My senior year of high school, the parents decided to move into a house out in the country. Nice, quiet most days. However, the isolation was always kinda eerie. Especially since that first month, there was a blackout. Out in the country, that means pitch black. And I was alone, save for the house pets (including a new kitten that we had just gotten). Mind you, I was 17-18 at this point, and had long since outgrown childhood fears. Least, that’s what I kept telling myself. Instead, in the dark, armed with a dinky little flashlight that barely illuminated the hallway of the house, I kept picturing this guy shambling towards me:
Yeah, Silent Hill 2 had a particular impact on me. I would have nightmares about this game. I pretty much grew up on horror movies and books, but Silent Hill 2 crept into me in a way that nothing before or since has. And no, it wasn’t just Pyramid Head. It was the way the game used sound, as in the long walk you (as James) take to get to town through the woods. It was the way the game toyed with players (changing messages, doors that led to rooms you were coming from, etc.). It was Akira Yamaoka’s brilliant music, a combination of twangy chords, melancholy piano keys, and just clanking metal noise. It was, of course, Pyramid Head and the disturbing monsters that you never quite knew what they were. Most of all, it was the chord it struck.
The game has a deceptively simple, compelling narrative where James is looking for answers. At the beginning, you (the player) can turn around and try to head back, but James actually refuses. He’s there to find out why he got a letter from his wife (who had died before the game starts) to meet in Silent Hill. He needs closure. What he finds is an uncomfortable truth about himself.
All the horrors you face in the game are the result of a troubled mind. Someone racked with guilt and not even consciously aware of why. Pyramid Head ends up being a subconscious punishment, James’ self-flagellation. Once he realizes this, the reality of the town becomes unstuck, and we, the player, start finding more and more examples of his madness or guilt: the letter, James’ sole reason for continuing on this descent into hell, is mysteriously blank; in an impossibly-long hallway, James’ terminally ill wife, Mary, yells at him. It’s a half-memory, with James’ actions only implied through Mary’s dialogue, which turns apologetic and remorseful when he (presumably) leaves her.
What starts as a typical adventure game narrative (albeit one with a Twilight Zone hook and horrific theme) reveals itself to be a human, emotional story. James’ frustration with his wife’s outbursts (implied to be frequent) is a universal frustration: my own mother frequently expressed anger at my grandparents, both of whom went into decline mentally and physically (he from Alzheimer’s, she from another form of dementia compounded by stress). It’s an understandable reaction, to react with hostility when faced with rage (especially incomprehensible rage). Even if it’s someone close to you.
This isn’t just about dying relatives or lovers, though. Throughout the game, James deals with three other individuals (four, if you count Maria, but she’s really a doppelgänger). All of them–Eddie, Laura, and Angela–have something “off” about them. They literally see the surroundings in different ways: Eddie’s surrounded by bullies he wants to lash out at, Angela is haunted by both her abusive father and the fact she murdered him, while Laura sees James as her tormentor, the jerk husband of the one person that cared for her. All three frustrate or unnerve him at various points in the game (he even berates Laura and Eddie). I’ve gone through similar phases, being annoyed by people I either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand. Still do. Sometimes, that even keeps me up at night, when I realize that I snapped at a person who didn’t deserve it or failed to support someone I care for.
Sometimes, the scariest, most troubling thing to admit is our own guilt. Silent Hill 2 taps into that, and maybe that’s why I get those restless dreams.