Greetings, old-school gamers! This is the inaugural edition of a new bi-weekly Dashing Nerds feature, Retro Rundown. Every other Friday, I’ll pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Since it’s Halloween season here on Dashing Nerds, it seems fitting to devote my first entry to my all-time top horror game, Silent Hill 2.
Team Silent, the Japanese development team for the first four Silent Hill games (considered by many fans the only legitimate titles in the series), revolutionized the horror game genre by creating the disturbing, cerebral Silent Hill for the Sony PlayStation. After that success, they set out in their 2001 sequel to create another experience that would “shake [the player’s] heart”. Judging by the fact that this is still the benchmark that every horror game must compare itself to, they accomplished their mission.
The biggest component in the excellence of Silent Hill 2 is its atmosphere. The developers revisited the resort town of Silent Hill, inhabited as it was with dark forces eager to punish those who have transgressed, and updated it for the next generation of hardware. They made the town feel more lived-in, with memorable locations and details that suck the player in (for instance, a single newspaper clipping about child murderer Walter Sullivan, included only to help build this world, was substantive enough to be expanded into the plot of an entire game in Silent Hill 4). The horror, in true Japanese fashion, is less about what’s right in front of you than about what could be around the corner – and what you just realized about something you encountered an hour ago.
Even more important than the town, though, is the character work: In terms of plotting and performances, SH2 is in a class that few other games have reached, even today. Protagonist James Sunderland is played by non-professional actor Guy Cihi as an everyman, and the player slips into his shoes so effortlessly, they barely notice that the horrific monsters he encounters are intentionally designed as reflections of his own dark psyche. (Cihi answers fan questions about his experience as James in this video, which is a must-watch.) James meets other characters who are on their own journey to either conquer or be consumed by their personal demons; the few scenes with each of them supply a definite beginning, middle, and end to their character arcs, and subtly highlight the fact that our hero is ultimately no better off than them. This gives the impression that what we do matters to us and no one else, making us feel even more isolated than the largely empty town. The biggest trick that Team Silent pulls on the player is in making us an unreliable narrator – by the end of the game, the supposed letter from James’s dead wife that brought him to this town is nowhere to be found, causing us to question what we’ve been experiencing the entire time.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover the monster design in a little more detail. Like the best rogues’ galleries, each monster holds up a dark mirror to James: Straitjacket zombies for his feelings of being unable to do anything with his albatross of a sick wife; cleavage-baring, faceless nurses for his sexual frustration; and even a twisted version of his wife, who attempts to seduce him by taking on all the qualities he wishes she’d had. James is tormented throughout the game by Pyramid Head – an iconic, terrifying monster (really, a few monsters) that would be blatantly misused in later games due to his popularity – who takes on the look of the town’s historical executioners and represents James’s subconscious belief that he should be punished for what he’s done. It’s a unique feeling when you defeat a powerful boss and then realize that maybe it would be more right for James – like Angela and Eddie – to receive that punishment he’s been putting himself through after all.
Silent Hill 2 had a unique system for delivering one of its multiple endings: It paid attention to the player’s behavior throughout the game to determine what kind of character they were playing. This could result in James leaving the town (and his past) behind him, returning to the same cycle of behavior, or even succumbing to despair and committing suicide. An additional ending, available only on replay, has James tapping into the dark forces of the town to attempt to resurrect his wife, and there were two joke endings added by the final iteration of the game. The developers have remained quiet about which ending is considered canonical, making the experience even more personal and deepening the possible analysis for those who are so inclined.
I actually first encountered the Silent Hill series in text form; when I was in high school, I stumbled across President Evil’s plot analyses of the first two games on GameFAQs (they’re still up to this day, and make for as good a read as ever), printed them out in my computer class, and hungrily pored through them on a road trip. I couldn’t get enough of reading about these characters and the powerful symbolism in the games, and while it spoiled the surprises that the games had to offer, I still eagerly rushed to the game store to claim them. I remember hurrying home after school to play Silent Hill 2 on a TV I’d set up in my room, on lazy fall afternoons where the weather matched the atmosphere in the game. Ever since then, whenever I’m outside during a crisp autumn day (right around this time of year, actually), especially if it’s foggy, my mind is transported once again to the town of Silent Hill.
For players looking to try Silent Hill 2 for the first time, or return to it and remember what they loved about it, there are two good options and two not-so-good ones: The original PS2 release is arguably the best version of the game, presented as the developers intended it, and you can take that a step further and upscale it with a reverse-compatible PS3. However, the game is a bit of a collector’s item, so if the $25 price point turns you off, the updated Xbox port – Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams – will run you closer to $10 and features the bonus Maria scenario, “Born from a Wish”. The inferior options are the buggy, poorly redubbed and rescaled Silent Hill HD Collection on PS3 and the even more buggy and harder to find PC port. Still, with a game this legendary, you should take what you can get!
The Silent Hill series continued after this title with Silent Hill 3, another fantastic entry that returned to characters introduced in the original game, and Silent Hill 4: The Room, the first and best by far in a run of games featuring characters that weren’t directly connected to the town. After that, Team Silent was disbanded by Konami, who (with their characteristic mishandling of the series) wanted Western developers to take over. It is telling that several members of the team went on to distinguished careers with other companies, and that without them, the franchise languished until its apparent death with the aborted release of PT / Silent Hills. It’s a shame that we’ll never see the likes of the original series again, but it also makes a game like Silent Hill 2 all the more special, and fully deserving of the adulation it receives. “In my restless dreams, I see that town,” begins Mary’s letter; eventually, my heart was shaken, and those dreams became my own.
That’s it for the first issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!