Sunday, 9 October 2016

October Nightmares II #9: Silent Hill 2 (2001) - Taking Me to the Special Place

There’s no sense in putting this one off any longer. It was always inevitable that Silent Hill 2 would make an appearance somewhere in this marathon. This is the game – one of the best survival horror games ever made, and one of the greatest explorations of suffering put to any medium. It’s the Nineteen Eighty-Four of gaming: a deeply unpleasant experience which serves as an exercise in unending human misery, and yet is somehow strangely beautiful. Protagonist James Sunderland’s search for the wife he believed had died from cancer three years previously taps into a universal experience, and lends emotional resonance to his journey into the depths of Silent Hill. Even if a smarter person would have thrown up their hands and said “fuck this, I’m going to go home and learn to wank with my left hand.”

Silent Hill 2 is a champion of the notion that the implied is scarier than the explicit. I appreciate that sort of philosophy is usually something of a cop-out; like an episode of Doctor Who where they do a Godzilla scale alien that happens to be invisible. But it’s not a cop-out out in Silent Hill’s case, as the explicit is still very much front and centre of the experience. Look beyond the menagerie of twisted monstrosities and bombastic industrial soundtrack, however, and you’ll see what makes SH2 truly nightmarish. It’s the storytelling through the environment and psychological cues; moments like the bit of graffiti next to an unopenable door which reads ‘To Hell’, or the creepily ambiguous "There was a hole here…it's gone now". Or that James’ character model is used for various random corpses found around town – a moment of developer laziness which adds weight to the overall theme. A thousand imagined stories unfold in the player’s mind each time he explores Silent Hill 2’s dilapidated world and sees a macabre piece of graffiti or unusual piece of scenery. 

From the very beginning the atmosphere is so thick it has to be laid on with the same trowel they use to put the make-up on the cast of Geordie Shore. Feeding back into the notion of SH2 favouring a less is more approach, there are a lot of moments in the game where nothing actually happens other than the suggestion of horror.  This mostly takes the form of ghoulish background noises that don’t relate to anything you’ll actually encounter, and so it’s left up to your imagination to conjure all manner of insidious scenarios. One particularly infamous example occurs during the hospital section, just outside of the basement which has been made inaccessible by debris. Stick around and you’ll be treated to a repeating sound effect which resembles that scene from Calvaire in which the pig gets gang-banged by the inbred villagers.

This isn’t to say that Silent Hill 2 shirks its responsibilities as a survival horror game. It plays as a conventional late-nineties/early-two-thousands survival horror game should, placing emphasis on exploring puzzle-like environments whilst avoiding anything with teeth bigger than its head. Combat is appropriately difficult, especially if you play it properly and stick the game on hard – that way the ammo for the guns is extremely scarce and you have to rely on the clunky melee combat. As is par for course in old-school survival horror, melee combat is the sort of affair in which each swing of your weapon feels like you’re trying to play tennis on the surface of Jupiter. The weapon selection plays into the ‘every-man’ protagonist set-up, with the majority resembling exactly what a desperate survivalist would pick up and utilise (i.e. wooden plank, lead pipe, etc).

And of course, there are puzzles. Silent Hill may be a dank little town that's about as welcoming as the Annual Hermit Gala, but it's still going to make you work for its horror. What are you, some kind of princess? The 'puzzles' in SH2 are as logic defying as the ones presented in point-and-click adventure games, mind. One, for example, sees you attempting to recover a key from a confined space. So the logical thing to do, therefore, is find five keys which open a locked box, obtain a strand of hair from said box, and then combine this hair with a fishing hook allowing you to reach the key. Here’s a combination for you Team Silent: Eye sockets + Thumbs = still more fun than these fucking puzzles.

Minor niggles which can be attributed to the fact the game was an early Playstation 2 game aside, SH2 is a definitive horror experience. It’s intentionally dreary - combining depressing characters (the abused Angela, and Eddie, the nice guy who is losing his mind) with a truly oppressive world. There are times when the game can be as uncomfortable an experience as joking to a Syrian Revolutionary that he's momma's so fat she fights for both the American and the Russian proxies. Silent Hill 2 is a psychological trip in which nothing is as it seems – this is a prison conjured by James’ own mind after all. Hence why the randy bastard spends half the game fighting nurse-zombies with massive tits. Visually, the game has aged far more gracefully than others of its era. Perhaps it’s because Silent Hill is a perpetual shit hole; a world eaten away by rust, debris, and grime. The term that comes to mind is ‘industrial-porn’. Scratch away this veneer of dilapidation and there’ll be an equally grim world of blood and guts beneath.

Of course, no review of SH2 could be complete without a mention of Pyramid Head. The butcher with the massive helmet - who gets his defining moment in a brutal reference to Blue Velvet - embodies the horror of Silent Hill and provides the player with a personification of the hatred that’s constantly weighing down on them. He’s all the dark aspects of James’ psyche come to life - the player’s too if they’re doing that ‘just for fun’ play through in which they try to kill all the enemies with the hyper spray.