Iam ashamed to admit that before this week, I had never played a Silent Hill game to completion. I’ve managed to evade Konami’s psychological horror series for decades, but it’s mainly because the best of the bunch, Silent Hill 2, came out before I was 10 years old.
It was a blind spot that I’ve now corrected. One of my friends is a huge Silent Hill fan, so they invited me over to play through the series. They added context where it was necessary, but purposefully kept quiet a lot of the time to allow me to make my own choices and experience the atmosphere of these games completely untainted.
— Jordan Oloman (@JordanOloman) July 2, 2021
It was an immeasurable act of kindness, and it’s safe to say that I get it now. I understand why everyone is so desperate for a new game in this series because even 20 years after its release, I really do feel that Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece. It is untouchable in the way that it maintains its unnerving ambience.
I’ve never played anything like it, and by trying to explain why, I want to spur some of you to go back and try it, especially if you were too young to experience it naturally, or if you’re bored of the shock jock state of modern horror games.
Plus, with rumours swirling that Silent Hill games are coming back, it seems like a good time to try and figure out what made Silent Hill 2 so special, and what developers should try to keep in mind when they make a new one.
First off, we need to talk about the game’s scare tactics. Silent Hill 2 is never cheap. There are no jump scares in this game, and it still manages to be terrifying. You arrive at this town and immediately become acquainted with the looming fog. It’s a visual effect that makes it feel like you have cataracts. It tricks your eyes into crossing and losing focus until you don’t know where you are.
Buildings and assets appear out of nowhere, and the sour-fleshed Mannequins are eerily static until you approach them. Just like Mary – the wife of player character James Sunderland and your reason for being in this hellscape – everything is waiting for you here, rather than trying to seek you out and scare you, and I think that is part of why Silent Hill 2 is so effective. It’s just a small town with believably empty buildings, but something is clearly wrong and you can never quite put your finger on it.
Any corpses that remain look like the protagonist, and the real humans you find are all deeply troubled and talk with a disjointed cadence. Perhaps the scariest thing about the rest of the cast is that as you encounter them, they don’t reassure any of your assumptions. They talk to you dismissively about your own perceptions and understanding of Silent Hill, which ramps up the fear and curiosity.
I found the way the game transitioned from gameplay to cutscene to be really disturbing too, as the pre-rendered filter descends onto the pixellated backdrop. Mid-conversation cuts work to disorient the player, but none of the scenes themselves are conventionally scary – most of them are just short conversations with weird entities in this tragic town. But they work so well, subverting typical narrative expectations of finding someone and learning more about a place or the story.
Usually, you just end up with more questions that are never fully explained, a fine leaf taken from the David Lynch playbook of storytelling.
Never forget that David Lynch is a national treasure pic.twitter.com/ir1VHCz66v
— kevinbiegel (@kbiegel) September 22, 2016
When you eventually make it inside, the game gets playful with its level design to create labyrinths of portals and holes. Physically, many of the environments and pathways you follow in this game don’t make sense, and this really started to scare me when I realised I was no longer in control of my journey and there was no way I could turn back. Historical Societies became prisons which became labyrinths which led me to lakes. Even in the early apartments, you leap between windows and enter disorienting alternate worlds.
At one point, you walk in on a disturbing scene of your sometimes sidekick Angela playing with a knife and looking at herself in the mirror, but what I found most frightening about it was that it was just a random room in a mostly vacant complex. There was no signposting to tell me she would be there.
In some rooms, the music will become frenetic and fierce for no reason, and you’ll hear whispers and semi-random sounds, like a glass smashing or a baby crying. These clips are left unexplained but they’re believable within the context of the game’s inimitable atmosphere. And that’s without addressing Akira Yamaoka’s immaculate soundtrack, in which silence, J-Rock and low-humming chillhop wage war on your psyche.
Silent Hill 2 would be nothing without its fixed camera angle either, which can frame important symbolism or on some occasions, obscure it with frightening effect. It felt novel and cinematic to see rooms be presented with intentionality by the developers, instead of the player’s own controlling perspective.
The texture work in this game is still lovely to look at too, from the blood-stained pillowed walls of an asylum cell to the vomit-inducing death holes of the underground mausoleum. And the puzzles! By god, how rewarding. Some of them do operate on adventure game moon logic, but I’ve not been so thrilled to figure something out in a game in a long time.
Every puzzle is consistently head-scratching. Even if some of the solutions border on the absurd, I much prefer that to the handholding of modern horror. What delighted me was that they often had consequences attached that would make the environment around you worse, so the onus is on you to solve it and move on so you can escape the fog-thick terror of hanging around. Genius atmosphere-led game design!
There’s a strange sense of humour to the game as well. I’ve always thought that psychological horror and the human experience of it contains multitudes, and Silent Hill 2 definitely tries to address this by running the gamut of emotion. James’ environmental interactions can be funny and sarcastic, and there’s that scene in an elevator where you’re suddenly accosted by a radio host and a quiz. It’s so out of place and freaky that you’ll struggle for words, but at its core, it’s also just a very funny and light moment in a game that is so coated in darkness.
No spoilers for the story at large of course, but the way that Silent Hill 2 reveals the purpose of its creature designs and the trauma of its supporting cast is masterful. I will be having nightmares about fire-filled rooms and the presentation of its enemies, with their caged frames and unbearable animations. I could really go on, but I think at some point, you need to just go and experience this game for yourself. I can assure you, it’s not something that you play once and forget about. Silent Hill 2 is far more affecting and meaty than that. I’m still realising moments of foreshadowing days later, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen all of its secrets. This video from Super Eyepatch Wolf is a lovely accoutrement if you do finish it.
The thing is, I’m not sure we could see a game like Silent Hill 2 ever again given how bound its atmosphere is to the technology of the time. I just don’t think the more critical modern audience would accept the logic of its puzzles or the clunkiness of its combat, even though I’d love to see all of these hallmarks retained and expanded upon. It’s not to say we won’t reach these heights ever again, but I think any developers looking to make the next Silent Hill needs to adapt this game’s principles and leave everything else. With its sink fetuses and talking bags, P.T. is definitely the closest games have come to replicating the atmosphere, but the less said about that the better…
Silent Hill 2 is a contained story, and a masterpiece that needs to be appreciated but not overly referenced. For the love of God, leave Pyramid Head alone, but modernise the psychological horror game design principles and we could be onto a winner.
Silent Hill 2 is ancient, but most recently playable on 2012’s Silent Hill HD Collection, available for Xbox 360 (and Xbox backwards compatibility) and the PlayStation 3.