This is part of a special Halloween feature that will provide a brief overview of the horror genre, with different recommendations for every type of player. You might notice that the games in this series tend to get pretty good ratings. There are two reasons for this. 1) I’m partial to the horror genre, it happens to be my favourite in gaming. 2) This is a feature of games that I would recommend, therefore they’re bound to be scored highly.
Here we are, my number one pick, the best horror game of all time; Silent Hill 2. This one is seriously disturbing on a deeply psychological level. And yet it’s also more than just a scary experience, as it happens to be a legitimately moving tragedy and one of the best cases for gaming as an art-form in existence. It is a dark, intriguing, thematically complex journey into madness, and over the course of its runtime, it takes you to some very uncomfortable places. Even better, it does it all in a way that no other medium could. This masterpiece embraces the potential of gaming’s unique relationship with the player, and thrusts you right into the shoes of its protagonist in a way that is unprecedented . As a result, all of the feelings of loss, isolation, guilt, and fear are permitted to be almost too tangible. No other game in this series of reviews has received a 10/10 from me, because no other game in this series has affected me so much on an emotional level. With its rich themes, multi-faceted characters, unparalleled atmosphere and astonishingly original story, this really puts things like The Evil Within to shame.
The game tells the story of James Sunderland, a grieving widower who inexplicably receives a letter from his dead wife, Mary, asking him to find her in the remote town of Silent Hill. As you can well imagine, James is more than a little perplexed by this, but the way he sees it, he has nothing left to lose. So he decides to journey into the isolated town, hoping to find the ‘special place’ that Mary refers to in the letter. Upon discovering that the town is cut off by road, James is forced to venture into Silent Hill by foot. He soon realises that that might not have been the best idea however, as the town is completely engulfed in a supernatural fog, one which brings with it hideous demonic creatures. The very few people that James does encounter are in a bizarre, dreamlike state, speaking in enigmatic ways and barely reacting to the absurdity of their situation. They all seem to be in their own separate realities, and James accordingly comes to the conclusion that they wont be much help to him.
To say anything more about the plot of this game would be a massive disservice to the unbelievably engrossing story. This is one that you really ought to experience for yourself, as the various twists and reveals really do pack a hefty emotional punch. Indeed, this is my all time favourite video-game narrative, because its so unlike anything else and because it’s told in such an artfully subtle way.
As I briefly touched upon in the intro, this is one story that would not function half as well were it film, TV show, book, or anything else other than a game. This is because Team Silent find beautiful ways to communicate complex things to us, using the specific language of video-games. A lot of the best examples would unfortunately constitute as spoilers, but just pay attention to every little detail and you’ll notice that almost everything has some kind of symbolic value or function, right down to the contents of your inventory, the gameplay mechanics and even the amount of damage dealt by certain weapons.
For instance, at one point you’re asked to surrender all of the items that you have and place them into a nearby container, so that you can ride an elevator without exceeding its weight limit. Now it’s important to understand that you’ll have accumulated a lot of objects during your time with the game, so to get rid of each one individually is something of a chore, especially when it requires you to enter in several button prompts per item. Naturally, you’ll begin to grow impatient with this process, and will subsequently hammer the X button in order to get the whole ordeal over with, barely registering what your getting rid of. That is, until you come across an image of Mary, one which you have been carrying with you throughout the game. As soon as you arrive at this photograph, you will encounter a brief delay. It might not even register at first, but there’s a bit of lag between you hitting X, and the menu asking if you want to relinquish the photo. This is an amazingly subtle moment of character immersion, one that makes you feel James’ unwillingness to let go of the past along with him. It’s incredibly innovative, and the game is filled with so many moments just like this.
Even the puzzles and enemy designs are used to push us deeper into James’ subconscious. Riddles will involve items that relate specifically to our hero’s past, and will often implicitly reference a hidden truth that he has locked away inside. Similarly, the haunting creatures that James encounters all stand in for his own anxieties and fears, in ways that are understated and require genuine thought.
Special mention has to go to the truly terrifying Pyramid Head, a hyper-masculine, utterly relentless pursuer, who can be found routinely killing and sexually assaulting the female characters of the game, including the other monsters. That might sound incredibly messed up, but there’s a very good thematic reason for all of this, beyond just adding cheap shock value to the game. In fact, once you come to understand Pyramid Head’s role in the story, you’ll notice that there are so many nuances to his character, including aspects of his behaviour and his visual design, all of which really flesh out this monstrous tormentor. He thus emerges as one of the most intriguing and simultaneously terrifying horror villains in all of fiction.
The game does a good job of not spoon-feeding you any of its subliminal content as well, and lets you work out all of the intricacies for yourself. Once you have done this, you realise just how much depth there is to the characters and the narrative here. You being to understand that the town of Silent Hill is clearly trying to torture James with the memory of his wife, and that just like everyone else in the town, he appears to be trapped in his own idiosyncratic purgatory. In other words, the game basically takes place in a nightmare realm tailored specifically to James’ own personal demons. This makes repeat playthroughs not only worthwhile, but debatably even more enjoyable, as you begin to pick up on the relevance of certain key motifs and images, such as the moths, the execution devices, the heavy breathing sounds, and the prevalent psycho-sexual imagery. At first glance, many of the strange things you encounter in the town might just seem like they’re there purely to creep you out, but EVERYTHING has a deeper layer here.
What’s so great about all of this, is that it still works as suitable nightmare fuel if you choose to ignore all of the hidden meanings. Indeed, if I’ve put you off with all my pseudo intellectual claptrap, then let me assure you that this is without a doubt the creepiest game I’ve ever played. The atmosphere is almost intolerably oppressive, with the famous thick fog effect smothering you and obscuring your vision to an insane degree. This spooky tone is even further articulated through the chilling art design, eerie camera work and magnificent musical score. All of these elements combine to create a deep-seated sense of paranoia. You’ll constantly feel like you”re being watched by a omnipotent sinister force, a sensation which is magnified exponentially by the incomparable sound design.
I really want to expand upon this, because for my money, the audio in this game contributes at least 80% to the overwhelming feeling of dread. Akira Yamoka (composer and sound designer) is a true genius in this regard, as he inflects every single room, every single corridor and even the exterior environments with a threat that images simply cannot convey. With Bloodcurdling screams, harsh industrial noises, and sounds that seem to have no earthly origin whatsoever, the audio landscape here is obscure, completely unfamiliar, and frankly petrifying.
One particular scene sticks out in my mind as one of the most unconventionally scary moments in all of media. As James, you arrive at the Silent Hill historical society, which is basically a museum concerned with local history. Walking through the building, you can hear a faint, muffled droning sound in the distance. As you make your way through the museum, the sound gets louder and increasingly clearer. Eventually, you come across a hole in the wall, with stairs leading down into a mysterious dark abyss. With warranted trepidation, you begin to head down the stairs, and into the dark unknown. It’s a very claustrophobic moment, as the further you descend, the tighter the stairway gets, with stone walls closing in on you. That’s scary enough, but it’s the sound that really does it. You see, the further you go, the louder that droning sound becomes. Eventually you realise what it is. It’s a fog horn, and it’s signalling your arrival.
With each step it increases in volume and frequency, building and building to a cacophonous level. Something is obviously waiting for you down there, and whatever it is, it’s been a long time coming. It might sound silly on paper, but this scared the crap out of me when I was first playing it. I practically never react to these horror games, because I’m desensitised to them from overexposure, but I’d never seen anything like this. This minor, very low-key moment reduced me to a nervous wreck with just a little bit of darkness and a fairly mundane sound effect. That’s how great this game is, it can do so much with so little, to the point where this otherwise uneventful moment had me muttering ‘Please, I don’t wanna go any further!’ in absolute dread. I can’t even determine why it disturbed me so much, because like everything else in this game, it’s so heavily abstract and usual.
I implore you to play this under the proper conditions, because it doesn’t rely on any gore and it has no jump scares, instead it banks solely on atmosphere and pure psychological horror. So please, wait until dark, turn off the lights, and play on your own, because it will freak you out on a profoundly primal level. I keep returning to the word ‘nightmarish’ here, but that’s exactly what this reminds me of; it’s like playing through a nightmare.
Even the level design seems to evoke this idea, with its confusing, often shifting geography. There’s one point where you just keep jumping into a succession of pitch-black craters, ostensibly descending further and further without getting anywhere. You then end up in a flooded underground labyrinth, where every corridor looks the same, and there’s seemingly no logic to the layout of the environment. Going up one ladder leads to an elevated corridor, but then going down the ladder at the other end seems to take you back in a circle. Elsewhere, one door takes you to an entirely new area, but the next one you come across somehow returns you to an earlier point in the maze. It’s confusing, disorientating and totally thrilling, especially when you’re being pursued by unknown creatures in the dark.
Speaking of the unimaginable terrors that lurk in Silent Hill, the creature design here is among the best of all time. I know I talked a lot about the sounds and what you don’t see, but the visuals here are just as sublime. Taking cues from figurative artist Francis Bacon, Team Silent come up with some spectacularly abstract and original monsters here, which have evidently been carefully crafted to have the maximum psychological impact. They’re all thematically consistent too, playing upon ideas of deformed femininity and distorted sexuality, in a way that’s more than a little reminiscent of David Cronenberg. I don’t want to get too academic here, but you could write a whole book about the Freudian implications of some these villains, from the faceless nurses with exaggerated breasts, to the uncanny ‘flesh lips’ and the horrific ‘abstract daddy’ monsters, which have a very… shall we say evocative method of attacking you. Once again, when you grasp what this game is really about, you’ll be spotting all of these things for yourself.
The last thing that I really want to mention is the game’s unique approach to its various endings. Of course, branching narratives are a dime-a-dozen these days, so having more than one conclusion is nothing special anymore. Yet Silent Hill 2 does something that, as far as I can remember, I’ve never seen in any other game before. You see, your ending is the result of how you ‘psychologically characterise’ the protagonist. That’s not to say that James is a blank slate, he’s still very much a well defined character, but he is shaped a little by your actions.
What does that mean exactly? Well basically, rather than letting narrative decisions determine the ending of the game, Silent Hill 2 judges the protagonist based on your play style. There are numerous factors that contribute to James’ profile, including how often you examine certain items, how much time you spend in certain locations, and how effectively you protect certain other characters from damage. For instance, your ending partly depends upon how conservative you are with healing supplies. Should you consume ‘health drinks’ readily every time that you receive damage, then it implies to the story that James wants to live. Equally, if you’re a little more stingy with your supplies, then it suggests that James lacks a real concern for his own self-preservation. These opposing character traits can then result in two wildly different conclusions to the game.
It’s such a masterstroke of design, one that makes your actions explicitly effect the characterisation of the protagonist, as well as the narrative itself. We live in an age where people like to criticise examples of ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, even when they don’t fully understand what the term means. However, you very rarely hear of people similarly praising ludonarrative resonance, a concept that should enrich your experience with a game, and make you feel like an active participant. Well Silent Hill 2’s ending system is a wonderful example of this in action, and it really deserves to be acknowledged as an innovative way of synthesising gameplay and story.
By now it should be apparent that I have nothing but praise for this game. It’s smart, it’s original, it’s psychologically complex and the characters are well developed and explored. However, above and beyond else, it succeeds as a genuinely effective horror story, one that will get under your skin and unsettle you in fresh and unique ways. In short, this is the epitome of what video-games can accomplish when the right amount care and effort is applied to them.
RECOMMENDATION: IT’S HARD FOR ME TO RESIST THE URGE TO SAY THAT ‘EVERYONE SHOULD PLAY THIS’. IF YOU LIKE GOOD GAMES, THEN THIS IS SIMPLY A MUST-PLAY! HOWEVER, I WOULD GIVE A SPECIAL SHOUT OUT TO PEOPLE WHO APPRECIATE CREEPY AND GENUINELY UNSETTLING PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR.