Silent Hill 2 Review
A malignant curse. A deceased wife. An esoteric letter. A nebulous town. One distraught man. The undertaking begins in a dark restroom, our supposed hero, James Sunderland, staring into a mirror. Immediately, the game has the protagonist confronting himself face to face; and subsequently daring the player to walk out the door into the haunted unknown, heedless of the grief-invested circumstances with which James is soon to be forced to confront.
Predominantly a concentrated portrait of grief and guilt and their effects on psychosis, Silent Hill 2 positions the player in the role of the forgivable villain — a carefully crafted twist on storytelling tropes one may not even consider until the final acts, but nonetheless is consistently insinuated throughout the game. As the player first proceeds down the long and winding path toward Silent Hill, towards the answers James so fervently seeks, paranoia abounds through the wooded trail where the only sounds are the haunted wind and unsettling creaks and whistles closely following in pursuit. Here the game is allowing the protagonist to ponder the necessity for continuance, and enlightens the player with its subtle commentary regarding the powerful allure of mystique.
Despite the general sense of unease and questionable isolation, we continue forthwith into the capricious uncharted waters. “I guess I really don’t care if it’s dangerous or not,” our determined protagonist proclaims to Angela, another troubled soul whom we meet, on her own personal voyage to the titular town, for reasons entirely unrelated to those of James. Here it is directly initiated the fact that James and the player are not one and the same, regardless of how so donned an everyman he primarily appears to be. James is a complex individual with a specific background of morally-conflicted circumstances which he and the player will be driven to address by story’s conclusion.
Finally, upon arrival to the eerie town, little introduction is initiated, and James is left to wander almost aimlessly among the abandoned streets. Gates, fences, and even demolished roadways limit the extent to which we are free to explore; and it is not until a vague glimpse at something inhuman when we are at once given an ambiguous task to investigate — one appropriately brought upon by further curiosity spawned in both James and the player. A bloody trail leads us to the next peculiar quandary, and this becomes a common progressional motif, the game figuratively holding a string to the player’s nose to lead them down a path of unconscious wonder and mystery, constantly plodding our interests with the vague promise of answered questions.
But answers are never prominent throughout Silent Hill 2. The enshrouding fog enveloping James and the town of Silent Hill keeps us from ever maintaining a clear sight of the bigger picture. As James’s psychosis blocks out the horrors and guilt he suffers from, so too does the titular town itself disallow James from fully accepting the immoral crimes he hath done wrought. Denial blinds mankind from the horrific truths defining their subconscious desires.
Furthermore, the disturbing truths to the matter of James’s late wife abound through enigmatic depictions infesting the scenes. Enemy designs portray the man’s sexual frustration; their violent actions towards him and his subsequent combative reactions speak volumes in regards to the afflicting psychological torment brought upon by his established guilt.
Puzzle design functions as a representation of overcoming mental obstacles, seemingly set to obstruct a path towards self-enlightenment. Unlocking the multiple bolts latching shut a peculiar box after searching restlessly for the separated keys is representative of tying the loose ends together of a certain history of setting; the different rooms housing the keys functioning as clues to a greater mystery surrounding the building and its associations with a guilty conscience. The multiple environments’ historical significance in accordance to the actual town (the murderous lunatics locked away in the hospital; the wicked death sentence practices performed in the Historical Society; the promiscuous acts hinted at in the apartment building; etc.) weave together as a tapestry of criminal and sinister behavior, which has profusely coddled any signs of tranquility and ease that may still remain.
Whereas the inexplicable use of canned juice to unclog a garbage chute and obtain a key puzzle item — as well as an insight into the town’s lore by way of ancient newspaper article — brings relatively normal, everyday functionality into the guise of the perverse and enigmatic, reminding James of the guilt which would so cloud his mind whenever disregarding the sanctity of his marriage in favor of carnal satisfaction. One can imagine him stopping by the garbage chute late at night, alone in the dark room, left to contemplate his selfish actions in this private apartment building, nary a virtuous soul in sight. Puzzle design then adds a deeper level of understanding to both the psychological devastation James is experiencing through reminders of his past, as well as the historical transgressions plaguing the town itself.
Now, many critics claim that the game’s combat functionality has aged considerably in the years since release; that the awkward gestures of James and the lack of ease in access to fighting the various monsters breaks the haunting immersion, garnering frustration. But it is this very concept of limiting accessibility, of deliberately creating uncomfortable situations involving combat, which are pivotal to driving forth the ideas involving a stranger in a strange land caught up in dangerous situations where he is overwhelmed and inexperienced. James is very much an everyman in physique and movement; he is also confronting psychological demons so clouding his judgement and moral well-being. The delicate gameplay therefore indicates his internal struggle through external situations, much as the entire setting functions as a physical manifestation of his tormented psyche. Each enemy becomes a mental obstacle in and of themselves to be overcome. Therefore, to allow the player any ease when dealing with these monstrosities would inappropriately disengage them from that very crucial concept.
Silent Hill is not only home to James’s personal horrors — at least, in theory. The cast of increasingly-intriguing characters which he meets throughout his own journey indicates a blurred line, separating the procured manifestations of torment, each fueling the nightmare locale like a system of arteries. A sort of purgatory for unrepentant invalids stricken with self-denial, the town serves as a basis for reaching self-discovery, a trivial means of learning to accept through a process of wicked examination and bewitched mental confrontation. As a result, its appearance is redefined in direct proportionality aligned with the specific individual’s psychological state. Their memories, their greatest fears, their internal longings: all of these manifest into the haunting, twisted apparitional figures which stalk the streets, reshaping the town itself into a complex symbolic interpretation of their own psychological torment; visible to that individual in particular and them alone.
James is uniquely haunted by figments of insatiable lust; Angela by traumatic memories involving her sexually-abusive father; the ravenous Eddie by his ever-increasing level of murderous hatred, spawned by a history of constant, direct verbal abuse. On the other hand, Maria exists as a product of James’s psyche — a parallel to his late wife, fashioned instead as the stimulating seductress he so deeply desires; and young Laura, having yet so far as to experience any harrowing circumstances herself in her relatively short lifespan, sees Silent Hill as a relatively familiar old town, innocent of any horrors which so plague the rest of the cast.
Silent Hill 2 is more than just a brilliant horror title. The game is at once a deeply-intricate character study, brimming with symbolic motifs and introspection into the delicate folds and cranks which so operate the human mind and its emotions. It is a deceptive work of precise craftwork, where every seemingly-miniscule detail rallies forth even further instigation and necessary thematic ponderings. Grey, enigmatic, and boldly-innovative in its approach to game design, it forges a timeless legacy epitomizing the radical, artistic integrity of its entire medium, an honorable example of the significant strides towards a reputable future for video games as an evolving, directly-communicable industry.
But to plunge into the depths of this masterpiece is to personally scavenge the deeper turmoils of one’s own subconscious. The game wants the player to experience grief of their own, to lament over the tragedies which befuddle their own mind. “Don’t get so holy on me, James,” a manic Eddie cries out in a fit of bottled-up rage finally let loose. “This town called you, too. You and me are the same. We’re not like other people. Don’t you know that?” However, they are like ‘other people,’ for everyone has regrets and shameful experiences to ponder over. Silent Hill is home to many ghosts, many monsters — “How can you sit there and eat pizza!” — but Silent Hill is predominantly filled with human beings. Organic tissue composes the town, with everlasting repentance serving as blood, psychological insight functioning as eyes, weary souls connected through a dreadful spirit….