Silent Hill 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. Silent Hill 2 is one of my favorite storylines of all time. Silent Hill 2 has one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. Characters of all time. Locations of all time. Enemy designs of all time. It’s just a fantastic little package that Konami for some reason refuses to preserve in all of its glory (remember the Silent Hill HD Collection? I wish I didn’t…).
Preserving art is something we should be more aware of. And yes, video games should count as art in my opinion. “But obviously not every game is an art form! Look at all of those shitty games!”, I can already hear coming from somewhere thanks to my handy broken radio. All video games are art. If I can draw a stick figure and it can be called art – so can Bad Rats and Ride to Hell: Retribution, too. They are, obviously, a bad – or, quoting you: “shitty” – attempt at art, yet they still are an attempt at art.
Glad we have that out of the way!
The major point about Silent Hill 2 is that even though it has a cult followup nowadays, this will fade over time as more and more generations come to play video games. Konami only offers a horrible, rushed version of this survival horror classic and even that is already outdated. How many people will want to get a PlayStation 2 or the original Xbox as well as the copy of Silent Hill 2 for one of those systems? How many people are willing to spend their money on the overpriced PC boxed version which, if I may add, still needs fixes to run properly on modern systems?
Konami doesn’t care. That’s a big shame. Releasing the first 4 Silent Hill games (although personally, I really don’t need to play 4 ever again) digitally would bring profit and allow for newer generations of gamers to know the stories of the Mason family and the cast of today’s write-up topic – Silent Hill 2.
As I’ve already said and will most likely repeat myself multiple times – this is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s also a video game that not only gives me a degree of comfort, yet also brings something new to the table every time I play it. Not a feat many art forms can achieve. I am actually afraid that this piece won’t be remotely interesting for people familiar with the game and its many secrets. It’s almost redundant for me to write this as I’m only going to be echoing what other people have already said over the years. Still, this game means a lot to me and the least I can do is give it a nice send-off. An attempt at preserving the presence of said video game.
The first time I took interest in the Silent Hill franchise was a couple of years ago. I was never into horror movies but horror video games… oh boy! Those were fun! Interactive media is perfect for scaring people. Making them paranoid, on edge all the time. You can’t achieve this in movies, the person on the receiving end must be involved in some ways in what’s happening. Which is, obviously, why horror games are superior to horror movies. Often when asked to describe a game, we start by saying “You are -this character-“ or “You play as -this character-“. “You” is the key word and that word does not exist when talking about movies. There’s no “me” in the non-interactive media you’re presenting. But here I’m actually controlling the guy! I’m a part of this story! A very integral part of it, actually. If not for me, this story would not happen. Am I important here or what?!
…Yes, yes, I am just mindlessly pressing buttons to get to the next cutscene trigger. Don’t worry, I know that. Things simply do not feel this magical when you put it like this…
The older I become, the more Silent Hill 2 grows on me. It makes more sense, it becomes a part of me in a way. It was never a terrifying experience for me to begin with, yet every time I play it, the world gets a lot more familiar and, as I’ve mentioned before – comforting. As experiences pile up, I can now see how James was so fixated on finding Mary. I can see how Eddie would be angry about the situation he ended up in. I can see myself standing on Angela’s burning staircase. Honestly, I wish this wasn’t the case… That’s not to say the ambiguity and the charm of Silent Hill are not there. It is there in full force. I am able to “get” character motivations. I feel attached to them. I relate to them. The storyline of Silent Hill 2 is really written to appease to a lot of people. Every one of them can pick and choose a character they feel connected with, as even though the cast is very diverse, they all share issues that allow them to form a cohesive story without suddenly jumping from one arc to another.
The characters are amazing. All of them. Even Eddie. Even Laura. They all have their own problems and motivations that drive their actions. Backstories that make sense and reflect in their behaviors.
All of the characters also complement each other perfectly. As James’ mind is very “out there somewhere” focused on his mission to find Mary and not wanting to waste time trying to do anything else, he is quickly pressed against the ground every time Eddie is on screen. He’s also forced to realize other people’s troubles when Angela is involved. The cast reacts to the other members and their relationship evolve with each encounter. The player can especially see this if they come back to the room in which a cutscene has already happened. There’s even an entire ending dedicated to furthering the relationship with Maria! The game is built around those characters. It’s a study on character development. The story might not be anything special as we are met with the concept of a convenient amnesia but how it unfolds is crafted in a wonderful way.
Absolutely every single detail can be theorized about. Silent Hill 2 is a master of “show, not tell”. The entire game could have been ruined by saying a word too much. There’s even been extra effort put to obscure some details after they were too obvious in the early stages of development. This is something you don’t see anymore in the industry, mostly because of the “What is the point of creating something if a percentage of the playerbase won’t see it?” mentality. The restraint of the Silent Hill 2 writers is commendable. The crafting of such a story is fragile as the wings of a butterfly. And even though it’s been years since the game came out, I still do not want to spoil it as maybe, just maybe, one of you will actually pick it up yourself and play it without knowing much about it.
I’ve mentioned the “show, not tell” rule… it’s not just in the writing, either. This is the design philosophy behind the entirety of the game. The locations are built in such a way, too. Important rooms give clues to characters backstories, yet those are never forced upon the player and won’t be found unless the player willingly wants to invest themselves in those arcs. The game’s food for thought. It’s no wonder the fanbase has come up with such extensive theories… some of which happened to even be confirmed later on! Digging through the game world, matching it with real life symbolism and Japanese folklore is the real end game of Silent Hill 2. It stays with the player much longer than the game actually lasts (which is maybe 6 hours at most on the first playthrough). The replayability not only comes from the game itself but also from the player’s own desire to pursue those extra clues. It is the overanalyser’s dream!… or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.
What is the main way the game incentivize coming back to it? Multiple endings, of course, as it is the survival horror way! And I have to say – Silent Hill 2 uses this mechanic in probably the best way any video game has ever done it… or that I know of. I’ve said before that one of those endings wants the player to engage in building a relationship between two of the characters. This is not done through any fancy dialogue options where one has to only push a button or select a line on an arbitrary wheel. No! In fact, Silent Hill 2 lacks unnecessary UI! It does everything to keep you in its wonderful atmosphere. In places where other games would use various pointers such as button prompts or shining the items Resident Evil way, James Sunderland – the protagonist of Silent Hill 2 – simply turns his head when he sees something of interest. It’s… beautiful! So elementary yet amazing. Such a great way to mesh the game world with giving player feedback. He just turns his head!
There are also distinct camera angles to show particular points of interest and all of this is done in a very organic way that makes sense and never pulls the player out of the mood… It is also a standard way of making the player feel oppressed in the world of survival horror. Multiple endings are done like this, too. The story comes to the conclusion that’s coherent to the player’s playstyle. If the player doesn’t heal when they need to and see the red flashing status screen a lot – they will get an ending that reflects that in James’ actions. If they will stop and care for the accompanying character and if they will come back to look after them every once in a while – the ending presents how this relationship developed. The game is built upon James being a believable character and that goal would not be achieved if the ending suddenly pulled the player out of James’ shoes once it shows a completely different person to what the player saw for those 6 or so hours.
This is how you create stories for video games.
The locations are memorable. They are unique. Some assets are used in only one instance and this is what enhances that experience. If you’ve ever played Silent Hill 2, you will know which scene or which room something is once you see a screenshot of it. Like this:
You know what scene this is. Maybe you can even hear the sounds of the piano somewhere in the back of your mind. And how can I not even mention the fantastic sound design this game has. A sound design that’s hard to get right, even in the same exact game, as shown by the unfortunate Silent Hill HD Collection.
Audio tricks are present in many ways in Silent Hill 2. This trickery starts with the lengthy beginning that is supposed to ease the player into the atmosphere and let him breathe in the complex white fog covering the town. It starts very simple – with a delayed leaves crushing noise that makes the player feel like there’s something following him. Then it gets more interesting with squeaks right after the player activates what is to be believed, a broken door. The scream coming from one of the apartments (which can’t even really be heard in the HD Collection making this moment look like James is delusional… I mean…), the overwhelming noises surrounding the player on the long staircase. You know which one. Of course you do, it’s Silent Hill 2.
The sound effects are cranked to be almost ridiculously vivid. Not even to scare you but to make you feel uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be fun if all of the doors made their usual clicky sounds. They will bang behind you when you least expect it, pulling you out of the feeling of safety you might have been developing.
All of this seems like the game is flawless! It’s perfect, right? Well, no. Not really. The flaws can actually get in the way due to Silent Hill 2 being fairly old and not aging well in its gameplay mechanics. The camera is the worst offender. Even with the added “search” functionality, which means the player can press a button to wobble the camera to get it behind James again, it still gets confused, especially in small rooms and that means our protagonist can easily be kissed by a monster without any previous notice. Those bastards! Fortunately, this was fixed in the third installment of the series, so the developers obviously realized the issues.
Have I mentioned how great the enemy designs are, by the way? They are filled with symbolism – a design philosophy that was later used by the developers of Cry of Fear. A fantastic game that started out as a Half-Life modification. I highly recommend it! It did give me that Silent Hill 2 vibe without directly ripping off Silent Hill 2!
Back to the topic, however – the combat and the movement itself in Silent Hill 2 might feel clunky to the newer players. It’s not PSX survival horror tank controls clunky but it still feels a bit stiff. One might argue that the combat is so basic to disincentivise engaging with the enemies and this is a fair point. Focusing on the combat never did the series well, as we’ve all seen with Homecoming…
There are also times when the game gives up pacing the gameplay to pace the story. While this is fine by my standards – I actually appreciate downtime in video games – some people might say that it is done to prolong the already short experience that is Silent Hill 2. Is it truly short, though? The town sequences aren’t as present as in the original Silent Hill although when they are, they are fairly long. They also reward players for exploration by placing helpful items in the corners of the map. You can find your first rifle ammo if you look hard enough! The downside is that after a lengthy session of exploration, the player finds themselves with too many items that they know what to do with and the feeling of danger fades away as James puts the twentieth clip into his handgun.
All of these should never make you not play Silent Hill 2. Even though some locations might seem too maze-y, the major ones always offer a handy map always found very close to the entrance. Brookhaven even gives visual clues to signify what floor the player’s on by slightly changing the color scheme of said floor. Look at that! They knew what they were doing!
This game is a gem. The story is a gem. The soundtrack is a gem. The characters, the locations, the enemy designs. Every time I play it, it opens up to me even more. The town. It’s calling to me. Enthralling me with its atmosphere. It tells me stories that sound so familiar, showing me I can truly get lost in this world once again even though I’ve visited it many, many times already.
Silent Hill 2 will always be waiting on me, in our “special place”.
And if that’s not enough for you – this is the game that has Pyramid Head.