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Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Silent Hill 2 (PlayStation 2) review

"There are different types of horror. There’s the kind that goes for the obvious and cheap shock-scare, like Jason in a mask with a chainsaw, or the leering zombie who jumps out from behind the table accompanied by a scream and a stab of high-pitched violins. Then there’s horror of a more subtle nature -- the kind that taps into psychology to create a terror that lingers long after the actual experience is over, as the events stay in the mind, are turned over, examined, and expanded by the power ..."

There are different types of horror. There’s the kind that goes for the obvious and cheap shock-scare, like Jason in a mask with a chainsaw, or the leering zombie who jumps out from behind the table accompanied by a scream and a stab of high-pitched violins. Then there’s horror of a more subtle nature -- the kind that taps into psychology to create a terror that lingers long after the actual experience is over, as the events stay in the mind, are turned over, examined, and expanded by the power of our own imagination.

Silent Hill is psychological horror of the best kind. It is a game that doesn’t want to be liked. It wants to disturb, depress, and shock. It wants to make the player turn away. It succeeds through masterful manipulation of atmosphere, and a fearless and deliberate exploitation of our basest fears. These fears run far deeper than clichés like zombies (and there are zombies in Silent Hill), and explore topics like abuse, mental illness, serial killing, and what happens when people lose control.

In my restless sleep, I dream of that town, Silent Hill. You promised you’d take me there again someday, but you never did. Well I’m alone now… in our special place… waiting for you.

The game opens with these words, scrawled onto a letter that James Sunderland has just received from his wife, Mary. Except that Mary had been dead for three years after succumbing to a lingering and incurable illness. Stricken by her death, James is unable to move on with his own life. In this fragile state of mind, he arrives at the town of Silent Hill, clutching onto the note, a picture of Mary, and the notion that he might somehow be able to contact his wife again.

Predictably, the town is deserted and infested with twisted zombie-like monstrosities of nature, which James must battle with a clumsy iron bar and later, much later, a limited assortment of firearms. It seems that survival-horror can’t exist without zombies, and in Silent Hill they’re disturbing enough, I suppose, in the way that their disfigured, ravaged bodies shuffle inexorably toward James with mindless automaton movements, and how when knocked down they scurry around screeching like enraged cockroaches. Yet at the same time, the zombies seem like a bit of an afterthought -- something to provide the obligatory combat in a game that really just wants to be an exploratory adventure.

Like every survival-horror game, Silent Hill 2 is at heart a “find Key A to unlock Door A” quest, yet the straightforward task of exploring the town is made into a harrying experience indeed. Thick mist and total darkness are brilliantly used as atmospheric devices that ration out details as the game sees fit. As James explores the run-down streets of the town and the corridors of pitch-black buildings, guided only by the flickering glow of a small flashlight anchored to his jacket, everything is obscured by shadow except when the light happens to shine across a blood-stained wall or flayed and decomposing corpse.

It’s in these poorly-lit and claustrophobic spaces that the zombie creatures actually become more threatening than out in the open street where they are easily side-stepped. James is not a cop or a hero and his slow, fumbling movements make him at once endearing to us as well as doubly afraid for our safety. His lumbering run never really gets up to speed, and it isn’t long before he slows and then has to stop and gasp for air. He is clumsy with weapons too, and close-quarter combat with one of the zombies can have its share of tension as James slowly hefts his weapon and swings with a grunt, resolutely moving at his own pace no matter how frantically we pound on the action button. He isn’t an expert with a gun either, and takes quite a while to reload and aim.

The camera can be as uncooperative as James’ reflexes and likes to position itself facing James so that we can’t see what’s coming up ahead of him. With the push of a shoulder button it can usually be repositioned to trail behind him in the more traditional over-the-shoulder view, but it must be constantly attended to since it has a tendency to swing right back after a few steps. Controlling James is often as challenging as the combat is, therefore, especially if the remote-control “Resident Evil” style of navigation is selected, where “up” on the controller will cause James to move forward at all times no matter what direction he is facing in. Mercifully, this option can be turned off in favour of a less finicky system.

James’ un-athletic character, his slow and not always accurate responses during combat, and the unwieldy swinging camera contribute to the permeating sense of unease in Silent Hill 2; it’s knowing that James is not a strong or a particularly skilled person. Will he be able to handle the next monstrosity around the corner? Is it really worth going around that corner to find out?

The visual atmosphere, combined with the uniquely meek way James interacts with it, is profoundly unsettling, to be sure. Yet it is the soundtrack that cranks of the level of tension so that it is at times almost unbearable.

It’s difficult to analyze the sound effects and music of Silent Hill 2 as separate entities, since it’s often hard to tell where one stops and the other takes over. The game is full of ominous ambient noises that float out of the mist and darkness to give the impression that things are lurking just out of view; circling and stalking James as he moves around. One of James’ items is a radio that emits static whenever monsters are close by. It’s an admirable gimmick in on itself from the perspective of game-design, and from a visceral perspective it’s also grating to have the harsh sound of static constantly in the ear, especially since it’s often impossible to pinpoint what direction the monster is going to emerge from. We can’t see the monster, but the static tells us that something is dangerous is nearby…somewhere.

Akira Yamaoka, composer and sound producer for all the games in the Silent Hill series, has my utmost respect. He takes industrial clangs, breaths and groans and other strident noises and is able to graft them together into something that could be called music by the most lenient definition. And it works. Yamaoka toys with us like any seasoned film composer would, incorporating moments of ambient silence that are suddenly shattered by an onslaught of percussive, frenetic music as a monster approaches.

Once the music is associated with monsters, Yamaoka is free to manipulate us to his heart’s content, and doesn’t hesitate to do so. The effect is similar to the movie Jaws, where John Williams’ famous two-note theme is first introduced during a shark-attack. From then on, the viewer always associates that theme with the shark. Throughout the movie, the theme is used earlier and earlier before the attack even takes place. It’s a technique of pandering to our expectations. If we hear the “shark theme” we are on edge even before the shark appears on the screen. Sometimes the shark doesn’t even appear at all. But the music has served its purpose nonetheless. The same is true with Silent Hill.

All of these things combine to provide an exceptionally powerful synthesis of the audio and the visual. As the aggressive music kicks in, underscored by harsh radio static, a misshapen thing lurches out of the darkness of a nightmarish, blood-soaked corridor as James’ heart pumps wildly and reverberates through your fingers courtesy of the controller’s dual-shock mechanism. There are times in the game where this became so powerful that I would literally put my controller down and stop, unwilling to continue. What pushes the experience over the edge is the interactivity factor. You can’t just sit there and watch it. Silent Hill doesn’t offer the option of nestling under a blanket with some popcorn and letting yourself be passively frightened. You have to physically react: Flee, fight, or turn off the console.

Travelling through the twisted and surreal town creates an unhealthily strong desire for human contact of any kind; any signs of life or something that’s half-way normal. There are a handful of people in the town, drawn there like James for various purposes, and whenever James comes across one it’s like an oasis for the dying man in the desert. The people are creepy too, though. It’s as though everyone and everything in the game has to be tainted in some way, and the people with their sallow, gray-tinged features and staring, haunted eyes are no exception.

Like a grisly car crash by the side of the road, I was both disgusted by Silent Hill 2 yet at the same time compelled to finish it in spite of myself. The story is subtle and ambiguous, though will seem clearer after multiple play-throughs and by witnessing several of the game’s multiple endings. Many questions remain unanswered; some no doubt will be answered in Silent Hill 3 and some have already been explained in the original Silent Hill. For this reason I would recommend starting the series at the beginning unlike I did, although 2 is by no means a bewildering and inaccessible starting point.

The Silent Hill series is one of few games in the survival-horror genre that actually seems to take its label seriously. “Survival” takes on a much different meaning than simply keeping the character supplied with shotgun shells with which to quickly and expertly dispatch enemies. The goal is purely to exist in a world where you are truly alone, with whatever crude instruments you can find along the way. It’s survival not only against physical horrors, but against a mentally disturbing and deeply unsettling backdrop. Silent Hill explores areas that few videogames have yet dared to go, and does so with such single-minded determination and thoroughness that I can’t help but admire it, despite the fact that I also resent it for creeping the hell out of me.

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Community review by alecto (September 27, 2003)

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