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SILENT HILL 2 (and why it’s still the scariest game ever made)

It’s difficult to scare a gamer who grew up on a diet of horror and gore movies as a teenager. Horror games have a tendency to focus on jump scares, blood and action than on tension and dread. Sure, Dead Space was scary. It made me jump a few times, in between bouts of being a one man wrecking machine blasting the limbs off anything that moved. Condemned had some real jump-out-of-your-seat moments (Locker Room, anyone?), and who can forget the exhilarating panic of being chased through the log cabin in its sequel? Alan Wake was scary for the first hour until you realised the game was just filled with the same easily killed nasties for its entire duration. Resident Evil 4 had the Alien style Right Hand sequence, pitting the player against a terrifying creature but ruining the experience with immersion breaking QTEs. Resident Evil 5’s only frightening aspects were Sheva’s AI, and the spectacularly stupid racial caricatures.

This is why playing Silent Hill 2 makes me sad. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good. It’s hard to believe that in almost a decade since its release, not one developer has managed to create a horror title with anywhere near the same level of primal, gut wrenching fear that this masterpiece instills in the player. One would think with the technical advances of today, devs would be able to enhance the medium’s ability to get under our skin and make us quiver like jelly on a washing machine. Not so. So why is it that Silent Hill 2, with its now dated graphics and clunky control scheme, is still by far the most terrifying game on the market today?

The reason is that it isn’t just scary, it’s deeply, intensely unsettling and disturbing. For ten hours, Silent Hill 2 worms its way into the player’s mind, rattling the psyche and bringing us face to face with our deepest, most primal fears. Death, sex, guilt, isolation, anger, disease… all are presented in subtle, terrifying ways that pry into the subconscious and unrelentingly distress the player on a profound level. The game is ingenious in its synergy, making the most of imagery, sound, a fantastic soundtrack and an emotionally charged story. Everything gels together wonderfully to create, in my opinion, the most atmospheric game created to this day – an astounding achievement given its age.

The first thing that struck me playing this game was the wonderful oxymoron of its ugly beauty. Beginning in a disgusting public toilet, we meet James Sunderland, our protagonist, as he whispers cryptic questions into a dirty mirror. The walls are crumbling, filthy and gritty. A hellish red-brown colour dominates the walls, giving an impression of decay, rust, dried blood or old meat. This brilliantly horrible hue is the primary colour in the game’s interiors, and a huge factor in giving the game its unique aesthetic. Despite its ugliness, there is something darkly compelling and beautiful about it. We learn that James has received a letter from his dead wife, asking him to meet her in the town of Silent Hill, where they used to spend their holidays together. This is the first example of a very important feature: the game never questions its own bizarre logic or condescends the player by trying to make its themes obvious. Some players have misinterpreted the story as making no sense, but everything in Silent Hill 2 is there for a reason. The story is told almost entirely through metaphors. Nothing is there simply to seem weird or creepy, every event, area and creature has some significance, no matter how seemingly opaque and evasive their meanings are.

Take, for example, the masterful creature design. The monsters in Silent Hill 2 are horrifying, but not just through ugliness. They tap into our dark, psycho-sexual subconscious. The first monster we encounter is a strange shuffling humanoid. Though its top half is trapped and sheathed in a condom-like mess of leathery, bloodied skin, vomiting green bile in James’s face, its bottom half is feminine, elegant and dare I say it, almost sexy, dressed only in boots and a thong. It is this perplexing mix of sex and death that informs most of the creature design, the reasons becoming ever clearer as the story goes on and the monsters become more deranged and frightening. Everyone remembers the nurses, with their teasing cleavages, tight, short skirts and bloody, bandaged faces. The Abstract Daddies are particularly sinister, exploiting our fears of rape, captivity and suffocation.

Most iconic, of course, is Pyramid Head. Though somewhat bastardised nowadays due to the movie version of Silent Hill completely missing his meaning and context, he is a terrifying presence in the game. He is not scary because he wears a big metal hat, he is scary because he represents the darkest, most animal and vicious parts of the male mind. He is agony, guilt, desire, violence and power and he is there inside all of us.

‘Excuse me, have you seen Chris Gans? I’d like a friendly word with him about context.’

Environmental design is equally as impressive. After a slow, creepy trudge through the mist-filled streets, we find ourselves in an apartment block. This is where the visuals hit their stride. James can only ever see a few feet in front of him, making every hallway and room a threat. Dynamic shadows and clever camera angles add to the tension. There is nothing quite like turning a dark corner and seeing the flash of a mannikin’s legs as it comes to life the moment you see it… I admit I had to stop and catch my breath after one such occasion late in the game, when the level design cruelly, ingeniously robs you of all your items and leaves you utterly defenseless. James’s radio is a great effect, emitting static when a monster is nearby. This creates some frightening moments of ‘oh fuck- where is it??’ type fear. As the game progresses, the environments become more and more ominous, bizarre and ugly, complimented by eerie, alien soundscapes and audio effects. Standout levels include an abandoned hospital with a dark secret, and a subterranean nightmare labyrinth.

One level in particular really stood out to me. I had to travel through a hole in a wall and down a dark, descending stone corridor. The corridor is very, very long and as I descended further and further, a dreadful thumping, droning sound grew gradually louder and louder. For almost a minute and a half I had to continue further, deeper down into the darkness as this unseen horror grew ever more present. By the time I reached the end, I was stressed, terrified and exhilarated. So simple, but so effective.

Come on, guys… turn off the camera, I can’t go with you watching.

No game is perfect, and Silent Hill 2 has its flaws. The ‘go here, get key, go back and open door’ adventure style gameplay can get a little silly at times, with the usual survival horror problem rearing its ugly head – some of the puzzles defy all logic and common sense. There is one puzzle involving tinned orange juice that is completely counter-intuitive and plain retarded. Some of the items you must use on other items are hilariously random too, making for some oblique solutions to puzzles that, in real life, could have been solved with many other items in the inventory. Many dislike the controls, but once I changed them to the ‘2-D’ setup, I found them to be fine. James is a normal guy and should not be an expert with firearms. The combat was never too taxing on normal mode, except for one or two instances where you become suddenly cornered. Ammo is plentiful and you never have to worry too much about running out, which, to be honest, I was thankful for. The camera bugs some people too, and though its tight angles and sudden changes did screw me over in one or two tight spots, it generally works well and adds to the tension. Voice acting is pretty bad throughout the game.

The only real reason not to play Silent Hill 2 is that it may be too much for some gamers, the constant tension and mind-fuckery may be too intense to deal with. To me, and many others, this game is the pinnacle of horror in gaming and a true classic. It’s more than a game, it’s a stunning piece of interactive art. Which brings me to my question for you all, do you think it will ever be bettered? Will a developer ever again have the vision and imagination to mess with our heads in this way? I certainly hope so and don’t see why not. Until then, dig out your old PS2 or XBOX and revisit gaming’s most memorable town.

Side note: I must reluctantly thank my XBOX 360 for having a meltdown and inspiring me to go back and play some classic games. Thanks, you stupid piece of crap.

4 Responses to “SILENT HILL 2 (and why it’s still the scariest game ever made)”

  1. MrRabbit Says:

    i think one day we may see something of similar ore maybe even better quality
    but not anytime soon

    right now most the company’s that would be capable of pulling it off are all consumed by greed and/or fear
    greed telling them that all most of us want are shooters or all action games so produce more generic shooters
    and Fear that producing anything different and compelling will make them loose money .

    but hopefully im wrong but i think it will be a while before horror games reach that kind of quality again
    but i do hold out hope that it will happen eventually

  2. Daedric Marker Says:

    This is a solid review and it really makes me want to play the silent hills…

  3. Marco Godinho Says:

    Really glad to read this review as SH2 is one of my favourite games. I particularly liked the way both the sound design (and the way silence is used to great effect) and the soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka managed to create something very unique and added to that sensual/grotesque odd combination that you mentioned on your review. As a musician and avid gamer what did you think of it?
    Also have you ever considered doing a song inspired by the Silent Hill universe? Or at least exploring that sort of challenging concept of creating something that’s both attractive and repulsive? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not requesting songs, I’m just curious to know your views on this :)

    Keep rocking, Gav! Cheers

  4. 12 Totally Disturbing Video Games That Will Haunt You For Life | Says:

    […] 5. Silent Hill 2 […]

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