More than just noise: In my restless dreams

[For her Monthly Musing, Shodan walks us through the plot of Silent Hill, explaining how the music and sound effects within the game highlight the game’s themes. Want to write your own Musing? Click here and start writing! — JRo]

Silent Hill 2 is a now-notorious journey into one man’s self-inflicted personal hell, a town better defined as a mental state – a constantly-morphing manifestation of the protagonist’s grief and guilt. The game is far more complex than its dated graphics and simple gameplay would have you believe, but every aspect of the game is there to build the narrative (yes, even the endless maze of locked doors!). One of its most notable features, for me, was the sound, and my last playthrough was undertaken with a conscious focus on this aspect.

Silent Hill 2 does have a conventional soundtrack, but I feel that its sound effects are equally as effective in establishing the game’s narrative and mood, so I’ll be discussing both. Also, it’s a game way deeper than its eight hours of gameplay would have you believe, so in the interests of conciseness I’ll only be discussing a few certain aspects of the game, with the assumption that you know its story. In other words, turn back if you haven’t played it – probable spoilers follow.

The walk to town

In the opening scene you are introduced to the protagonist, James Sunderland, brooding in a car park that overlooks Silent Hill and the adjacent Toluca Lake. He’s just received a letter purporting to be from his dead wife Mary, who three years ago succumbed to an illness. This mysterious letter asks him to return to their ‘special place’ in Silent Hill, where they had both vacationed not long before her death. Ignoring the impossibility of such a letter, he returns, only to find that it is not what he had remembered. The town appears to be almost empty now, and choked by a fog that is soundless, save for a disconcerting drone – like an orchestra warming up. The symphony that is Silent Hill 2 is about to begin.

James’ journey to town, what should be a simple and pleasant walk through the woods, is actually quite horrifying in its stillness. You become acutely aware of the sounds that surround you. Occasionally you can hear the distant bark of a dog, followed by an awful flesh-shredding sound that is much, much nearer. Such sounds create mounting unease, forcing upon you an urgency to reach the town, an imagined sanctuary from the disquiet of the forest. You begin to run. Unfortunately, James is not much of a hero. His strides along the thick, mulchy ground are amplified, making you all too aware of how quickly his pace slows as he runs out of breath.

Most horrific of all is a second set of footsteps that echoes James’ own, even though no other characters can be seen. Like the dynamic camera that trails you, never letting you out of sight, those footsteps feel like an omniscient third party that only watches on coldly as you stumble through the game and fight uselessly – against the town’s monsters, and against your fate.

James makes two brief stops during this walk to the town. The first is, ominously, in a graveyard, where he meets the first of the very few other characters who are trapped in this ghost world – Angela, a woman in her late teens. Her appearance is made older by the weight of her abuse-filled childhood, which is something we become acquainted with later in the game.

The other stop is a dry well, at the bottom of which lies a blood-red piece of paper, stark against the moss and rotting wood that surrounds it. “Looking around this place makes me feel like something’s groping around inside my skull,” James remarks. This is your first save point, and the chime that sounds when accessing the save screen will quickly become familiar, but never comforting. It’s a chime that bleeds, you see, not unlike the cold red that fills your vision the split moment before the save screen appears.

Screeches and stillness: Welcome to Silent Hill

“Every song needs some silence,” my music teacher back in high school used to say, “but you want some balance: too much silence is alienating.” Silent Hill errs on that side of creepiness, a town just as empty and unsettling in its silence as the forest that preceded it. The unending stillness of this town is punctuated by brutal ambient noise, the origins of which you can’t place – all you know is that it sounds like it’s coming closer, no matter how far you try to run from it. Sometimes you’ll hear a faint whirring, perhaps that of some unseen machinery, an indication that something is in motion beneath the unmoving surface of the town. The only other sound is of the player’s own doing; rusted fences screech as you pull them open, doorknobs rattle, and your own footsteps echo too loudly.

James soon discovers a trail of blood, and glimpses a shadowy figure nearby staggering into the fog, which he pursues down an alley until he reaches a dead end, surrounded by maintenance equipment and the inexplicable growl of static. This is where you meet your first monster, a faceless figure that appears to be literally trapped in its own skin, a theme reiterated throughout the game.

Upon killing it, James discovers a radio through which he can hear Mary’s voice in intermittent bursts through the static. “… Why did you k… James…” Those who’ve played the game before know exactly what Mary is asking, but James, still in denial, has no idea. He pockets the radio, which you will soon learn emits static when a monster is nearby, thereby creating your own soundtrack of perfectly-timed agitation. This feature may or may not be helpful, as the static will also alert monsters to your presence – but in a way, it’s symbolic of the town’s desire to help you ascertain your real reason for being here, and in the most painful way possible. Also noteworthy is that Mary’s voice is heard in this instrument of monster-alerting. Does that mean Mary, too, was a monster? Is she one still?

The monster-filled streets lead to an abandoned apartment building. In addition to the other characters James encounters here, he also meets Angela again. She lies before a mirror, eyes fixed intently on the knife she dangles before her. The song that plays here is “Promise (Reprise)”, a delicate piano piece that reminds me of the spinning ballerina in a little girl’s jewellery box, perhaps a sad hint of the childhood that Angela was never allowed to experience herself due to the rape and abuse she had suffered.

It is also in these apartments that James meets his main ‘enemy’, the elusive Pyramid Head. He wears a massive, triangular, metal helmet that appears to weigh him down as a form of self-punishment, just as James’ impression of Silent Hill has created this enemy to punish him.

You will fight Pyramid Head for the first of several times in an apartment stairwell. If he is a manifestation of James’ guilt, than his theme, “Betrayal”, reiterates it; a strangely orchestral series of crashes, violin screeches, and sirens, it is offset by an otherworldly hymn. The game utilises juxtaposition of opposites to great effect: discord and melody, sex (the creation of life) and death. Just like Pyramid Head’s theme, it all alludes to the brutal end to Mary’s youth and her innocence.

Prisons

Silent Hill is a personal, torturous prison for those lured into the place. Naturally, the game is rife with prison imagery, and we experience several forms of prison quite viscerally. The most obvious of these prisons is when Silent Hill shifts into the Otherworld, a horrific mirroring of the town in which the floors are made of metal, the walls stained with blood, and the air filled with noise. Remember when I said earlier that the ambient noise of an otherwise quiet town suggested that something was in motion beneath its still exterior? This is it: the inescapable, screeching guts of Silent Hill, that which drives home James’ guilt in the most gruesome way possible.

James is forced to make a lengthy detour through the Silent Hill Historical Society, the literal prison in its basement, and the far worse mental prison beneath it. Broken glass crunches underfoot here as you run through increasingly labyrinthine hallways and sewerage tunnels, filled with the intermittent splashes of monsters in ankle-deep water as they stagger towards you. This Otherworld is certainly noisier than its grey, foggy counterpart: this is an indication of the mental discordance that hounds James.

From behind one door in this Otherworld comes a female scream. It’s Angela again, and when James opens the door he finds himself witness to Angela’s own prison, a sickening flesh-walled room with disturbing, pumping orifices. The ‘Abstract Daddy’ towers over her, a monster which itself resembles a large figure bent over a much smaller one in a bed, an incredibly graphic representation of the rape Angela endured at the hands of her father.

Let’s be honest, most people like sex. This scene would prove incredibly uncomfortable for anybody, however, particularly in the squelching sounds produced by the wall-orifices and the Abstract Daddy’s guttural groans. That’s because these are the familiar sounds of sex, with all the romance removed – sex is reduced to the grotesque physical act that it is. It’s not just telling of Angela’s rape, but also of James’ sexual deprivation during Mary’s last days. Maybe Angela was right: maybe James wonders if he was only was after ‘one thing’, and killed Mary when she was no longer able to provide it.

Towards the end of this stretch of Otherworld, finally, is the character Eddie’s prison. Eddie is an overweight man in his twenties, bullied all his life and finally drawn to Silent Hill in a maniacal murder spree, having snapped and deciding to seek revenge against those who laugh at him. His prison is a freezer with large chunks of meat strung from the ceiling. The hollow reflection of his voice against the metal walls indicates the finality of what you must do here: you must kill Eddie to proceed. Though you’ve been hearing the sounds of your weapons throughout the entire game, in this room, the ringing echo of a gunshot forces you to reflect on what you’ve just done. This is when both you and James realise that he is a murderer, and has been one all along; he will soon discover that in addition to Eddie and the town’s endless monsters, he was also the one who killed Mary.

In Water

The last portion of the game takes place in the Lakeview Hotel, in which James views a videotape that shows him the truth: he smothered Mary on his deathbed.

The theme that plays here is “True”, a fragile, creeping piano piece whose mournful violin accompaniment sounds like something you’d hear at a funeral. This a haunting moment that heralds the finality of Mary’s death. She never called James to this town; he came here of his own accord to punish himself.

When James leaves the room, he returns to reality: the hotel’s carpet is waterlogged, the walls charred, as though a fire had torn through the place and then been extinguished. In each hallway you can hear the steady trickle of water dripping from the ceiling, and you must wade through murky, knee-high water on the lowest floor. The loud, splashing water is eerily familiar; like the monsters James had encountered earlier in the Otherworld’s water-filled passages, he, too, is now a monster. Now that he knows the truth, the fog that blanketed his nightmarish town is beginning to disperse, his thoughts growing more lucid, liquid, leaving him with the burnt wreck of what he thought he knew.

According to Silent Hill canon, James simply disappears in the town, never to return. This is, in part, why my favourite ending is ‘In Water’, in which James kills himself out of grief by driving into the lake – it not only fits canon, but is also a fitting end to James’ torment. The final boss is Maria, a horrific figure hung upside down, caged, above a hospital bed. The soundtrack is endless, grating noise, permeated by an otherworldly shriek when Maria releases a cloud of moths towards you. She’s a manifestation of that horrific Otherworld now, a screaming nightmare that can finally be ended.

This ending paints James as more of a mercy killer than a selfish, sex-starved murderer. As the boss falls, the scene fades back to Mary on her deathbed, pleading James to end his suffering as he did hers. She then passes on, and as he carries her out of the room the screen fades to black. You don’t need visuals to know what happens next. “Without you, Mary, I’ve got nothing,” says James, determined and grim, as you hear the sound of a car’s engine rumble to life. Screeching tires are heard, and a numb silence washes over you just as the lake’s water washes over James, a prosaic end to his sorrowful story.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any other comments about Silent Hill 2’s sound feel free to add them in the comments! All videos are by Fungo of SilentHillMedia.net, besides Pyramid Head’s and Angela’s themes, which I found on LegalSaiga’s Youtube page.

Shodan