Mental Health, The Paranormal, and The Art of Silent Hill 2

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Video games have an unjust reputation of being big, shouty, and full of bravado. Outwardly posturing, and stacked with enough explosions and machismo to make Michael Bay blush, it is at times a challenge to call the video game industry or indeed the majority of its output subtle. Not to say this is a true or false assertion, inherently, but this is nonetheless very hard to walk back from when the likes of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are as prevalent as they are, and are thought of as lacking a level of self-awareness. However, the horror genre within video games has always had a different philosophy – it had to in order to be successful. When it comes to literature or film, as an intelligent audience we’re well aware than different genres do different things. When it comes to video games, mainstream output can feel distilled into what is, essentially, a pissing match. The biggest game. The loudest game. The most content-filled game. As artistic as most games have the potential to be and indeed are, we haven’t quite left the chrysalis of commercialisation. Horror games don’t think like that. There may be vague murmurs about who’s the scariest, certainly, but the horror genre isn’t looking outward. It’s introspective. The genre and the individual titles within mind their own business, focusing on telling their own story instead of competing with somebody else’s. This kind of thinking has allowed many series such as Clock Tower, Fatal Frame and Resident Evil to blossom and tell wonderful stories, but none have arguably done so better than Silent Hill, with the second iteration coming in decisively as Konami and Team Silent’s opus, standing tall not just as an example of great video gaming, but great art.

Silent Hill, as a series, chiefly deals with the paranormal and our perception of it. Different iterations of the series vary in what fears they exploit; the first takes advantage of fatherhood, the third focusing on the dangers of existing in the world as a teenage girl, and the fourth on loneliness and isolation. Different facets of these fears are represented through the monsters which populate the digital world, such as the Creeper symbolising existential dread or the Nurses representing sexual repression and guilt. This is further related to the cold and barren world which we explore, feeling like a shell of a place we used to know and love. Video games can never be truly dynamic with characters that respond intelligently to any and all of our thoughts, so why not lean into that idea? If the world will end up feeling empty and hollow due to the limits of technology, turn that negative into a positive and exploit the human fear of being alone, a stranger in a strange place.

Much of the early Silent Hill series is excellent, but many argue that 2 is just that slight inch better not just for how human it feels, but also how vulnerable and multi-layered the characters are. You play as James Sunderland who is positively boring by video game standards; a pedestrian bookstore clerk who has zero combat ability, no secret training in handgun use or dodge-rolling, and, most importantly, isn’t interested in being the hero. He is, for all intents and purposes, a normal member of the human population. That’s the “in”, the lens into the horrific world of Silent Hill. Most games fall over themselves trying to create relatable protagonists but still end up birthing Adonis-like supermen in the lead position – characters like Carl Johnson, Max Payne, and Nathan Drake come to mind. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t do that. James is a legitimately weak protagonist, and can barely swing a baseball bat, meaning your best bet when swarmed by otherworldly beasts is to run. In most games, the world is magical because you are magical, having superhuman abilities that easily have to put you in the top 99th percentile of human beings. Here, you are powerless, scared and alone, which only serves to heighten the fear and the power of the otherworldly that crawls through to the human world via a television screen.

man holding corded game controller

James, powerless and confused, returns to the lake town of Silent Hill. While this information comes through to us slowly throughout the course of the narrative, we learn that our main character is severely mentally ill, and has come to the lakeside resort to reunite with his wife, Mary. The problem is, his wife has been dead for years due to a terminal illness, and over the course of the game, we learn exactly why; no spoilers here as this game is worth experiencing first hand. Confronting his fears and anxieties, James slowly makes his way to the hotel he and his wife spent a weekend at many moons ago, finding himself constantly attacked by monsters and unusual and perverse logic puzzles. The monsters which inhabit the once-beautiful settlement are a manifestation of James’ guilt over Mary’s death – punishing himself through the presence of the paranormal, warping his own perception of the normally idyllic Maine resort town to become an unnervingly unhappy, rusted, and creaking place that isn’t fit for humans now. Playing the game begins to feel like a true feat of endurance, as progress is not marked by your reflexes or skill in combat, but how adept you are at puzzle solving and riddles; wracking your brain trying to figure out an oblique puzzle is significantly more punishing and frustrating than simply not being “good” at the game. The well-being of James and his wife is at stake here, creating real and tangible feelings of creeping dread that further help to immerse us within the text’s frightful world.

Worse still is how Silent Hill 2 totally perverts the familiar and comfortable human world by blending it with the game’s party piece. The series, exploring the fears of its main characters, has two worlds to explore; the normal human world that resembles our own, and a rotten, dessicated world that looks like normality but is sodden with blood or replete with rust called the Otherworld. From the outset, these worlds are sharply divided – it’s clear which side of the boundary you’re on at any given time – but as you continue with the narrative, everything starts to bleed together. The Otherworld is populated by a raft of monsters patterned after James’ own fears and neuroses, which help to make the experience exponentially more frightening than any generic choice of villain such as zombies or aliens. This is perhaps most skillfully portrayed through the monster Pyramid Head, which is a ubermale beast constantly on the hunt for James, over-encumbered with a massive pyramid for a head, armed with a massive buster sword. The symbolism is multifaceted, but Pyramid Head is a reflection of James himself; the pyramid emphasising the weight he feels on his shoulders, the disenfranchisement he feels from others. The sword is a crude but necessary representation of male ego, clearly phallic and shadowing both James’ sexual frustration and his desire to be a truly single man in the years since his wife passed away, implying James both fears and envies Pyramid Head, simultaneously a look at the person he wants to be and not be.

While obviously known for the paranormal elements, Silent Hill 2 is also fondly remembered for how sensual it is – this is what makes video games different in our abilities to blend stimuli for sight, sound, and touch, and Silent Hill 2 puts forward the best case for the medium. The fear instilled throughout gameplay is augmented further via visuals and sound engineering. To compensate for graphical limitations on the original PlayStation, the original game used a heavy fogging effect so the machine would not have to render as many 3D objects at once. This had the added benefit of not being acutely aware of your surroundings, blinded by the thick blanket of fog. You had no idea who or what was around the corner and that meant everything in terms of atmosphere and tone: you were always on edge, listening out for anything rising above your own character’s breath and footsteps. This was doubled by the inclusion of a shortwave radio that was normally silent but would emit static at the nearby presence of a monster, and even the slightest creaking is enough to set your hair on edge. There’s a fear to walking through a dodgy part of town at night because of the long list of intangibles. A video game is predetermined; we shouldn’t have those fears. Yet while trying to navigate the hellscape of Silent Hill, we never think “a monster could be out there”. The thought process is “anything could be out there”. The world in front of us, while deterministic and pre-programmed, becomes bigger, borne out of our own fear. Such is the effect of the series, the intangible effect of interactivity. We can reach out and play with the game world, and it will play with us right back.

Ultimately, these manifestations of guilt, the town seemingly built to punish James, will have us asking, “is this real”? Is it actually paranormal, and these monsters have manifested into reality to punish James? Is it all in his head – a frightening thought if you posit that the monsters are imagined, but the location and gunfire is real, chillingly alluded to in the third game when a tertiary character Vincent asks, “They looked like monsters to you?” Is it a blend of both – James’ mental health has declined so badly that he sees only a rotten hellworld, but these monsters are the “inner demons” he fights every day? It’s fun to speculate. What can be said with confidence is that Silent Hill 2 expertly marries the paranormal with the frightening, awesome power of the human mind. As anyone who has ever struggled with mental health knows, the mind is capable of nearly anything, and those that know are well aware that minds can and do collapse under the weight of themselves. What is “out there” may be closer than we really think. The paranormal is scary, but reality – that which is close to home – is where the true horror lies.

person behind fog glass

Silent Hill 2 is an achievement not just in video games but for art itself, feeling heinously underrated in conversations about literature and art, which is what this game should be considered in many respects. The game feels remarkably mature – many other games offered simple but relatable stories of revenge or dominance; here, we are focused on marital happiness, the complex feelings that can come with caring for a terminally ill spouse, and the power that anxiety, catastrophic thinking, and guilt can have on us. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a singularly terrifying experience worthy of the “horror” descriptor, but it’s been twenty years and we are still finding ways to talk about and interact with the things this game has to say about mental health and the fear of the unknown. When you walk into a room in this game, anticipating a fight, and find absolutely nothing there, you are drenched in cold relief, with this happening constantly. This is not a game to win. This is a game to experience. Horrific and twisted and cold, this is beautiful, beautiful art. Play it. Just don’t anticipate an easy night’s sleep after.

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