Silent Hill 2

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During the 2001 Tokyo Game Show audiences were treated to the first ever trailer for Silent Hill 2, the eagerly awaited sequel to the original Playstation game. As the franchise was making the jump to the relatively newly minted Playstation 2 expectations were high to see what Team Silent could pull off with the improved hardware.

Instead of actually showing the game, Konami decided to unveil the new title with a series of strange, horrifying CG trailers that pushed the already grotesque imagery of the first game into the stratosphere. They were far darker than anything anyone had seen before and featured disturbing overtones of misogyny and sexual violence that seems pretty edgy by today’s standards but was even more so at the time.

This was all a pretty big hint that Silent Hill 2 wasn’t going to be quite what anyone was expecting.

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Story

The last three years haven’t been kind to James Sunderland. After his wife Mary died of a slow terminal illness he’s been drifting through life, lost in grief and depression.

Until one day a letter arrives in the mail- a letter from Mary, claiming that she’s waiting for him in their “special place” in Silent Hill, the quaint little resort town they went to shortly before Mary’s illness began and which James promised they would return to someday. Torn between the realisation that the letter couldn’t possibly have been written by his dead wife and the desperate hope that she’s somehow still alive, James sets off to Silent Hill to get to the bottom of the mystery. If you read my previous Silent Hill post you know what happens next: fog, monsters, hellish parallel realities, shocking revelations. And also a woman named Maria who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mary (but sexier and more exciting) and who seems to possess the handy ability to mysteriously reappear without a scratch after dying, something she does several times over the course of the game. Soon James makes another new friend in the form of Pyramid Head, a terrifying humanoid monster wearing a giant pyramid-shaped helmet and carrying a massive sword, who seems to be quite intent on carving him up into pieces but will settle for Maria if he’s not available.

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Silent Hill 2’s story ends with what is probably the most famous video game plot twist of all time. If you’ve somehow maintained enough of an interest in the medium to want to read these articles but don’t already know what it is I won’t spoil the secret, but suffice to say it’s a doozy and it’s probably one of the reasons people reacted to the game the way they did. If you’re planning on going out and playing this game (spoiler: you should) then it might be wise to avoid any discussion of it online as the twist has passed firmly into It Was His Sled territory among gamers.

You’ll note that my plot synopsis includes no mention of Harry, Chery, Alessa, the Order or any of the other characters and concepts introduced in Silent Hill 1. This is because for their sophomore effort Team Silent made the unusual choice to break completely from the plot they had established, telling a stand alone story that shared almost nothing except the setting from the previous game. It was a bold move but a wise one in both the short and long term, as it allowed for a story that could never have been told if the developers felt the need to carry baggage from the first game over, and it created a handy precedent that you could tell stories in the Silent Hill universe without feeling compelled to include any core set of tropes or features.

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Gameplay

If Team Silent took creative risks with Silent Hill 2’s story then they want for completely the opposite approach when it game to the gameplay. More or less nothing has been changed from the first game- the controls, camera angle, combat and puzzle systems are all more or less identical, the radio and flashlight are present and function the way they did last time around. That said James controls a lot more smoothly than Harry did, which means that exploring the environment is far less of a chore.

A more subtle change is how the game handles the multiple ending system. In Silent Hill 1 the ending you got was determined by fairly concrete player choices like whether or not you completed an optional side-mission or how you dealt with a certain boss fight; Silent Hill 2 judges you on nebulous factors like how often you look at Mary’s note or whether you allow an NPC companion character to be damaged by monsters (counter-intuitively, allowing her to get hit often makes it more likely that you’ll get the good ending). It’s a pretty neat and subtle system that would be expanded upon greatly down the line, although it means that a lot of people tend to get one of the bad endings on their first playthrough.

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The Horror

Remember when I talked about subtlety last time? Silent Hill 2 takes that aspect and ramps it up to eleven. Enemy symbolism became far more abstract and Team Silent peppered the game with subtle visual clues and metaphors about the characters and their psyches, many of which were only found years later.

On the occult vs psychological horror scale I talked about last time Silent Hill 2 falls much more firmly into the latter category than its predecessor did. A supernatural force is clearly at work bringing the monsters and other manifestations to life, but the story this time isn’t really interested in exploring what that force is (or if it’s the same force as in the first game), instead preferring to use the horror mechanics established in Silent Hill 1 as a launching off point to explore the twisted minds of the characters.

To that end Silent Hill 2 takes the central conceit of the first game- an ordinary person forced to confront a world created by the nightmares and painful memories of another person- and inverts it, so that this time James and a few other unlucky souls end up fighting their own inner demons. In Silent Hill 1 it’s implied that the experience of the town’s alternate realities is in some way subjective; this game takes that idea and runs with it, so that each of the characters experience their own personal hell existing side by side with the others (and occasionally overlapping), complete with monsters and an Otherworld that have special significance to them. It’s even implied that the town of Silent Hill actively “calls” to people like James to lure them in, although whether there’s any sort of motive behind this is never made clear. As well as being a cool idea in its own right this plot mechanic essentially creates a formula for endless Silent Hill stories, with each game focusing on a new protagonist and their inner turmoil. Judging by the direction the last two Team Silent-produced games went in I’m not entirely sure this was their intention, but the western developers who took up the torch for them were certainly enamored with the idea, as we’ll see.

The Otherworld mechanic from the first game is still in place here, although this time around the alternate locations have more of a damp, decaying look as opposed to the rust-and-blood aesthetic of Alessa’s Otherworld. You actually get a glimpse of the Otherworld as two other characters see it, both of which look drastically different from either James’ or the one featured in the first game. This essentially gave future Silent Hill developers carte blanche to break completely from the visual style established in Silent Hill 1, an opportunity they for the most part ignored. Another interesting feature of Silent Hill 2’s Otherworld is that the transition from the fog world is sometimes not as clear as before, with the player finding themselves in odd locations that get increasingly strange and divorced from reality gradually rather than abruptly transitioning.

This facilitates what I call the “nails on chalkboard” quality of Silent Hill 2’s horror. Spending a long time playing the game is genuinely mentally disturbing, as if to emphasize the psychological elements Team Silent wanted to give the player the feeling that they were slowly going insane over the course of the game, without resorting to anything as obvious as a “sanity” meter a la Eternal Darkness.

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When it came to the enemy designs Team Silent really started to let themelves off the leash starting with this game. The enemies can no longer be mistaken for zombies or sci-fi lab-grown monstrosities. They’re strange, abstract entities that clearly don’t originate in normal reality. Many of the monsters this time around have distinctly feminine traits, which ties neatly into the game’s symbolism I mentioned earlier by giving you heads’ up to some of James’ issues long before they’re spelled out explicitly. The centerpiece of all of this is of course Pyramid Head, who over the years has become the closest the franchise has to a mascot character. Obviously I don’t mean that literally- it’s not like they’re sticking him in cutesy sports games based around Konami franchises orpyramidhead

Well at least he’s not in a kart racing ga

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I feel like now would be a good time to talk about the game’s treatment of women. The story deliberately invokes a lot of nastiness both overt and implied when it comes to various characters attitudes to women, including, predictably, one of the side character’s back-stories being filled with rape and childhood abuse. These elements aren’t thrown in just for the sake of it, but I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to praise them as well written or deftly handled; I guess the most I can do is give a heads up to anyone playing the game that they’re going to encounter those elements. One thing I do want to comment on is the actual extent of the sexual horror imagery in the game. It’s definitely present, and the series would from here on out fairly regularly incporporate sexual imagery but for some reasons fans like to massively overstate its prominence in the game. In particular Pyramid Head’s oft-referenced status as some sort of Urotsukidoji-esque rape demon is more or less a complete fabrication- there’s one infamous scene where you walk in on him doing something with two monsters, but that’s it. That this is often treated as the basis for making tasteless rape jokes frankly doesn’t reflect well on Silent Hill fandom in the slightest.

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Development

The first Silent Hill sold well and was a critical success, so the decision to do a sequel was a no-brainer. What wasn’t a no-brainer was the idea of having the sequel consist of a completely stand alone story.

Most of the same development team that had made the first game stuck around for the second, with the exception of Keiichi Toyama who had already left to make Siren by this point. While initially intending to do a straight up sequel to the first game the team decided instead to branch off into another direction, mostly as we’ll see under the influence of various movies, books and other properties that helped shape the plot.

This time around the game got a significant bump in budget, no doubt partly due to the jump to the PS2 but probably also because the first game was a financial success. This allowed the team to finally do their ideas justice with graphics that were not only a quantum leap from the first game but which looked pretty damn impressive for the time by any standards.

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Inspiration

In keeping with the psychological tone we now cross from supernatural Stephen King books to somewhat more highbrow fare. Namely David Lynch films and more specifically Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, of which Silent Hill 2 is essentially an amalgamation with monsters thrown in, to the point where several scenes, characters and locations are basically lifted wholesale.

Another strong influence was the somewhat obscure Fantasma D’amore, in which the protagonist chases after two versions of his loved one through foggy streets. Stick these three movies in a blender and throw in some phallic monsters and you’ve basically got Silent Hill 2.

Oh also: the character of Maria wears an outfit that in real life was worn by Christina Aguilera at the Teen Choice Awards in 1999. No, I don’t know why either.

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The Music

Akira Yamaoka is back doing his weird industrial noises again, this time interjected with some more of the rock influence that spiced up the first game’s soundtrack. I get the feeling he was starting to mature as an artist by this point, as the music in Silent Hill 2 feels less experimental for the sake of being experimental and not afraid to just evoke an honest emotion instead of always reaching for strangeness.

The real heavy hitters of the Silent Hill music world will start coming up in the next post but for now we’ve got this nice little instrumental piece:

Then we’ve got Theme Of Laura, one of the best pieces of music in the franchise’s history for some reason serving as the theme for the most annoying character in the franchise’s history, a bratty little girl who you spend a large portion of the game trying to “rescue” (it turns out she can’t actually see the monsters anyway) and who frequently hinders James, almost getting him killed at one point. Sure is a kick ass piece of music, though.

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Review

So, Silent Hill 2.

Ask any Silent Hill fan what their favourite game in the series is and 95% of the time they’ll say it’s Silent Hill 2. It’s not hard to see why that is- the game’s story is a quantum leap in terms of psychological sophistication, for horror or any other genre. It’s not only an incredibly scary game but genuinely disturbing in a way that few games have ever come close to matching. It’s got one of the most mind-blowing reveals in the history of the medium, the sort of twist that makes you completely re-evaluate everything you’ve just seen.

So that means Silent Hill 2 is my favourite, right? It’s a masterpiece, right?

Well…..not quite.

I’ve never been quite as much on the Silent Hill 2 fanwagon as a lot of people. I feel like fans allow the game’s undeniable strengths to overshadow some serious flaws. The game’s art style is often bland and drab, way too much time is spent wandering narrow apartment and hotel hallways, the characters range from horrible to annoying with very little in between. James himself does eventually become an interesting character but only just before the end of the series. Before that point he’s so dull he effectively lacks anything resembling a personality. This is true of about five of the Silent Hill protagonists, including Harry, but the fact that Silent Hill 2’s story focuses much more heavily on its protagonist than other games amplifies the problem enormously. Another flaw carried over from the first game that cripples SH2 to a greater extent is the voice acting; it’s still terrible, vacillating between wooden and hammy, but the less cheesy and more sophisticated story is seriously undercut this time around.

Don’t interpret any of this to mean that I don’t think Silent Hill 2 deserves a spot on the upper echelons of horror gaming; I just wouldn’t place it at the very top of the list, nor do I consider it my favourite game in the franchise.

Should you play it

Short answer: yes.

Long answer: of all the Silent Hill games this is the one you should play first. Despite my complaints above it exemplifies everything that’s good about the series and its stand-alone story means it requires no prior Silent Hill experience. Unlike the first game the graphics have aged much more gracefully, particularly in the PC version, which with a bit of tweaking looks better than some games coming out now. Silent Hill 2 acts as a handy barometer for the first five Silent Hill games. If you like this one you’ll probably at least get something out of the rest, whereas if you hate it you’re better off looking to the later titles or just writing the whole series off completely.

Unfortunately getting your hands on it might be a bit tricky. Last year Konami put out a HD collection for the PS3 and 360 consisting of Silent Hill 2 and 3. The games are presented in crisp HD with spruced up textures, as befits two beloved horror games of their stature, with re-recorded voice over work that’s vastly superior to what was in the original game (Silent Hill 2 fans will deny this to their dying breath even though it’s true). I would love to direct you to this release as the definitive version available, but unfortunately some major screw ups (apparently on Konami’s part) mean that the HD collection is riddled with bugs and technical problems. You probably won’t notice some of this if you haven’t played the game before, but the more egregious problems like massive frame-rate drops and audio de-syncing during cut scenes is going to ruin anyone’s time. A patch was put out for the PS3 version (the PS3 version only, for some reason) that was supposed to fix some of this but I don’t know how much it actually helped.

As such you’re probably better off going for the PC version, which as I mentioned still looks fantastic if you tweak the game a bit to run in proper widescreen (see here for instructions). Unfortunately the PC release has never been made available digitally, an oversight that Konami should be ritually burned alive for, so you’ll have to go hunting for second hand copies or *cough*owcbt3rocooc3ron31r4rh1[rc3uce4d90dnxn3ctx23nx1s*cough*.

On an entirely unrelated note Doing In The Wizard does not endorse or condone the illegal download of video games.

It’s a real shame that such an important and influential game isn’t easier to find in a definitive high quality release, but there you are. If you’re intrigued enough to try it definitely try go the effort.

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Legacy

The impact of Silent Hill 2 on the horror genre is impossible to overstate. Silent Hill 1 laid the groundwork for the franchise, but Silent Hill 2 propelled it right to the top of the survival horror ladder, arguably above even Resident Evil, the franchise that got the ball rolling in the first place. Many, many horror games, from big-budget releases to one-person indie labors of love, have been influenced by this game’s story and mood. It woke people up to the idea of horror gaming serving a higher purpose than schlocky B-movie trash and paved the way for many smart, sophisticated horror properties right up to today.

There is s somewhat more unfortunate side to Silent Hill 2’s legacy as well. Entirely through no fault of its own many of the developers who got to work on the franchise after Team Silent disbanded spent a considerable amount of time trying and mostly failing to imitate its strangths, meaning that the latter half of the franchise’s history lives firmly in the game’s shadow. We’ll be going to specifics in future posts.

Regardless of what you think of the game’s quality, in terms of the stature of the franchise in the collective minds of gamers Silent Hill 2 was the series’ apex. You might be wondering how that can be possible in a franchise with eight games- if the second game is the peak then what about the rest of them? Before we embark on that long and sad story we’ve got one more shining beacon of old-school Silent Hill quality to look at, as Team Silent followed up on their magnum opus by setting out to finish what they started.

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3 thoughts on “Silent Hill 2

  1. Pingback: Let’s Play Point and Click Games | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Tams

    Just wanted to let you know, that I quite enjoy these very insightful and entertaining entries into, which to me is, relatively unknown properties. The same is applicable for your other posts.

    Great work 🙂

    Reply

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