James Sunderland arrives at the deserted town of Silent Hill. He has received a letter from his wife, Mary, though she has been dead for three years, stating that she will meet him there. As he searches for her, he finds others like himself—others who have been called to the town, even though there should not be, can not be, anything there for them. He is tempted by a woman named Maria who looks and sounds like his wife, but in personality is everything she is not. He is pursued by a monstrous, invincible symbol of sexual violence, which repeatedly kills and tortures the temptress. The companions he has found choose death over life, and he realizes the lie he has been living.
Silent Hill 2 is a game for mature players, not because it is frightening or because it is violent. Rather, it is because the game deals with so many subjects that are only meant for the mature. Her dialogue and the visual themes surrounding her leave no doubt that Angela was sexually abused by her family. At one junction you find her in an underground room with walls that look like flesh and a row of running pistons around the top; the player must defend her from a strange creature that resembles two people sewn into a bedframe. This monster only recurs later on at a hotel that had romantic meaning for James and Mary. As I mentioned, Pyramid Head himself is an image of sexual violence, and his actions are also violent in a sexualized way. His weapons, a knife and a spear, are phallic, and a woman is his frequent victim.
James himself has been called to Silent Hill because he killed his terminally ill wife. This has unhinged him and he believes her to have died of her illness years before, shortly after they first visited Silent Hill (at that time it was a resort town). Many of the monsters James encounters are symbols of the hospitals where she stayed and the sexual frustration he felt during that time—”patients” trapped in straitjackets of their own flesh, over-sexualized hideous nurses, and bizarre mannequin-like creatures that have only a torso and four legs. Pyramid Head is derived from the historical executioners of a local prison.
The exact circumstances and reasons surrounding Mary’s death depend to a certain extent on the player. However, the nature of this crime and the idea that Mary might forgive him for it are not something most children or teenagers are really ready for.
Would Silent Hill 2 be better off as a movie, or a miniseries? Perhaps so, though the first try at it failed miserably. The gameplay itself is competent but not fantastic, and though the fetch quests are designed so as to maximize the player’s experience of the environment, most of the puzzles do not add to the atmosphere. The great artistic strength of Silent Hill 2, aside from the visuals, is the story, and this could perhaps be conveyed equally well by a movie. Indeed, the brevity of film would probably force the excision of Eddie Dombrowski, who does not significantly serve the story.
However, two things probably could not be done in a movie that are strengths of the game. The first is a construction of atmosphere. Silent Hill is very foggy, and quite full of monsters, who are preceded in their appearance by a buzzing of static from an apparently broken radio. The difficulty of seeing and the radio gimmick would probably just be annoying in a film, but in the game they inspire a fascinating paranoia and dread. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really rely on the visual flashes and cheap thrills that provoke a burst of fear, though there are a few such moments. Instead, the ‘horror’ of Silent Hill 2 is built up from a pervasive feeling of dread. You do not know what you will encounter next, but you know it will not be good, and yet the story provides an impulse to continue. There are some subtler tricks as well—James continues to carry Mary’s letter, and the further into the game you are, the less of it there is, until it becomes only blank paper.
The other aspect of the game that could not be replicated in film is the collaborative aspect of its storytelling—the conclusion of the story depends on actions in the game. The most interesting part about this is the complexity of the calculus: unlike other games, there is no clear moment of choice that determines how the story ends. Instead, the game looks at how you have played. The story adjusts itself in response not to explicit decisions the player makes, but rather to what appears to interest the player in the context of the story. If you are intrigued by Maria, and keep protecting her and checking up on her, James leaves with her. If you are drawn by Angela’s self-destructive nature, James himself commits suicide. If the player makes choices that re-emphasize both his love of Mary and the choice of life, James leaves town with the young girl Mary had planned to adopt.
In the end, despite its flaws, I believe Silent Hill 2 is a good work of art. The story that it tells is moving, and the visual symbolism used to convey the story is fascinating. The dialogue has very few awkward spots, and the voice actors all do a good job. The soundtrack is very high quality. But the thing that makes it art as a video game is its clever use of participation in two ways. Because the player must move his character through the fog and past the monsters, the work’s ability to inspire dread increases. Because it is the player who decides how the story ends, the work is tuned for the greatest emotional impact. Carefully done, Silent Hill could be a good film, but without the participatory aspects it would not be as good a film as it is a game.