“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.“
When I first read those words roughly 14 years ago I was immediately captivated. Drawn into a game which over a decade later still remains my favorite of all time. Silent Hill 2 was (and still is) unlike any other video game out there. It’s the story of James Sunderland, a widow who receives a letter from his deceased wife and his journey to try and find her. It deals with themes such as guilt, love and fear in ways that are completely unique to gaming. The storytelling in Silent Hill 2 had a profound effect on how I thought of video games. And I’ve been wondering if I would still feel the same way if I replayed the game so many years later. Would it still hold up after over a decade? So over the course of several nights recently I waited until everyone in the house was asleep, turned off all of the lights, and returned to the haunted town of Silent Hill.
From the moment that the game begins in that wayside restroom, James’ reflection staring back at him through the dirty mirror, it feels comfortably familiar. I took a bit of a chance and decided to play the HD remaster of the game on the Playstation 3. This version of the game has a bad reputation, but aside from a few relatively minor graphical issues it is a pretty solid representation of the game that I remember. I begin the long walk to town and immediately recall how brilliantly designed the game is. The journey into town is so purposefully long and drawn out that your mind wanders, wondering what’s in store for you. The minimalist but completely brilliant soundtrack of Akira Yamaoka guides you along the way. Never has a game composer created such a sense of tension and unease. The horrors that he created with that music are easily as terrifying as anything you see onscreen.
As I find my way to town and come face to face with the first twisted creatures that fill the town I am also reminded of one of my few faults I have with the game. The controls and combat are just as clumsy and uninspired now as they were in 2001. Not enough to ever really detract too much from the game, but they do serve as a reminder that the game is not “technically” perfect. The creature design on the other hand is just as twisted and perverse as I remember. Mannequin limbs sewn together to form monstrosities, nurses in overly sexy uniforms but gruesomely disfigured faces and of course, Pyramid Head. In my opinion the most fear inducing creature to appear in any game, ever. His rust covered helmet staring blankly at you as he drags his oversized sword scraping along the floor. He can’t be hurt or killed. Your only choice is to run.
As I walk the fog filled streets of town I come across a number of other people who have come here. And the people you meet in Silent Hill aren’t any less unnerving than the creatures that chase you. Angela, a traumatized young woman looking for her mother. Eddie, an unstable man with a dark secret. Laura, a child you doesn’t appear to see the horrors stalking the town. And Maria, a woman who looks, sounds and occasionally acts just like James’ dead wife. Each of these characters are mysterious and fascinating and have their own secrets and reasons for being drawn to this cursed town.
It had been so long since I last played that I didn’t remember exactly what was in store for me next as I traveled from the Wood Side Apartments to Brookhaven Hospital and beyond. Each environment brought to life in such ugly detail that there’s a never ending sense of unease as you travel the rust and blood stained hallways. And they are just as nerve wracking as they were the first time. The puzzles also hold up really well after so long and offer just enough of a challenge to be tough without getting frustrating. And although I expect some people take issue with the nonsensical nature of the puzzles,I still think that in the twisted context of the story they work well.
So after 6 hours or so I finally arrived at my destination, the Lakeview Hotel. This was the “special place” the note spoke of. So I made my way to room 312 and came face to face with the answers James had been seeking. One of the great things about Silent Hill is that each person can take something different away from the events that happen in the game. To this day people still debate the meaning behind it all. And a game being so captivating all of these years later is a testament to what they created.
Video games can make you feel so many different emotions. Excitement. Fear. Joy. Anger. But Silent Hill 2 from beginning to end is filled with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sadness for the widow who wants to see his wife again, sadness for the tortured souls you meet throughout the game, and ultimately sadness for that horrible truth you discover in room 312. No game had ever captured that emotion for me before, and none have since. So while the texures and character models and effects may not hold up so well when compared to modern games, everything that made Silent Hill 2 the greatest game I’d ever played is still intact and just as amazing as it was 14 years ago.