Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 3

Episode 3 is up! I’m planning to step up the pace on these massively, far beyond the one-dropping-per-month rate I’ve been going at so far. Hoping to get 3 more posted by the end of the year. Script below the jump.

This is an appreciation of Silent Hill 2. It’s the third part in an ongoing series I’m doing on horror games, although it’s not necessary to view the first two before this. This is just a stand-alone appreciation of a great game, taking a look at what makes it great.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever get a horror game as good as Silent Hill 2, or if the genre peaked seventeen years ago. As a point of pedantry, there have been games released in that time that I think are scarier than Silent Hill 2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a master class in level design, sound design, and pacing enemy encounters so as to maximize a sense of dread. And I have to admit that even Slender: The Eight Pages, as rudimentary as it is, is really good at inspiring suffocating terror through a few well-used tricks. But although there are a handful of games I’d characterize as “scarier” than Silent Hill 2, I don’t think they’re better, in a categorical sense. Silent Hill 2 has a thematic coherence that these later games lack, wherein art direction and level design are ultimately revealed to be tightly interconnected with disturbing late-game reveals about character motivation. It’s this type of thematic richness that I still think remains unsurpassed—and to this day stands as an anomaly even within its parent series.

Silent Hill 1, 3, and Origins establish a rather elaborate lore regarding the town of Silent Hill, Maine. When European settlers arrived in the area and drove off its original Native inhabitants, they discovered that the area was the home to ancient, mysterious supernatural entities. A small segment of these original settlers stopped practicing Christianity, and formed a cult that worshiped these entities, giving them a Judeo-Christian paint job by referring to them by angelic names pulled from the deep back catalogue of Talmudic lore, such as Metatron and Samael. Samael, in particular, was revered by the cultists as a goddess, and they set out to resurrect her physical form. Since these spirits feed on pain and suffering, this resurrection required physically and psychologically torturing a young girl, Alessa Gillespie, to get her to the point where she would be able to physically give birth to the goddess. The cult’s actions backfired: Alessa was instead given the power to re-shape the town into a physical manifestation of her psychic wounds, trapping the cult members, including her mother, in a shifting array of alternate realities.

She also somehow split into two people? And then they fuse together at the end of the first game to become a third person? Maybe? This is all very confusing. Especially as it’s presented in the first game, which back-loads a tremendous amount of exposition, and dumps it on you in cutscenes that are as incomprehensibly written as they are minimally animated.

Thankfully, Silent Hill 2 doesn’t expect you to know or care about any of this lore. It tells a stand-alone story. It borrows the basic setting of the other games, but all we really need to know about Silent Hill is that it’s a place of supernatural power, where reality—or at least, one’s perception of reality—is shaped by psychic turmoil, and emotions are manifested as multi-layered nightmare dimensions.

For this stand-alone story, Silent Hill 2 focuses on a new character, James Sunderland, who is returning to the town of Silent Hill because he received a letter from his dead wife. (“I got a letter. The name on the envelope said Mary.”) A normal person, upon receiving such a letter, might suspect that they’re being scammed, or blackmailed. But James takes the letter at face value, and shows up to meet his dead wife at this resort town that they used to love going to.

The only thing that makes this only slightly believable is that James seems like, well, a dullard. (“Didn’t you say she died?” “Oh, yeah, three years ago. But I got a letter from her!”) He’s hardly alone in this regard, as several of the people that he meets in and around the town seem like dullards, as well. (“I’m kind of lost.” “LOST!?!?!?”) Their dialogue is always weirdly paced, filled with odd non-sequiturs. Part of this can be attributed to dodgy translation and the hiring of inexperienced voice actors. But part of it is deliberate. As we’ll learn by the end of the game, James isn’t entirely a dullard. At least part of his apparent slowness comes from the fact that he’s just a few steps shy of being catatonic. He’s suffering from immense guilt related to a recent trauma, and to deal with it he has retreated into a fantasy world of selective amnesia. And this is even before he ends up in a haunted town that physically manifests psychic trauma!

This is also true of two of the game’s other characters, Angela and Eddie—which goes a long way to explaining why James’ conversations with them are so especially disjointed. All three of these characters have been drawn to the town of Silent Hill due to what might be best characterized as a dissociative fugue, in which a need to escape past events have left them with incomplete memories and obsessive behaviors. (“You’re the same as me. It’s easier just to run.”) Although the surrounding games make it clear that the town Silent Hill in fact holds supernatural powers, in this game it acts primarily as an amplifier, cranking up already-extant anxieties and disorders. In fact, if one wanted to stretch the game’s stand-alone status to its limit, I think you could make the case that the game includes no supernatural horror at all: instead, James’ entire trip through the town is just an extended metaphor for guilt and emotional trauma.

And this ability of Silent Hill 2, to simultaneously act as supernatural horror story and as extended metaphor, is precisely what makes it great.

Beginning at the ending

Spoiler warning for a game that’s 17 years old, but in order to adequately discuss the thematic construction of the game, I’m going to have to talk about what it eventually reveals about James. Throughout most of the game, James keeps insisting that his wife contracted an unnamed fatal disease, and, after wasting away awhile, died from it. (“You said your wife Mary was dead, right?” “Yes. She was ill.”) This isn’t true. (“Liar!”) At the game’s emotional climax, James stops lying to himself, and admits the truth: he killed his wife. (“She … she died ’cause she was sick?” “No. I killed her.”)

The circumstances surrounding this killing are complicated. It was, at least in part, an assisted suicide. After three years of suffering, Mary was incapacitated, and in pain. Rather than wait for the disease to run its course, she asked James to help end her life, and he obliged. It’s not shown explicitly, but from the smudged and distorted images we see it looks like he smothered her with a pillow.

So, depending on one’s feelings on assisted suicide, it’s possible to argue that although James killed Mary, he didn’t “murder” her—he just respected her end-of-life wishes. Still, though, even these mitigating circumstances don’t leave James off the hook. In truth, getting Mary out of the picture was a relief. He had grown resentful of her over the course of the illness, gotten tired of spending all of his time in the hospital, and grown restless in his years of sexual frustration. (“You didn’t want her around anymore! You probably found someone else!”) Putting Mary out of her misery wasn’t a selfless act that left him emotionally devastated. It was a selfish act, that he participated in eagerly, because it solved his problems.

Silent Hill 2 has multiple endings, ranging from relatively good to outright horrible, with James’ ultimate confrontation of his demons taking different forms, and producing different outcomes. But one really smart move on the part of these endings is that they don’t contradict each other about James’ past. The ending that most emphasizes James’ monstrousness still contains within it an acknowledgement that Mary wanted to euthanize herself. (“You killed me.” “I couldn’t watch you suffer!”) Meanwhile, the “best” ending, which most heavily emphasizes Mary’s forgiveness of her husband, still has James forthrightly acknowledging that he had selfish motivations for following through on her wishes. (“The truth is, I hated you. I wanted you out of the way. I wanted my life back.”)

The human psyche is a complicated thing, and James will never be able to remove all ambiguity about his motivations. He’s never going to be able to definitively say that Mary’s desire to die was his reason for doing what he did, and not just a convenient rationalization. In the end, this isn’t an either/or thing. James is always going to bear the burden of guilt for his actions, and their motivations—and that’s probably a good thing. Taking someone’s life, even in an act of mercy, is not an act that should be taken lightly. (“I killed a human being!”) The relative “goodness” or “badness” of the game’s endings mainly stem from how productively James deals with this guilt. (“Do you really think I could ever forgive you for what you did?!”)

Geographies of guilt

Once the full extent of James’ character is revealed, the metaphorical elements of the game start to click into place. I’ll start by looking at the game’s locations, and basic geography.

Over the course of the game, James has two main spatial goals. When he first arrives in Silent Hill, he’s looking for Mary, who says she’ll meet him at their “special place.” His first guess as to where this might be is Rosewater Park. When Mary’s not there, he heads to the Lakeview Hotel instead. These two locations dictate the basic outline of James’ path through the town; their significance is made obvious through their connection to Mary.

This being a videogame, however, James hits a number of obstacles in his journey, and needs to take a circuitous path to these goals. This leads him through three other locations: a pair of residential apartments, the Brookhaven mental hospital, and the building of a historical society that transforms into a prison.

The significance of these locations is less immediately obvious, but I nevertheless think that they’re well-chosen. Well, maybe not the apartment complexes, which form the first area we explore. I guess if you stretch things you could make the case that they manifest the sense of domestic normalcy that was upended once Mary got sick. But that’s kind of a stretch. They don’t seem that significant.

The Toluca Prison is much easier to pin down, metaphorically. James’ dissociative fugue has left him with amnesia about the very act he needs to repent for. The prison represents the guilt that he’s buried within himself, a deep and denied need to serve penance for the selfishness of the killing of Mary. It is significant, too, that James enters the prison through a crack in the wall at the town’s Historical Society. In order to offer penance for his crimes, he will first need to face his past, to stop protecting himself from his own memories.

The Brookhaven Hospital works on a metaphorical level, as well. This location later re-appears in Silent Hill 3, where unfortunately it becomes just sort of your boilerplate horror-themed mental hospital, cluttered with creepy notes about eating people’s faces. Its inclusion in Silent Hill 2, though, is more thematically appropriate. James is suffering from self-imposed amnesia, as a way of coping with a past emotional trauma. Honestly, he could probably use some time in intense psychiatric care.

In fact, this brushes upon an interesting aspect of the game’s depiction of the town of Silent Hill. The town’s various appearances are all nightmarish, to the point of being outright dangerous. The monsters that populate it can legitimately injure James, and even kill him, if the player doesn’t keep up with healing. But whether or not the town is actively malevolent is, I think, open for discussion. As dangerous and nasty as it is, Silent Hill also serves a therapeutic function. In externalizing inner psychic turmoil, it gives its visitors a way to literally fight their demons. If you get through the ordeal alive, you’ll arguably come out a better person on the other side. Neither Angela nor Eddie accomplish this feat, but in the game’s best ending, James seems to succeed at it, sufficiently paying penance for his sins, and accepting forgiveness from Mary.

If we were to connect this to the more lore-heavy entries in the series, we can maybe venture a guess as to why the spirits of Silent Hill were worshiped by the cultists. They deal in pain, yes. But if you face them with courage and introspection, it can be a productive and purifying type of pain.

The best way to characterize James’ trip through Silent Hill is as a kind of pilgrimage. It’s a trip into Hell, but, much like Dante’s trip through Inferno and Purgatorio, it’s one with a redemptive purpose. And much as in The Divine Comedy, this pilgrimage has a clear geographical logic. The end of the first Silent Hill was set in a place called “nowhere,” an impossible space that used the loads between doors to flagrantly flout the rules of Euclidian geometry. Silent Hill 2 plays some similar tricks in the Lakeview Hotel … but through most of the game’s running time, it steers clear of such flagrant spatial impossibilities in favor of more subtle ones. Chief among these is the fact that James’ journey, much like Dante’s in the Inferno, moves in an almost continuously downward direction, far beyond what should be physically possible.

James’ initial entrance into the town takes the form of a long descent down a forest road (hmm, you might say that he finds himself within a forest dark…) as strange animal growling gradually grows more frequent. The entire sequence is painfully slow, taking up entire minutes if you walk, rather than run. (which I always do, whenever I play, since it does such a better job of slowly building dread.) And it’s just the first of what will ultimately be several slow sequences, including the entrance to Toluca Prison from the Historical Society, which finds James going down, oh, I don’t know, like, 100 steps as a fog-horn like drone plays, becoming more and more frequent as he reaches the bottom. And that’s only the beginning of his downward trajectory while in the prison. By the time that level is over, he will have jumped into a grand total of five holes, each of which is too deep for him to see the bottom of. Then he’ll descend nineteen more stories in an elevator. Then he’ll jump into an open grave. And then, miraculously, even though it seems like he should be approaching the center of the earth, he’ll exit the level around sea level. Details like this make it clear that we’re supposed to understand the town of Silent Hill as a psychic space, more so than a literal physical one.

This logic extends to the game’s puzzles. Survival horror evolved out of the adventure game genre, which means that puzzles have long been baked into its DNA. But they can really erode suspension of disbelief, especially when it comes to the designing of spaces. I mean, in Resident Evil, are we really supposed to accept that the Umbrella gardeners needed to collect five crests every time they wanted to get a bag of fertilizer from the garage? And that, in their daily commute, lab employees, needed to wander through a subterranean tunnel system infested with snakes and Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-style rolling bolder traps, then collect the Wolf and Eagle medals to drain the pool, all just to get to work? Because that seems to be the only way to get to the lab. How does anyone work here?

Silent Hill 2 solves this puzzle problem. This isn’t a literal space. It’s a psychic one. James is being tested by some sort of infernal intelligence that has set up this world as a puzzle box specifically for him, as a way of forcing him to confront his guilt. It helps that a lot of the game’s puzzles have elements that specifically relate to crime and punishment. It also helps that the notes that accompany puzzle components occasionally explicitly frame them as trials, as ordeals that James must face as he dives deeper into the horrible truth at the source of his trauma.

The five people you meet in hell

James is not alone in the game, so along with the game’s spatial layout, I also want to touch on its characters. Since the town of Silent Hill is presented as a psychic landscape, it’s sometimes difficult to determine which of these characters are “real,” and which are projections. I’m confident that James, Angela, and Eddie are real. All three of them are “pilgrims,” so to speak, that have been simultaneously drawn to Silent Hill so that the town can feed off of their personal demons. They’re there to be punished, basically, although if things go well for them, they will be able to atone for their past sins.

The game consistently implies that these three are real people, undergoing a trial—especially in the prison area of the game. Here, you see a gallows with three nooses, and later see three fresh graves. You also get three tablets for use in a puzzle, each of which represents one of these characters.

Eddie is represented by the tablet “The Gluttonous Pig.” This is kind of odd. Eddie’s most serious sin is not that of gluttony, but of wrath. His real problem is not that he’s fat, but that he can’t deal with the bullying he has been subjected to, and has nursed a growing murderous rage. (“He always busted my balls: ‘You fat, disgusting piece of shit!'”) The name of the tablet makes more sense if you think of it not as representing Eddie’s sin not as objectively considered, but instead his internalized view of himself. He has been picked on by others for years, and so his sense of self-loathing takes the form of self-consciousness about his appearance.

This same principle holds true of Angela, in a horrific and tragic way. Angela’s tablet is that of “The Seductress,” which again doesn’t seem to fit. The game isn’t explicit about what Angela’s crime was, but it’s obliquely insinuated that she killed her father. (“No, Daddy, please don’t!”) What is made clear—or, at least as clear as the ratings board would allow–is that Angela’s father sexually abused her. (“You’re only after one thing!” “No, that’s not true at all.” “You don’t have to lie. Go ahead and say it. Or, you could just force me. Beat me up, like he always did.”) Furthermore, when confronted with this fact, Angela’s mother sided with her abuser, victim-blaming and slut-shaming of her own daughter. (“Even Mama said it: I deserved what happened.”) Angela is not guilty of being a seductress. But in her emotionally broken state, after years of abuse by her father and gaslighting by her mother, she has come to believe that she is.

If we understand these tablets to be naming not what the characters are actually guilty of, but instead the toxic ideas about themselves they’ve internalized, then James’ tablet of “The Oppressor” sheds some additional light on his psychology. The obvious connection here is to his relationship with Mary: James is afraid that he ended Mary’s life thanks to his own selfish whims. Sure, he tells himself that Mary wanted to die. But isn’t that what abusers always say? “You asked for this.” “You’re only doing this to yourself.” And, honestly, in those moments when James snaps out of being a dullard, he shows himself to be somewhat controlling and mean. While Mary was sick, Laura apparently witnessed some of James’ interactions with Mary, and didn’t like how he treated her. And, honestly, given how James sometimes treats Laura, perhaps she wasn’t wrong. (“You liar!”) The version of James we see in the game is hollowed out and empty, sleepwalking through a dissociative fugue episode. But this tablet indicates that James fears that he was abusive toward Mary. And, all things considered, there’s reason to suspect that he might not be entirely off in that assessment.

Speaking of Laura, I’m also willing to venture that she is a real person. But she’s not one of the pilgrims undergoing one of the town’s trials. She’s definitely present in the town as part of Silent Hill’s machinations against James, but I think she exists independently of it. She doesn’t seem to perceive the town in the same way others do, but the game is really coy on how, exactly she does perceive it. (“What’s a little girl like you doing here, anyway?” “Huh? Are you blind or something?”)

Someone who is definitely not real is Maria, a sexy variant of Mary who James first meets at Rosewater Park, when Mary fails to show. She follows James around for awhile, during which her personality shifts. First, she’s casual and flirty, seemingly teaming up with him on a whim. (“You’re coming with me?”) Later, she becomes increasingly needy, accusing James of not protecting her. (“Why didn’t you try to save me? All you care about is that dead wife of yours!”) And then, finally, she begins to absorb some of Mary’s memories, referring back to things she couldn’t possibly have experienced. (“Remember that time in the hotel? You said you took everything. But you forgot that videotape we made.”)

She also had a bad habit of being horrifically murdered, and then later showing up again, with no memory of the event. (“Maria!”) This last detail indicates that she’s a manifestation of James’ guilt—both his guilt over what he did to Mary, and his guilt over the frustrated sexual desires that limited his ability to care for her, and then clouded his judgement when it came to mercy-killing her. She shares a good deal of thematic overlap with the game’s standard enemies, in this regard. The nurses, for instance, represent the quite literal nurses that were catching James’ eye as he was waiting for his wife to slowly die.

Then there’s Pyramid Head, one of the most enduring bits of visual design from the franchise. Clues around town indicate that he’s a manifestation of the town’s ancient spirits, a sort of embodiment of judgement that shows up to punish those with guilty consciences. Even James, who is quite slow to catch on to things, realizes by the end that Pyramid Head and Maria are working as a team: that he in some sense summoned them to re-play his trauma and finally get him to confront his guilt. (“I was weak. That’s why I needed you. Needed someone to punish me for my sins.”)

Odds and Ends

There are so many other things that are audacious and admirable about Silent Hill, that I could go on and gush about at length.

I love its deliberate slowness, the way it marches to its own doom-laden beat.

Each encounter is just so perfectly paced, from the moment you first hear the gross sounds an enemy is making, to the moment your radio picks them up, to the moment you finally see them emerge from the fog, or inky blackness.

The game’s music and sound design are just superb. I’m not really sure where the work of the game’s composer Yamaoka Akira ended, and the work of the game’s sound director Miyazawa Atsumu began. But it’s clear that they are a duo to be reckoned with. Purists may want to fight me on this, but I hold, without apology, that Yamaoka and Miyazawa are two of the most talented artists to ever work within the industrial genre. The noise that fills these games is just repetitive enough to sound rhythmic, while rarely crossing the line into what normal people would confidently call “music.”

I love that if you try to open up your inventory and read the letter from Mary late in the game, it ends up being just a blank sheet of paper.

Oh, and I love the moment where in order to get on the elevator, you’re forced to give up every single weapon and healing item. You’re terrified of encountering something on the other side, then there aren’t any enemies around. But that’s just to lull you into a false sense of security. Mannequins show up later on, in a really tight hallway, and it’s a great panic-inducing jump scare! And then they spawn again, when you’ve almost back to the point where you can grab your weapons again! Silent Hill: Shattered Memories would later make players go the entire game without weapons, and then Amnesia really perfected combat-free horror. But I still love this moment, because it comes so late in the game, disempowering you after you have spent the game amassing an ever-expanding arsenal.

I could really talk about this game forever, but I have to cut the video off somewhere. So I’m choosing … here. That’s it—thanks for watching! In the next episode, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the limitations and possibilities of player-characters.

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