As far as I can see, most non-gamers are split into two camps when it comes to videogames – the first turn their noses up at the very prospect, thinking that such activities are childish and immature, while the others enjoy, but do so casually, treating them as nothing more than light entertainment. This is a massive, massive under-appreciation of the artistic power of videogames – while it’s true that the market has always been dominated by fun but shallow blockbusters, occasionally some masterpieces do come along which harness the true potential of the interactive medium. One of such masterpieces is Silent Hill 2, and hopefully, with its re-release as part of the Silent Hill HD Collection later this month, more of you will be able to experience this enduring classic.
When we strip things down to their bare essentials, Silent Hill 2 is a horror story about a widower who gets a letter, seemingly from beyond the grave, from his wife, telling him to meet her in the town of Silent Hill. When treated as a video game, there are many, many flaws to be found here – the controls are terrible, the combat is unwieldy and simplistic, the camera makes navigating the many corridors unnecessarily difficult, the voice acting is laughable, and the puzzles are too obtuse for their own good. In fact, the first 30 minutes that I spent playing the game were mostly spent laughing at the game’s glaring design errors. As I entered the game’s first building, however, I shut up for the remaining ten hours.
Walking around Silent Hill 2’s various abandoned buildings inspires true terror that hasn’t been matched in any videogame since (except maybe Dead Space, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent). There are almost no ‘pop-up’ scares – you can see and hear the monsters coming from far away; the fear comes solely through the atmosphere. Ever walked through your old school after everyone had already left? Imagine that, except multiplied by 100. The sheer, animal terror is exploited down to its last drop through the game’s rusty, hellish otherworld, the art style being a cross between David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
And while the atmosphere is stifling to the point of suffocation, the true star of Silent Hill 2, that makes it rise above other survival horror experiences such as Resident Evil, is undoubtedly the story. The plot here is one of the most deeply tragic and all-round emotional tales that I have seen in any medium. A twist towards the end of the narrative is a devastating experience – maybe because I wasn’t expecting a twist at all, maybe because of my attachment to the characters involved. I felt physically shaken, and if you’re planning on playing the game at all, then stop reading the review and ignore any details that might inadvertently be spoilers.
The twist works because of the extremely well-done foreshadowing – little details that you may not understand the significance of until the very end; for example, a room which simply holds a mannequin wearing a dress. ‘But those clothes…’, James remarks – and it is only later that we are able to comprehend the true nature of the symbolism presented there.
Speaking of symbolism (and we’re venturing into slight spoiler territory here, so tread carefully), if you have even the slightest interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, you will have a field day with the monster design here. Without giving away too much, as the surreal plot moves through its paces, you’ll begin to notice that the various creatures reflect James’ personal psychological demons – the nurses, for example, the only female enemies, are highly sexualised, to the point of being absurd, and have no faces. Or take Pyramid Head – a man in a bloody apron who wears an enormous metal triangle while dragging around a meat cleaver. There are hints at what this could all mean, but a lot is left for the player to work out on their own – you will definitely be thinking about the implications of the various events long after you have finished.
Perhaps for the first time in videogame history, mature themes are discussed with great class, taste and respect. This is a genuinely sincere exploration into guilt, regret and male sexuality. While a lot of media, not only videogames, use sex as a way attract potential customers, sex takes on a perverse, unappealing role here. There is a rape scene near the beginning that so vile and repulsive that you may want to take a shower afterward. Despite all of the brutality, though, Silent Hill 2 manages to be more than just horror. In its themes, it takes a lot from the Japanese kwaidan (ghost stories), which aren’t just scary – they’re actually very tragic.
And it is this tragedy at the core of Silent Hill 2 that makes it a game worth playing. Combined with the gorgeously haunting soundtrack, events that occur around you will hint that something is terribly wrong – and when it hits you, all of the pieces will majestically fall into place. This narrative transcends the videogame medium – it is one of the greatest stories ever told. So please, don’t dismiss interactive entertainment as being solely for ADHD-riddled teens – as Silent Hill 2 shows, videogames can be used to tell deeply moving and powerful stories, and, if enough effort is put into them, they are just as capable, if not more so, at portraying emotions as film and literature. More than ten years after its original release, people are still looking back to Silent Hill 2 as a masterpiece of interactive story-telling – and it deserves every single piece of praise that it receives.