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Dissection Wednesday: Silent Hill 2, Horror, & Symbolism

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Dissection Wednesday is a segment dedicated to looking into games that do things that should really be applauded, whether it be how the story is told, how the game plays, or even both. These are games that either left an incredible mark on the industry or were totally forgotten even though they were brilliant. This is a weekly post that is meant to point out those games that changed or should have changed the way we look at game design in that specific genre or even any genre.

The other day, I was on Gametrailers looking at their "GT Countdown" videos, and one of the videos was the "Top 10 Scariest Games". Being a Horror fan, I watched it already knowing what was going to be number one; Silent Hill 2. What else could it be? Not many other games are able to balance actual apprehension and suspense as well as genuine horror and scares. Other games such as ones from the Penumbra have had the tension and scares, but not many games have been able to match the atmosphere of the Silent Hill series. The list included some understandable entries (Resident Evil Remake, Doom 3), some unexpected entries (Alien vs. Predator, Darkseed), and some complete crap (The Suffering). What it didn't include was Silent Hill 2.

To be fair, they put Silent Hill at the top of the list, but many people, myself included, feel that the original pales in comparison to Silent Hill 2 and even Silent Hill 3. Now let's also remember that the list was "Top 10 Scariest Games" and not "Top 10 Greatest Horror Games", meaning quality wasn't the focus; scariness was. However, this makes me wonder if developers of "Horror" games are not simply developers of "Scary" games.

Fear and horror are completely different emotions; fear is the feeling that results in being scared. Being scared is all about the expectation and apprehension that is caused by being exposed to circumstances that play upon the negative emotions of the human psyche. Horror is about pressure and stakes; for example, F.E.A.R is not a Horror game. To feel horror, you must feel pressure, which is something that is impossible when you are an incredibly capable soldier that can and does kill everything in his path. F.E.A.R can be scary, but it's "scares" are relegated to the "spring-loaded cat" variety. You don't actually fear the object or enemy itself, but rather the action. You're reaction of sudden surprise is not being truly horrified.

Silent Hill 2 on the other hand is what you can actually call a Horror game. Early in the game, you are introduced to Pyramid Head, who I will go into later, a 7 foot tall humanoid creature who carries an outrageously large knife which he uses quite often. We are introduced to him while in an incredibly vulnerable position; we, as in James, are hiding in a closet. Pyramid Head meanders in, looks about, and begins to kill the very enemies you were facing. Not only does he kill them, but he rapes them as well. This doesn't mean he pulls it out and penetrates them, but the way he kills them is incredibly sexual; they writhe and wiggle and ways that would seem to insinuate both pleasure and pain.

It's utterly disturbing and genuinely horrifying. Let's think about it for a second; James Sunderland is a man, a fairly strong man who is able to kill the enemies he has encountered so far in the game, even if not gloriously or swiftly. He's capable enough to have made it farther than most people would be able to go in the town of Silent Hill with only a large stick. But let's think about this; as a man, there is very little fear in his heart of being a victim of sexual assault, a fear that all women in today's society have to deal with. So what we have is James Sunderland, a man capable of surviving in very unfortunate circumstances. But within one minute of being placed in a vulnerable position by a character that is much more masculine, much stronger, and much more able to destroy the creatures that stand in his way, James is no longer a man.

He has been emasculated by a being that also instills the fear of sexual violence against him. James is afraid of being sexually assaulted for the first time in his life.

Rape is a universal fear; women and men alike fear it. However, the action of rape in everyone's mind is a very masculine thing; it's about power over another rather than sexual exploitation. That is why men fear being raped by men and not women and why women also fear being raped by men and not women. Penetration, both vaginal and anal, is a horrifying thing to both sexes when it is not sought after and explicitly not welcome. Male on male rape is a very taboo subject amongst men, especially considering the homophobic and uber-masculine nature of male to male interactions. This is why emasculation is the greatest fear of men. It's a universally horrifying subject, just as a male, sexual domination is such a horrifying subject to women.

Why am I talking about sex in a discussion about a Horror game? Simple; sex is a horrifying subject. In our society, where sexuality pervades everything from commercials, to movies, to everyday inter-gender relationships, it's a very touchy issue to talk about it directly. This is a male-dominated society that is just now getting over previously held prejudices, one of which was and is against females. Women, as I said in my article on women in gaming, have to deal with much more stress on a day to day simply because of their sex than men do. This isn't to say men don't have equal or even greater stress upon them, but it's almost never because they are men, as I am. In a market that is so saturated in male fantasy, sexual undertones, and the exploitation of women sexually in both advertising and the actual products themselves, it is very rare to find a game tackle the subject of emasculation.

Whether it's because the risky notion of basing a game around the subject of emasculation or because most developers just don't get it, the subject is rarely used in a game. This is why Silent Hill 2 is the greatest Horror game ever made; it dives into the psyche of a man who represents us all on some level and then proceeds to rip him to shreds, revealing every sacred and sullen aspect of his personality.

James is a perfect character for a Horror game in the fact that he nothing if not average. He's an ordinary man put into an extra-ordinary situation and he is not fit or equip correctly to deal with it. If Horror is all about the circumstances around it, then being a normal person with no combat experience is terrifying because of the fact that a large portion of the game must be fought through in order to survive. This is why games like Doom 3 are not really Horror games; you have the tools necessary to blast every enemy you find into bits with no damage being taken to yourself. If you take away the fact that you can't see anything and the "spring-loaded cat" cares, what you'd have is a badass shooter. Doom 3 is a Shooter first, and a Scary game second.

While that kind of design philosophy makes an overall good game, it doesn't allow for an experience that can be truly defined as a Horror game in the way games in the Silent Hill franchise can be, games post-Silent Hill 4 not withstanding. That being said, the actual game portion of Silent Hill 2 is actually kind of underwhelming; the combat is terrible, the puzzles are based on awkward logic, and the objective of what you have to do next is never really outlined. But if the combat was improved, the puzzles were made simpler, and the objectives were given to you in a easily readable form, the game would no longer be good at all. What we have is what I like to call the Horror Game Conundrum.

By definition, Horror games need to be horrific, which I've already gone into extensively. However, to elicit said horror is no easy task. Not many developers really "get" Horror, much like Hollywood doesn't really "get" horror either. They think that if you put enough surprise scares and blood in the game that it will actually horrify us, which is ridiculous. As said earlier, horror needs to be elicited by pressure, but it needs real meaning to be truly effective. Resident Evil 4 is pretty horrifying because of the movement and ammunition limitations given to Leon,and when 10 villagers begin to close you into a corner and you only have enough shots to take out 4 of them, you're genuinely horrified.

However, in Silent Hill 2, you don't have the advantage of an easily maneuverable firearm, nor do you have any way of easily dealing with multiple, or really even singular enemies. The combat could have been spectacular and easy to use, but what would that do? We would actively seek enemies so that we could dominate them with the great combo system. If yuo don't feel apprehensive or hesitant about every enemy encounter, than you aren't horrified. At the end of the day, Resident Evil 4 is an incredibly fun game where head explosions are frequent and satisfying. There is nothing satisfying about the combat in Silent Hill 2, but that's the point. Running away is often the safer option anyways, and as a normal, everyday guy with a lock of wood, it's probably the best option that will lead to the least amount of stress.

The fact that this combat is paired with enemies that are symbolically-appropriate given who James is and what he did, and what you have is horrifying combat. Enemies are humanoid in appearance, but their movement is inhuman; it's the juxtaposition of the form and the function that unsettles the player. You have what looks to be a mental patient in a straight jacket, but the straight jacket is his own flesh, with his arms bound inside of his own body. Naturally he flails about wishing to free himself from it, but each jerk hurts us more than him; we feel the pain because it is made so obvious to us and we recognize it in a way that horrifies us on a subconscious level.

However, the majority of Silent Hill 2's enemies are not just scary-looking creatures that unsettle us, but instead they almost all have sexual undertones that make the violent nature of each incredibly creepy. The nurses you find are terrifying and scary, yet they have this very overt and very revealing outfit that shows off their cleavage. Why? Why do creatures spit acid out from a vaginal hole in their chest? It all has to do with the sexual nature of James as a character.

James is a man who has lost his wife, and as such, is also a man who has not had sex in since then. Sex is something that every human, males especially, need to be satisfied and content, and so it is actively sought almost every waking moment during the years where males go through puberty and for sometime afterward. Now, society dictates that as males, myself included, we must restrain ourselves, so we do (for the most part). However, when pushed to the limit by stress and sexual tension, something is bound to snap, and James, as a man who has been sexually restrained and in a situation of sexual-absence where there used to not be with a sexual partner, he snaps as well.

Silent Hill is a town that turns the resident's personality into a real-world hell, where James's sexual troubles have manifested themselves into the creatures that stand in his way. Each enemy in the game has some sort of symbolic meaning, which means that we gather from context that something is not quite right with James. I will not go into specific story elements that would spoil the game, but rest assured that even as an everyman, James has his own personal demons that are revealed late in the game.

That brings us to Pyramid Head, the poster child for Silent Hill. What does Pyramid Head symbolize when it comes to James's damaged psyche? Well, as said earlier, he is meant to emasculate James. More than that, he also has his own sexual nature, but rather than vaginal, he is phallic. He carries a large knife which he penetrates the vaginal creatures with and he himself is very masculine since he is able to carry the large knife with ease. His presence is meant to make horrify James as well as emasculate him. He symbolizes much more, but as said before, I won't go into that to avoid spoilers, but perhaps I will in a later article.

I didn't really go into Maria and James's relationship or James's interactions with the other residents that are trapped with him, but I plan to do this in a later, spoilerific article. The point is is that Silent Hill 2, more than any other game, can truly be classified as a Horror game. The adult themes, sexual undertones, and personal nature all go to make a fear that is more recognizable and more disturbing, and the way the game handles symbolism is absolutely terrific. I want to see developers do this more often; not just Horror developers, but developers in general. Silent Hill 2 may be kind of overlooked by critics, but this doesn't mean that it's influence hasn't been felt, especially in later Silent Hill games. But until we see another game do horror as well as Silent Hill 2 did, it will sit atop it's throne as the King of Horror.
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About Canti-samaone of us since 9:47 PM on 08.03.2009

Hello, I'm Trevor Johnson, also known as Canti-sama. I like to write about things including videogames (that should be paramountly obvious at this point...) music, film, and anime, so what you see in this blog is just one part of my pretentiousness! I'm a nit-picky bitch when it comes to basically everything, so excuse me if I seem like kind of an elitist, even though I try not to be. If I had to sum up who I am, I would do it through top 5 lists, so how about we a do a few right now! But before that, since DTOID tends to remove frontpage posts from my c-blog, here's the list of my frontpages, which I thank everyone very much for!

Frontpage Posts:
1. Monthly Musing - I suck At Videogames: Nostalgia's Curse, 8/12/09
2. Promoted Story - Suda 51 and the "Art" of Videogames, 9/6/09
3. Monthly Musing - Nothing is Sacred: Videogames, 10/7/09

-----FAVORITES-----

Top 5 Favorite Videogames:
5. Fallout 3, PC
4. Mega Man X, SNES
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4, PS2
2. Braid, PC
1. Shadow of the Colossus, PS2

Top 5 Favorite Albums:
5. Death From Above 1979 - You're A Woman, I'm a Machine, 2004
4. Radiohead - O.K. Computer, 1997
3. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92, 1992
2. Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam, 2007
1. Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation, 1988

Top 5 Films:
5. Brazil, Directed by Terry Gilliam
4. Fargo, Directed by Joel Coen
3. Fight Club, Directed by David Fincher
2. Shaun of the Dead, Directed by Edgar Wright
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Directed by Sergio Leone

Top 5 Anime Productions:
5. Spirited Away, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
4. The Big O, Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
3. Cowboy Bebop, Directed by Shinichirō Watanabe
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by Hideko Anno
1. Fooly Cooly, Directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki

----OTHER STUFF----
Avery Island: Musical Opinions From Music Geeks
PSN Name: MetalLink1979
Wii Friend Code - 8089-7286-5497-4717
XBL - Metal Link 904 (Note: My Xbox 360 is in possession of my brother, so this is no longer technically my XBL Tag)
Xbox LIVE:Metal Link 904
Steam ID:MetalLink1979
Mii code:8089-7286-5497-4717


 

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