by Jed Pressgrove
Pay Your Respect
Very few video games command as much reverence as Silent Hill 2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a critic known for negative reviews of popular games, said Silent Hill 2 was evidence that “gaming is still worth defending” (a paranoid sentiment, but that’s beside the point). Not even Resident Evil, a substantial influence on survival horror, gets as much respect as Silent Hill 2. People often praise Capcom for releasing updated versions of Resident Evil. But when I asked if I should play the HD version of Silent Hill 2, the answer was strictly “No.” The implication was that great art should not be defiled.
Despite this reputation, playing Silent Hill 2 for the first time in 2015 hasn’t given me a greater appreciation of survival horror. Silent Hill 2’s supposed focus on survival is pretentious, as survival is an old idea in video games. One could call Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Dig Dug “survival games,” so it’s a no-brainer that survival is more of a “horror” with counter-intuitive design. Compare survival horror’s tricks with 1993’s Doom, which doesn’t rely on clunky controls to be exhilarating and even frightening.
Silent Hill 2’s cheap scares are stuck in 1996 anyway. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 thinks a human should control like a tank from Atari’s Combat, despite the fact that the Playstation 2 controller has analog control. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 tries to exploit you with bad camera angles, such as when you walk through a door to be attacked by enemies you can barely see. Silent Hill 2 does allow you to strafe and to reposition the camera at times, but other games had better execution of these ideas before 2001, Silent Hill 2’s year of release. But that’s survival horror: take things from games and do them worse (and be hailed for this lack of imagination).
As outdated as the controls are in Silent Hill 2, the game has a surprisingly strong commitment to the Second Amendment and healthcare. Health and ammo seem to be around every corner. I killed almost every enemy in Silent Hill 2 to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with obstacles while going back and forth in halls. You become unstoppable after you collect all of the weapons, none of which are hard to find. Once you have everything, all you have to do is blow an enemy to the ground with the shotgun, then switch to the giant sword and swing as the enemy stands up. Silent Hill 2 gives you so much healing and killing power that the sight of a monster is merely monotonous.
Many suggest Silent Hill 2 isn’t about combat like Resident Evil 6, but that’s baloney. Silent Hill 2 is a lot like Resident Evil 6, only more repetitive. Silent Hill 2 even tells you how many enemies you killed and how much time you took beating everything. Given its pretension, the term “survival horror” doesn’t have much use here. Silent Hill 2 isn’t a survival horror game. It’s a horrible survival game.
Atmosphere Is the Buzzword
Silent Hill 2 is often mentioned with that cloudy word “atmosphere.” If one says “Silent Hill 2 does atmosphere very well” while standing in fog during a pitch-black night, the phrase becomes quite appropriate. In Silent Hill 2, atmosphere is darkness and/or fog.
I exaggerate to an extent. Anyone can understand the praise for Silent Hill 2’s atmosphere when you enter a trashed apartment as foreboding industrial music breaks the silence. One such apartment is inhabited by butterflies. When you examine the bedroom, the protagonist James remarks about a single dead butterfly, evoking a memorable sense of futility. Later in the game, you walk down an almost laughable amount of steps before jumping into one hole after another, not aware of what’s coming next yet knowing there’s no turning back. Does the game end in Hell?, you might wonder.
But in many cases, the atmosphere of Silent Hill 2 amounts to poor visibility due to overuse of fog and darkness. The most challenging part of the game is squinting to make sure you’re not missing any of the game’s essential items. This visual tedium trumps the feelings that producer Akihito Imamura wants to convey.
When Story and Levels Clash
As much as I’d like to believe Silent Hill 2’s greatest character is the town, as Croshaw argues, the game is a series of simple levels with an absurd number of broken door locks. And while the tradition of linearity and boss fights doesn’t suggest an issue by itself, Silent Hill 2 doesn’t serve its story with this approach. As a result, Silent Hill 2 struggles to maintain a serious tone, filling its levels with risible dialogue and boneheaded violence.
For example, look at the apartment level. Some would rather refer to the name of the apartment buildings, but it’s an apartment level. As James, you’re searching for your wife Mary in Silent Hill, but monsters start attacking you on the street, and you find the apartment level. Once you get to the apartment level, James won’t let you leave it, even though he has little to no reason to believe Mary is in the apartment level (in a letter, Mary clearly says she’s waiting for him in their “special place,” a hotel). Alright fine. A traditional game in disguise. But the apartment level, outside of an occasional memorable scene like the butterfly apartment, is incredibly silly.
The level could pass as a parody of a reality show called Apartment Hunting in Hell. In one apartment, you examine a dead body in the kitchen. James wonders “Who could have done this?” Hmmmm … perhaps the monsters you’ve been whipping with a nail board. In another apartment, James catches a glimpse of the monster Pyramid Head. Then in another apartment, he meets Eddie, some random guy throwing up in a toilet. James proceeds to ask Eddie if he is “friends” with the “pyramid guy.” Yeah, Eddie and Pyramid Head are drinking buddies, and Eddie just can’t handle his alcohol as well as Pyramid Head. James leaves Eddie behind, knowing that Eddie could be killed. This lack of concern for Eddie suggests that James really wants to find his wife, right? Yeah, the wife who is obviously not in the apartment building! (You later face Eddie in a boss fight. Just save your rifle ammo and heal often, and Eddie isn’t a problem. After you kill Eddie, James says, “I … I killed a … a human being … a human being.” William Shatner couldn’t have said it better). In any case, the apartment level climaxes with a Pyramid Head encounter, a play on the boss fight tradition. To win, you run around in circles until Pyramid Head walks away, which wouldn’t be remotely stressful if not for the knockoff Resident Evil tank controls.
You could theoretically write off any of this nonsense as part of a surreal nightmare scenario (bonus points if you mention David Lynch). Indeed, Silent Hill 2 is very happy to tell you about an imaginary relationship between grief, mental illness, and sadism. A document in the hospital level — as if any health institution would buy into this drivel — speaks of an illness that can afflict anyone, that can drive you to “the other side” where reality and unreality meet. Silent Hill 2’s link between violence and mental illness is impersonal and out of touch compared to Remigiusz Michalski’s The Cat Lady. Even Edgar Allan Poe’s relatively primitive understanding of madness comes from personal experience. Silent Hill 2’s dime-store psychology doesn’t say anything meaningful about humanity and therefore doesn’t excuse levels that waste time with banalities about locked doors and deranged killers.
Great Ending, Though
Some claim Silent Hill 2 has the best ending in video game history. I agree if by “ending” we mean voice actress Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of Mary’s full letter to James. Horgan’s passion underlines the truths in Mary’s letter, which portrays both Mary and James as flawed, believable human beings: “I was so angry all the time and I struck out at everyone I loved most. Especially you, James. That’s why I understand if you do hate me.”
Before Horgan reads the letter, Silent Hill 2 portrays James as a confused party before employing that “The protagonist is actually the killer” cliche. As James wanders around Silent Hill bashing and shooting feminine creatures, the game does a disservice to the reality it tries to convey: a wife and husband struggling to reconcile their feelings about permanent separation. The violence emphasizes mindless sadism and unfair punishment to scare players, but these concepts hold little insight about the complex relationship of Mary and James. Horgan’s sincere expression of complicated adult life exposes the combat as contrived game lengthening.
Several hours of flawed game design for one brilliant moment of artistry. That is Silent Hill 2.