(Review archived from October 15, 2018)
In my restless dreams,
I see that town.
You promised you’d take me
there again someday.
… But you never did.
Well I’m alone there now …
In our ‘special place’ …
Waiting for you.
If you’ve played Silent Hill 2 before, you know these words well. Heck, if you’re a superfan you can probably recite them from memory. It is with these words that James Sunderland receives his ‘call to adventure’, in the form of a letter – purportedly from his dead wife, Mary. “A dead person can’t write a letter,” right? “Mary died of that damn disease three years ago … so then why am I looking for her?” And so it is that James (and by proxy, you the player) will spend a great deal of your time in Silent Hill pondering that very question. Silent Hill 2 absolutely shines in this aspect; it’s a multilayered narrative that runs as deep as you wish to look. Nearly every aspect of the story is steeped in symbolism and metaphor. There’s the literal meaning of onscreen events … and then there’s the implied meaning behind those events.
The effectiveness of this multi-layered story is largely attributable to fact that James serves as an unreliable narrator in his own story. Throughout much of the game you’ll hear and see James’ interpretation of events. But the farther you get into it, the more you realize that you may not be able to fully trust that version of events. James may not be the person you thought he was. For that matter James might not be the person he thinks he is. This is the nature of his journey. There are certainly other games that have utilized the device of an unreliable narrator, both before and after Silent Hill 2, but I would argue that very few if any have done so with the same level of sophistication and maturity.
In light of James’ role as an unreliable narrator, it is left up to the player to decide the proper interpretation of the narrative. As retro-gamers we often talk about a certain propensity in modern games to ‘hold the players hand’. Everything is explicitly spelled out for the player in the form of tutorials, ‘helper’ characters, training segments and so forth. In some ways this robs the player of autonomy to play the game on their own terms. When we talk about this, we often talk about it in terms of gameplay elements. Silent Hill 2 makes no attempt to hold the players hand from a gameplay perspective. But crucially it also makes no attempt to hold the players hand from a narrative perspective either. It’s up to you to figure out the details of the story, some of which are merely hinted at or implied. Some details only become clear upon multiple playthroughs.
And so it goes that Silent Hill 2 absolutely nails this feeling of ‘dream logic’ (or nightmare logic as the case may be). If it wasn’t clear already, Silent Hill 2 often flirts with, and in some cases fully crosses the line into, the realm of surrealism. Logical progression of events and even spatial relationships are both fair game for distortion when viewed through the lens of Silent Hill. And yet Silent Hill 2 handily avoids some of the common pitfalls of ‘surrealism as narrative device’. Silent Hill 2 is never ‘weird for weirdness sake’ (okay the ‘joke endings’ are debatable here, lol … but those certainly aren’t considered as canon any more than they are in the other Silent Hill games). It’s a game that understands the use of surrealism as a tool rather than as an end to a means.
What I’m saying is that Team Silent had a deep understanding of the story they were creating, and executed it almost without flaw. It’s not uncommon in games seeking to weave a complex story that the thread of the narrative is lost or obscured over the course of a game. Large development teams, long development cycles, and corporate oversight all seem to play a part here. Silent Hill 2 is not like that. It feels like a singular vision that was executed without compromise. If you thrive on story and atmosphere in games, Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece in this regard.
Is it a perfect game, then? Well no, Silent Hill 2 is not fully without flaws though I’d argue that the severity of those flaws will largely come down to personal preference. So I’ll stop gushing about the story elements (for now!) and talk about the actual gameplay for a bit. Silent Hill 2 adheres to the ‘old-school’ design philosophy of survival horror. Fixed camera angles, ‘tank-style’ controls, and careful management of inventory all play their part here. While Team Silent were expanding upon what could be done within the framework of survival horror, they were not trying to reinvent that framework. Survival horror veterans will feel right at home in Silent Hill 2. There are no surprises, as far as that goes (though I’d contend that Silent Hill 2 is a bit more generous with resources than other games in this genre).
Graphics and sound hold up quite nicely, though I need to make a clarification at this point. Part of the reason I’m playing Silent Hill 2 this year, a game that I’ve played several times before, is that I was very curious to check out the Silent Hill 2: Enhanced Edition mod pack for PC. I had never played the PC version of the game, and I’d certainly never tried the mod pack. Long story short, I’ve had it installed for a few months, but had been saving it up for October which traditionally serves as my ‘month of horror gaming’. At any rate, the mod pack is fantastic, and if you’re playing the game in a modern setting, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the best way to play the game, outside of the original Greatest Hits release for PS2. The mod pack goes a long way towards fixing the problems found in the official HD collection, which was marred by several unfortunate compromises. This is one of those ‘labor of love’ mod packs, and it really shows. It’s not so much that it vastly improves upon the source material, but the modern ‘quality of life’ improvements (HD widescreen resolution), in addition to the restorative content (full controller support, fog effects, CD quality sound) are seamlessly implemented in a way that brings out the best in the game. I need to make special mention of the sound design in Silent Hill 2. Although it was excellent to begin with, the sound quality in the mod pack really adds an extra layer of (unsettling) sheen.
As this wall of text indicates, I can rattle on at great length on the subject of Silent Hill 2. I’d say it’s easily one of my top 3 favorite games of all time. So it’s with an admitted lack of editorial objectivity that I give this game my highest recommendation. It’s darkly meditative and occasionally depressing. There are moments that make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s a total mindfuck. And it’s glorious. In my restless dreams, I see that town …