Silent Hill 2 is pretty fascinating from all angles. After nine or ten hours played and one ending unlocked, I can say that confidently. Maybe even intelligently. It is a marvel of the horror gaming genre, as well as what a lot of “scary” games–now and forthcoming–should aim for in terms of story-telling, atmosphere, and sound design. It doesn’t have to be jump scares all the time. However, no one should try to ape its combat system, as that aspect continues to be the worst part of this survival horror franchise and should be stripped out completely in lieu of more puzzles or just quiet exploration. Everything else though? Psychologically unnerving, but in a good way. Probably.
Before we go any further, let it be said: spoilers. I’m going to be talking openly and veraciously about what happens in Silent Hill 2, from beginning to middle to end, taking out my handy magnifying glass and leering at everything not covered by thick fog, unless it’s too disturbing to do so. If you have not fully experienced this game, just stop reading and go play it. It’s not terribly long. In fact, I was checking out the Xbox 360’s Achievements list for the version included in the most recent HD collection, which you probably shouldn’t get, and one of them is for beating the game in under three hours. Oh my. It took me just around ten; however, it’s not a game one should rush through on their first visit, but it also doesn’t overstay its welcome. So go play, let Silent Hill’s disturbing horrors take over your mind, let the unsettling sound design raise the hairs on your arm, let the bosses be bothersome–and then come back here for some discussion.
From what I can tell, no one goes to Silent Hill voluntarily. In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland finds himself drawn to the eerie town after receiving a mysterious letter from his wife Mary. One minor problem: she’s been dead for several years now. That’s the simple setup and main goal for the whole game: find Mary. But as James progresses and meets both monsters and men hidden in the infamous PlayStation 2 fog tech shrouding the town in secrecy, another story begins to be told, one without many words, but lingering there on the edge of reality nonetheless. This is all about James, not Mary. For James is a Very Bad Man™, an antihero, a sad stick of a human being, and deserves to be punished. Everything stems from his horribleness.
See, Mary was ill and dying. The game never explicitly says–how shocking!–from what, but you get the impression that it’s not the flu. Just some bad business. And then Mary died. Unfortunately, James killed her before the disease could and then blocked out the memory. Mary did not die three years ago; she got sick three years ago, and he killed her very recently. He goes to Silent Hill to face his literal demons; in fact, once you learn this, the original letter from Mary disappears from your inventory, solidifying the reason for being there. It was not a crime of compassion, but rather selfishness and shame, because James no longer wanted to look at his sick wife being sick–the disease was apparently quite disfiguring–and began to find himself attracted to the nurses in the hospital, his love going astray.
Along the way, James comes across other people trapped in Silent Hill. There’s Angela, an evasive young girl who we later learned was abused by her father. Eddie, who is puking his guts out upon first meeting him, seems to have a bit of a mean streak because the world was always ragging on him for his weight. Laura, a young girl, just keeps running away from James at every chance–and rightly so. Lastly, there’s Maria, a woman he finds in the park; strangely, she resembles Mary both physically and in her voice, but she’s also different in minor and major ways. To me, these people are not just here for shits and giggles, but represent a vital portion of James as a whole: Eddie is his uncontrollable hatred of others, suicidal Angela is his hatred of himself, Maria is the love he has for himself, and Laura is everything innocent that remains, for she is able to run around Silent Hill carefree, not seeing a single monster. Or they could be lost souls, struggling with their own problems at the same time James is.
Of course, you can’t talk about Silent Hill 2 without taking a look at everyone’s favorite big baddie to cosplay as–Pyramid Head, the iconic blade-wielding monster. He pops up now and then to torment James some more by killing Maria, a woman that closely resembles his Mary, over and over and over again. You fight Pyramid Head all by your lonesome a few times in the game, but you can never damage him, never stop him. Basically, Pyramid Head represents the fact that James can’t avoid his guilt, that the selfish murder of his dying wife will haunt him always. He’s pretty terrifying, especially his first appearance, which implies that he is sexually assaulting one of the nurse monsters, which adds to James’ reprehensible behavior; you can over-analyze as you see fit.
For the majority of the game–let’s say 75%–you know nothing. You are just a man named James in a strange town looking for your wife. You come across monsters, you find other people trapped, and you work your way from building to building, looking for answers. It’s only when you finally get that big answer that you can begin to question everything revolving around James, including the man himself.
A lot of all the above theories are implied or simply hidden in the fog of one’s mind, and without any kind of examination, Silent Hill 2 comes across as merely a man trapped in Purgatory, fighting off or running from scary monsters. By that alone, it’s still a fantastic journey, but the fact that it is so layered is beyond rewarding. Other games in the franchise are more straightforward, focusing on a cult and the obvious evil powers floating around the fictitious town, though I believe Silent Hill: Downpour dives into some psychological issues. I find Silent Hill 2 fascinating for the questions it doesn’t answer or bring up or even hone in all; everything is there for interpretation, and it’s up for you to figure out how the story goes.
Chances are high I’ll never play Silent Hill 2 again. The “Leave” ending is canonical for me, but I looked up some of the other ways this goes down–even the jokey ones–on YouTube, and have seen everything I wanted to see, including how the puzzles change on different difficulty settings. At some point, I’ll move on to see what Silent Hill 3 is all about, but nothing will ever be as successful at burrowing into my brain like James Sunderland’s visit to a foggy town to heal himself of the horrible choices he made. Nothing.