Written by Vikki Blake, @_vixx
There’s a reason why we still bang on about Silent Hill 2.
Almost fifteen years have passed since we first stepped into James Sunderland’s heavy footsteps and peered at that bloodstain through the fog, and we’re still obsessing over the intricacies of his journey, as though deconstructing the individual parts of this game might offer up the secrets of its oh-so-terrifying alchemy.
For many (unashamedly, myself included) Silent Hill 2 remains the crowning achievement of the Silent Hill series. Reknown for it’s hitherto unique approach to survival horror – so at odds with Resident Evil’s combat-heavy blueprint – it was Silent Hill 2 that picked up the legacy set by the series’ disturbing first title, and birthed one of horror gaming’s most darkly disquieting offerings.
The thing with Silent Hill 2 is, it crawls beneath your skin.
And you don’t even know it’s doing it.
Silent Hill 2 is conscious and calculated, every sound, creature and set-piece carefully sculpted for maximum impact with a subtlety that almost borders on indolence. Horrifying silhouettes shudder through the fog, sitting against the background of everyday Americana – abandoned cars, apartment laundry rooms, hospital beds, a hotel reception desk. The scream of the mannequins when they’re struck – the screech of lying figures as they crawl frantically across dilapidated hospital tiles. Each disquieting encounter builds on the last, conspiratorially collaborative, until you’re standing in a derelict corridor and you realise that you’re too freaked out to open the door before you.
In actuality, beyond the story and cinematics, Silent Hill 2 is a chiefly unremarkable game. Combat is nothing special (and at worst, kind of clumsy), but neither is your arsenal. Weapons are collated as you move from environment to environment, with ammo and health drinks plentiful enough to keep you truckin’ even if your aim is a little shaky (and we understand if it is). The puzzles – though less plentiful than those in the preceding game – are creative and poetic, but they too are nothing compared to the game’s dazzling conceptual design and astonishing tale of love, loss and denial.
It’s these aspects that have kept the infamously vocal fan community committed. Even now – thirteen years later – new discoveries are still being made, small details that throw further light – or controversy – on the conception of one of gaming’s most terrifying creature collective … particularly when the credits roll, and the true meaning of the deserted town’s motifs become clear.
What Silent Hill 2 puts first is the story. The scant cast – your protagonist, a child, a troubled young man and a ghostly doppelganger – are all that’s needed to deliver this dark, desperate story of love, loss and punishment.
The intrinsic link between pain and pleasure, love and guilt? Silent Hill 2 wasn’t scared to explore what was, until then, gaming’s taboo subjects. And while the words Silent Hill now seem synonymous with graphic scenes and highly sexualised imagery, beneath this beats the pulse of breathtaking artistry. Woven between the rusty pipes and steel grating is creature and environmental design so complex that fans still debate today as they continue to hypothesis symbolism.
If nothing else, the room where you tackle Angela’s ultimate nightmare as a brief but disturbing boss fight will stay with you long after the credits roll.
But Silent Hill has never simply offered a visual encounter. Lauded for it’s melancholic music and soaring melodies (how many of us have idled on Silent Hill 2’s title screen purely to listen to the music?), the sound effects play as important a role as the visuals in maintaining mood and heightening tension. But whilst the sounds around you – some on-screen, many others just out of sight – are disquieting, the pregnant, omnipotent silence is somehow so much worse.
The temptation is to assume that Silent Hill 2’s lasting appeal exists only through the subtle exoneration of rose-tinted nostalgia. But the truth is, if Silent Hill 2 hit consoles today – even without so much as a single buffered pixel – we’d still cherish it, some of us no doubt still unsure why this tragic tale intrigues us so.
You may come for Silent Hill 2’s unique take on survival horror, but you’ll stay for the narrative. The creature design. Those beaten, broken environments and dizzying story twists.
Unless it’s on the Silent Hill Collection, of course. Bloody hell, that thing was a travesty.
The Final Word: Whilst Silent Hill 2 might not be the world’s most challenging combat title, what it did offered was one of the industry’s very first Grown Up experiences, a game stuffed with grotesquely gorgeous symbolism, where pathos and pain weave seamlessly through an expertly executed tale.
Pushing gaming narrative to its very limits – and turning an entire genre on its head – it’s little wonder that, for many, Silent Hill 2 is as flawless a horror experience as you can get.