This article contains spoilers for Silent Hill 2. But seriously, this game has been out for 15 years!
Ask anybody what they truly fear more than anything else in the world, and one of the most honest replies you will receive is “Answering that question.”
Fear is as intimate to humans as sex. It’s something that everyone feels, but most of us work very hard to disguise when in the presence of unfamiliar faces. Fear invades our minds, bodies, and souls when it strikes. To understand an individual’s fear is to have knowledge of the individual. To understand humanity’s fear is to have a great and terrible knowledge of the world.
Video game writer Takayoshi Sato is a man who possesses such knowledge. Is that a bold claim? Very well then. But it’s a claim that requires little justification. After all, Sato is the man who conceived the story of 2001’s Silent Hill 2.
Saito and the members of the Team Silent development team never planned on the original Silent Hill becoming an immediate market success, but when the game achieved that status, it did afford them a great deal of creative freedom when developing the sequel. Right away, Team Silent knew they wanted to use that freedom to create a horror game that emphasized plot. Given that few horror games to this point had attempted to craft a story good enough to be the star of the show, this was considered to be a potentially crippling move for the young franchise.
The dirty secret about Silent Hill 2’s story, though, is that it’s actually more of a supernatural reimagining of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment than a strict work of traditional horror. While Sato certainly looked towards the horror genre for influences when crafting the game’s story, much like Dostoyevsky, he wanted the game’s plot to focus more on the morality of guilt and the consequences of individuality as it relates to justifying selfish actions with the notion that they are performed for the greater good.
Nowhere is that philosophy put to greater use than in the design of Silent Hill 2’s main character, James Sunderland. Unlike Silent Hill‘s protagonist, Harry Mason, who accidentally ended up in the town following a car crash, Sunderland willingly walks into Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife, Mary, claiming that she can be found in the town they used to vacation at.
In any other game (and many other pieces of entertainment, for that matter), this would be your typical “guy rescues the damsel in distress” plot with a supernatural twist. But this story is complicated by the fact that James is a man burdened by tremendous guilt and depression. See, he killed Mary following her years-long bout with an illness that rendered her helpless and forced James to forfeit his own life to become her caretaker. You could conclude that James killed Mary because he was merciful or selfish or both. The first piece of brilliance Silent Hill 2’s story exhibits is that it doesn’t feel the need to tell you which conclusion is correct.
Actually, the plot doesn’t feel the need to tell you much at all. Silent Hill 2 is a rare instance of “show don’t tell” storytelling in gaming. The considerable benefit of this approach is that it allows a writer to eliminate such cumbersome storytelling elements as narration, exposition, and any other tools designed to outline a plot outright. This is why Dark Souls has garnered so much acclaim for the way it crafts its plot through the use of item descriptions and environment clues. The considerable downside to this approach is that, if it’s not used carefully, you run the risk of not having much of a story at all. This is why some felt Destiny initially suffered in the plot department.
Silent Hill 2‘s long-standing position as the bastion of this method of storytelling as it relates to video games can actually be attributed, in part, to those same horror elements that initially caused some to scoff at the notion of a plot-centric genre title. When Silent Hill 2 presents a part of its story that is purposefully ambiguous, our first instinct is to fear the intentions of this thing and understand its motivations later. This is why even those who do not choose to analyze the game’s plot come away speaking of the lingering feeling of terror it instilled in them.
Those who do choose to analyze the plot, however, will find that much of it plays out through symbolism. There is an old religious theory that states that man created Hell in order to satisfy the guilt they felt over their mortal sins, and that theory serves as the basis for nearly everything that occurs in Silent Hill 2. The town of Silent Hill as it is presented in this game is largely a manifestation of the conscious of James Sutherland. In fact, there are really only two characters in the game who are definitely outsiders, with their own lives and stories. There is Eddie, a bullied youth who fled his home after crippling a bully and murdering his dog, and Angela, a young woman who was molested and tormented by her family. For Eddie, Silent Hill is a place where he is constantly mocked. For Angela, it is a world literally on fire that’s trying to tempt her into committing suicide (which is possibly an allusion to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest).
James’ version of Silent Hill, meanwhile, is designed to exploit the guilt he feels over the death of his wife. Disembodied mannequin legs and demonic nurses are there to remind him of the repressed sexual feelings he had when he visited her in the hospital. A woman named Maria, who looks like Jame’s wife, is there to force him to come to terms with the ways he perceived his wife’s personality as well as how others look at the good and bad sides of James. The eight-year-old Laura, meanwhile, represents the innocence James lost. This is why she is typically always physically separated from James and why the two are so hostile towards each other.
The “Devil” of James’ personal Hell is the appropriately titled Pyramid Head. James himself correctly recognizes that this monstrosity exists to fulfill his need to be physically punished, which is why the creature kills itself at the end of the game should James achieve remorse. Though the least subtle of Silent Hill 2’s symbols, Pyramid Head has rightfully become the most iconic member of the Silent Hill franchise due to the fact that its frightening design speaks loudly to a universal sense of horror.
There is another interpretation of these events and characters that suggests they are all manifestations of James’ inner-self. For instance, Eddie represents James hatred towards others while Angela is the embodiment of James’ self-loathing. The intentional ambiguity of the game’s plot makes it so that no theory can ever be ruled out completely, but this interpretation conflicts with several key elements of the story.
For instance, Eddie never once references the monsters in James’ version of Silent Hill despite the fact that they would make for a very convenient cover story when Eddie is accused of being a murderer. Instead, Eddie’s monsters are easily killed, which we know because Eddie frequently boasts about murdering them. Eddie seems to have embraced what Silent Hill has to offer. We even see him scarfing down a pizza at one point. To believe that he represents James’ hatred of others is also to believe that James embraces this hatred mid-way through the game when Eddie goes crazy. It’s possible, but for a game that focuses on confronting one’s demons, we never get any indication that James is able to alter the fates of Eddie and Angela in any way. He tries to help them and even gets momentary glimpses into their worlds, but their fate is their own.
Besides, haven’t we been told that Hell is other people?
The idea that other people have found their way into Silent Hill also helps Silent Hill 2 fit into the series’ greater mythology. Nearly every other Silent Hill game directly deals with an occult element trying to harness the town’s power. Silent Hill 2 makes the occasional reference to the town’s cult and history via in-game items, but it is a far more personal story overall. One of the ways in which this shift in focus makes sense is if you hold to the belief that the cult has little direct control over the town and can only draw from its power. Perhaps Eddie and Angela do have to deal with the cult as they are primarily fueled by hatred and guilt – two qualities the cult understand and can feed off of.
James, however, is primarily deeply depressed. This depression suggests some level of genuine remorse, which is something that Eddie and Angela arguably do not have. What if that remorse puts James beyond the control of the town’s cult? What if he is able to exploit the town’s ability to offer redemption in a way that no other individual in the franchise has been able to do? It’s a fascinating exploration of fear as a healer that few other works of horror have ever dared embark upon.
Silent Hill 2’s most impressive feat isn’t what it reveals about the narrative capabilities of horror, however, but rather what it reveals about the narrative capabilities of gameplay. In many ways, Silent Hill 2’s gameplay is awful. The controls are clunky, the puzzles are obtuse, and the combat feels painfully mechanical. It’s easy to walk away from the game with the impression that Team Silent didn’t want to design gameplay at all.
In reality, Silent Hill 2‘s gameplay is arguably the most crucial component of the game’s plot because of the way the gameplay ultimately determines the story’s ending. Unlike many other games featuring multiple endings that have you make one or two crucial choices that determine the ending, Silent Hill 2 presents you with none. Well…at least not on the surface. Instead, the three main endings of the game (and three bonus endings) are all determined by how you’ve chosen to naturally play the game.
If you exhibit a will to survive and atone for your actions by healing yourself as quickly as possible and always trying to take the high moral road, you receive the “Leave” ending in which James takes Laura away from the town. If you opt to focus on saving Maria through decisions as tiny as re-entering a room multiple times just to see her, you’ll join up with her at the adventure’s conclusion in the “Maria” ending. Finally, if you fail to immediately heal yourself and exhibit other dangerously selfish tendencies, then it’s the “In Water” ending and James’ implied suicide that await you. Interestingly, all three of these options end with a reading of Mary’s final letter as to imply that they are all canonical.
That is Sato and Team Silent’s greatest accomplishment. They crafted a narrative that could theoretically be told through another medium (actually, the novel adaptation is quite excellent), but only works as well as it does because the gameplay allowed players to secretly dictate the story. Above all else, that is why Silent Hill 2 must be considered gaming’s most intelligent story. It’s not just intelligent because of its plot devices and milestone moments. It’s intelligent because it rightfully recognized the unique capabilities of gaming as a storytelling medium and used them to craft a plot that reveals the basic fear of humanity is confronting our fears.