No, this isn’t about the recently-released movie. This is about the much older videogame, Silent Hill 2. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time. For those of you who are curious about the movie but have never played the games, this might be helpful. Note that there are 4 Silent Hill games now, and the second installment is a bit different from the others. This is a strange game with a facinating plot. The nature of the story is pretty unconventional by genre standards.
Usually the main character in a third-person game is one of two stereotypes:
- The classic brooding ex-navy SEAL who doesn’t play by the rules but who always gets the job done ’cause he’s the best even though he has a tortured past and a woman he can’t forget.
- An everyman.
But in SH 2, the main character is somewhat of a mystery, and the player has to get to know him as the game goes on. That works, because the main character is a bit confused and is really learning about himself at the same time. He seems like a regular guy at first glance, but as the game goes on our perception of him changes.
I’ll go over the plot for those that have never played. If you remember the game, just click here to skip to my discussion on the characters.
Silent Hill is the name of the town in the series. The town is a bit secluded and small. It has the same layout and same key locations in every iteration, but everyone sees the town just a little different. In each of the games the main characters find themselves (willing or not) exploring the town and find it abandoned and filled with horrors. The particular dangers are different for each visitor, and they are always strange. This isn’t just a “zombie town”.
At the start of the game, James pulls over at a (utterly filthy!) rest stop and takes a long look at himself in the mirror. This is a very appropriate way for him to begin his journey into Silent Hill.
You play as James Sunderland, a man who is grieving the loss of his wife who died three years ago of an unspecified illness. He has a letter which seems to have been sent by his dead wife, saying that she is waiting for him at Silent Hill, where they once spent a vacation together.
At the start of the game James has driven to Silent Hill and found the road into town has been blocked. He stops along the road at a rest stop and decides to enter town on foot. He reads the letter from his wife again.
He doesn’t really ponder why the road has been so thoroughly barricaded. He doesn’t question why he’s come here looking for someone who he knows is dead. Even at this early stage of the game we can tell he’s a little off somehow.
He heads into town through the woods. The closer he gets, the more fog there is. There are strange sounds as he decends the path leading into town.
It should go without saying, but from here on are massive spoilers.
Eventually he gets to the graveyard and meets Angela. James is just cutting through to get to the town, but Angela is sitting among the tombstones. Like all converations in this game, their dialog doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It’s like each of them is having thier own conversation. James asks questions but she never gives him a straight answer. She’s not being evasive, they just don’t seem to know how to talk to each other. Is this an effect of the town or are these people just that messed up?
Later in the game he will meet her again and eventually we learn that she had a very abusive childhood. She’s suicidal. Her violent, abusive father was killed and her house burned down. It seems as though she killed her own father, either in defense or out of revenge.
After a very strange converation, James moves on and enters the town itself. It’s daytime, but the town is covered in thick, billowing fog. The town looks more or less normal, but empty and walled off from the outside world. Everything is also a bit out of date. The cars, buildings and signage have a sort of 60’s and 70’s style about them, even though the story seems to take place today. Some time is spent building up suspense and introducing us to the town. Then he meets a strange creature that is sort of humanoid. He grabs a nearby cudgel and fends the creature off. He ends up fighting quite a few of these things during the game.
We deal with some general video-game puzzle stuff and eventually James finds himself in an apartment building where he meets Eddie. The apartment building he’s in is worse than condemned. It’s a horribly stained, rotting structure. The walls are stained with rust (?) and mildew. However, the room Eddie is in looks better than the rest. It’s still no prize, but it doesn’t seem to be engufed in evil, just shabby.
Eddie is in the bathroom, puking his guts out when we meet him. A dead body (human, not monster) is in the same apartment. This isn’t that unexpected, since the building is full of strange and dangerous creatures, but Eddie is defensive and evasive. His constant, unprompted denials that he had anything to do with the dead body leads us to believe that he did.
In this conversation we get our first clue that what we’re seeing is different from what Eddie is seeing. He never mentions the monsters, which would have been a handy and plausible scapegoat for the dead body. The fact that he feels he needs a scapegoat at all is telling.
Eddie seems a little slow. He’s rude and seems to have a mean streak. We’ll run into him again later.
After some more puzzles and monsters James finds himself outside and encounters Laura, a little girl who is inexplicably wandering around town by herself. We learn that she was sick and in the hospital with James’ wife Mary at one point. The girl also seems to be here to visit Mary. This is odd. Didn’t Mary die three years ago? This girl would have been very young then. So the girl has come to this haunted town, all alone, in search of a woman she shared a hospital room with years ago? We can tell something isn’t right here, but like all conversations in this town it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
James moves on, even more confused. He finally reaches the park, which is one of the places he thinks he might find Mary.
And he does! Or so it seems. He finds a woman who looks exactly like his deceased wife. Except this woman is named Maria. As they talk it becomes clear that while the two women look alike, they behave differently. While Mary was very reserved and demure, Maria is clearly outgoing and racy. She’s dressed in a trashy red outfit with a miniskirt. The game hints that she probably works as a stripper. She doesn’t know Mary and is a little offended by James’ confusion. So James has come to this town looking for his wife, who he knows to be dead. And in the spot where he thought he might meet her he instead encounters a woman who looks exactly like her, but has a very different personality.
He teams up with Maria and the two of them make their way through town. He’s still dedicated to finding his real wife, though.
Later, Maria is horribly killed in front of him while he is unable to help. Still later he finds her again and she seems to be alright. This pattern repeats several times throughout the game, as James is forced to watch his wife’s “twin” get killed over and over. He’s never able to save her, and he never really gets a sensible explanation when he’s reunited with her later.
Their conversations confuse him. She refers to memories that he shares with Mary, such as the time the two of them visited Silent Hill. She gets angry when he confuses her with his dead wife, even though she seems to be doing the same thing: She frequently confuses herself with Mary!
Alone again, James concludes that Mary must be in the Hotel where the two of them stayed on their previous visit. It’s pretty much the last place in town available, so it’s a safe guess his answers are there. There are more puzzles and he bumps into Eddie and Angela at various points. Their conversations reveal little except the depths of everyone’s confusion.
As he nears the Inn he encounters Eddie for the last time. Eddie has become demented. On their last meeting, Eddie was in a room full of recently killed human corpses, which is an odd thing to find in a town that’s been deserted this long. It’s become clear that Eddie has been somehow slaughtering people for “making fun of him”. James tries to make sense of this and Eddie assumes James is insulting him, “Just like all the rest.” James is obliged to kill Eddie in self-defense.
James at last reaches the Hotel. Note that if the player opens up their inventory and tries to read the note from Mary, they will find it is blank! Hmmm. Now we are forced to wonder: Did it ever really say anything to begin with?
At last James reaches the room where he and Mary were before. Unlike the rest of the inn, the room is in pristine condition, but nobody is there. A VCR and television have been set up, and a lone video casette sits nearby. James watches it. In the grainy, out-of-focus video we see Mary in her sick bed. She seems to be asleep. James enters and kisses her on the cheek. Then he picks up a pillow and mashes it over her face. She tries to fight back, but she’s no match for him. The video ends.
James sits motionless in the chair, head bowed. Laura enters. How she reached the Hotel and made her way through waves of monsters and traps is beyond understanding. She walks in, unscathed from her journey, and asks James if he’s found Mary.
“She’s dead”, he explains, “I killed her.”
And so now we finally see the root of his confusion. His wife was dying, and he killed her. He’s blocked out the memory. The timetable sorts itself out. Mary didn’t die three years ago. She got sick three years ago, and he killed her very recently. Silent Hill has called him here to face his demons. Step one was coming to terms with what he’d done.
We also learn that her disease was disfiguring, and made the normally gentle and kind Mary angry and irrational. Near the end she was demanding and awful to behold.
As we near the finale, James encounters Angela for the final time. She has been falling deeper into despair each time they meet, and at last she gives in and chooses suicide. James can do nothing to dissuade her.
James is forced to see Maria die one last time, and then he fights an evil incarnation of either Mary or Maria, depending on a few player actions during the game. There are several endings, although only three are important to the plot in my view.
- The “good ending” is that after the fight James appears at his wife’s bedside and admits that he killed her out of mercy, but also out of selfishness because of of difficulty of caring for her. She grants him forgiveness and asks him to go on with his life. We then seem him leaving town with little Laura.
- After the fight James is reunited with Maria, and the two of them leave town together. As he helps her into the car, she begins coughing. I believe that Maria is sick just like Mary was, and by choosing to take her with him that James is doomed to re-live the awful years he spent caring for Mary. Perhaps this is some form of pennance? Perhaps if he sees her to the end he will feel free of his guilt.
- After the fight James is overcome with guilt. He returns to his car and drives into the lake, killing himself so that he can “be with Mary”. Obviously this ending kind of sucks, although it’s difficult to get by chance.
What interests me about this game is the other three people we encounter in town: Laura, Angela, Maria, and Eddie. Note that when we meet these people our perception of the town changes.
Years of scorn have filled Eddie with rage. He’s come to Silent Hill to deal with that hate, one way or another. Instead of seeing a town full of monsters, he seems to see it as a place where people taunt and insult him. Silent Hill is a place filled with either stangers or people from Eddie’s own past who tear him down. Perhaps this is a reflection of his childhood. Perhaps his own journey was to see if he could find forgiveness for these people, or to learn what it is about himself that makes him so unpopular. Perhaps he could learn that he hurts others as much as they hurt him. We don’t know what his problem was.
However, Eddie’s jouney is a failure. He lashes out and starts slaughtering everyone. His rampage ends when he meets a real person (James) and is killed.
When James gets near Angela the town stops looking like a rotting ruin, and takes on a more domestic feel. He’ll find a wall that is actually off-white, with a non-rotting door, both of which are covered in newspaper clippings about house fires and murders.
Angela is filled with self-loathing. She was abused by her father and evetually ended the abuse by killing him. However, this didn’t cure the self-loathing. Like many abuse victims, she had been taught to believe the she was worthless and unlovable. With her father dead, she can no longer hope that one day he will repent, apologize, and say that he loves her. (It doesn’t matter that he was probably never capable of this. From her point of view, that was the one thing she could hope for that would heal her, and by killing him she also killed that hope.)
So she comes to Silent Hill to choose between life and death for herself. The first time she and James meet, she’s sitting in the graveyard. Later she’s in a (more or less normal) bedroom, staring at a knife. James manages to talk her into giving up the knife, but he’s pretty confused himself and is in no shape to offer Angela real help.
Later James rescues her as she’s being menaced by a monster. We see a big monster shaped like (I’m not kidding) a black door, but Angela repeatedly calls it “daddy” during the fight. At the end, she joins in the killing of the monster. This is another clue as to how the town works. She was probably re-living a moment with her father when James came in and intervened. She saw her father, but all we saw was a freakish monster.
On their final meeting, he finds Angela at the inn. She’s standing in a burning hallway. (Note that this is an interesting twist. When you go into another room away from Angela there is no fire, no smoke, and no sounds of fire. The fire only exists when Anglea is near. So she sees the inn buring to the ground, and James sees it as he sees everything else: damp, rotting, and cold.)
James says, “It’s hot as hell in here.”
Angela, “You see it too? For me, it’s always like this.”
He finally makes a try at talking her into choosing life, but it’s hopeless. He hasn’t expressed any real empathy for her until now, and it’s too late to start. She walks into the flames, embracing death.
When Laura is around, everything looks perfectly normal. We see the town as it really is (or was) with no distortion at all. This explains how Laura survives the monsters and traps. For her, there aren’t any. She sees Silent Hill as a big empty town. She never shows any signs of fear. She’s innocent, and unlike the others she doesn’t seem to be here to face any personal demons. She doesn’t even understand what the others are going through.
At one point early in the game James finds Eddie and Laura hanging out at the bowling alley and enjoying a pizza. This is interesting. In James’ Silent Hill, there is nothing but decay, and the idea of finding food is ludicrous. But for Eddie and Laura the town is normal enough that they can get their hands on a fresh Pizza.
This might have been Eddie’s chance at redemption. Laura spent time with him, which could have been a catalyst for Eddie to help give him some sense of empathy or gentleness, but it didn’t seem to work.
In one ending of the game James gets his act together and leaves with Laura. In the other endings we don’t see what happens to her, but it’s safe to assume she turns out fine. The town is no danger to her, and she can probably leave whenever she wants.
Unlike the other three, I think Maria is not a real person. That is, in many ways she’s just another monster James has to face. She comes back from apparent death, which isn’t something the other characters ever do. She doesn’t seem to have her own view of Silent Hill, as the town remains unchanged when she’s around and in fact she seems to see things as James does.
She also defies real-world reasoning. It doesn’t make sense that a woman who looks exactly like Mary would just happen to be waiting in the park when James goes there, or that the woman would happen to have such a similar name. And later of course, she has access to some of Mary’s memories.
The only conclusion is that Maria is another demon sent to torment James. The other three characters never see or mention her. In fact, she avoids encountering Eddie and Laura at the bowling alley, prefering to stay outside. It’s possible that if she were to go inside, she would appear differently to the others, much like the way Anglea saw the “door monster” as her own father.
There is no question that Pyramid head is a monster, but he’s different from the others. We see PH doing awful, awful things to the other, lesser monsters in the game. Furthermore, every time Maria is killed, it’s Pyramid Head doing the killing. The player usually has a real grudge against PH the first time through the game.
But once we learn what James has done, we can see that PH is reflecting James’ own crime. His repeated killing of Maria is there to force James to face his own murder of Mary.
Another Note about PH is that he is invincible. The player never, ever harms or defeats PH in any way. James survives his encounters with PH by running. At the finale he is forced to fight PH for a while, but in the end PH just stops fighting and impales himself on his own spear. James never really harms him. PH is the Grim Reaper. You can’t beat him in combat.
The question is: Are these other people (Laura, Angela, and Eddie) fellow travelers who have come to Silent Hill? Are they real, or are they more like Maria: Entities created by the town itself to help or hinder James on his way?
It’s possible that they are all pilgrims like James, who have been drawn or called to Silent Hill to confront their past. However, this doesn’t explain how a child like Laura could reach the town on her own, or how she survives. She doesn’t have to face monsters, but she would still need to take care of herself, which is a big job for an eight-year-old.
My brother came up with another explanation for the other four people of the game:
Each of the characters could be seen to represent an aspect of James. In this view, none of these people are real, but are only summoned by James and his guilty conscience as he wanders around the empty town. The wrathful Eddie represents his hated of others. The suicidal Angela represents his hatred of himself. The (to James) sexy Maria represents his love of self, for wanting a new “improved” wife to replace the old. Finally, the innocent Laura represents his love of others.
Note that in this view we don’t need to worry about how Laura got to Silent Hill on her own or how she takes care of herself. If these other people are part of the nighmare world, then they don’t need to make any more sense than the rest of the town.
In either view, James came to Silent Hill to deal with his crime. He was indeed in a tough spot and we can see how Mary’s illness destroyed them both. The disease made her ugly and mean, and doomed her to a slow, lingering death. It destroyed their once-happy marriage, and put James into a position where his loving wife was gone, and yet he was forced to continue to care for what was left of her. It’s easy to see how he was tempted to “put her out of her misery”, with the added benefit of putting her out of his own.
But once the deed was done he was filled with guilt. He hated himself and (I think) wanted to suffer for his crime. So he was drawn to Silent Hill, where the ghosts of the town made him face what he’d done.
Aside from Pyramid Head, the monsters in the game are feminine in one way or another. One is made of female mannequin parts. Another is a “nurse” similar to the gruesome nurses in the recent Silent Hill movie. Another is an armless thing that doesn’t look very female at first glance, but has female proportions (longer legs, shorter torso) and a higher-pitched “voice”.
Finally, it’s interesting that James is able to go to Silent Hill and find healing. Assuming you get the good ending, he leaves in better shape than when he arrived. By forcing him to endure dark horrors, by making him face his crime and understand it, and finally by letting him speak one last time with (we assume) his late wife, the town helped him find the absolution he sought. The town saved him.
The town also never hurt Laura. It menaced Angela, but in the end she killed herself. It taunted Eddie, but in the end it was James that killed him. Taking all of this into account, we can see the town itself, while filled with horrible images, never really killed anyone. Note also that the town seemed to reflect what was in the heart of the visitor. In Silent Hill 2, the town was not truly evil, but simply a dark mirror that would bring out one’s own inner demons and give them shape. Now we think back to the start of the game, when James enters the wreched bathroom and takes a long look at himself in the mirror. Deep down, I think he knew why he was here.
LUKE: What’s in there?
YODA: Only what you take with you…
None of the other games had this particular take on the town. In the other iterations of the series, the town is clearly filled with evil powers. I enjoyed this game. It was deep and interesting, and had a very new take on the classic survival horror formula.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
Why Batman Can't Kill
His problem isn't that he's dumb, the problem is that he bends the world he inhabits.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.