Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s entry to the list is an elder statesman of the survival horror genre; the granddaddy of great modern spook-ems.
#20. SILENT HILL 2, by Ben Newman
What really keeps people up at night? What niggles at society’s heels when it isn’t looking? Where does horror really come from? These are big questions to ask, but thankfully, 2001’s Silent Hill 2 has already answered them. Following on from 1998’s surprising Silent Hill for the PlayStation, Konami’s Team Silent had amassed quite the reputation.
What was planned out as a mere Resident Evil clone, Silent Hill subverted its contemporary’s reliance on jump scares for deep, emotive horror. Despite Silent Hill’s cult-hit status, the industry-shaking impact of its sequel could not have been estimated, especially given that the ripples of its ruminations can be felt today.
Silent Hill 2 opens with the game’s plain-looking protagonist, James Sunderland, staring into the mirror, touching his face. James has just driven into town to meet his wife Mary. All appears well, except for the fact that Mary died two years beforehand, and James has recently received a letter from her asking to meet him in “their special place.” James takes the news in his stride, before descending on the blanketed fog of Silent Hill to find a wife who he knows is dead.
Evidently, not a lot has happened in James’s life after Mary moved on. Here, though, is the first warning that not is all right with James, nor the town which he will find himself lost in.
The town of Silent Hill is breath-taking, but not in the traditional sense. Walking through the game’s carefully disarranged corridors and endless, unflinching ocean of fog is suffocating; to call Silent Hill 2’s environments unnerving would be somewhat of an understatement, you can feel its influence seeping through your pores. The town feels as though it is stretching out of the screen, mostly due to the game’s superb sense of place and environmental design.
This combination, amalgamating the unknown with the familiar, is what carries the game’s unshakable horror. Wandering through the empty backstreets and dilapidated apartments of Silent Hill gives off the sense that the place was once habitable before descending into unquantifiable, strange disrepair. In Silent Hill 2, the town feels like a character in and of itself, goading everlastingly.
Rounding off the attention to detail of the environments is the title’s sound design. Just standing in the game is deeply unsettling, met with a never-ending drone, dispersed only with anxious silence or unrelenting industrial music. The game’s overall ambience is rounded off by its music, which is gorgeously—or perhaps horrendously, in some cases—detailed.
Gameplay-wise, Silent Hill 2 is rough. However, at the risk of sounding controversial, that doesn’t matter in the game’s case and, in fact, reinforces James’s strong sense of characterisation. James is not a fighter, he’s an average guy. He tires quickly, his running looks strange, the swinging of a melee weapon and the use of guns feels awkward, but these actions would naturally function and appear as ungainly in a soft, unseasoned man. While playing the game may not feel good in a strictly narrow, gameplay-first sense, the jankiness of the gameplay embeds the player in James’s shoes, along with making each altercation with the game’s enemies feel riskier.
Silent Hill 2 does run off the same Resident Evil-inspired routine as its predecessor: conserve resources, solve puzzles, and unlock doors. While the central gameplay loop is obvious and, by today’s standards, played out, the game manages to keep the loop entertaining by its penchant for sound design, tension, and environments.
Combat, though, does not have the same sense of satisfying conclusion as its Resident Evil counterpart. Following a fight with one of Silent Hill 2’s myriad of enemies, players can end up feeling a little drained and, well, sickened. Silent Hill 2 is not fun to play, but games are not meant solely as avenues of mindless entertainment.
Silent Hill 2’s story nestles into the creases of your brain. Running wholeheartedly with cinematic influences ranging from David Lynch to Jacob’s Ladder, as well as a healthy dose of genre fiction references, the plot comes across as especially nuanced. What the game does best, though, is matching symbolism with the story in a way that doesn’t come across as heavy-handed.
Without wanting to spoil the story too much, the symbolism of the game’s monsters, characters, and the erratic behaviour of James himself leave the player, sometimes unconsciously, questioning where horror really lies. For me personally, when I put down the controller after viewing the credits for the first time, the horror that lingered wasn’t from the monsters or environments of Silent Hill, but from James himself.
The Everyman, a broken-hearted victim, slowly sows distrust in the player. No other game manages to have the patience to have this effect players, planting seeds that sour. If the Everyman is this unnerving, what does that say about us?
James’s characterisation has drawn comparisons to Crime & Punishment’s Raskolnikov which speaks volumes for the depths of Team Silent’s writing and development behind Silent Hill 2. 18 years later, there is not a video game character I think about as much as James Sunderland. I’ve felt sympathy for him, I’ve felt repulsed by him, I’ve felt him as some sort of Byronic hero, but also a vapid, cold symbol of masculinity.
I’m still not sure how I feel about James, and I probably never will know. Combined with one of the best stories and characterisations in the medium, Silent Hill 2 is so carefully and lovingly crafted that players cannot help but appreciate what Team Silent has done. Silent Hill 2 is a reminder that horror doesn’t lie with the boogeymen and jump scares of the world but lurks somewhere deeper, often where it is least suspected.
MORE HORROR AND THRILLS
Silent Hill 2 represents a hugely popular genre here at OnlySP, and several other survival horror or thriller games have featured as part of our 50 Favourite games so far.
There are skin-crawling titles like Dead Space, Hellblade and Alan Wake that, at times, dive into psychological horror inspired by the greats. Additionally, horror can also be found in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which takes an adventure game approach to the scares. Further afield of classic survival-horror are the horror-tinged action games BioShock and Gears of War. Similarly, the Soulsborne games are terrifying in their own ways, particularly Bloodborne.
Recent additions to the canon include The Evil Within 2 and the revived Resident Evil series with both Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Resident Evil 2 Remake. And of course, though Days Gone eschews the psychological depths of Silent Hill, the game’s whopping sales success is likely to prove as a boon for the survival-horror genre over all.
Not to mention there are several more horror titles coming up on our 50 Favourite games list …
Thanks again for joining us with this week’s entry. Next week changes things up again with a look at a different genre that is also well represented amongst the most cherished single-player games. For now, why not share your own favourite survival-horror games in the comments below? Don’t forget you can follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.