If you’ve spent much time reading or watching videogame commentary, you’ll be aware that Silent Hill 2 has magic powers. At the very mention of its name, even the most acidic of critics melts into a puddle of gooey eyed adoration. I am not here to buck that trend – hell, James Sunderland was the focus of my college thesis. If you’d like to familiarize yourself with this treasure of gaming and don’t have your own copy (it came out for every system circa the early 2000s and should be readily available as a digital download too, but don’t bother with the atrocious HD Collection that came out) you can watch an excellent Let’s Play of the game here.
In case you’ve been hiding cozily under a rock for the last decade and change, the story goes like this: James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife saying that she’s waiting in their ‘special place,’ which is somewhat disturbing since she’s several years dead of illness. But James doesn’t seem to see much point in living without Mary, so he sets off to find her in a mostly-empty, foggy town populated by otherworldly grotesqueries and people with tenuous at best grips on reality.
James Sunderland: master of the survival instinct
Loads and loads of people have talked about this game, from high analysis to casual conversation, and pretty well all the big interpretations (and a fair amount of off the wall ones) have been brought up at some point: How real are the events occurring in-game, are the other characters real or aspects of James’ psyche, what does the sexualization of the monsters tell us about James’ neuroses, to what extent is James monstrous or sympathetic, and so on. And we can do all that. My goal at the end of this has always been to throw up that thesis, just for kicks and giggles (and because…well, it’s definitely a theory I’ve never seen previously proposed).
But today, I want to analyze what it is that makes this game so endearing and enduring to such a wide swath of people – from horror fans to the games-as-art crowd (which may not be a crowd so much as a general consensus at this point) to people who might not have a huge investment in the medium outside a few select titles.
Much of it has to do with how well Silent Hill knows its medium. If books are uniquely suited to portray inner life, and film to express through audiovisual cues, then videogames have a special advantage via interactivity. SH2 gets a lot of praise for its tense atmosphere and the relative scarcity of its cutscenes (we’ll go ahead and specify those as the rendered videos) versus in-games storytelling as part of what makes the story work best as a game. But beyond that, there’s a cunning genius in the game’s timing, like a fussy Stanley Kubrick lurking at the back of the code.
Cutscenes are used to introduce each of the characters, for example, but they also show up whenever James is put into a position of helplessness – being knocked off the roof by Pyramid Head, facing the revived Maria in prison, hiding in the closet. When James loses control so does the player, and it binds us that much closer to him on an unconscious level. It does a lot to make the other characters seem uncanny as well, from the dreamlike filters that surround and separate out the subjects of cutscenes (the light on Eddie in the bathroom, the fog around Angela, the almost insubstantial glamor on Maria) to nice touches like the camera being focused on them to force the player and James to have a combined POV (by contrast, after the videotape revelation we are almost never put in a scenario of watching-as-James but rather seeing clearly for the first time).
GORGEOUS CINEMATOGRAPHY ALERT: The second she says this line the edges of the frame darken, like the world is shrinking, and you lose the ability to see her eyes
This is also the best outlet for the franchise’s trademark ‘here’s some garbled details, now roll with it’ approach to storytelling, simply because the narrative is so personal. While Pyramid Head and the various trappings of the level design are part of the town’s history, they’re as much or more part of James’ imagination and history. So when the half the story the game gives us is ‘I had a wife, I killed her and I can’t live with myself for it,’ that makes a coherent narrative backbone.
The surrealism, visual metaphor, and assorted oddness of the town can then be used to shade in depth to James’ character rather than being a somewhat frustrating and vague necessity for decoding the plot (again, if you figured out the plot of the first Silent Hill in one go round, you are a liar). There is just enough of the other characters to give them identity and to have them serve as a reflection of James – his rage, his despair, his hope, his delusion – and because we see it all through the prism of his experience it would be okay even if they didn’t have full arcs of their own. That they do is icing on the cake, and that two of those arcs double as potential failure states for James (Eddie returning to his cycle of failure as in “Maria,” and Angela committing self-punishing suicide a la “In Water”) is the tastefully blood and glitter-covered dancer waiting inside that cake.
JAMES, THAT IS NOT A CAKE
Everything ties back to James in some way, including the player. Not just because we assume piloting duties but because of the broad applicability of the story. I feel fairly confident in saying that only a small clutch of us have suffocated our terminally ill partners and then fallen into a near-fugue state, but the underlying issues are real: love, loss, guilt, depression, hope and hopelessness. James’ simultaneous frustration toward Mary’s illness and corresponding self-loathing for not being ‘good’ enough to pull through it is a hell of a thing, raw in a way that even the sometimes endearingly clunky script can’t undermine.
And because everything centers on James, it’s crucial that we feel like we know him. And that’s the cornerstone of the whole affair – in essence, SH2 cracked the code of naturally implementing multiple endings to story driven effect. It will always have a hand over the clunky ‘pick a door’ ending of Mass Effect 3, or the requirements checklist of the first Silent Hill, or the literal good end/bad end of games like Infamous and Fable. Even the Dragon Age games, which probably come closest in terms of cumulative effects and grey-area choices is by its nature required to telegraph big ol’ tells by way of the dialogue choices (I wouldn’t even say this is a flaw, particularly in DAII’s consciously meta ‘hey, we’re telling a debatably true story’ frame device, but by its nature it draws frequent attention to the element of choice shaping).
Meanwhile, the endings in SH2 are brilliantly action-based. Not in terms of picking up this or that item in time (unless you’re going for the best ending, of course), but actions of character growth. As I said, a great deal of the depth in James’ character is given subtextually, through monster designs, item descriptions, and so on. It’s what allows him to be read in such a wealth of ways, so that disturbing repressed misogynist James and well-intentioned eager protector James both have rings of truth to them.
Everyone always talks about the hole-jumping, but this is the most unsettling moment to me
You’re genuinely unsure what he’s going to do
While James’ dialogue and the general shape of the plot changes little to none during various styles of play his actions, like his surroundings, speak volumes. James is a man on many precipices: conflicted over Mary, over sexuality, over self-preservation versus self-punishment. And the players’ actions shade certain traits, always existent, more powerfully and ‘true’ than others to result in each ending. Spending too much time with Maria slows James down on his quest for truth and closure, sending him to repeat his mistakes. Keeping James at low health reflects a minimal will to live, while dwelling over items like the hospital books reinforces bad memories. Even the revival ending has a strange and obsessive tint to its item hunting that would point toward an at-all-costs desire to have Mary back.
By the end of the game, we are James as much as he is us. And because the various endings aren’t tied to a moral binary system, because they are all potential roads for our protagonist from the start, it keeps any outcome from seeming forced. Team Silent has infamously said that all the endings of Silent Hill 2 are true, and that’s very much a part of what makes the game memorable. It is a story of grieving, one of the most personal aspects of the human experience, and we must (and do) grieve as much as James does – whether for his losses or our own, mirrored in fiction as surely as the town mirrors James’ unconscious wants. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to facing Silent Hill’s unique brand of personal reflection, and for the blurring of that line alone James’ story will always be, yes really, one of the best games ever made.