which move in creepy ways to freak the player out. However, you must look beyond the immediate interpretation you make of these creatures. In accordance with James’ character, the entities he combats are reflections of James’ inner psyche and insecurities. During his wife’s illness he was unable to fulfil his sexual desires due to his wife’s state. This led James to view his wife in an antagonistic and disgusting manner, whilst viewing other women, including the nurses of the hospital, in an overly sexualised way. All the while, James is disgusted with himself and buries these urges deep within his subconscious, ripe for Silent Hill to dig up and torment him with.
The Lying Figures are representations of his wife, bound, writhing in pain, spitting acid at James to symbolise her hateful words towards him or her persistent vomiting, whilst also retaining a woman’s body figure to symbolise James’ sexual urges towards his wife. The Mannequins are two pairs of women’s legs attached end to end, to illustrate James’s perspective of women as just pairs of legs for him to ogle. The Nurses in Brookhaven Hospital are dressed in scantily clad nurses’ outfits with bags of white liquid covering their faces. And Pyramid Head, repeatedly seen violating these creatures in different ways throughout the game.
Other, non-sexual, symbolism also includes Pyramid Head. Pyramid Head is the manifestation of James’ desire for punishment for what he’s done. James believes he needs a righteous force to make him pay for his unspeakable act and make him come to terms with what he has done. The Mandarins, an oft forgot enemy, are seen hanging underfoot from mesh fences, attacking James if he lingers over them for too long. These creatures represent James’ want for escape from what he’s done but being trapped with no way out. They also cling to the fences over a dark seemingly never-ending abyss, hanging by a thread from uncertain doom. Much like James’ sanity clinging on for dear life but with the potential to fall at any moment into the abyss of guilt he feels deep down.
The symbolism, much like the characters and story, is one of the strongest aspects of the game and was also attempted in later instalments but not as memorable or effective, much to the chagrin of the Silent Hill fanbase. This aspect was certainly one of the “lightning in a bottle” factors which made this game so successful but eluded later instalments. The symbolism is also one of the reasons I will definitely revisit the game to figure out what additional imagery and references can be inferred.
Silent Hill 2 is an undeniable masterpiece of the horror genre. It is a must play for any horror fan or non-horror fan who is sceptical and turned off by the cheap jump scare, FNAF, Outlast tripe we see on the Steam marketplace today. For those who love thematic, story driven, emotional roller coasters, this is also one not to pass up. If you’re anything like me, the aforementioned symbolism coupled with the sound design, emotionally draining story, unnatural characters, and voice acting, make for one of the most effective fear inducing experiences seen in horror and should be experienced by anyone willing to give it a shot. Though the game is tricky to come by today, you can still obtain a digital copy from abandonware sites, borrow a copy from a friend or visit your local retro gaming café if you’re lucky enough to have one, they might have one there. And with the community-made ‘Enhanced Edition’ available for the PC version which patches issues and improves many aspects of the PC port, there is no better time to give this game a try.