Fifteen years ago today, Konami released Silent Hill 2 in the United States. Hailed as one of the greatest sequels AND as having one of the greatest stories in video game history, Silent Hill 2 is one of those rare games that transcends simple entertainment and instead becomes an experience, one that stays with us for years.
I remember buying the game the day it came out. I had it pre-ordered months in advance because my excitement was nigh well unbearable, so picking it up on opening day was not an option, it was a necessity. I rushed home and, after doing my homework (I was still in high school at the time), I dove into the game, eager to once again enter the town that gave me so many nightmares just a few years prior.
To celebrate its anniversary, I wanted to revisit the game, which still has enormous meaning for me. It’s a way to pay homage and respect to a title that has influenced countless titles since its release. Join me as we venture back into Silent Hill.
What set apart Silent Hill 2 for me was the length of the introduction. Most games throw you into the mix nearly straight away. Within moments of the train stopping in Final Fantasy VII, you’re in a battle. Leaving to the left or the right of the town of Jova in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest also puts you right into the fray. But not Silent Hill 2.
Instead, the game begins with an almost picturesque view of Toluca Lake and the woods that surround it. A thin fog hovers over the air, but there isn’t enough to obscure your view. It’s ghostlike, wispy tendrils blurring the air ever so slightly.
James Sunderland, after facing his reflection in the mirror of a roadside bathroom, stands at the railing of the rest stop, looking out over the lake and coming to terms with his mission. He has received a letter from Mary, his wife who died three years prior, and he needs to know how…and why. Steeling himself, he descends the stairs and follows the path from the rest stop that leads into Silent Hill.
Now, normally a game would put in a cutscene that would show him walking a bit and then ending up in the town. But that didn’t happen here as the player has to go with James along this path, which takes several real time minutes, hearing the strange noises that are coming from the woods around him. And as we journey further, the fog gets thicker and more impenetrable, as though James is entering a different world, one that seeks both to dissuade him from taking another step forward as well as welcome him, wrapping him in a gray blanket of fog.
James’ story forward is one of struggle, pain, loss, grief, and facing wounds that had seemingly healed but reopen all too easily. We share in his emotions because not only do we control him, we are ever aware of the pains and struggles he is going through, as evidenced by the letter he constantly carries with him, which can never be dropped and is, in fact, integral for some of the various endings the game offers.
As the revelations arrive towards the end of the game, we, the player, find ourselves in a tough position with James. Can we empathize with this character, especially after what he’s done?
Entering Silent Hill, we are not given direction or guidance. It is up to us, the players, the figure out our path to continue the journey of finding Mary. This freedom is both liberating and daunting. After all, how does one find what they need when they have to look across an entire town?
This encouragement of exploration continued the tradition of the first game and made the player feel like they were much like James, lost in the story and, just as James expressed in the beginning of the game, uncertain of where in the town to go.
The town felt fully realized and fleshed out. From the bowling alley to the gas station to the historical society to the hospital, Silent Hill was a real town that would’ve held real people. The sense of familiarity that I mentioned previously was aided by this attention to detail. These are places we would go to in our own real life, so seeing them here jogs memories of our own experiences, subtly connecting us.
When I heard of the first Silent Hill, it was described as “‘Resident Evil’ but with less bullets.” It’s not wrong but it certainly doesn’t capture the nuance of what the game offers. The way I’ve always described it is, “If ‘Resident Evil’ were to ‘Aliens’ then ‘Silent Hill’ would be to ‘The Shining’.”
One of the biggest draws of the Silent Hill games is their ability to create an atmosphere that is palpable. It feels different from all other games before and after it. The reason is because, for as terrifying and uncertain as the game is, there is a beauty, an aching yearning that rests at the foundation. The town is a source of temptation and part of its seduction technique is to use nostalgia, familiarity, and beauty amidst its gritty filth.
Much of this can be ascribed to the music of composer Akira Yamaoka, whose notes hover and tremble, much like the fog that has blanketed this town.
Whereas the music for Silent Hill focused far more on industrial noises and sounds that make your teeth itch, Silent Hill 2 ventured into a different yet equally appropriate direction. Embracing ambience and beauty, Yamaoka wrote a spellbinding series of tracks that never strayed from his first OST yet evolved it, much the same as how the game evolved from Playstation 1 capabilities into the far more powerful Playstation 2. Tracks like “White Noiz” and “Noone Love You” are prime examples of pieces that are heart-achingly beautiful yet also harbor something sinister.
“Fermata in Mistic Air” is another piece that almost hurts to listen to. You can hear the desperation and pain, the horror of everything that Silent Hill embodies expressed in this one piece. There might not be another track that so wonderfully represents what the series has to offer.
I’ve made it clear over the years just how much I love the music of the Silent Hill games and this soundtrack, depending on the day, ranks as my favorite.
When one thinks about it, the Silent Hill games may have more enemies than Resident Evil. After all, when you clear an area in any of the RE games, the zombies usually don’t return. Not so in the Silent Hill series, at least in the town itself. The amount of enemies never seems to drop, the body count rising with each enemy fallen. This alone is horrifying in that we can never feel safe, we can never feel some sense of security. Yes, we can clear a building of every enemy within but that doesn’t change the fact that the outside harbors an endless amount of terrifying denizens.
While in Silent Hill 1 the enemies were reflections of Alessa and her fears, Silent Hill 2‘s enemies are reflections of James and his guilt, with the exception of the “Abstract Daddy”, which is a manifestation of Angela’s nightmares of the rapes she endured at the hands of her father and brother. The nurses and mannequins are strangely erotic, their bodies a representation of James’ repressed sexual frustrations and fantasies.
One of the most iconic characters not just in the game but now in the series, Pyramid Head’s first appearance in the apartment building is masterfully crafted. He just stands there, seemingly bathed in a red light, unmoving yet imposing, his body covered in blood stains. Seeing him for the first time, I felt genuine fear. I knew that this entity was something different from all the other enemies, those who pursued and attacked with seemingly mindless abandon. This was a calculating vision, one that would pursue me relentlessly yet intelligently, determined to strike James right where it hurt the most. There’s a reason Pyramid Head has gone on to become a video game icon and it’s not just his design.
When I bought Silent Hill 2, I expected to be scared, to see some incredible, macabre visuals, to hear some wonderful music, and to have a damn good time. What I didn’t expect was to experience a story that was so nuanced, so brilliantly thought out, that it would forever change my view of how games were approached.
Silent Hill 2 proved that games could transcend the misconception of being a “simple form of entertainment”. It elevated the medium to a level that demanded respect and appreciation. There’s a reason it’s one of my favorite games of all time and will forever be so. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hook up my PS2 and give it a playthrough.