Any game that inspires fierce debate as to the particular qualities of condensed water requires careful examination. Silent Hill 2, which is twenty years old this week—and which claws at your nerves even now, leaving a clammy stain on your mood and making you wish for the noisy company of friends—is one such game. The argument arose in 2012, with the release of Silent Hill HD Collection (a generous name, given that it offered only the second and third titles in the series), on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The signature mist that hangs around, like a headache, in the town of Silent Hill had grown thin and had gusted back a few crucial yards; it didn’t feel damp, as it did on the PlayStation 2, where you could taste it at the back of your throat. Masahiro Ito, the art director of the original, was as galled as anyone, decrying the hardware. “PS3 has a weak point for using ‘translucent texture,’” he said.
A patch was issued for the PS3 version, firming up the fog, but if you can get your hands on the original, and, better yet, play it on an old television, pearled in the fuzz of a lowly definition, then do. This past week, I have played Silent Hill 2 in HD, via PlayStation Now; or, rather, I have streamed it, a practice oddly suited to a game about, among other things, the breakdown of communication. Just as the dwindling wisps of the HD reissue had exposed, in some cases, the edges of illusion (the unfinished far shore of a lake, for instance, as if the town were trapped in a bubble, like the one in The Truman Show), the streamed experience reveals a sort of unreality. Occasionally, the screen would crease and crack, and the sound of footsteps would muffle into silence, but it seemed only to heighten the feeling that this was all a bad dream.
The dreamer is James Sunderland, a man who receives a letter from his deceased wife, Mary. In it, she beckons him to Silent Hill, where, in happier times—before she was stricken with an incurable disease—they once holidayed. “You promised you’d take me there again someday,” it reads. “Well I’m alone there now.” James, of course, was not the first person to be lured to a place with the phantom promise of something too good to be true; just over a week before Silent Hill 2, another horror crept out, centred on a kindred soul, who was also driven by guilt and drummed by self-doubt, thrust into the presence of the dead. His name was Luigi. And if only James had possessed the foresight to buy a Nintendo GameCube and a copy of Luigi’s Mansion, he could have benefitted from the primary lesson it bequeathed: Don’t Believe Letters Written by Ghosts.
In both cases, you sense a character wanting to believe the plot—smelling the conceit on some level, but pinching their nose and pressing ahead. (The two might have profited from trading places; Luigi’s vacuum cleaner would have made short work of the mist, and if all James had to worry about was King Boo, the glowing glob of marshmallow squatting at the heart of the mansion, well, a working over with a steel pipe would have done fine.) In any event, at the beginning we find James in a public toilet, on the outskirts of town, staring into a begrimed mirror and raking his fingers softly over his face, as though he were testing its authenticity—wondering if it might slip.
There are a couple of things worthy of mention in those opening minutes. One is that lingering hint of falseness: the suggestion that these characters warrant closer inspection, that their real intentions, and their private pains, lie behind masks, and that they themselves were the first to be fooled. Then there is the camera, which lurks and sways behind a urinal, like a drunk prowler—just as likely to pounce as puke. As James goes outside, it pulls back, framing him in wide-angle against a backdrop of dripping trees. It looks like an Andrew Wyeth landscape, where the emotion is etiolated and desolate, and the sky is an off-white wasteland. If you want to know why Silent Hill 2 should have so enduring a hold on our memory, why it should menace our peace of mind with such surgical precision, the answers dwell in this discomfiting ambiguity. Perhaps the problem, as Masahiro Ito had it, is in our hardware; we have a weak point for translucent texture.
If the power of Silent Hill 2 remains difficult to pin down, even as the years slide by, we may look to the years themselves. Indeed, it’s only as other games have come and gone—taking hastily scribbled notes from James’s travails but failing to gaze, so to speak, into the mirror—that we begin to make out its odd shape. Back in January, we got The Medium, a horror from Bloober Team about a psychic, called Marianne, who receives a telephone call (from beyond the grave, naturally, where else?) and is coaxed to an abandoned hotel resort. Its title was a perfect description of its diluted air; everything in it was medium—the story, the characters, the setting; the studio even employed the services of Akira Yamaoka, the longtime Silent Hill composer, to write half the score. The moment I saw that Bloober Team had piped in their own fog, by way of homage, I gave up all hope. The game was a pale imitation precisely because it sought only to imitate the paleness of a superior work.
Marianne has in common with James the irritating tick of narrating the freaky sights that bestrew her adventure; consider James, whose thoughts appear as text, as he finds a smear of gore on the tarmac: “Are these marks… blood!?” Only, the game that enfolds this goofy reaction is one whose narrative refuses to offer easy signposting. Whereas The Medium expounds the life out of its subjects, Silent Hill 2 respects your intelligence and asks that you do your own interpretive spadework. Why is it, for example, that James is beset by disfigured and sexualised nurses; by a beast in a butcher’s apron, whose head is clamped within a pyramid of iron; and by ghouls that spasm out of the gloom, bound in straightjackets of flesh, like drifters from the dread realms of Francis Bacon?
Decode the clues, and you find that each hellish image is a kind of bespoke torture, cooked up to punish James—or at least to probe his chilly façade—and to key us into his past. “Looking at this makes me feel like someone’s groping around inside my skull,” he says, after discovering the little red rectangle of paper that allows us to save our progress. Maybe someone is. The nurses, you discover, could have something to do with Mary’s hospital stay, and with James’s sexual deprivation (and his resultant shame) during her long illness. Jump forward a decade, to the release of Dark Souls, and this method of narrative sleuthing—whereby you don’t uncover a clear plot so much as map the emotional terrain—would become part of a prized new genre.
Its creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, delights in making physicians of his players, inviting us to palpate the landscape for old wounds, as they suppurate through time. But where Miyazaki is drawn to his settings, alighting on individuals but latching onto a wider world, Silent Hill 2 is far more interested in the wounds of its characters, and playing it feels like groping around inside their skulls. James soon meets Angela, a timorous young woman, in a cemetery, and their conversation, fraught with apprehension, seems to take place long-distance; it suffers from fretlag. Note the pause, after James explains to her that he is lost, followed by her repetition of the word—“Lost?”—as though she were trying to translate it. The script, by Hiroyuki Owaku, is rich in double entendres, and when Angela says, “I thought my father and brother were here, but I can’t find them either,” you think, You can’t find them in Silent Hill, or you can’t find them here, among the headstones?
Whenever I watch that scene, it hangs around like the smell of old smoke; I can’t waft it away, days later. Takayoshi Sato, the C.G.I. and character artist, dresses Angela in a knitted cream jumper and darkens her face with shadows, as if she had emerged from a burning house. Sure enough, we find out later on that, for her, the town abounds not with nurses but with fire. “You see it, too?” she says, retreating up a blazing staircase. “For me, it’s always like this.” What haunts Angela, we later learn, is a history of sexual abuse, and any foolish notion that we, as players, might extinguish her torment is put down, by Angela, with a backdraught of mocking questions: “Or maybe, you think you can save me. Will you love me? Take care of me? Heal all my pain?”
If there remains something unknowable about Angela, it’s because the recounting of personal tragedy isn’t what defines her; she is one of several characters whose trauma has been bent and reforged into a trap. That is why your heart breaks when she apologises to James, saying, “It’s not your problem,” and why you leave the game less in the grip of fear than in a fog of melancholy. What the game shares most tellingly with Dark Souls is a relationship to failure. Where Miyazaki would relish in reacquainting us with the mechanical variety—waving the words “YOU DIED” at us, in a typeface of block capitals and blood—what ended up taking hold of your spirit was sadness, with a dose of existential dread. Not quite YOU DIED but YOU TRIED, and look where it got you. And so it is in Silent Hill, where the worst thing of all is getting stuck.
It is true of Silent Hill 2—as of, say, a painting by Goya—that you ought not to expend much energy hoping for more where that came from. The developer was Team Silent, a division of Konami that I like to think worked, under broken lighting, in a secret basement somewhere in Japan. However, if you watch the making-of documentary, included on the second disc of the game’s European edition, you will be shocked at the brightness on display—not just in the offices but on the faces, genial and joking, of the developers. Sato, in particular, is so pleasantly soft-spoken and quick to smile that you can’t imagine him drooping through the doors of Konami, lugging a copy of “Crime and Punishment” (from which some of the game’s more fertile themes are drawn) under one arm.
The fact that the studio is no more is no matter. You need only look to the plot of Silent Hill 3—with its return to the covens and cults of the series’ debut, and its reliance on graphical effects to gross us out—to see that the second game was its own kind of fluke. Team Silent, as Akira Yamaoka has said, comprised a group of staff members who had all failed at other projects; they had intended to leave the company, until, against the odds, Silent Hill was a hit. Watch them, in the documentary, sketching out their nightmares into spiral notebooks, or sitting in a blissed-out fugue and strumming on a guitar, and it’s hard not to conclude that much of James Sunderland’s journey was the result of restless dreaming on the part a talented group of misfits.
Not that we aren’t in need of them now. Twenty years on, Silent Hill 2 is still the most adult game I’ve played, which has nothing to do with its violence and everything to do with its ideas. I was shocked to find that the British Board of Film Classification granted it a mere “15” certificate, citing the fact that “there is no opportunity to dismember enemies or to inflict damage on them after death, as the bodies disappear quickly.” It is perhaps less the fault of the BBFC than it is with the health of horror in video games that we care more for dismemberment than we do for real damage—which, in a town like Silent Hill, is inflicted long after death, and never disappears quickly. But, beyond that, it’s tough to imagine a story-driven game from a big studio now that’s as happy to let such murky matters hang fire. All this time and I still can’t decide if James ever found what he was searching for. He does meet a woman who, in a Hitchcockian twist, looks a lot like Mary. Her hair is blonde, rather than brunette, and her name is Maria, but she knows things that only Mary would know. When he asks her if she is in fact someone new, she says, “I am… if you want me to be.” Back comes the reply: “All I want from you is an answer!” No chance.