By J. Keith Haney
Silent Hill 2 (2002). Company: Konami. Developer: Team Silent. Platform: PS2, PS3. Rating: Mature.
“Some fear death…others pray for it.”
Open on a grimy public restroom, the kind that the EPA would declare a biohazard zone due to the slime factor alone. A man with an army green jacket and medium-length blond hair is looking into the scuffed-up mirror in front of him with hollow, haunted eyes. His name is ‘James Sunderland’ and he thinks to himself, “After all this time, can it really be her?”
The “her” he’s thinking about is his wife, Mary Sunderland. He got a letter from her, fairly cryptic, talking about how the old resort town of Silent Hill looms large in her thoughts. She talks about a “special place” that was just for him and her, but James has only the vaguest of ideas where she could be talking about. Still, he feels compelled to find out more and goes to Silent Hill…only to find his car can’t go any further due to the bridge being out. A footpath through the park, in spite of the all-encompassing fog, seems to be the only way through. Oh, and there’s just one more thing that needs to be mentioned regarding Mary…She died three years ago after a fight with a long and fatal disease.
By any yardstick you care to use to measure it, Silent Hill 2 is a very unusual sequel. It takes place in the same tourist-trap-gone-supernaturally-wrong as the first game but in a completely different area of the town. That may be why, in spite of the fact that you never go there in this game, Lakeside Amusement Park is noted in the northern part of the town map that James pulls from his car (hint, hint); you may well conclude that you were in a completely different town, otherwise.
Of course, just like any other sequel, certain trappings of the first game are carried over: the preternaturally dense fog (thicker than in the first game by a factor of ten), the clip-on flashlight, the broken radio that serves as your early warning system, the air raid sirens that go off occasionally to announce supernatural changes to the environment around you (always making me think of the same sound in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”), the inexplicably empty streets that seem to only hold monsters and the occasional unlucky human. Graphically, it’s the high-tech update of Team Silent’s original game, adding detail and beauty to an already-established look.
But this time, the focus is more on the aforementioned humans than whatever is going on with the town itself. Yes, James is searching for someone near and dear to him, much like Harry Mason did with his daughter Cheryl in the first game. But this time, the answers he finds are a lot more personal and the people he meets are in much the same predicament of being lost in the past as he is.
You see, along the way, James meets what can only be called a very troubled cast of characters, Alice in Wonderland-meets-Blue Velvet in feel. There is Alessa, a troubled young woman with a past that has convinced her that she can never deserve happiness. Over there is Eddie, a heavyweight kid who has been bullied for as long as he can remember and is at about the end of his rope on the subject. Gleefully flitting in and out of sight is Laura, a slightly bratty little girl who seems to have known Mary…some time after her alleged death. Finally, we have Maria, who bears a shocking resemblance to Mary in the face. In terms of attitude, clothes and just about anything else you can name, she is wildly different. She also has a habit of dying, only to pop up a little later with no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to the subject of her demise.
But, in Silent Hill, humans are the minority. Here, the monsters rule the streets, the apartment buildings, and the far stranger places that should not exist. Whether it’s the Inmates with their hands sewn into their chests and mouths spewing acid or the Nurses who want you to take your medicine in the form of a steel pipe to the skull or the mysterious and persistent Pyramid Head, the unkillable avatar of destruction who stalks James mercilessly throughout the game, you’re likely to feel more of a chill from these horrors than even the first game’s macabre offerings.
A big reason for this is that these things are geared towards James’ psychology on an intimate level (the first in the Silent Hill franchise to take this tack), which are reflective of his conflicted feelings about Mary. At one point, even the broken radio gets in on the act by broadcasting more than just static. In one of the most warped offerings to ever function as a bonus puzzle, you’ll wind up picking a suddenly clear broadcast of a game show called “Trick or Treat.” Be sure to memorize details on your map and the various news articles you find along the way to get this one right.
You do have an impressive arsenal to fight back with: a simple plank of wood, a steel pipe of your own, and, of course, a handgun, shotgun and rifle, the official firearms of Silent Hill. While you will be fighting for your life during certain moments, combat is almost beside the point in this game. More attention is paid to the riddles, which will give you headaches the first time, even on the normal level. To solve them, you will need to literally look everywhere, open every door, search every open container, and scan every darkened corner with your flashlight.
The game’s story plays with the theme of memory, particularly the emotional aspects of it. As you progress through the game, you’ll find that Mary’s letter disappears a little more at a time whenever you look at it. You’ll see the ugly manifestations of Alessa’s painful memories (You’re going to have to fight one of them, in fact), deal with Eddie’s inner rage, and watch a place that James thinks hasn’t changed a bit turn into something more…weathered after a certain critical point near the end. Then there’s Maria, who could well be a figure from a case study of Jungian psychology…and that’s all I’m going to say about her.
The question that naturally pops into the gamer’s mind is the same one that was never answered in the first game: What is REALLY going on? True to its parent game, Silent Hill 2 won’t give you any more of an answer than the last game did. Indeed, with so much focus on the individual characters and their inner torment, you might say that it’s the least important of all the questions the game brings up. Still, there is the suggestion that it takes a certain twisted frame of mind to feel the call of Silent Hill…or that maybe this is all just going on in James’ mind (The red paper that gives James a headache whenever you arrive at a save point certainly suggests that last possibility).
Maybe nobody he sees in this place is real and the supernatural forces around this town are just playing with him…or maybe his mind is playing with his sanity. There are a couple of nasty messages written in red at roughly the midpoint of the game that suggest all these possibilities. In the end, the only thing that you will get an answer to at the end of this journey is to the question of what really happened between James and Mary.
In fact, you have a grand total of four endings, three of which are determined in an almost arbitrary fashion. Maintaining certain health levels, looking at certain objects, staying in one place too long, and going in certain directions all influence what ending the game gives you. I personally found all that a bit problematic in execution. If my Internet research is accurate on the subject, I wound up getting the worst ending of the game because of two actions. First, I kept looking at a certain object over and over again, thus implying that I wanted something bad to happen. All I was looking for was the key to whatever puzzle I was working on. Second, I hung around a certain “memory tunnel” for too long and heard a complete conversation from beginning to end. The only reason I did that was because I wasn’t sure if I was going to miss something important if I didn’t.
All this seems unnecessarily harsh to naturally curious players and I am grateful that the “Suffering” games, while incorporating many of this game’s elements, nevertheless executed this aspect with more rhyme and reason. I should mention that the one ending that isn’t affected by these dynamics can only be reached if you beat the game and give it a second runthrough (which would also be when you get certain ass-kicking weapons that were unavailable during your first playthrough).
My beefs about the ending mechanics aside, this game does have a gut-wrenching and compelling story to go with it. Even though I got the worst ending of the lot, I can’t say that it was a bad experience. The final touch of reading Mary’s complete letter at that ending made me cry at the ultimate tragedy lurking behind the central mystery of James and Mary, something I have never done on any video game ending in over thirty years of playing them. Any critic who likes to argue how video games are still just amusing novelties and not art just as worthy of notice as any television show or movie needs to watch or play this game. In James’ lonely search for his lost Mary, there beats a heart and craft that should inform the next generation of video games determined to go beyond.