I gave the original Silent Hill a raw deal. Bought on launch day whenever that was in 1999, and – judging by my fairly meagre collection of games for the system – may have the honour of being the last game I ever bought for the original PlayStation. But not only did it take me over 21 years to finally complete, thanks to my recent play-through at the time of writing, I probably got 15 minutes into it first time around! And after that first 15 minutes (which, in my defence, I probably saw several times!), it went into a box with an old Babycham ashtray, some pin-badges from the mid-90’s (including a really nice Alice in Chains one), the first two Resident Evils and some old magazines. And over time, that box moved from my parent’s loft then three different garages until I thought “I wonder what’s in there” and fancied another go in the strange days of summer 2020!
And I feel worse about that than for the first two Resident Evil games, which also got similar treatment until recently, because I can take or leave them and their pre-rendered spooky stylings, but I absolutely adore Silent Hill! Something clicked big-time when I actually gave it a chance, and I properly rinsed it, getting one of the better endings just because I didn’t want to leave that wonderful fog-drenched, blood-drenched horror town.
Actually, as another side note, I’m playing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 on Switch at the moment and I’m having exactly the same feelings there – I’ve now seen the credits three times but there’s one ending I’ve not seen yet, so I’m back in again. And whilst twice in two months might signify some new phase in my middle-aged gaming life, I can’t think of any other games I’ve ever done that with before now!
Back to Silent Hill, and unlike many of the PS1’s 3D vistas, I reckon age works in the original game’s favour too, and all that fog and darkness that was there by design to disguise hardware limitations now combines with the pixellation of decades of screen evolution, and general graphical clunkiness by today’s standards, to create a new contemporary atmosphere all of its own. And for all the fantastic story in the first game, where you’re looking for your missing adopted daughter through exploration and puzzle solving, and for all the literal otherworldliness and gore and monstrosity, and the cults and rituals and symbolism and never-ending nerve-wracking tension, the real star of the show is that atmosphere in that town. Its tourist days might be behind it but I’d still visit!
“The name of that town is Silent Hill. Although it is known as a scenic resort area, it is a cursed place where the town’s former inhabitants were once driven away, brutal executions were once carried out, and a mysterious plague was once prevalent. The town is centered around Toluca Lake, from which a thick fog perpetually enshrouds the area and makes vague the reality and dreams of those who visit the town. And according to those who have seen them, there are also times when “things” that should not naturally exist appear.” Not my words, but a near-enough translation from the Japanese-only Lost Memories: Silent Hill Chronicle that was on the back of their Silent Hill 3 official game guide in 2003.
I still can’t believe quite how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d mostly ignored since 1999. I’ve been back several times since first finishing it, sometimes only to hang around that first 15 minutes or so because there’s something I just find strangely comfortable in Silent Hill, and whenever my mind wanders, it often wanders there! Something definitely came out of Silent Hill with me the first time I left, but of course, we don’t need to leave it there because as you might have worked out by now, it got a sequel (and then some, but maybe let’s not go there…)! And from the minute I saw the credits for the first time, I then spent six weeks being incredibly restrained and incredibly patient on eBay until it appeared at a reasonable price for PlayStation 2!
And when Silent Hill 2 finally arrived I was also left not believing how affected I was in 2020 by this old thing I’d never given the time of day to whatsoever since it first came out at the end of 2001 because it’s the first game cranked up to eleven! But it’s so much more than one louder too, to the point that I’m actually feeling quite intimidated talking about it. Weird, maybe or maybe not… It’s an intimidating and disturbing game way beneath the fog and the sirens and the surface-level horrors, which is something subsequent sequels (and let’s not forget the movies!) seemed to forget from what I can tell. You come out feeling dirty, like you’ve witnessed something you shouldn’t have but didn’t want to stop witnessing, and still don’t even after you’re done. Unless you get the dog ending, and then all bets are off! At this point I’ll state I’m not going to avoid spoilers, and will give my view on what I think I’ve seen, but I’ll also not go out of my way to spoil too many individual plot points here, so you can look that little piece of insanity (and possibly the greatest video game ending of all time) up for yourself. And regardless of the ending you get – and there are several, including some that demand multiple completions on one save – you’re going to come away wondering what it was you’ve just witnessed, and long after the fact maybe looking at things that happened in a different lights. But even right after the fact, as soon as you get back to the title screen after the credits, you’ll probably even look at what’s on there again and start wondering…
I’ll get into the story a bit, but I’d also like to start with some commentary of the opening scenes, because I’d like to give some indication of how quickly the game also affected me too. And that will also give me an excuse to restart the game for the fourth time in one less month than that! And that will also give me an excuse to talk about toilets, because that’s where we’re starting our story, with the most beautifully-shot row of urinals I’ve ever seen in a game as your character reminisces about his dead wife, Mary, asking her if she can really be in this town? You’re playing James Sunderland, and he’s stopped off for a slash on arrival at the outskirts of Silent Hill to look for her after she sent him a letter saying she’s waiting for him in their “special place.” Which is complicated by her having died from an terrible long-term illness three years beforehand. Anyway, despite the interesting Hebrew graffiti on the wall, it turns out their special place isn’t this toilet, she’s not here, and he’s got a bit of exploring to do! After trying to clear his head for a bit outside the toilets, you’re in control and within a couple of minutes a huge grin is going to descend onto your mush as you realise you are really back in Silent Hill, but with the shackles of the original hardware a thing of the past, this is now Silent Hill to the max!
Leaving the toilets and that huge draw-distance panoramic view of the lake with not a hint of technical fog behind, you’re quickly descending into… fog! Actually, beneath your viewpoint up on the observation deck you’ve already noticed the fog swirling around the treetops, but it’s proper fog, and as you start your journey you notice wisps of it all around you, accompanied by an ominous single-chord synth drone. And I don’t think wisps of fog in a game have ever been bettered, nor the descent into ever thickening fog, hiding whatever creature is making those occasional dog-like sounds, and what might have been something falling or breaking or maybe it was footsteps? You can’t see it, but it’s close… And you keep going down and down further into the fog and that ominous synth sound starts to vary a bit and a well emerges. There’s something inside, and you touch it and the screen turns red… And it turns out to be a save point! And you keep going, down into the fog, through the gates that sound like a metal bin-lid being dropped on the floor when they open, and into the graveyard. And even though it won’t be the first time you hear it, it’s in here that you’re probably going to really notice the legendary Silent Hill 2 voice-acting for the first time!
And then you’re continuing your descent through the fog as everything you remember about Silent Hill gradually emerges in front of you. But this time – just like the fog – it’s “proper” Silent Hill like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s beautiful! The textures on the pavement and the wooden telephone poles and the chain-link metal fences, and the attention to detail in things like signs or posters or stickers on dirty shop windows, and the kerbs and drain covers and bloodstains on the ground… And that fog is still so cool and so real this time with its own dynamic textures and shades of grey! And by now those ominous sound effects are really doing a job on you too! You’re touching everything (except, perhaps, dirty urinals) because everything looks like it’s there to be touched, and you realise all the roads aren’t half a mile wide like in the first game anymore, and you’re trying to get your bearings, and then in the midst of all this tension that’s been building up in you for the last twenty minutes, is that finally something unnatural shuffling around in the fog ahead of you? And so it really begins!
Many years after Silent Hill 2, we got P.T. (Playable Teaser) from Kojima Productions, and of course it turned out to be teasing something called Silent Hills. “Tease” is one way of putting it, I suppose! It was creepy-looking and very realistic, and years after it was pulled from the PlayStation Store (along with any hope for Silent Hills), people still fawn over it. But for me, it was horror by numbers, like a Paranormal Activity movie; horror for people that don’t like horror; the horror Nickelback! Or in gaming terms, Resident Evil trying to be Silent Hill! Both Silent Hill and its sequel are different because they’re not about what you’ve seen shuffling around in the fog, but what you might have seen, or what you think you saw, and where that might be leading you next. A really good recent (relatively) movie example of this is The Conjuring II, with scares you might not even notice first or second time around! The Blair Witch Project is completely built on that premise too, or going back further when inspiring your imagination was a bit like the use of fog in the first Silent Hill, there’s The Haunting (the 1963 version which is not to be confused with the later Liam Neeson dull-fest!) or, going back even further, Dead of Night. That all said, to its credit P.T. did have a ghost right behind you the whole time that no one knew was there for years which is pretty cool!
Before long that thing you followed into the fog turns into a familiar progression through exploring unsettling environments all over the Silent Hill map, which is going to become your best friend, just like in the first game. And when you can’t read it for whatever reason you’re going to panic just like in the first game too! It’s not only essential because the town is so big, but it’s also going to mark out places you’ve been or haven’t been able to get into yet, give you clues and generally tell you where you should go next. When you’re outside, the glorious, realistic, scare-inducing-not-technical-reasons fog is ever-present, but inside the apartments, hotels and restaurants, prisons, strip-clubs and bowling alleys everywhere is often dark, and your waist-height flashlight is going to build its own atmosphere of uncertainty and claustrophobia, complemented by all those incidental details peeking into the torchlight that spell decay and murder and sickness on every floor, wall or piece of furniture in every building you visit. Lovingly crafted bloodstains on the walls, trampled wheelchairs, rotten bed-frames and stinking blankets, the general detritus of abandonment, and holes in the wall that you’re just willing the game not to ask you to put your hand into!
And of course there’s a hospital, and of course there’s the Otherworld, the very personal nightmare parallel or non-parallel reality or non-reality! This alternate dimension takes the previous oppressiveness of wherever it springs up and multiplies it by a hundred, where those bloodstains are not details any more, but entire walls, with floors piled with rotten meat and corpses, and rusty chains and cages and general nastiness. On subsequent visits there’ll be fire and burnt-up horrors too; and a freezing, bloody slaughterhouse; and something draped in scarred, decaying flesh in a room draped in scarred decaying flesh that’s moving and pulsating and as soon as you work it out will probably be more disturbing than anything else you’ll see in rest of the game. And these reflect that personal nature of the Otherworld depending on who you’re with when it appears, and what’s made them so messed up that they can create this version of hell. Then there’s the water. Always some water around… And the darkness is now pitch blackness.
A very long time ago, back in the graveyard, I mentioned the legendary voice acting in Silent Hill 2! That’s when you met Angela, who’s looking for her missing mother and warns you that there’s something very wrong with the town. Taken out of context, and, admittedly, the first couple of times you come across any of the conversational cut-scenes, you’re going to find the voice-acting jarring. On one hand I can forgive it a bit – these were the pioneer days of this kind of thing! But on the other, by today’s standards, it’s comical, to the point it was all re-recorded in 2012 for the PlayStation 3 HD Collection. But you do also get used to it, and you stop noticing it as it becomes normal to you, and you’ll soon forget it as a possible detraction – in fact, the strange pacing and sometimes primary school nativity play delivery could even be argued to add something other-worldly to these personal… No, we’ll come back to that! But the HD Collection voice-acting stinks even worse – nothing other-worldy here, just weird and a bit disrespectful!
One thing you’ll never get used to is the amount of vomiting that’s going on the first time you meet Eddie Dombrowski, hunched over a disgusting toilet after he’s found a corpse in a disgusting fridge in a disgusting apartment. And the vomiting goes on and on and on! The gluttonous, paranoid Eddie has been bullied to hell all his life to the point that he’s killed a dog and shot a footballer in the knee for revenge reasons, and as defensive as he is about the corpses piling up around him, he’s come to Silent Hill to reach breaking point. “From now on, if anyone makes fun of me I’ll kill them. At least a corpse is more useless than I am.”
As there’s only a couple more characters, and because they’re, well, you’ll see, we’ll quickly cover the other people you meet on your travels through Silent Hill 2. Back to Angela, after the initial warning shot in the graveyard, our next meetings start to expose one of the most tragic characters you will ever come across in any form of media, let alone in video games. Lifelong abuse by her alcoholic father and her brother, which is justified as being deserved by her mother, culminated in her slitting her father’s throat, then spiralled into all kinds of guilt, zero self-worth and suidicidal depression, which promises both the escape and the punishment she also now feels she deserves. She’s left disgusted at herself by both her actions and those of her abusers. And eventually, after sharing her Otherworld for the last time, we’re left to assume that she finally found peace. And let’s remind ourselves, all of this in a 2001 video game. Good on you for being so bold so long ago, Konami!
Just when you think you’re making some progress in the game’s first building, along comes a little girl and puts a stop to it! This is Laura, an eight-year old orphan who’s also somehow found her way to Silent Hill to look for her friend from a time she spent in hospital, Mary – yes, your dead wife Mary – though she doesn’t know she’s dead yet. You’ll meet up with her all over Silent Hill, alone and with some of the other characters, and all the time you’re wondering how? And how? And how…
Finally, still relatively early in the game when you’ve made it through the apartments where you’ve met the others, you make it to Rosewater Park and there you meet Maria. Maria is a slutted-up version of Mary. She looks and sounds just like her, but the hair and clothes are like a fantasy Mary to James, and he doesn’t know whether to be scared or attracted, and is generally confused from hereon in! Maria end ups being both guardian angel and antagonist, and also ends up very dead several times!
At which point it’s probably an idea to talk about the other inhabitants of Silent Hill – the monsters! There’s clearly sexual overtones pretty much everywhere you look here, with possibly the least messed up being the bubble head nurses, with legs and cleavage everywhere, mangled oversized heads and epileptic movements. The Flesh Lips are masses of meat attached to a cage-like bed, complete with what appear to be vaginal lips mouthing animal abuse above the hanging legs that are going to strangle you. The mannequins are headless and armless dummies with two sets of legs (one for walking, one for killing) in some kind of putrid skin ensemble that covers the joins! Then there’s insects and a various humanoids that are all skin and sinew but with too many or too few of any given appendage. But then we get to the really nasty stuff. Abstract Daddy comes in both boss then lesser form at various points, and seems to be a combination of two figures on a bed frame wrapped in a covering of skin, intertwined to represent both rape and suffocation, highlighting that this is potentially James’ perception of Angela’s Otherworld rather than being a part of it. Maybe?
And then there’s Red Pyramid Thing. Also known as Pyramid Head, who’s undoubtably become the Silent Hill poster boy thorughout the series’ lifetime since! He’s a human-like giant in a bloodstained butcher’s apron with a huge triangular helmet, echoing an ancient executioner with his knife that seems to be a mega version of the knife Angela is waving about just before you meet him for the first time! But unlike her knife, we’re in one hit kill territory with this thing. You can actually find this knife later on and use it yourself, but it’s way too cumbersome to bring out in anything other than special boss occasions! You’ll meet him (and his friend) (and his spear) a few times, several of which are going to start with you wondering if Konami would really go as far as making him do what you think you just saw him doing when you turned up. I think the answer is yes… Maria’s also not coming out of these encounters well, again, several times.
If it’s alright with you I’m going to leave out the final boss and move onto gameplay. Everything is kind of fixed camera plus, where you’ve got the advantages of the set piece coming from the best possible angle, but you can also manually move the camera around in most situations, and where you can’t, you’re not going to pay a price for something cheap coming out of the fog at you! A lot of what you’re doing is classic survival horror – go here, fetch that, find the key for this, look into this dark hole and hope it doesn’t look back at you, etc. Combined with the aforementioned map, which is the first thing you need to seek – usually on a wall or a reception desk or similar – every time you enter a new area, you’re going to be following what are in the main logical clues to what are in the main logical puzzles.
Now, I’m not a big one for puzzles in games that aren’t puzzle games, but I actually found myself really enjoying a lot of these, to the point that in the one I’m going to describe in a minute, I didn’t want to backtrack between rooms one final time because I knew I was going to solve it! A lot of it is simple stuff, just relying on your sense of exploration to find the answers – need a safe combination? Then check the blocked toilet upstairs in the place that you thought you couldn’t get into because the door was locked because the wallet in there might have it written on a note! What’s really cool here is that there’s four puzzle difficulty levels when you start the game, though having only ever done them on normal I’m not entirely sure how that works – I think the hard version of the toilet wallet puzzle, for example, used Roman numerals for the combination, and for stuff like riddles are more complex the higher the difficulty.
The puzzle I wanted to mention is called Hanged Man. You come across a room with six bodies with a note on each face telling you of each persons’ crime – kidnapping, arson, murder, etc. You’re then going to a second room with six nooses hanging from the ceiling where the bodies were in the first room. Near the door is a poem on the wall, and you need to work out from that poem which man is innocent, then go and tug on his noose; get it right and there’s a key waiting for you in the first room. My poem documented a bunch of crimes (as well as graphic detail about the hangings that followed), including one where three houses were burnt down and the sheriff just arrested a stranger in the town for it because he was a stranger. So there’s your innocent man. And yes, in this puzzle there are four different poems depending on your puzzle difficulty, and I really can’t fault that commitment to the cause because they’re actually pretty good poems too!
You can also set the combat difficulty at the start of the game. Combat is rarely the strong point of any survival horror game, and here it’s just functional! As well as Pyramid Head’s big chopper, you’ve got the standard handgun, shotgun, plank of wood, lump of metal, etc. You can strafe and spin 180 degrees, and apart from bosses generally avoid combat altogether by just running in most cases. The boss battles are relatively straightforward, and just need plenty of decent ammo in reserve and a bit of patience. As said, functional but certainly not offensive in any way!
We’ve talked about the PS2-stunning graphics a few times, and how everything combines to create this incredible atmosphere, but that atmosphere only works because of the sound design that we’ve only briefly touch upon so far. And yes, we are currently pretending the voice-acting is not part of that sound design! The ambient sound is everywhere and it’s incredible. There are times when some kind of animal noise or possibly human scream or moan seems to be being carried across the fog from miles away, where you can’t see it. Attention to detail isn’t spared here either, like with different footsteps on grass and concrete and broken glass; the things you barely notice but contribute immeasurably when you are creating atmosphere. I’m fairly sure a lot of the sound effects are random too, and combined with periods of silence, create an incredibly unsettling audio experence to go with the unsettling Cronenburg-esque visuals and unsettling everything else!
Before we get somewhere near the end, quick mention of the Theme of Laura. I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but I’m not really fussed by it – melancholy melody with a strong beat, meaning it sounds like a Cure b-side idea that didn’t make the cut. It’s fine and does the job, but Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack isn’t something I listen to in my spare time.
Now let’s move on to my very amateur conclusion about what’s going on. Whatever happened to the town of Silent Hill for it to end up like it is, it’s now a pull for messed up people with messed-up pasts, and is populated by their own very personal monsters. The question is, are the other people you come across in Silent Hill there because they’re messed up like you, or because you are? Like the monsters, I reckon the town made them just for you… Eddie eventually represents James’ disgust at killing a human, charatecterised by his remorse after the meat-locker encounter. Maria is the dying wife manifested as the perfect wife she couldn’t be, back to mentally punish James forever through witnessing recurrent violent deaths at the hands of Pyramid Head, who, like most of the game’s other monsters, is a manifestation of James’ repressed but increasingly violent sexuality coming from years of sexual frustration at the hands of disease. Angela is James’ acceptance that he deserves what he’s going through, of his guilt and not being worthy to live anymore, albeit in reverse as the abused and not the abuser – her father, your wife, just different sides of the same coin; the guilt is the same. And then there’s Laura. She’s not so messed-up and so the town isn’t dangerous to her; she’s not seeing what “everyone else” is seeing. She’s James’ guide towards the truth – if she hadn’t kicked that key away from him in the early game, where would he have gone next? So I think that unlike the other characters you meet, she is real and is in Silent Hill to find her friend – your dead wife – just like you are, but without the horrors of the past to cloud (fog) the way to the end-game… The guilt of being a sexually deviant murderer that demands punishment at your own hands is a horror that is yours alone.
And would you believe I got there without ever once actually spelling out that naughty thing you did, though I’m sure I might as well have by now! I’m mostly happy with my conclusion so far, but I’m still not sure about the sexual deviance thing – it’s clearly there, from the relatively innocent (keep telling yourself that!) manifestation of your sexy nurse fantasies shuffling about the place, to the women as sex-object mannequins, to the more disturbing symbolism of the Abstract Daddy and the more blatant actions of Pyramid Head; as well, of course, as in the characterisation of the dreadfully abused Angela and overly-sexualised Maria. Is that whole messed-up mess really all borne of not getting your leg over for a while? Not for me to say, and like what we think we might have witnessed with Pyramid Head and what he was actually doing to the mannequins, I can’t really be sure. Maybe James has always been a sexual deviant and when his wife couldn’t be party to that anymore he went over the edge on that front. But without getting too stereotypical, as a frequent visitor to Japan, I am now probably in the realms of over-thinking this point!
There’s one more small conflict I’ve got over one of the endings I’ve seen. I’m not going into each of the endings here, but I’ve got a theory about James and dead Mary ending up at the bottom of the lake in a car; the lake you were looking at while you were next to your car at the start of the game. I can buy into that he simply came to Silent Hill to kill himself in their “special place” but here’s the conflict. I initially assumed this was happening at the end of the game, but what if it happened before you started?
That aside, I think we can conclude that you are the monster and you are the horror in Silent Hill 2! And with that concluded, I can also conclude that in my view, Silent Hill 2 is without doubt the greatest horror game of all time. It’s also potentially one of the greatest pieces of horror art of any kind of all time – now there’s a list I need to create, with this and M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies all right near the top! And whether you’re talking about the story, the metaphors and symbolism, the dark places it creates or the dark places it goes to, the soundtrack or the atmosphere… it’s also probably one of the most important video games of all time too. And the voice-acting really isn’t as bad as people say!