There was a title here. It's gone now.
by Crono Maniac



The stage is Tokyo, Japan, year 2000. The Nintendo 64 and the Playstation are on the verge of obsolescence, and Konami is in the middle of developing next-generation entries for their most noteworthy franchises, namely Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer, Contra, and Suikoden. The horror genre is doing well; Capcom has recently released Resident Evil 3, Parasite Eve 2 is set to arrive on U.S. shores in September, and a little company called Silicon Knights, known up to that point mainly for their creation of the Legacy of Kain series, has released information on a Lovecraft-inspired game tentatively entitled Eternal Darkness.

But the main players are directors Masashi Tsuboyama and Takayoshi Sato, writer Hiroyuki Owaku, artist Masahiro Ito, composer Akira Yamaoka, and the rest of the Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo development group "Team Silent." Silent Hill, their previous and only collaborative effort, was a critical and commercial success. Video games and the video game industry being what they are, that meant that it naturally had to have a sequel.

The audience is restless, dreaming of revisiting the streets of that wonderfully horrible mid-western town, dreaming of seeing all of their favorite characters again in hyper-realistic next-gen graphics. They can't wait for the inevitable announcement.

The trailer drops. Most of the audience is excited. The graphics are at a level they've never seen before. The creatures and the soundtrack are just as eerie as ever. The premise is intriguing, and the environments are gorgeous.

Some are less hyped, however. "Where are Harry and Cybil?" "Where is the cult?" "Where is the Otherworld?" They suspect Team Silent is abandoning core elements of the Silent Hill mythos. They think Silent Hill 2 might be a completely different game from the one they fell in love with in 1999. They are right.

September 24th, 2001. The North American release date for Silent Hill 2.



If Silent Hill is notable for running the survival-horror genre a couple yards closer to genuine storytelling maturity, Silent Hill 2 is notable for sprinting it into the end zone. Gameplay is largely unchanged, but from a story perspective the differences are just as pronounced as in the black sheep sequels of the NES era (e.g. Zelda 2, Castlevania 2, Mario 2, and other games no one likes as much as their progenitors.) This also goes a long way towards explaining some critics's ambivalence towards the title after its release; the PC version of Silent Hill 2 remains the lowest rated entry in the series on Gamespot, and the PS2 version is still rated lower than every game except for Origins and Homecoming.

Let me say this before issuing my rebuttal: Silent Hill is a wonderful video game. It was, at the time of its release, the scariest horror game ever made, bar none. Exploring the rust-stained environments and fleeing from the bizarre creatures of Silent Hill is an experience unlike anything else on the Playstation. It is consistently engaging and an all-around fun experience, and none of the nasty things I'm about to say diminish that.

What Silent Hill is most definitely not is a great story. It's got a great setup, and the characters are established well, but after a certain point the plot becomes jumbled, confused, and silly. It becomes clear that the developers are more concerned with perfecting the atmosphere and gameplay than composing a well-spun yarn. Slow descents into total incomprehensibility can be enjoyable if there is any thought put into it, but once you strip away all of Silent Hill's obfuscated storytelling there really isn't anything left. I don't dislike having to think to figure out what's going on, but the difference between Silent Hill and William Faulkner or David Lynch should be self-evident.

Now, this isn't too much of a problem considering the type of game Silent Hill was trying to be. Team Silent didn't have particularly high aspirations when they made Silent Hill − all they wanted to do was to make the scariest (and therefore most fun) horror game ever created. They succeeded. Silent Hill's story is window-dressing, something to give a little context to the fun, but certainly not the main draw of the experience itself.

When the opportunity came along to make a sequel, most developers would have been content to simply recycle this formula. Make a bunch of freaky locations and set pieces, add some scary looking monsters, then tie it all together with some hack story about the cult getting revived by Dahlia's long-lost sister or something equally moronic and then call it a day. Game gets released, critics and audiences go wild with praise, Masahiro Ito buys a new TV, and thirty years from now no one remembers the game ever existed. (Fun fact: out of the top 100 best selling games in Japan in 2010, exactly fiveGod Eater, Resonance of Fates, NIER, MAG, and Ghost Trick − aren't part of some larger video game or anime franchise.)

At some point in Silent Hill 2's planning stages, Team Silent decided they wanted more than that. They wanted Silent Hill 2's locations and scares to be just as compelling as its predecessor's, but exponentially improved with the delicious spice of context, not as an after-thought but as the focus of the whole experience. They knew that twisted imagery is a thousand times more engaging when there is meaning behind it.

To accomplish this, they decided to make Silent Hill 2 a character study. Why is this the route they went with? Who knows − very few video games have ever attempted anything of the sort. Perhaps they understood why Cloud's identity crisis and existential meltdown was the most memorable aspect of Final Fantasy VII, or why the Japanese look at Neon Genesis Evangelion as less of a cartoon and more of a religion. Maybe they even comprehended why Citizen Kane is often regarded as the best movie all of time. All of these works have strong, fascinating central characters, and they each use every aspect of their being to make them and their problems real for the audience.

Silent Hill 2 is the black sheep of Team Silent's original trilogy, completely ditching core aspects of the universe and all of the original cast. The cult, which formed the entire basis of the first game's story, is nowhere to be found. The hellish, rusty Otherworld of the first game is gone. In its place is a subdued, mildewy Otherworld, where the only signs of transformation are yellowed walls and dripping water. Silent Hill's purposefully obtuse, setting-focused story disappeared to make way for a very clear and concise character study.

Just like its predecessor, Silent Hill 2 does not take the time to explain every single story detail to the player and leaves many facets of itself unspoken. Here's the difference: Silent Hill 2's story is actually worth figuring out. Silent Hill is a puzzle with fifty pieces, half of which are broken and don't connect properly. Silent Hill 2 is a puzzle with a hundred thousand pieces, all of which fit together perfectly. Both can never be fully solved, but only with the latter is it fun to try.

If you ever feel frustrated working on the puzzle, then just remember this: Silent Hill 2 is about a man named James Sunderland. Every location, every creature, every cutscene, every sound, every frame of Silent Hill 2 is about James Sunderland. Once you understand that, the rest is easy. Team Silent wanted to make Silent Hill 2 the best story video games have ever seen. They succeeded.

Silent Hill 2 is not the game fans of the original Silent Hill wanted. It is much, much better.



The Cast

JAMES SUNDERLAND

"I guess I really don't care if it's dangerous or not. I'm going to town either way."

James Sunderland is a store clerk from an unnamed town. Before the start of the game he received a letter from his wife telling him to meet her in Silent Hill, and the game starts with his arrival in the town to look for her. His wife is also dead.

That's all we know about him at the outset of the game. He is both loving and unbalanced enough to come looking for his deceased wife, and doesn't leave immediately when the monsters start showing up. At the outset, this makes James seem like a bit of a retread of Harry's character. Loved one is lost in evil town, has to find her. But since she's already dead, it leads to this profound unease that underlines the whole of the Silent Hill 2 experience. James is likable for his determination, but his actions seem more than a little unhinged when put into the broader context. Right from the beginning, the player knows he will never find Mary, or if he does, it won't be as wonderful as he imagines.

There's another layer to his character however; every element of the game is built around and foreshadows it, from the first room all the way up to the grand reveal. It's symbolized in the disturbing creatures he encounters (one in particular, whom we will most assuredly get to later.) It's symbolized in the people he meets, all of whom behave strangely, as if James isn't seeing the same things they are. Even the aesthetic design is constructed around James's character, from the mournful main theme to the art team's preoccupation with water and mold.

James is likely the most well-developed protagonist in video games up to this point because he is the focal point of every aspect of the game's development. The first Silent Hill was about Silent Hill first, Harry second (or maybe seventh.) Silent Hill 2 is about James, and only James. Not many games strive to be a character study. Fewer games do so and manage to be fun.

MARY SHEPHERD-SUNDERLAND

"In my restless dreams, I see that town... Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again some day... but you never did. Well, I'm alone there now ... in our special place... waiting for you."

(I challenge you to find a Silent Hill fanboy who doesn't know these words by heart.)

James's wife, who died three years ago of an unnamed illness following a prolonged period of hospitalization. She goes mostly undeveloped until the last level, where her fascinating connections with James and Maria are fully revealed and explored. She is James's princess, perpetually stuck in another castle, hating him just as much as she loves him. Many people praise Braid for deconstructing the Super Mario Bros. story archetype, but not many seem to notice that Silent Hill 2 did the same thing in 2001, only in a smarter, more coherent, and probably completely unintentional fashion.

ANGELA ORSOCO

"You see it too? For me ... it's always like this."

A clearly unstable teenage girl who's searching for her mother in Silent Hill. She's the first character James meets, and probably the most interesting.

Team Silent knew they were on to something with Lisa's character in Silent Hill, and tried to duplicate her success in Silent Hill 2 with another well-developed female side character with a heartbreaking story to tell. Angela is a much better character than Lisa for a couple reasons:
  1. Her story actively compliments the main character's. Whereas Lisa was only tenuously connected to the main plot through Michael Kaufmann, Angela directly parallels James throughout the game. Both are consumed by guilt for lashing out at their tormentors. Both of their stories begin (and possibly end) the same way. Her Otherworld is perpetually burning whereas James's is moist and decrepit. Angela's actions correspond with James's at every turn, but her comparitive innocence makes her eventual fate all the more lamentable.

  2. Her story is subtle rather than merely vague. Lisa was a great character, but her genuinely interesting tale was hampered by Silent Hill's poor storytelling. Most players won't latch onto the specifics without reading a plot guide on GameFAQs. Angela never comes right out and says what happened to her, but it's much clearer and easier to figure out from context clues and symbolism.
EDDIE DOMBROWSKI

"Maybe he was right. Maybe I am nothing but a fat, disgusting piece of shit. But you know what? It doesn't matter if you're smart, dumb, ugly, pretty... it's all the same once yer' dead. ...And a corpse can't laugh."

When James meets the morbidly obese Eddie for the first time in the Apartment level, he is vomiting into a toilet after seeing the dead body in the adjacent room. The dead body is stuffed half-way inside a refrigerator. He tells James he walked into the room and saw the body just laying there. We never find out if he's telling the truth.

The second time we see Eddie, he's sitting in a bowling alley with Laura eating pizza he got from... somewhere. She is ridiculing him for his weight while he sits and takes her bullying.

When James finds Eddie in the Toluca Prison cafeteria (several hundred feet below the ground) next to a corpse and holding a smoking gun, muttering about how "killin' a person ain't no big deal," the pieces start to click. Like Angela, Eddie is a mirror into James's fractured psyche. If the player is paying attention, he'll notice that all three are undergoing different variations of the same story. Each of them is in Silent Hill because of some evil they committed. But while Eddie's sin is actually much less egregious than James's and Angela's, his complete lack of guilt is what separates him from the other two. While they undergo moments of transformative revelation in the final levels, Eddie seems to understand his crime from the outset, and his final scene simply consists of an extended motive rant in what might be one of the best sets of dialogue in the game.

Intriguing: Angela's guilt over lashing out at her father manifests itself with her firey, burning Otherworld, while Eddie's guiltless insanity turns the world around him into an ice-covered meat locker.

LAURA

"I hate you! I want her back! Give her back to me! You didn't care about her! I hate you, James! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!"

Laura is probably the most ambiguous character in Silent Hill 2, and unlike the others her plotline is never really resolved. From what I can tell, Laura serves two purposes.

The first is foreshadowing that the Silent Hill here works differently than in the first game. In Silent Hill, the town was uniform among all observers. Harry, Cybil, and Kaufmann all saw the same horrific creatures and architecture. Silent Hill 2's town is only as warped as the mind of the person observing it. James, Angela, and Eddie all see totally distinct versions of Silent Hill based around their own warped ids. To Laura, who's soul is unclouded by past sins, Silent Hill seems like a perfectly nice, quiet town. Angela's flame-covered Otherworld isn't revealed until her last scene, and the idea that Eddie's is cold and icy is only an inference derived from his last scene, both very late in the game, so Laura was put in as an early hint about the town's true nature.

Her second purpose is foreshadowing James's not-entirely-healthy relationship with Mary. Laura befriended Mary when they were both in the hospital, and her venomous demeanor towards James is the result of her suspicion that he didn't really love her. She serves as build-up to the central plot twist in the last level, as well as a tool to further characterize Mary.

That might be all there is to her, but there's one odd thing about her that's never really explained: Why does she say that Mary was alive just a few weeks ago?

Maybe James is lying to himself when he says that her death was three years ago and he imagined the three years since then. That's kind of neat, and would certainly shine a new light on the "In Water" ending, except that absolutely nothing else in the game points towards this explanation. Is Laura a ghost? Perhaps she died right after Mary did and she doesn't remember all the time since then. Again, that would be pretty cool, except that nothing else in the game indicates this.

I can't decide if this is an example of genuine literary ambiguity or if Team Silent was just lazy. My guess is that they just wanted to introduce a couple deliberate contradictions to unsettle the player without bothering to provide any intradiagetic explanation for their existence, just like they did for the entirety of the first Silent Hill. Little from column A, little from column B, I suppose.

MARIA

"It doesn't matter who I am. I'm here for you, James. See? I'm real."

Maria is probably the second-most important character in Silent Hill 2 after James, and she's certainly the most enigmatic one. She's introduced after the first level as cheerful and seductive, but switches up her disposition at the drop of a hat. Occasionally she'll be moody and even cruel. After a certain point, it seems as though she's actively changing between two personalities.

She serves an unsettlingly similar function to the eponymous character of Toni Morrison's famed opus, Beloved. Both characters are manifestations of a guilty conscience who seek to prevent the protagonist from moving on from the past. They appear at roughly the same period in the story, and both attach themselves to the protagonist further and further as the game progresses. Both disappear following the protagonist's epiphany during the climax. It's almost certainly a coincidence, but it's still difficult to ignore.

PYRAMID HEAD

A mysterious creature who appears in the first level, Pyramid Head doesn't need much of an introduction. He is the keystone of Silent Hill 2, the pinnacle and embodiment of all of Team Silent's most inspired design principles. Ito poured countless hours into designing his character, and the result is among the most frightening, disturbing antagonists video games have ever seen.

All of James inner turmoil and self-loathing is personified in Pyramid Head. He is an exaggeration of all of James's worst qualities. Intensely sexual, wracked in pain, unspeakably violent, he is James's caricature, arbiter, foil, and tormentor wrapped into one terrifying package.

No element of Silent Hill 2 has penetrated (ha ha) as deeply into the pop culture as Pyramid Head − leading to his unfortunate appearances in Homecoming and the movie. Pyramid Head is James's green light, his Rosebud, not the go-to Silent Hill bogeyman. He belongs to Silent Hill 2, and James, and nobody else.



There really isn't anything particularly visionary about Silent Hill 2. All of its assets are simply the result of Team Silent applying basic common sense. It takes the simple rules of storytelling established since the beginning of time − strong characters, a focused narrative, themes that actually have something interesting to say about the human condition − and applies them to video games. Silent Hill 2 shouldn't be the apex of video game storytelling; it should be the minimum we expect from all of our games that attempt to tell a "serious" story. Why isn't it?

The fact is that good writing just isn't a priority among modern publishers. Writers aren't generally involved in video game pre-production, and as a result most games come across as disjointed gameplay experiences broken up with nonsensical cutscenes that break every basic rule of narrative flow. We live in a world where a comic book is on Time Magazine's Top 100 Novels of the Century because comic publishers (occasionally) valued and respected their writers. Video game writers don't get that respect, so we're stuck with childish machismo, third-rate Tolkien knockoffs, and endless military shooters with no intelligence, ambition, or depth.

Silent Hill 2 is one of the few games I've played that seems to be built from the ground up around its narrative, and it provides respect and resources to the people in charge of that narrative. The result is likely the best story video games have told up to this point.

Silent Hill 2's story is the model off of which all other game designers with high aspirations should base their works. It doesn't do anything that's impossible to replicate; all it needs are well-produced aesthetics and an understanding of video games as a medium of fiction. It gets all of its strengths from simple virtues rooted in simple wisdom.



Graphics and Sound

Silent Hill 2 was released in 2001, at the very beginning of the one of the longest-running console lifespans in the medium. The Playstation 2 lasted that long for good reason. Games released for its predecessor were held back by ugly early 3D graphics, while games made during the current generation are bloated and safe, the natural result of an ever-increasing graphical arms race pushing developers to spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours on Triple-A titles. The PS2 was to the third dimension as the SNES was to the second − the perfect balance of limitation and potential.

Silent Hill pushed the original Playstation to its absolute limits, and Team Silent clearly took all of their experiences to heart in preparation for its sequel. Silent Hill 2, a game released in 2001, is one of the best-looking games on the Playstation 2, bar none. Everyone on the team is to be thanked for this, but there are two minds in particular who poured their hearts and souls into the project: Takayoshi Sato and Masahiro Ito.

If the first name rings a bell, it's for good reason. Takayoshi Sato was the mad man who lived in his office for two years while obsessively working on the art and CG scenes for Silent Hill, and his enthusiasm doesn't appear to have relaxed much. Sato was in charge of the main scenario and CGI direction, and his work here is mind-blowing. Silent Hill 2 has some the best looking cutscenes on the Playstation 2, and it came out as a near launch title. The characters almost completely avoid the uncanny valley present in nearly all current-gen video game titles to a degree I haven't seen outside of Half-Life 2.

Masahiro Ito was in charge of the art direction, and his work here is magnificent. The environments are incredible both technologically and artistically, and the monster design is particularly spectacular. Many people know that H.R. Giger deliberately incorporated sexual elements into his creatures so as to make them more unsettling, and Ito had much the same mindset. Aside from Pyramid Head, all of the monsters are uniquely feminine, symbolizing James's frustrated libido during his wife's sickness and following her death. Games nowadays include sexual language and nudity all the time, but Silent Hill 2 is one of the very few video games to approach and analyze sexuality from an intelligent, mature perspective.

Last of the "Big Three" is Akira Yamaoka, in charge of music and sound design. He did a fantastic job with his soundtrack to Silent Hill, and he only gets better here. Silent Hill 2 is my favorite soundtrack of his yet, mixing all of his talents at abrasive industrial metal with heart-rending melodies. Even the penultimate boss theme, which starts out as a cacophony of cold steel and whirring blades, gradually unveils a simple melody that reveals all the pains in James's heart. It's the rare soundtrack that renders itself inextricable from the work it overlays, and there's not a single moment of the game it doesn't complement (barring perhaps the unnecessarily heavy "In Water" ending credits theme.)

It's telling that in the "Making of Silent Hill 2" featurette, these three individuals receive the most focus of any of the Team Silent staff. It's not that Silent Hill 2 is all style over substance − it's that the style is both ridiculously good and completely inseparable from the narrative.



Game Length, Focus, and Good Storytelling

The other day I was trying to get an acquaintance to play Cave Story. "Fantastic platforming! Awesome bosses! Cool weapons! Wonderful art design! Better than every Igarashi-directed Castlevania combined!" About half way through, he interrupted to ask me:

"How long is it?"

Five or six hours, I replied. He scoffed. "Games can't be good if they're that short."

I was a touch perplexed, to say the least. Why did he care how long it was? It's not like he wasn't getting enough bang for his buck; the game was free. Why should it matter that it was only six hours long if those six hours were pure gaming bliss?

I don't think I've ever played a game over ten hours long without any padding whatsoever. Developers always manage to work in a crappy sewer level or unnecessary backtracking. The only reason they do this is because critics and players place far too much value on game length over game quality.

The greatest virtue of Silent Hill 2 -- a game with many, many virtues -- is focus. It's one of the tightest, densest games I've ever played. It does more in it's six short hours than any given RPG in the last decade does in sixty. There's not a single unnecessary location or idea in the whole experience, and every minute of the game is carefully crafted to fill every goal Team Silent had in mind during the game's creation.

The best example of this is in its cast. All in all, Silent Hill 2 has six characters, each and every one of which are painstakingly developed, thoroughly interesting, and have heartfelt, emotional conclusions to their individual arcs. Contrast this with Silent Hill's un-magnificent seven; I had to look up Cybil's name for when I mentioned her earlier, and she's involved in one of the game's best scenes. Michael Kaufmann was so boring I didn't even include him in the last article's character sheet. What about the cast of Metroid: Other M, a game with easily five times as much dialogue as Silent Hill 2 and an even tinier roster? How many of them do you remember (for positive reasons)?

Speaking of dialogue, that's another of the game's virtues. Games like Metal Gear Solid, Metroid: Other M, or any number of recent JRPGs load cutscene after cutscene onto the player's unwilling shoulders. To contrast, Silent Hill 2 keeps it's verbage to an absolute minimum, preferring to convey its story through gameplay when possible. I don't think cutscenes are inherently bad, it's just that in relying on them, designers end up never trying to mix gameplay and story in any creative way.

It is in this aspect that Silent Hill 2 reveals its true ancestry; not the survival horror games that preceded it; nor the PC adventure games that preceded them. Silent Hill 2, firmly and completely, is a descendant of the cinematic Japanese RPG. And I don't mean the Xenosaga/Final Fantasy 10+ type of RPG with eight hours of non-interactive cutscenes. I mean the latter-day gems of the sixteen-bit and thirty-two-bit eras − many of which are likely the reason you're on this site right now.

After Final Fantasy IV sharpened traditional JRPG gameplay to a nirvana-like state of perfection, developers decided to move forward into a new direction, where tense dungeon-crawls and nail-biting boss fights were replaced with opera houses and slap-fights atop giant cannons. Figuring out innovative ways to convey a complex narrative through gameplay became the supreme goal. It was hinted at in Earthbound and Dragon Quest V, further developed in Final Fantasy VI, mastered in Chrono Trigger, and climaxed on the PSX with Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Cross. All of these games are warmly remembered for their brilliant, creatively communicated storylines that didn't necessitate constant deluges of exposition (although in this context perhaps Chrono Cross is a bad example), and all are scoffed at by certain die-hard gamers for being too easy.

Survival horror games traditionally functioned as a war of attrition against the player. Ammo and health packs were always scarce, and the painfully inconsistent combat meant most enemies were going to get in at least a hit or two before biting the dust. This is actually pretty similar to how 8-bit JRPGs functioned, but unlike in Dragon Quest, it is quite possible to be near the ending of Resident Evil and have no feasible way to win. (I would liken Resident Evil to SaGa at this point, but I feel that would be far too harsh on Capcom − no one deserves to be compared to SaGa.)

Silent Hill 2 isn't about attrition; rare is the player who will ever find himself lacking in health drinks or ammo. It's about watching a broken man stand up and confront his past. It is the rare game that is one-hundred percent narratively focused, and yet remains a masterpiece because of its skill in integrating its identities as a story and a game.

Take Pyramid Head's first appearance. Pyramid Head is one of the most important elements of Silent Hill 2, and yet the player's very first sight of him is at the end of a nondescript hallway behind iron bars. There's no cutscene fanfare or musical cues, just the blaring static from the radio. He's just standing there. It's incredibly unsettling, and it makes his second appearance far more frightening since he's already been built up to the player. It's a virtuoso moment, one that helps both the atmosphere and the story, and it's executed wholly in-gameplay.

What about Angela's tear-jerking last scene? James walks into the room, and a cutscene immediately starts. As with all the cutscenes, it's extremely well-directed and an excellent sequence in and of itself, but at the very end something amazing happens. As Angela walks up those burning stairs and flames burst up behind her, it switches into gameplay. The player is free to chase after her, but the fire stops him before he can get close. Angela's rejection of humanity is symbolized in the game mechanics themselves. It turns what could have just been a fantastic story moment into something almost literary.

Team Silent knows that they are game makers at heart, not film directors or writers. They take inspiration not just from H.P. Lovecraft and David Lynch, but from Earthbound and Final Fantasy VI. Silent Hill 2 is filled with wonderful moments like Angela's last scene, from the chase scene at the bottom of the hospital, to the physically-impossible descent at the Silent Hill Historical Society, to the mechanics behind the game's multiple endings. It's amazing that Silent Hill 2's cutscenes are as well-directed as they are (the voice acting in particular is impressively subtle and layered − not what one would expect from the translator and voice director of Castlevania Symphony of the Night), but the fact that Team Silent knows when not to have a cutscene is infinitely more admirable.

But the brilliance of the storytelling goes deeper than its complete integration with gameplay. Like the first game, Silent Hill 2 descends into a kind of bizarre psychosis in its finale, right about at the point when James descends over a mile into the Earth, and then suddenly finds himself above ground next to a lake. Game events become increasingly symbolic, with fire engulfing hallways and water flooding the environment seemingly at random. By its conclusion, the same character has died four times, a little girl wanders unharmed among monsters, a woman victimized in the worst way possible has ascended a staircase to nowhere, and one extremely screwed up individual is starting to understand precisely what he is.

Most stories can't pull anything like this off without coming across as confusing or stupid (just look at the first Silent Hill.) In order for events like these to work, the player has to be very sucked into the experience. He has to feel something for the characters and the world they live in. It takes good writing, great direction, and a thorough understanding of the rules of the medium, but when it does work, the results can be more than great − they can be transcendent.

But it takes one more factor, one beyond Silent Hill 2's identity as a story.



Atmosphere

Let's have a talk about a concept called "immersion." A game with good immersion is one that feels natural and flows well, with an absolute minimum of needlessly abstract mechanics. Ideally, I'll forget I'm sitting in front of a screen playing it. Games with bad immersion feel artificial, the opposite of natural. The weird thing is I find myself more often immersed in old games than in new ones. Why is that?

Compare the very first Legend of Zelda with later entries in the series. Since its inception, Zelda has always been about making the player feel like he or she is on an adventure. In designing the original game, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to convey the feeling he had as a child wandering the hills and caves behind his home; that sense of wonder only possible when a child's youthful exuberance turns even the mundane into the fantastic. The world of Hyrule didn't have the graphical set-pieces and hugely-varied terrain of current-gen Zelda, so the feeling of adventure couldn't arise from the graphics or even the iconic theme. It's built into the very game itself. The wide open world centralizes exploration and discovery as a gameplay element, and the result is a game still beloved twenty-five years later.

Games which centralize exploration as much as Zelda usually depend on atmosphere, more so than traditional platformers like Mario or Mega Man. And atmosphere only works when the player is immersed in the experience. The original Zelda was immersive because most of its elements were easily identifiable with the real world. There were trees you could burn, rocks you could blow up, and monsters you could stab, burn, or blow up. It all made sense. It felt natural.

Obviously there are concessions to atmosphere made in order to improve gameplay. The fact that keys vanish mysteriously when you use them is odd, as is the idea that bombs can blow up walls but leave bushes completely unharmed. But none are significant enough to really act as a detriment to the singularly luscious core. And yet recent Zeldas have kept piling on the abstractions, arbitrary limitations, and intrusive hand-holding to the point that it's impossible to get sucked into game world to the same degree as in the original game or Link to the Past. Absurdly large HUDs. Graphics that constantly cut into the scenery. Giant green fruit that make you able to run longer when you touch them. The point is this: too many abstractions and arbitrary limitations break immersion, which completely destroys atmosphere. Exploration is dependent on atmosphere, much more so than platforming and shooting. In an experience like Zelda primarily focused on exploration, ruining the immersion is tantamount to ruining the game. Quid quo pro, Clarice.

Like old Zelda, Silent Hill 2's atmosphere works because it strips away ninety percent of the clutter infesting modern gaming. There's no HUD, no babbling partner character, no unnecessary weapon upgrade system, no collectible-hunting sidequest, no hint system, no needless RPG elements, and very little in the way graphical glitches. It's not quite as tight as Shadow of the Colossus or Out of this World, but it's still a remarkably lean game.

But there's more to it then that. It has to do with the reason that many of today's adult video game players talk about the 8-bit era of game making with a certain wistful nostalgia that's generally reserved for only the fondest of childhood memories, and it isn't just because most of them were children at the time. Back on the NES, game designers didn't have access to many of the tools available today, so if they wanted to communicate a certain feeling or story (as Silent Hill 2 does) they, couldn't communicate it through the simple sprites or chiptunes. They had to integrate these emotions into the core game, so that if all the graphics were stripped away, if the game were Tetrisified, those emotions would remain.

This is where Silent Hill 2 (and Silent Hill) thrives at creating its all-important atmosphere. Limitations and boundaries feel totally natural because they are built into the flow of the game itself. The lack of needless abstractions gives power to the imagery and sound, but even without the unsettling aesthetics and haunting soundtrack Silent Hill 2 would still be a pretty creepy game.

It accomplishes this with a very interesting type of bait-and-switch I haven't seen pulled off in any other game. While the first Metroid created horror with its maze-like, hyper-repetitive level design designed to make the player feel lost and isolated, Silent Hill 2 gives the initial appearance of total freedom and then slowly tears it away. There's a map given to the player very early on, and it looks as though he can visit areas in any order he wants. But he quickly sees that most of the paths end with strange dead ends, usually with the road itself totally torn away or a giant wall erected in the street. After exploring, the player realizes that he has only one real path.

Therein lies the genius of Silent Hill's linearity. By giving apparent freedom and then wrenching it away, and doing so in the context of the game world using sensible boundaries rather than invisible walls, the game makes the player feel helpless and controlled. Boundaries that could have felt artificial like locked doors or giant holes in the road feel like tools of some malevolent force rather than the tired efforts of a lazy map designer. You could take out every blood-soaked texture and terrible sound effect and Silent Hill would still ooze atmosphere from its every pore, just like the 8-bit masterpieces still convey their chosen feelings despite the constraints of their hardware. The linearity of gameplay becomes yet another tool to oppress and frighten the player. This, combined with the natural design and brilliant presentation make it one of the most atmospheric, and horrifying, games ever crafted.

I think I'll leave off with an anecdote. While replaying Silent Hill 2 for this writeup, I suddenly came across something I'd never seen before. It shows up when you visit Neely's Bar while in the Otherworld, about halfway though the game. Everybody knows about the first message in Neely's Bar, to the point that I referenced it in this article's title, but few people talk about the second.

It was close to midnight and there was no one else in my house when I saw the message. For a full two or three minutes I stared at the words. I think I blinked twice. I then immediately shut off the console (without bothering to find a save point), turned on all the lights, and started chatting up Polly on AIM while looking at My Little Pony fan-art. All I wanted was to alleviate my sudden sense of dread.

It didn't work. When I went to pick up my brother later that night, the thirty foot walk to my car through total darkness might as well have been through the streets of Silent Hill itself.

I used to think Silent Hill 2 was the least scary game in the original trilogy, but the more I play them the more I think the opposite. Silent Hill 2 might not have nearly as much blood or sudden scares as the other two, but it's unnerving on a far more fundamental level. It's nice that Resident Evil makes me afraid of zombies and Silent Hill makes me afraid of psychic children, but Silent Hill 2 does far more than that. It makes me afraid of losing people important to me. It makes me wonder how it would feel to do something so horrible I would never be able to forgive myself. It makes me fear death.



Gameplay

Silent Hill 2 is a fantastic story. Its characters are deep, its themes are legitimately thought-provoking and occasionally outright profound, and its method of conveying itself to the player is as reminiscent of Toni Morrison as it is of Shigesato Itoi. Its art design is exquisitely horrible, and its music strikes a perfect balance between metallic screeching and heartfelt melodies. Its monster design is nearly on par with H.R. Giger's work, and its atmosphere and pacing are even more suffocating than its predecessor's.

In my research for this article, I have almost never seen any of these statements receive debate. Silent Hill 2's success as a narrative and aesthetic marvel are nigh-universally acknowledged. If these were the only aspects of Silent Hill 2's experience, it might very well be perfect. It also wouldn't be a video game.

As Silent Hill 2 is, in fact, a video game, its flawless narrative and presentation aren't enough to make it perfect. It is an interactive experience, and its mechanics must be judged as such. If it fails to adequately forge its identity solely as a video game, then it cannot be called a masterpiece.

THE GOOD

I already talked about how Silent Hill 2 ingeniously works its atmosphere into its overall structure, and I detailed the wonderful ways Team Silent worked the story into the gameplay. What failed to mention is the positively superb level design. Compare it again to the original Metroid, who's levels, while genre-defining on a macro-level, were actually fairly simplistic and boring on a screen-by-screen basis in contrast to, say, Mega Man. In this respect, the jump from Silent Hill to Silent Hill 2 is very nearly as drastic as the jump from the original Metroid to Super. Just as Super Metroid's atmosphere permeates its every hall and cavern with organic visuals and unique gameplay mechanics, Silent Hill 2 is filled to the brim with inspired ideas and extraordinary execution.

Midway through Silent Hill, it was hard to shake the feeling that the map designers were phoning it in a bit. The sewer level in particular was boring as sin, and revisiting it later on didn't help matters. Backtracking through the streets became more prevalent, and the levels themselves seemed a little stale (excepting the amazing finale.) Silent Hill 2 was the result of its loving artisans recognizing these faults and vowing to release a game without a single ounce of padding. Every room has a purpose, whether it be a puzzle, an important item, a neat bit of architecture, a monster encounter, simple pacing, or a voluntary story segment to help further flesh out the narrative. Again, density is the key word here, the one factor that makes Silent Hill 2, as a game, better than any other member of its genre. As Chrono Trigger is to the JRPG, as the perfectly polished crystal Ikaruga is to scrolling shooters, Silent Hill 2 is to survival horror.

Level design is an aspect of game development that rarely receives the import it's due, and when it's mentioned it's usually in only the most abstract of terms. Looking down any random "Top 200 Video Games Of All Time" reveals that people rarely put much effort into articulating exactly what makes their favorite games so good. Whether the subject at hand is Mega Man 2, A Link to the Past, Super Mario Bros. 3, or again, Super Metroid, gamers never seem to notice the meticulous construction behind every screen of gaming's masterpieces. It's the single most important element of crafting a lasting game, more so even then the mechanics.

Ah yes. The mechanics.

THE BAD

The most immediately distressing element of Silent Hill 2 as a game and the one that players will usually notice first is the camera. Silent Hill revolutionized its genre by furthering itself from the ugly, awkward prerendered backgrounds of Resident Evil. Doing so made combat less painful and generally made the game easier to play and nicer to look at. It was also far from perfect, with the player easily losing track of his own avatar while trying to realign his sights on the nearest creature. Silent Hill 2 does little to improve on its predecessor, and in some ways makes it worse. It switches to "cinematic" camera angles much more often, and as a result it's easy to get disoriented.

I'm not sure how Silent Hill could really have a great camera. The solution certainly isn't to map it to the right analog stick; Silent Hill Homecoming tried that and crippled its atmosphere as a result. It just needs tweaking, maybe giving a little more control to the player while still holding onto the blind spots necessary for good atmospheric buildup.

Another unfortunate relic of the franchise's genre are the puzzles. They are silly. One of them involves retrieving a couple of strands of hair from a box with four separate locks (each of which require their own puzzle) and using them to pull a key out of a shower drain. Another requires the player to fetch a wax doll, a horse shoe, and a lighter and using them to furnish a handle for a trapdoor, despite the many blunt instruments in James's possession that could be used to pry or break it open.

The purpose of most of these puzzles is obvious: they are there not to challenge the player's mental faculties but to force him or her to explore. This makes sense − Team Silent wants the player to have to explore every inch of their (excellent) environments, and if all the doors were unlocked it'd be easy to waltz on through. But these puzzles are so abstract, so dumb, that it intrudes on the sense of immersion the game does such a good job building up.

This is a sad remnant of survival horror's ancestry in PC adventure games, where puzzles that make any degree of sense in the context of the game world are the exception and not the rule. If Silent Hill wants to progress beyond that, then it needs to adopt puzzles that feel natural and make sense. Look to Out of this World, ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, and Limbo. None of these games have an inventory system, so the puzzles have to utilize actual complex reasoning, and as such they are a hundred times more fun to solve then any of the key-finding puzzles in Silent Hill. Incorporating more natural puzzles would work against the exploration elements, but if it did so it could be one of the first horror games to actually be fun and not rely entirely on atmosphere and story. I think that's a decent trade-off.

And then there's the combat. Aside from minor tweaks in control and a general lessening in difficulty, it hasn't changed much from the first game. It's still visceral and satisfying, but also sticky and obnoxious. How could it be fixed?

In order for a horror game to work, there has to be some kind of danger involved in wandering around the environments, otherwise the player wises up to his own invincibility and stops being scared. Usually this threat is provided through monster encounters. Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark, and Silent Hill all have creepy-crawling creatures to frighten the player, and all have absolutely awful combat. The solution can't be to make a solid, genuinely entertaining combat engine because then we end up with extremely fun, not-at-all-scary games like Parasite Eve, Resident Evil 4, or Eternal Darkness. The stickiness of survival horror combat kind of works because the player can never be absolutely certain he'll take down a monster without suffering damage. A good combat engine provides consistency, so players can learn how to take down a certain monster and then never be afraid of it again. What's the solution? How can combat be improved?

Perhaps the best route would be to abandon the combat altogether in favor of scripted events. Make a whole game out of sequences like the chase scene in the hospital basement, any of the SA-X's appearances in Metroid Fusion, or the spider's moments in Limbo, where actually fighting foes is impossible and the only possible action is to flee or hide. This would hurt the game's "replay value" (a dubious and questionable quality to judge narrative-based games on in the first place) to be sure, and I'm almost positive it wouldn't work unless the puzzles were fantastic, but doing so would likely result in a tighter, more engaging experience.

Hmm. So what I'm searching for is a game like Silent Hill 2, which removes the dumber aspects of the first game's narrative in favor of a more mature storyline, and then improves the gameplay by making the puzzles more interesting and eliminating combat altogether. I'll tell you this, whatever you think of Shattered Memories's execution, you certainly can't fault it for its ambition.



Conclusion

So my only real complaint about Silent Hill 2 is that it has the same flaws present in almost every other horror game ever made. Obviously it's a little beyond the point of meaningful criticism. In a flawed and strangely perfect way, it's a masterpiece.

Everything that makes Silent Hill great, everything that makes horror such a wonderful genre, is at its best in Silent Hill 2. It's a whirlwind of emotions: melancholy, nostalgia, guilt, sorrow, and of course, fear. It's a transcendent experience unlike anything else in the medium, and the single greatest argument for video games as a method of storytelling. And while it may occasionally misstep as a game, it never lets ambition overwhelm its identity as an interactive electronic toy; it's thought-provoking and incredibly emotional, but it never once ceases to be fun.

I love Silent Hill 2. Playing it makes me happy. Thinking about it makes me happy. Writing about it makes me happy. Looking over this article, I can see many other things I could have spent more time talking about − I barely touched on Pyramid Head, the multiple endings, or Mary's letter, for instance − but Silent Hill 2 is far too dense to be fully encompassed in a single piece.

Besides, all that really needs to be said is this: Silent Hill 2 is a game made by people who love their work and wanted to create the best game they could possibly make. They had the talent to make something wonderful, the resources to make it possible, and the heart to bring it into existence with as much polish as they could muster.

And really, what more could you want?


Note: All images taken from From Earth's excellent Silent Hill 2 Let's Play on LPArchive.org.







Twitter | Submissions and Contact | GB | Store | i | c | v3
Contributor Central
© 2005-2017 smps/*-|):D