Those Silent Hills
In a time where there is an emphasis on dropping story-driven experiences in video games, in favour of multiplayer, or battle royale game modes, it is important to remember how effective video games are as a storytelling medium.
Silent Hill 2, perhaps the finest entry of the series, revolutionised storytelling in video gaming to the point where other games have struggled to replicate its supremacy. In fact new games like Call of Duty Black Ops 4 are dropping single player campaigns in favour of expanding their multiplayer offering.
While Call of Duty and Silent Hill 2 are two entirely different games, it is concerning that Activision are willing to discard a single player campaign so readily. Could this be the beginning of the end of story-driven video game experiences?
In this feature, I’ll breakdown some of the key narrative moments in Silent Hill 2 to explain why this game was revolutionary and why AAA developers must continue to fund story-driven video games.
James Sunderland Is The Centrepiece of This Story
Appropriately, in the first controllable scene of Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, the protagonist of the game, is staring at a reflection of himself in a mirror. Perhaps, at the earliest point conceivable, this is Team Silent’s way of telling us that this game is all about self-reflection?
Regardless, James broke the mould of the stereotypical video game character at the time. He isn’t a superhuman, one-man-army, instead, he’s an ordinary person, with limited combat abilities – and we know very little about him and his motivations.
The lack of background story is a deliberate design decision by Team Silent. You’re supposed to go on this journey with James to discover who he is, why he is in Silent Hill itself and what his motivations are.
At the start of the game, my perception of James was a blank canvas – although this changed and evolved significantly as the story progressed.
In the final phases of the game, several things about James become clear:
- James killed his wife Mary, who battled a terminal illness by suffocating her with a pillow
- He was sexually frustrated, and deep down, resented Mary for her illness and increasing reliance on him
- James subconsciously sought punishment for what he did to Mary
- He repressed his memory of killing his wife and her illness
Could The Town of Silent Hill Represent Purgatory?
The town of Silent Hill is a fascinating place and I’ve yet to be convinced exactly what it is. But one thing for certain is that it is a place where one goes to be judged or to exact penance. One interpretation is that the dreary town isn’t actually a real place – it’s simply a manifestation of the subconscious with elements that represent the ‘demons’ James is battling with.
Another much simpler explanation is that Silent Hill is literally Hell on Earth. You are called to Silent Hill to be judged for your actions – or it will come to you.
Sex Is a Common Theme In This Game
Sexual frustration is one of the key themes in Silent Hill 2. Maria, a figment of James’ imagination, who uncannily resembles his late wife, is an ultra-sexualised entity. She wears provocative clothing as well as engaging in flirtatious behaviour with James and fundamentally, is healthy, cheerful, fun and sexually attractive – everything that James thought Mary wasn’t.
Almost every single monster in the game represents sexual frustration in some shape or form. The clear majority are female-shaped, but specifically, the nurses wear provocative clothing and die with their legs spread very widely apart. The mannequin monster is essentially just two pairs of female legs, and finally, the flesh lip – if you look closely their mouths could represent a woman’s lips or vagina.
Four Characters, Three Otherworlds
In your journey across Silent Hill you are frequently thrust into the ‘otherworld’, a hellish realm of eternal torment and damnation. It wasn’t until I played the game a couple of times after beating it that I realised there were different iterations of the Otherworld depending on whose you entered. You see, in Silent Hill 2, each otherworld is unique depending on whose you are in.
Eddie Dombrowski, a deeply troubled, insecure person who is self-conscious about his weight and appearance as a consequence of being bullied his entire life. His otherworld is cold and dark, perhaps suggesting the persona he has had to adopt to survive the bullying he’s endured. There is also an abundance of what appears to be meat hanging from the roof, which could suggest something about his gluttony.
Vastly different from Eddie’s otherworld is Angela Orsoco’s. She’s a young teenage runaway who’s a victim of repeated sexual assault – and as such, her otherworld has pink, skin like walls. In fact, the room where you defeat the abstract daddy boss has 23 pistons in the walls, which are phallic objects and suggest sexual penetration. In addition, it is inferred the abstract daddy boss is a manifestation of Angela’s Dad; the source of her sexual assaults.
The otherworld you spend the most time in is James’ and much like his state of mind, it’s dark, foggy, gloomy – and most importantly – almost empty. James is alone in his thoughts, he’s confused and his subconscious is trying hard to prevent him from discovering the truth that he murdered his own wife.
Gurneys with white pillows and white sheets appear frequently, symbolising Mary’s illness and James’ role suffocating her. This otherworld undergoes a transition slightly later in the game when James finds out he killed Mary. Water becomes more prevalent, suggesting that James is essentially, drowning in his sorrow.
Finally, Laura, the young girl you encounter frequently throughout the game is very different to the rest of the characters you come across. Like all children, Laura is innocent and pure, and as such, doesn’t see any of monstrosities James, Angela or Eddie see. She sees Silent Hill for what it is – an abandoned town.
Addressing The Pyramid-shaped Guy In The Room
Silent Hill 2 introduced one of the most iconic monsters in video game history, with Pyramid Head, a hulking monstrosity with a pyramid-shaped object draped over its head. As well as its terrifying appearance, the creature was totally indestructible. No matter you did, no matter how many bullets you put into it, Pyramid Head just didn’t go down – and that made the experience all the more terrifying.
Pyramid Head is a fascinating part of the game. It’s designed to be a manifestation of James’ desire to be punished for the death of Mary. It could also represent some of the darker parts of James, so for instance, the part of James that is capable of murder. Pyramid Head commits violent atrocities throughout the game – such as, killing Maria, repeatedly.
But perhaps one of the most unnerving things Pyramid Head does involves sexually assaulting several mannequin monsters. From this it can be inferred that Pyramid Head represents James’ deep-seated sexual frustrations.
A Timeless Classic
Silent Hill 2 showcases that video games can convey complex themes and narratives, entrenched in deep symbolism. It tackles difficult and uncomfortable topics in a world where developers are under pressure to churn out the next killer-app. While the gameplay is hardly revolutionary, the way the story is delivered is what makes this game stand out after almost 17 years.
Finally, Silent Hill 2 clearly demonstrates to me that AAA developers must continue to fund story-driven video game experiences. This game has stuck with me for a long time and I frequently hold it up a shining example of what video games can achieve if given enough time, resource and effort.
What do you guys think? Share your ideas in the comments section.