When I was a kid, I absolutely hated the very idea of horror and was actually terrified of running into horror movies in video stores or just seeing pictures from them. Somewhere around the age of 12 or 13 that changed. I don’t really remember how or why, but somehow my brother and I got really interested in playing the game Silent Hill 2. We rented it for the Xbox and began playing. It was probably my first real taste of horror. It was terrifying, but I loved every moment of it.
I recently replayed the game as I’m probably not going to get the chance to do it again for a long time, if ever. I got a whole new experience by having to play it in black and white (as our new TV won’t work properly with the Xbox and thus there’s no color), and it honestly enhanced the experience. So, after revisiting the game years later, do I still think it holds up? The short answer is yes, but keep reading to find out why I think this game is such a brilliant masterpiece and why it’s so important to me personally. There will be spoilers for the game, so turn back now if you don’t want to see them.
What really can I say about this game that hasn’t been said a million times over before, though? Almost everyone heralds this game as a true masterpiece of psychological horror. Most people I’ve seen say this is the best game in the entire Silent Hill franchise, and while I haven’t exactly played any of the other games myself, I’m not sure I wouldn’t disagree. While the other games have elements to do with cults, this game is just pure psychological terror. No crazy cults involved, this is all about a personal journey into the psyche of protagonist James Sunderland.
The game starts when he gets a letter from his wife, who has been dead for three years. She tells him to come meet her in their “special place” in the town of Silent Hill, and thus James sets out to look for her, never quite sure whether or not he should believe what’s happening, but he does it anyway. There’s a small cast of characters in this game besides James: Angela Orosco, who he meets at the graveyard, and she seems a bit on the crazy side; Eddie Dombrowski, who he meets in the apartment building puking his guts out and ranting about how he didn’t kill anyone; Laura, a little girl who’s a bit of a brat and claims to have known James’ wife Mary; and finally there’s Maria, who looks just like Mary, but with a darker edge.
The first thing that jumps out at you about this game is its deep, entrenching atmosphere, which is key to horror, especially psychological horror. The whole town of Silent Hill has an oppressive fog that hangs over everything, making it impossible to see two feet in front of you. And the audio– god the audio. The first section of the game when you’re running down the forest path, you will hear things like footsteps that aren’t yours, or this horrifying sound like there’s a monster chasing after you. Even after playing the game multiple times and knowing there is absolutely no danger in that section, the audio just gets me every time, digging beneath my skin and clawing at my brain. This is why I believe for mediums that can utilize it, audio is the most important part for creating atmosphere in horror, whether it’s disturbing sounds or just pure silence.
To gush a little more about the auditory horror, there are just so many tiny little things throughout the different sections of the game, some of which have a random chance of happening and you won’t necessarily hear every time you play. In the apartments, you can hear the muffled sounds of a man crying. When you try to open the door to the stairwell where you will eventually confront Pyramid Head, it’s initially locked, but when you walk away you will hear the door shaking violently as if someone is trying to get through. In the hospital other world, you might randomly hear glass shattering at one point. In one of the bathrooms you can knock on a stall to find that it’s locked, as if occupied, and when you step away there’s a sound like someone falling and crying out in surprise. In the hotel, when you try to get up to the third floor and find it gated off, when you start to go back downstairs you can hear Mary’s voice very softly calling out to James.
While this is a PS2 era game and doesn’t have the best graphics or voice acting, I think the choppiness of it only adds to the atmospheric tone. This game also implements tank controls, which are a pain to deal with and it makes you struggle for control over the situation, but I also think that enhances the experience to some degree, adding an extra level of panic when things feel more out of your control. I think another huge strength of this game lies in its monster designs. For all intents and purposes, they are not difficult to defeat (I mean as long as you have the combat difficulty turned down like I usually do), but despite that, I am always terrified of being around them and I don’t want to get near them or have to fight them even when it’s easy and I know they can’t do a lot of damage. I just don’t want to be near those things. Especially the “abstract daddies” that show up in the hotel. Those things send me into a terrified panic every time I encounter them, and will always get a face full of shotgun.
There’s a lot of sexual symbolism with the monster designs in this game, which could be one big reason why they’re so unnerving to be around. And then of course there’s Pyramid Head which… I won’t get into that. He’s just terrifying and I remember having multiple nightmares about him when I was younger.
I haven’t yet touched much on the story of this game, merely its premise. That’s because the story isn’t really as important as the other aspects I’ve mentioned. This game is purely an atmospheric experience in horror. That’s not to say the story isn’t important. There is a story to be told here, but it’s a subtle and very personal story about James and trying to piece together what really happened. Spoiler warning for the twist at the end of the game incoming. We later find out that Mary is not, in fact, in Silent Hill, that she did indeed die. It might not have been three years ago like James said, though, that part is unclear.
But the truth is James is the one who killed Mary. This whole game is James working through that fact and trying to deal with it. And there are many, many, many different ways you can interpret the different elements presented in the game. Are the other characters real people, or are they also part of James’ psyche? Did he kill Mary 3 years ago, or was it just recently and this is the product of dealing with her death/murder right after it happened? A lot of things are left vague and up in the air, and I think that’s the best thing for it.
The best part about this game is probably its soundtrack. Every Silent Hill game has a beautiful soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka. I’m listening to the soundtrack now as I write this, in fact. The tracks can go from disturbing sounds of machinery or other odd, unidentifiable noises, to these beautiful emotional pieces that are so gentle and quiet you could fall asleep to them. I listened to this soundtrack almost constantly back in the day, and listening to it again gives me a sense of nostalgia, but it’s also still just really good. Within the game itself, the music pieces are used sparsely, most of them being part of the atmosphere, and when music does play in the game, you will remember it and it will shake you to your core.
There is one part of the game that stands out to me the most as the scariest part of the game. While I’ll give an honorable mention to the labyrinth hallway where Pyramid head is wandering which I refused to go into because I didn’t want to run into him, there’s a part in the prison area when you’re in the cell blocks. There aren’t any monsters or anything around, but when you get close to one cell, you will start to hear a strange and frightening sound. It’s like a thumping, and then a deep, raspy voice will whisper ritual over and over again. James will turn and stare into the cell this is coming from, but you don’t see anything in there. There is nothing in that cell, but James keeps acting like there is. You can pull a gun out and start shooting, and he seems to be shooting something that is very, very tall considering how far up he’s looking. And then eventually he starts looking and shooting down, as if whatever it was he was shooting has fallen, and then you hear the screams as you continue to shoot, until James finally stops and the invisible thing is apparently dead. I don’t know what it was that was there, or why James could see it but the player can’t, but to me that is the most horrifying part of the entire game. Because you just don’t know what happened.
I will always and forever love this game, and I’m so glad it was the first horror thing I ever experienced. Was I too young to play this game when I did? Probably absolutely yes, but I certainly don’t regret it (minus the Pyramid Head nightmares I got from it). I’m glad this was my introduction to horror, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best pieces of horror ever created, and many other people would agree with that sentiment. While I don’t think I could ever achieve something anywhere close to this, this is the kind of horror I strive to create with my own writing. It set the bar for me, and perhaps that’s an incredibly high bar to aim for, but I will always try my best to at least get close to it.
If you have any interest in horror at all, I definitely recommend checking out this game. Even if you can’t play it for yourself, which at this point might be a tricky thing to do if you don’t own any original consoles it was on, go look up gameplay for it on YouTube or something. It’s worth experiencing any way you can. Or at the very least, go listen to the soundtrack.
In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. You promised you’d take me there again some day, but you never did. Well, I’m alone there now, in our special place– waiting for you.