You know what doesn’t get enough credit? Silent Hill’s joke endings. They’re more or less the first of their kind, to start with – beforehand you’ve got joke items/scenes and nonstandard game-overs, but never something you actively worked for in the same way. And because they can’t be obtained until the player’s gone through the plot-proper at least once, they more or less do the same thing that fandom has done since days of old: soothing the pain of emotional anguish through absurdity and/or cuteness (the reverse situation also holds true, incidentally).
Silent Hill 2’s “Dog” ending goes almost all the way round again by attributing the entire cast’s suffering to the meaningless machinations of a Shiba Inu in a control room. But best of all, past and present, are those well-known UFO endings. They aren’t just bizarre, they go one step beyond. They’ve got continuity. Naturally, this is because they’re the real endings.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we need to discuss why the UFO endings are ‘earned’ in the context of their place and origin. For all that its monster design hews to the J-horror vision of the uncanny, Silent Hill as a series has a lot of its roots in western horror: you might’ve noticed the street names are christened after famous writers (‘Bachmann,’ just to pick at random, was a pen name of Stephen King’s), and a huge amount of influence was drawn from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. There’re overt and subtle homages littered all over the first three games (particularly the “Bad+ Ending” of SH1, the protagonist motivation of SH2, the subway scene in SH3, and the ‘filthy hell hospital’ in general). And it cherry picks from other genres too, reassembling ideas outside their birth contexts in a deeply fascinating way (see: Rear Window in SH4’s Apartment Vision, Rosemary’s Baby in SH3’s…everything, Lovecraft in SH2’s particular brand of unreliable narrator, and so on). Part of what’s so endearing about the series is the telephone effect of hearing a familiar story that’s been grazed and sent back through a new filter. And you know what popped up in horror almost as often as science fiction? Aliens.
Seriously, aliens are a perfect candidate to be included in SH’s horror cornucopia. Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Paranoia thriller about unsuspecting everymen being preyed on by an insidious cult (of sorts). The Thing (originally The Thing from Another World in the 50s)? A grotesque body-shifting monster that’s terrifying because it reflects humanity only to destroy us (with debatably intent malice versus animal instinct). Alien? A familiar space becomes uncanny thanks to a relentless stalker with very phallic weaponry. But even more than that, aliens are the most quantifiable Other there is, something we can all come together to reject wholly, without qualification or any hint of identification. It’s the Watchmen theory, basically.
This is coupled with the idea that the concept of ‘alien’ is a kind of comfort, be it that the danger is safely beyond us needing to understand it – it’s not of our world, so if we can just get it to go away we don’t have to worry about it anymore – or that the alien as a western concept is so deeply tied to conspiracy: particularly Area 51, where a UFO supposedly crash landed, is where the government supposedly stores all its top secret projects (and this paranoia about the incompetence/untrustworthiness of government informs a whole host of flicks, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to ET and beyond). Basically, find the aliens and you’re bound to find some kind of hidden truth.
And so we come back to how the UFO endings are situated in the games proper: they’re, by design, a second layer. In the first two games the channeling stone won’t appear until a second playthrough, and you’ll need either a guide or a lot of trial and error to figure out how to use the thing. SH3 takes it a step further by requiring that fantastically ridiculous transformation wand, which can only be obtained by first beating the game on the hardest difficulty. Like a 100% “True Ending,” you’re going to have to earn those aliens.
The town’s surreal atmosphere has to be taken into account as well: because things are so dreamlike and uncertain, it’s often easier to take what’s happening on a metaphorical level, as an exploration of our protagonists rather than a concrete series of events. The UFO endings mesh well with that too, forcing the player first to experience the protagonist’s emotional arc and then inviting them to come back for that “joke ending,” a pulling back of the curtain of sorts to reveal weird but definable events (tying back to that ‘find the aliens, find the truth’ idea) that eventually rewards the player with the destruction of that horrific town (in a pleasantly cathartic way after those years of running and hiding). And, of course, there is the fact that the three UFO endings are the only thing which tie the three original games together, forming an arc of sorts rather than just serving as one-off oddities.
In line with the methodology of series homage, interconnected, and purposefully placed to be a special achievement: makes them seem a bit more elevated, doesn’t it? And if I’m only partially kidding about them being the canonical endings of the three games, then so are the creators. Which, of course, means that we can lay the argument over whether or not James ended up “In Water” – obviously he’s zooming around the galaxy with the Masons, halfway between grateful and terrified.
But even if we don’t apply the label of canon in terms of ‘this is what happened to our protagonists,’ it does explain why they’re significantly more memorable than the Western SH’s joke endings (and why SH4 doesn’t have them at all). They’re not an easter egg or an afterthought, but built into the series’ bones. They let us have Harry back after the world’s most unceremonious death. They find the endearing in something that’s simultaneously been designed to scare us. They give us an answer as to what ‘really’ happened, while only slightly poking fun at us for needing that answer at all. They’re the personification of the slightly bizarre, slightly goofy afterimage our memories of the series fade to with time. And they’re definitely my favorite way to think of how things turned out.