Twenty years has gone by since I first went to that special place. Twenty. And yet…this is still the game for me.
Silent Hill 2 is without a doubt my favourite game of all time. It transcends the trappings of simply being merely a ‘good’ game. Ever since its 2001 release on the legendary Playstation 2, this grisly psychological experience has set the standard for survival horror. It is one of few games to masterfully combine sheer bed-wetting horror with life-affirming beauty. Put simply, Silent Hill 2 is a certified work of art.
Team Silent, an in-house development group at Konami, are so skilful in their execution that everything which encapsulates SH2 is established in the first twenty minutes. Aka, the opening section.
Like many horrifying stories, Silent Hill 2 begins in a men’s grotty roadside rest stop. Our protagonist, James Sunderland, is introduced with him gazing at his reflection in a mirror – which he ends after a few moments with a deep sigh. Akira Yamaoka‘s trademark melancholic dark ambient soundtrack plays in the background.
Once the CG cutscene ends, the in-game engine cutscene takes over. We’re treated to a long-shot of the bathroom: the camera is off-kilter and James is out of focus. The camera gradually rights itself and the focus shifts from the vile-looking facilities and back onto James.
James then utters “Mary…could you really be in this town?” Control is then shifted to the player, and you can check out the bathroom if you wish – but unless you’re George Michael, there’s little excitement to be found in hanging around in men’s toilets. The next step is to go outside, for the next cutscene.
But let’s unpack. The whole intro scene lasts less than a minute. In that time we clearly see that our protagonist is a) introspective, hence the long look in the mirror; b) certainly weary, hence the big sigh; and c) he’s clearly searching for someone named Mary, though the exact context is currently unclear. Plus he is stood in this utterly rank, decaying bathroom – he probably had to wade through a stream of piss to get in there. Clearly, he’s not in the best frame of mind to willingly spend time in there.
All of this is established through a careful dance which SH2 maintains throughout: character action + set dressing + atmosphere + just the right amount of dialogue.
The rank toilet also serves to set the aesthetic standard for the rest of the game.
Outside the rest stop, control is immediately wrenched from the player again like we’re a little brother trying to use the ‘main’ controller. The gloominess continues with the fog-lined streets. James wearily walks over to a wall overlooking a great lake with large trees and looming hills. The camera pulls out to utterly dwarf him against the scenery. James being made to feel small and insignificant is at the heart of things here.
We are then treated to voice-over from James’ wife, Mary, who reads out a letter sent to James. The rub of the letter is that Mary is in Silent Hill, which is clearly special to them both and is waiting for James. James’ own immediate voice-over highlights exactly what is wrong with this: James recently received this letter…and Mary died three years ago.
By the time this scene ends, exactly three minutes and a half minutes have passed. I can’t say this enough but this is master level storytelling. This really is the sort of thing that transcends the medium and is simply storytelling at its apex. Already we’ve established the protagonist’s state of mind through the set, and now we’re expertly given the story’s hook.
Immediately we’re presented with a situation that is extremely relatable – a young man has lost wife, is filled with grief and regret, and receives an impossible letter which suggests mystery, threat, and perhaps the supernatural.
Compared to how a lot of games handle similar subject matter, SH2’s delivery is flatter than the Flat Earth Society’s globes. It all plays out through a couple of short poignant monologues coupled with sad music. But that’s all SH2 needs.
The writing is so good we don’t need to see any flashbacks to Mary and James’ happier times or witness her death. Mary hints at the happier times (“our special place) and the regrets (“you promised…but you never did”). In his voiceover, James is going over the letter in his mind and trying to figure out where Mary would be and listing through their “special places” and the memories they hold. He thoroughly dismisses the letter “It’s ridiculous, couldn’t possibly be true”, “a dead person can’t write letters”, “Mary died of that damned disease three years ago”. And yet there is a hopeful tone: “Is she really alive…waiting for me?”
If you have played the first Silent Hill then you already know that the North-East American town Silent Hill is home to evil cults and supernatural forces. So Mary’s letter, especially when referencing Silent Hill as their special place is bound to set off alarm bells.
Even without that context there’s something faintly ominous about Mary’s lines: “In my restless dreams, I see that town,” “I’m alone there now”. But because the music and the pathos in James’ voice clearly suggests a melancholic tone, then this hints at the darkness beneath the surface.
That folks, is how you set up a horror story. The only horror story I’ve seen get going more effectively in less time, is Donald Trump‘s Twitter account. In just a few minutes this game has earned its dead wife cred far more naturally than How I Met Your Mother did after a billion seasons.
Control is then resumed to the player. The first area is wide open, and yet claustrophobic. There’s only one route forward. If you try to leave on the road James clearly entered from, then you’ll hit an invisible wall and a text box will establish that ‘there’s no point going back’; a subtle hint that makes a lot more sense if you get a certain ending. The other route is blocked off by the Silent Hill trademark rusty chainlink fence. You have to take the scenic route through the woods.
Again, the game has relinquished control to the player but not really. The forest path is linear and it is here where the game begins to mess with you. Thick fog greatly limits your perspective. The camera angles randomly switch and utilise perspectives that give the impression James is being watched or chased. And the creepy droning soundtrack is complemented by the occasional sound of something rushing through the woods.
In practice, all you are doing is walking along a linear route from Point A to Point B. But by utilising its camera and environment, the game is able to make the woods feel all-encompassing and confusing. And the sound effects provide an ever-present sense of threat: the game doesn’t even need to throw any enemies at you, you just need to think it might.
This is something that SH2 does very well: it constantly forces you to manage your expectations. It’s like growing up as a girl. Often the game will use psychological tricks such as the sounds of creatures running the woods, and sometimes, screwing with you, it’ll actually put a monster exactly where you thought it’d be. Then when it’s feeling really cocky, the game will triple bluff you (subvert, meet expectation, then subvert again).
One other point regarding this long trek through the woodlands is that it represents James traveling through the real world into a world driven by his psychosis. It’s the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland: a clear passage between a defined reality into a whole new world.
Along the way, James comes to a graveyard and meets Angela. She is one of the small core group of characters and at this point, well, she comes across as a bit dopey and child-like. Her lines delivered like she’s on the other end of a Zoom call with high latency, and she uses terms like ‘mommy’ despite clearly being a grown woman.
Angela warns James that she thinks there is something off with Silent Hill and that it may be dangerous. James, still firmly in the player’s eyes as the hero rushing to see if his wife is alive and needs his help, brushes off this danger.
With this being a sequel to the original Silent Hill, at this point, it is easy to think that James is being jostled into a similar role as Harry Mason (the protagonist of the original) with Mary serving the role of Cheryl (Harry’s missing daughter – only seven. Short, black hair). And if that’s the case, then perhaps this Angela, this clearly damaged individual is going to be this game’s Alessa (the tortured, sacrificial lamb)?
Once we’ve finished in the graveyard, we then continue on the route. Like before the route is still linear but gradually the scenery is added to: forest gives way to ruined farmyard and buildings, and then eventually urbanisation.
Once the urban environments hit in earnest, we get to see the environment design in all its glory. Rust, decay, neglect: it’s like living in the North of England. Again with effective use of set dressing and camera angles, it never feels like you’re just walking in a straight line. Think of it like this: walking from your bed to your fridge at night is pretty unremarkable, right? But if you thought you had to walk through a hell dimension to get there it’d certainly liven things up.
About 18 minutes into the game we finally hit the streets of Silent Hill proper. Here the use of the fog to mask graphical limitations is shown as being inspired: it makes the wide-open town feel suffocating and isolated. As soon as we enter the town we are railroaded into following a mysterious lurching figure and a blood trail.
James is obviously of the opinion that his blue balls are swollen enough to protect him from any danger. So we travel through the foggy streets, glimpses of the strange individual and blood being our only real markers. Eventually, the trail ends at a small tunnel turned construction site on the outskirts. James enters under the scaffolding, and the restrictive camera prevents us from seeing what is in the tunnel.
In an excellent call back to the original game in which Harry overheard the shrill static a radio momentarily warning of him a monster which soon broke through the cafe window, there too is a radio here. This radio gives off a similar screech that familiar players will know warns of nearby monsters. New players will soon learn that lesson. As James messes with the radio, in the corner of the camera a figure slowly rises. That lurching figure: one of the game’s monsters, a humanoid of tortured looking flesh all fused together.
This is another fantastic subversion. Up until this point we’ve seen how Silent Hill plays with our expectations. So it’d be fair to assume that the monster we have chased would not appear in such a straightforward manner. You half expect it to jump out at us, or for there to be some form of surprise.
Logically speaking we know something obviously not right awaits us at the end of the trail. We’re expecting the game to know we are expecting and to try and subvert our expectations. And the game does subvert our expectations by simply showing us what we expected all along.
Following a brief introduction of the monster, we are pressed to fight it with an iron bar sourced from nearby. Here we learn that ‘oh, wait. The combat in this survival horror game is pure shite’. James moves with all the grace of trying to navigate a trolley round a shop whilst maintaining social distancing. And he swings the bloody bar like he’s timing himself to the first game’s stilted dialogue.
Still, by this point the game has us hooked. It’s established sympathetic characters, a compelling central mystery, built up an impenetrable atmosphere, and showcased a talent for psychological manipulation. And it’s done all that in 20 minutes.
This is honestly one of the greatest opening salvos of any game I’ve ever played. You just need to forgive SH2 for the bait and switch it does with its terrible combat: an act which is like when Konami lure you into the back of the van with the promise of a new Metal Gear Solid game but do terrible things to your bum instead.
Of course, no review of SH2 could be complete without a mention of Pyramid Head. He doesn’t appear until about an hour into the game, in the apartment level. The butcher with the massive helmet – who gets his defining moment in a brutal reference to Blue Velvet – embodies the horror of Silent Hill and provides the player with a personification of the hatred that’s constantly weighing down on them. He’s all the dark aspects of James’ psyche come to life – the player’s too if they’re doing that ‘just for fun’ play through in which they try to kill all the enemies with the hyper spray.