I've been marking the run up to Halloween by writing a series of 'Halloween Flashback' blog articles, in which I take a look at older horror games. One game that won't be appearing in that series is Silent Hill 2. Not because it's a bad game but because it holds such a special place in my heart that I refuse to lump it in with other games. It's is, in my opinion, the best horror game ever to see the light of day and deserves to be recognised as such.
All of the above may sound like hyperbole since the game came out over fourteen years ago and a myriad of horror titles have been released since then. But given how frequently Silent Hill 2 crops up in various 'best of' lists, I'm not the only person who holds the game in such high regard. So what is it about Silent Hill 2, originally released on the PS2, X-Box and PC, that makes it an astonishing game? Simply put, nearly everything.
Silent Hill 2 casts you as James, a man who receives a letter from his wife, asking him to meet her in the town of Silent Hill. This might well sound like a cue for a 3D shoot-em-up, James employing a very particular set of skills to find her. But James's wife, Mary, just happens to be dead. This makes game the game unsettling from the word go, as does James's general 'matter of fact' demeanour. In fact ,'unsettling' is an apt word to describe Silent HIll 2 in its entirety. Everything about the game is designed to feel a little off, from the storyline to the sound effects, the graphics and beyond.
Take the town itself. You don't need to have played the previous game to enjoy Silent Hill 2 - all you need to know about that the town of Silent Hill is a rather strange place. The city is shrouded in fog and there don't appear to be any other people in town. That's is odd enough but as you roam around, viewing the game from a third person perspective, things get even stranger. It becomes apparent that Silent Hill has some major city planning issues, various streets terminating in massive bottomless chasms. The game also takes you inside a variety of equally disturbing indoor locations, including an old hospital, an empty apartment block and a disused prison. Each location is designed to make you feel on edge, yet the game rarely needs to resort to the usual trappings of horror, such as using severed body parts as background decoration, to accomplish this.
In fact, as was explained by the game's creators, Silent Hill 2's graphical design is based upon the concept of simultaneous repulsion and attraction, an approach which also extends to the monsters you encounter. Many of these enemies have a sexual undertone, such as the blood-splattered faceless nurses who, despite their initially gruesome appearance, have a couple of inches of cleavage on display. And then there are the mannequin enemies which are made up of two pairs of legs joined together. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions there, though the clever thing is that this all makes sense in the context of the game. By which I mean the reason is far more plausible than Hideo Kojima's explanation as to why Quiet always has her goods in display.
Yet despite this surfeit of oddness, Silent Hill 2 takes the 'less is more' approach that has subsequently been employed by Amnesia and some other games. You don't find yourself swamped by monsters, nor does the game throw jump scare afterj at you. Instead, the game creates a constant sense of tension, that there may be something horrific lurking around the corner. So when you actually do encounter something, it's all the more terrifying. On top of that, Silent Hill 2's also packed with little details that make the game even more disturbing, from the partially redacted newspaper reports you find to the graffiti that changes when you revisit it later in the game.
Silent Hill 2's overall design is also complemented by its use of sound effects and music. Akira Yamaoka, the man responsible for Silent Hill 2's background music, managed to create an oddly non-melodic industrial-style soundtrack that is effective without being intrusive. In addition, there's the game's now iconic use of an air-raid siren to signal the transformation from Silent Hill's the 'normal' world into a dark otherworld. Whenever I hear one of those sirens it's not nuclear war I'm afraid of but rather being chased by some terrifying monstrosity.
You do run into other characters, four in total, each of whom have their own reasons for being in Silent Hill. You don't meet them that frequently but when you do, each encounter has genuine depth. I don't want to give too much away, but the 'stairway scene' - if you've played the game you'll know the one I mean – really got to me. Silent Hill 2's crowning glory, however, has to be the ending or rather, the endings.
The problem with some games is that the ending you get
is determined by whether or not you've been going around helping people or,
alternately, punching kittens in the face. And while Silent Hill 2's ending is
influenced by your in-game actions, the respective actions are less obvious than you might think.
Checking one particular object in your inventory, for example, means you are
more likely to get one ending than another, though there are other contributing
factors. It also means that you have to replay the game all the way through to
get another ending. Not that Silent Hill 2 isn't already replayable as it is.
However, Silent Hill 2 isn't absolutely perfect, the game's one weak point being the combat system, which is rather clunky . But there are very few fights you actually have to participate in and you can tweak the game's difficulty to compensate for this. You can also increase or decrease the difficulty of Silent Hill 2's puzzles, to suit your play style. And despite the game's age, Silent Hill 2 doesn't look that dated, partly because you view the action through a grainy filter. You can turn this filter off, but it actually adds to the game's prevailing atmosphere of 'wrongness'.
Silent Hill 2 is a game that is greater than the sum of its parts and which rightly deserves its place in gaming history. It's unsettling and frightening in equal measure and certainly affected me in a way that few other games have. Though it's something of a shame that it's not more widely available, with the PC game being out of production and the PS3/360 versions being rather shoddy half-arsed conversions. Still, if you can track down one of the original versions then I strongly recommend that, this Halloween, turn down the lights, load up Silent Hill 2 and prepare yourself for a horror experience you'll never forget.