In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill. You promised me you’d take me there again someday. But you never did. Well, I’m alone there now…in our ‘special place’…waiting for you….
A little internet archaeology shows that, while many gamers anticipated an eventual return to Silent Hill, the reality-defying town haunted by air raid sirens, all-consuming fog and the justifiably pissed-off spirit of a tormented adolescent girl, nobody knew quite what to expect from a second offering in the series. Many thought small, speculating the return of original protagonist Harry Mason and local cop Cybil Bennett, perhaps in a 2-part, interlocking storyline as seen in Resident Evil 2.
Konami and Team Silent, the ad hoc development team behind the first four Silent Hill titles, had bigger plans in mind for the series. Silent Hill 2 (subtitled “Restless Dreams” in its later, expanded editions) opens with a shot of a mirror, but the face looking back at us through the filthy glass is a complete stranger. He tentatively touches his face, as if he, too, is surprised by what he sees. The lighting is poor; the man’s eyes are sunken in black pools of shadow. Eventually, he straightens, and the player finds herself in a disgusting roadside bathroom (toilets, particularly the nasty ones, are a series staple). Exiting, she is treated to the monologue quoted above, a passage from a letter written by a woman who has long since died.
Silent Hill 2 is, rightfully, among the most analyzed video games, as well as the most popular and critically acclaimed game of the series. Stubborn contrarian that I am, I rank it below entries 3 and 4 in the Silent Hill saga, but it remains one of gaming’s most finely crafted and surprising narratives. It follows the story of James Sunderland, who has returned to Silent Hill, a town that he used to visit with his wife Mary, to discover whether a letter that he has received from her–a letter bearing Mary’s name, in her own handwriting, on the front of the envelope; a letter that suggests she might still, inconceivably, be alive, waiting for him in Silent Hill–could bear any truth. “A dead person can’t write a letter,” James narrates. “Mary died of that damn disease three years ago.” Yet here he is, searching for Mary in their ‘special place’…. “This whole town was our special place,” James continues.
Further confounding player expectations, Silent Hill 2 features barely a mention of the heretical cult that dominated the first game’s narrative or of Alessa, the poor, abused girl who was destined to birth the cult’s god. None of the original characters make a return appearance, even as cameos. Instead, Silent Hill 2 focuses its lens squarely on James. Like an Errol Morris documentary, the camera’s eye is unflinching, unrelenting, determined to uncover the truth, no matter how deeply it’s been buried.
And boy, does it. In what would remain gaming’s most memorable plot twist for six years, only dethroned by BioShock‘s “Would you kindly?” Silent Hill 2 concludes with the startling revelation that James was in fact responsible for Mary’s death three years ago. There is no kindly ghost inviting him to return to her side; it is James’ guilt that brings him back to Silent Hill, to the scene of his most shameful memory. Yet, for all the praise that players heap on this well-turned twist, this revelation is frequently misconstrued–discussions of the game, even among professional critics, describe James as a murderer, while the narrative implies that Mary’s death was an act of euthanasia. There are a few variations on the fateful moment, depending on the actions the player takes during the game, but certain lines of dialogue remain constant: “I told you that I wanted to die, James. I wanted the pain to end,” Mary reassures, just before the ending cinematic. James’ response varies, but it’s always equivocating: “You also said that you didn’t want to die. The truth is I hated you. I wanted you out of the way. I wanted my life back….”
The truth is that, even if James was complying with Mary’s wishes when he killed her, even if she was already on her deathbed, he cannot feel at peace about his actions–because, regardless of what Mary said she wanted, James wanted her dead, too. He feels like a murderer, even if it was a compassionate killing, and that is why he is made to suffer like one. Throughout the game, James is pursued by an enigmatic figure referred to in-game as the “red pyramid thing,” but popularly called Pyramid Head. Thanks to Silent Hill 2‘s success, Pyramid Head has since made numerous repeat appearances in the series, but for a while, the faceless monster was solely James’ demon. Pyramid Head is, in some ways, James’ Shadow, dragging a comically oversized butcher knife. Pyramid Head is unkillable, but Pyramid Head kills–just like James, the guilt-ridden survivor. But aside from being James’ Other, Pyramid Head is also a reminder of his guilt. An easy-to-miss painting in Silent Hill’s Historical Society, with the title “Misty day, remains of the Judgment,” depicts a familiar pyramid-headed figure as a ritual executioner punishing the guilty. This painting appears immediately prior to James’ descent into a long-buried prison. The combined meaning of these clues is clear: James considers himself a criminal and secretly desires to be punished.
Silent Hill 2‘s genius isn’t just in what its environments and characters reveal, but in the transitions between these revelations–how James moves from place to place and person to person. Let’s look at a few of those transitions in detail.
The first major area in Silent Hill 2 is an apartment building that James must traverse in order to access Rosewater Park, where he believes he might find Mary–it was one of the couple’s ‘special places.’ In fact, James must traverse two apartment buildings that mirror one another, connected by a vertiginous second-story window. The doubling, while pertinent, isn’t the most important aspect here, however. Before James can exit toward Rosewater Park and Mary, he must pass through a hallway divided by a set of vertical iron bars. This is, in fact, where James has his first (indirect) encounter with Pyramid Head; the monster stands stock-still on the opposite side of the bars, almost like a mirror image. James can bypass the bars only by entering a nearby room and passing through a hole in the wall connecting to the adjacent apartment. However, the hole is initially blocked by a large grandfather clock; James must solve a riddle and rewind the clock to the correct time in order to move it aside. When he emerges on the opposite side of the iron bars, the pyramid-headed thing has disappeared.
In any other game, the clock puzzle would be just another find-a-key-and-solve-a-riddle affair. Here, it is an essential step to the symbolic narrative created by James’ journey through the apartments. James’ unconscious mind knows that Mary is dead, that he will not find her in the Silent Hill of the present–so he journeys into the past, represented by rewinding the hands of the clock and literally passing behind it. This provides access to Mary, but also brings James in direct contact with the pyramid-headed thing, a representation of his guilt that was previously locked away “behind bars” in his unconscious. By occupying its position, James becomes the pyramid-headed thing. Hiding in a closet, James witnesses Pyramid Head sexually abusing and killing two mannequin-monsters in a scene clearly inspired by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Finally, before exiting the apartments, James encounters Pyramid Head in a flooded basement. At the end of the unwinnable confrontation, Pyramid Head retreats beneath the water, which then drains, allowing James to proceed toward Rosewater Park. This image of aquatic submersion appears several more times during the game; here, it’s crucial that Pyramid Head first disappears beneath the water, rendering the monster inaccessible…for now. Only then can James descend into the once-flooded area to continue his quest.
Very soon after this sequence, James encounters Maria for the first time. Physically identical to his wife Mary but with the attire and attitude of a sex worker (she even has the keys to the local strip club), Maria is a central character throughout the game. Her attitude toward James slingshots between aggression, tenderness and emotional manipulation, while James is wracked by guilt over his attraction to this sexually promiscuous version of his wife. Maria’s doubling is another Lynchian nod, reminiscent of Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Laura Palmer’s cousin Maddy in Twin Peaks; like the works being referenced, her purpose is not so much to elucidate Mary as she was as to emphasize James’ own internal struggle between the pristine Mary of his memories and the “defiled” Mary of his suppressed desires.
James and Mary’s ‘special place’ is eventually revealed to be the Lakeview Hotel on the opposite end of Silent Hill’s Toluca Lake. To reach Toluca Lake’s boathouse, James must pass through the Silent Hill Historical Society–at least, that is the initial goal. As he proceeds through the Historical Society, James descends repeatedly, throwing himself down bottomless pits, riding in one-way elevators, and even climbing down into his own grave. As he does so, the Historical Society transforms into Toluca Prison. Here, James re-confronts Pyramid Head and Maria (James can even acquire Pyramid Head’s giant butcher knife to use as a weapon–his walking animation while carrying it is nearly identical to the way Pyramid Head moves). James eventually emerges–after moving in no direction but downward–onto Toluca Lake. Again, James’ movement through this space creates a symbolic narrative that conflates Toluca Prison with the Underworld, a site of penitence and purgation in many Western cultures. Since he never ascends, James’ Silent Hill, particularly Lakeview Hotel, becomes a symbolic extension of this purgatory space. He isn’t here to find Mary; he’s here to punish himself.
This is just a taste of Silent Hill 2‘s symbolic depth. It doesn’t begin to tackle secondary characters like Eddie Dombrowski, Angela Orosco or the little girl, Laura. It doesn’t analyze the monster design or the countless other instances of puzzle placement or environmental layout. The truth is, even on my eighth trip through James’ version of Silent Hill, I was still making new discoveries, drawing new correlations, appreciating intellectually the emotional impact of my movement through this virtual space.
Silent Hill 2 is rightly hailed as a masterpiece of video game storytelling–but it’s often praised at the expense of other, equally layered games in the series. The next entry in this series will address this grave injustice. After producing an interactive narrative of this intricacy and depth, could Team Silent really be nothing more than one-hit wonders?