Silent Hill 2 has long been in the upper echelon of horror games. Nick D. explains why this reputation is completely deserved.
Silent Hill 2 is one of those absolute classic games that you’ll see on nearly everyone’s ‘must play’ list. The original Silent Hill was a fine game on its own, but it was the sequel that truly launched this behemoth horror franchise. This isn’t too rare an occurrence in video games. After all, Call of Duty before Modern Warfare was nothing more than a tired World War 2 shooter. Similarly, Demons’ Souls, while wonderful, flew mostly under the radar. Silent Hill 2 as well did something that really resonated with audiences. Many games have attempted to mimic the absolute dread and style of Silent Hill 2 and very few have attained any measure of success at it. Everything about it screamed horror, from the gameplay to the environments, and it came out at the perfect time to capitalize on the genre. Nowadays, we’re in the middle of a horror renaissance, but no matter how many Outlasts, Amnesias, or The Evil Withins we get, Silent Hill 2 remains secure on its throne on top of the horror pile.
Let’s be honest right up front: Silent Hill 2 is not a perfect game, far from it actually. It has among the worst voice acting I’ve seen on this end of Baten Kaitos. Everything from the inflections to the random, jarring pauses screams amateur hour. The combat, too was pretty bad. It was hard to hit enemies, gunplay was incredibly unsatisfying, and the protagonist, James Sunderland, moved like someone shoved twenty sharp rocks down his throat and into his stomach. It’s awkward is what I’m saying. Today, these details might cause Silent Hill 2 to get dinged precious marks as technical perfection of gameplay has become a little more sophisticated. At the time, these problems were more accepted as part of the genre. Why do you think Resident Evil got away with tank controls for so long?
But, as is often the case, the best games are the ones that are flawed somehow. Everything bad in Silent Hill 2 works. The corny dialogue immediately sets you off guard. It’s laughable at first, then somehow becomes sinister as the game begins sucking you into its world. There something not quite right with the few people you encounter, which is made so much more horrific by the fact their voice actors fell so hard on the job. At the same time, bad combat was perhaps the greatest gift given to the game. It isn’t fun to kill enemies, and hunting them down often results in more pain for you. Since enemies don’t drop anything for you, it becomes advantageous to avoid combat whenever necessary. Modern horror games often reward you for wiping out a horde. Silent Hill 2 went out of its way to make things difficult. I’d praise it for amazing game design if I weren’t certain that it wasn’t intended.
What people really remember about Silent Hill 2 was the utterly oppressive atmosphere. Every Silent Hill afterwards has been trying to recreate this feeling and none have really succeeded save for possibly Silent Hill 3 in my opinion. Silent Hill 2 plunks you down in the middle of a completely unforgiving environment: small town America. More importantly, it meshes the familiar sights of a peaceful, small town with horror-inducing emptiness and fog. The fog, there originally because it helped deal with environmental loading worked so well in keeping everything just out of reach, with anything possible lurking beyond. And it’s the combination of this visual and the game’s radio that blares static every time an enemy is nearby, which really builds the horror.
The reason the environment wormed its way into gamers’ collective minds was because it was something they’d never seen before. True, the original Silent Hill was similarly equipped, but that game mostly fell through the cracks, and the limitations of the original PlayStation severely weakened its impact. Nowadays, we’ve become jaded to this kind of thing. Horror is all about surprise. That’s why the first rung of slashers or imported Japanese horror movies really worked with audiences, and every subsequent attempt worked a little bit less. The same applies to video games. With every trip to Silent Hill, the town becomes a little less terrifying. Silent Hill 2 existed at a time when that kind of oppressive environment was still so new. If this seems like I’m saying that Silent Hill 2 is only good for those who remember it in its heyday, I’m not. But the fact of the matter is that part of the reason it resonated so much with audiences and didn’t get forgotten was because of the environment it was released in.
What Silent Hill 2 really is, is an example of pure, random genius. Everything comes together in a weird and wonderful package. The enemies are creative and intricately tied into the story, which manages to be incredibly psychological without shoving your face into it. The environments are terrifying, but so are the creatures lurking around every corner. It’s one thing to plunk someone down in a scary hospital. We’ve seen that a lot. Silent Hill 2 does it right, by introducing immediate and constant danger in the form of powerful enemies and bad combat. Environments are a hell of a lot scarier when there is actual, non-scripted danger lurking around every corner. In this way, the oppression leaks from the screen and into the living room. Safety and ease are the greatest enemies of horror, and Silent Hill 2 managed to avoid both.
I’m downplaying the story, because that’s not really what makes Silent Hill 2 so great. It’s what makes Silent Hill 3 great, but Silent Hill 2 survives fine without it. The torments that lie around every corner are the real stars. Fortunately, the story that is present only helps to highlight the gameplay. Most of it doesn’t take you out of the environment and into lengthy cutscenes. The cutscenes that do exist are strange and off-putting, really throwing you off with very little actually communicated. Interpretation of events and symbolism has always been a strong point of the Silent Hill series. Silent Hill 2 manages to throw in a mix of subtle symbolism and crazy over-the-top symbolism. This disjointed approach once agains works to set you on your back food. The fact that subtlety and overtness work hand-and-hand is strange and always keeps you guessing.
It’s trite now to call the town of Silent Hill the star of the Silent Hill series, but that’s simply the fact. James’s plight is interesting, but it’s the madness he finds in the cozy corners of America’s most horrible place that really keep pulling gamers back. Future Silent Hills tried to hard to copy down a formula and formulas don’t work with horror. Even great horror games that came after Silent Hill 2 never managed to really capture that totally unique feeling you get from walking through some of the worst streets you’ll ever see. There’s nothing like taking something so innocent and pure and corrupting it. Silent Hill 2 did this better than anyone else, which resulted in it being a horror game that all horror fans should play at least once.