For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by horror and all its isolating and macabre brilliance. Slasher flicks and psychological thrillers from the `70s and `80s were the earliest iterations of horror that I was subjected to. From Stanley Kubrick’s disorientating and beautifully crafted The Shining to John Carpenter’s dark, suspenseful Halloween.
Along came the Playstation: a beast of a console that would quickly revolutionise 3D gaming as we knew it. My only gaming experiences up ‘till that point were playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Mega Drive or Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Suffice to say, I was used to playing video games that were fairly innocuous collect-’em-ups with bright colours and somewhat childish imagery (I still love those games, so don’t misconstrue what I say) and so when my older brother eventually bought Resident Evil about three years after it was released, I was naturally as aroused as an eight year-old can possibly be at the prospect of playing a horror game.
I don’t need to say much about Resident Evil, since you’ve doubtless played it already or at least caught glimpses of the clunky, polygonal exercise in macabre from behind a tightly gripped pillow. However, I will say that it opened up a whole new world of gaming for me. Its gritty visuals, haunting soundtrack and claustrophobic locales and camera angles shook me up something fierce; giving me nightmares for weeks afterwards, yet a thirst for more.
Now that I’ve given you a somewhat verbose and unnecessarily lengthy introduction to my love for horror, I’ll get to the meat of this piece:Silent Hill.
Silent Hill was released in 1999 by Konami; the same year I had first ever played Resident Evil and this was what is considered by many a momentous occasion for survival horror gaming in general. Although Resident Evil and its sequels were chilling in their own way, they also became more Westernised and formulaic as far as horror and storytelling is concerned. Silent Hill was an entirely different game and Team Silent had the ball in their court (for want of a less flimsy sport analogy).
At first glance, it’s ostensibly a story about a guy looking for his lost daughter in a town inhabited by supernatural ghoulies looking to nibble on his testicles, but it is so much more beneath the surface. The town of Silent Hill is essentially a playground for a cavalcade of intense psychological distress and torture for its unfortunate visitors. The idea that the town itself is the protagonist’s and indeed, player’s worst enemy, gripped me instantly.
Silent Hill’s story, upon further inspection seems to be more of a benchmark for Konami’s future investment in the series and is greatly dwarfed by its sequels. It features some interesting imagery, is absolutely terrifying and deals with some very adult themes, but falls flat in many areas – with the introduction of a Satanic cult and attempting to give some semblance of meaning to the town’s ambiguity. However, it did the job in suppressing my appetite for terror as a child and I hoped for more.
Of course, there were more games, but I didn’t play Silent Hill 2 for many years after it came out. Regrettably, I must say, as it was the one game that changed my entire perspective on video games as a creative medium and their artistic merit within our culture. As a phenomenon perpetuated by a society obsessed with stimulation and expressing ideas, video games are the perfect medium for such, since they are interactive and invest the player’s time and emotions into the story, subtext and characters presented to us.
Also, I wasn’t intellectually mature enough to understand what the whole thing was about. What the symbolism truly represented and how the choices made by the developers were unanimously integral to creating a world and a story so tragic, so frightening and so human that even the most jaded of pricks would be moved by it.
The enemies in Silent Hill 2 were created with a thematic purpose; an underlying motive behind their behaviours and superficial characteristics. As humans, we fear greatly what is alien to us. Inadvertently: what is considered alien to us, in fact reflects our subconscious in subtle ways. Disfigurements and warped, exaggerated human forms are what Silent Hill 2’s creatures essentially are. They encapsulate an intrinsically human blend of the tangible and intangible, with microscopic attention to detail in its cerebral imagery.
The creatures are psychological representations of protagonist James’ subconscious. From the faceless nurses with their tumescent breasts and exaggerated curvy forms that represent James’ sexual repression and how he would have viewed the nurses during his wife’s hospitalisation, to the well-known Pyramid Head creature that slightly resembles an executioner and how he sexually tortures other monsters when he’s not toying with James.
Despite the horrific nature of the town’s ‘inhabitants’, it is ultimately the town itself that feels like the real enemy. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation throughout and each disorienting locale feels like a cleverly-designed maze built by Silent Hill to tap into James’ repressed, damning psyche.
James encounters four equally important characters on his journey. There’s Angela: an ostensibly young, socially awkward girl who always looks uncomfortable around James; Eddie: an overweight twenty-something with a lazy eye and repugnant characteristics (the first time you see him, he is vomiting violently into a toilet and rambling about how he shot a dog); Laura: a temperamental, bratty child that has no qualms about vilifying James and his actions, and finally: Maria.
Maria is quite possibly the most important character in the game and certainly the most ambiguous. She resembles James’ late wife Mary, who has been dead for three years. He received a letter from Mary claiming that she’s waiting for him in their ‘special place’ in Silent Hill. His grief is what brings him to Silent Hill, despite the idea of receiving a letter from a dead person being totally preposterous (it’s crazy what love can do). Maria is the exact polygonal structure of Mary and is played by the same voice and motion-capture actress. She’s more sexually alluring and is often quite condescending to James, but can sometimes be sweet and in those moments resembles Mary even more. Her presence is the driving force of the plot and she practically strips James down to his core; revealing his idiosyncrasies, his motivations and the conflicting emotions that plague his mind (so elegantly portrayed by the game’s horrific imagery and symbolism).
No game is without a polished sound design and Silent Hill 2 is an example of perfection (no hyperbole here). Akira Yamaoka (the series’ ex-composer) understood the importance of melody, nuance and indeed, silence when painting a picture of horror. His blend of industrial percussion and reverb-drenched blues guitar is ingenious and evocative. From nothing but the echoes of footfall down a dark, narrow corridor in the apartments, to the swing drums and twangy guitar melody in the bowling alley – it all creates a feeling of disconnection between the reality of the town and what James is actually going through.
The environments and the music evoke a sense of time and place: namely nineteen fifties America soaked in horrific dissonance antithetical to that supposed utopia. It was presumably a tranquil and beautiful town decades earlier and we get to taste that in the soundtrack and the simplistic, modest architecture that the town is rife with.
Unfortunately, the series’ popularity unceremoniously dissolved with the split of Team Silent and given Konami’s bullshit business practices of late, the future looks grim for Silent Hill. However, Silent Hill 2 will go down in history as one of the greatest examples of horror storytelling in video games and entertainment in general. It is and always will be my go-to game for intense psychological terror and an immensely tragic love story.
This is only scratching the surface of what Silent Hill 2 really means to people: it has a huge cult following and the fans can talk about the game for hours on end; weaving a web of archives and discussion forums that keep this ship afloat.
It’s an obsession, and one I can definitely identify with.
Written by Conor Amos
Pictures by Mark Tonkin