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Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill 2 is a game that’s stayed with me since I first played it, always waiting in that dank crevice of my brain where I’m afraid to linger for too long.

It’s a game that probes at my subconscious every so often, and it serves as a constant reminder of what the human psyche is able to do to itself.

It transcends the average notion of what a videogame is, and contradicts the player’s perception of the world and of themselves, as all challenging art should do.

I pray I’m not the only one who thinks about this game every now and then, and judging by the acclaim and the legacy it’s created since its release on September 22, 2001, I’m certain it’s still skulking around in many people’s minds.

For all of the game’s innovations, it’s difficult to picture an era from which Silent Hill first emerged as a direct imitation to capitalise on the success of Japanese developer Capcom’s survival horror juggernaut Resident Evil, a series that gripped audiences with its tense action, B-movie zombie iconography and emphasis on item management.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

James Sunderland’s everyman nature sets him apart from other action-hero horror protagonists of the era, such as Leon Kennedy of the Resident Evil series, pictured above. Image: Capcom.

Seeking to emulate the same blockbuster success, rivals Konami shuttered away its delinquents and underachievers into a small development crew later dubbed Team Silent, and tasked them with the job of doing so.

Instead, they created 1999’s Silent Hill, a PS1 exclusive that prioritised a brooding, industrial atmosphere with an emphasis on the psychological corner of horror rather than the survival-based action favoured by its contemporaries.

The game’s use of obscuring fog, initially implemented in lieu of draw-distance limitations, became the series’ trademark, and fostered an air of claustrophobia and anxiety with every step through the eponymous town.

The unsettling creature design and the deteriorated industrial Underworld were made to reflect the projections of a tormented psyche, allowing for a mutability to the enemy encounters and settings based on which character’s thoughts were being personified.

Taking influence from films like Jacob’s Ladder and the surrealist works of David Lynch, Silent Hill carved its own niche in the horror gaming sphere and with two million units sold, its first entry proved more than a modest success for the higher-ups at Konami.

A sequel was in order, and with Silent Hill’s director Keiichiro Toyama departing Konami to create the Forbidden Siren series at Japan Studios, Team Silent was able to expand on the foundation set by the first game and steer the direction of what the series would become.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

Silent Hill is a town shrouded by fog, desolation and mystery that peels back the layers of one’s inner demons. Image: Konami.

While still set in the same town, Silent Hill 2 follows a different protagonist than in the previous game, James Sunderland, who receives a letter from his deceased wife Mary beckoning him to meet her at their “special place” in Silent Hill.

While the first game’s story focused on the occult denizens of the seaside resort town, Silent Hill 2 takes a far more intimate approach, using its central characters to touch on taboo subject matter previously unmined in gaming narratives.

On an interview for Fun TV’s The Making of Silent Hill 2, producer Imamura Akihiro said: “I want[ed] to express what’s deep within the mind.”

CG director and character designer Takayoshi Sato says the psychological horror of Silent Hill 2 is about “uncover[ing] people’s core emotion and their core motivation for life”.

Through the manifestations of the game’s central characters, the game explores the traumas and impact of bullying, sexual abuse, repression and guilt, touching on what Sato refers to as the universal concerns of “sex and death”.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

CGI director and character designer Takayoshi Sato explains his creative process for depicting the emotion within Silent Hill 2’s characters in The Making of Silent Hill 2. Image: Fun TV.

Monster deaths were given an intentional “erotic essence” to their movement, and this is embodied in the skulking nurses of Brookhaven Hospital, whose low-cut skirts and busty frames mingle with spasmodic twitches and convulsions in an effort to unnerve the player.

Iconic villain Pyramid Head’s introduction is steeped in sexual imagery as he flails about with two mannequins in suggestive poses; creature designer Masahiro Ito said the character’s “sharpness suggests the possibility of pain”, adding a masochistic layer to a game already saturated with psychosexual undertones.

Ito wanted to achieve a human aspect to the monsters that he could then “undermine [with] weird movements [and] improbable angles”, taking influence from drunk people and stumbling children—the lying figure’s upright stance was directly inspired by a programmer at Konami walking up to Ito with his hands buried in his jacket while dancing along to music.

Silent Hill 2 is often a confusing effort, replete with a dizzying level design and often obtuse puzzles; its world is littered with symbolic imagery (emergent holes, hangman’s ropes, cryptic graffiti, penetrations galore, etc).

in order to convey the complexities and uncertainties of the characters’ subconsciouses. It seeks to obfuscate with every step of the way, finally pulling the wool back from both the player and James’s eyes only once it’s far too late to turn back.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

James is assailed by Pyramid Head, now a staple creature of the Silent Hill series, for better or worse. Image: Konami.

Much of the legwork that makes Silent Hill 2 so successful in getting under the player’s skin is in its aesthetic and sound design. Series composer Akira Yamaoka said he sought to get away from the “formal sounds” of Resident Evil’s cinematic flair and explosive action in order to challenge the player’s imagination and evoke a physical reaction throughout their time in Silent Hill.

Much like its predecessor, Silent Hill 2 plays with abstract sound design often atypical even for horror gaming. Monsters scuttle and moan in the distance, and their presence is made known to the player by the crackling white noise of a portable radio, a warning siren now ubiquitous to Silent Hill since its first entry.

Infamously, even James’s footsteps betray a sense of unease towards the player, with each footstep being made to sound different to the last; even the act of walking doesn’t provide a sense of assuredness.

Silence also plays a key factor in disarming the player. Yamaoka says that “selecting moments of silence is another way of producing sounds”, playing further with players’ expectations.

Perhaps horror gaming’s most flagrant sonic contribution, the soundtrack is infected with a longing melancholia that dulls away the hard edges of the first game’s industrial noise leanings.

The music of Silent Hill 2 finds the series’ beating heart, the rhythm of which is often one of near-ambience, cradled with instances of dulcet piano, reverberant trip hop and haunting atmospherics. There’s still plenty of industrial, metal and hard rock tracks to excite or alarm the ears, but more often than not, Silent Hill 2’s music will tug at the heart rather than the gut.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

Creature designer Masahiro Ito’s early concept work for what would become the Bubble Head mannequin nurses that shuffle about Brookhaven Hospital and other locations.

While the game’s sound design proves anomalous enough, its characters achieve new heights in their ability to stir discomfort within the player, bringing a layer of believable unbelievability to the character’s expressions, and with it, instilling with the spine-tingling essence of the “uncanny valley”.

Everything is slightly off about the visitors of Silent Hill, their eyes linger with a ghost-like ethereality, their cadences and delivery are slightly twisted, barely eschewing the realms of conventional speech; the characters speak as though they are disembodied, lost, because, as the player will discover, they essentially are.

The voice work of the original Silent Hill 2 cast has often drawn criticism for their so-called wooden performances, but this detachment delivers another blanket of fog to the game’s intangible atmosphere.

Adding to the notion of “believable unbelievability”, the animations were captured via motion capture performance done by the voice actors (a practice that was then not the industry standard that it is today), imbuing a confidence to the movement of the characters, even if their expressions are lacking in human authenticity, intentionally or otherwise.

Silent Hill 2 was released to critical acclaim, selling over a million units within its first month and transcending the boundaries of videogame narrative, and frequently topping lists of the best stories in gaming and inciting articles and scholarly writings that attempt to etch away at the game’s design.

Silent Hill 2 ushered gaming into an age where weighty game narratives could be taken seriously, that went beyond the simple premises of “save the princess” and “shoot this thing”.

It paved it possible for games such as SOMA and Spec Ops: The Line to explore complex, uncomfortable issues that reflect the gravity of the real world with all of the burdensome traumas that can come with it. It eschews the notion of games as mere escapist fantasies and with that, brings them into the realms of difficult film and literature.

Through that impenetrable fog: 20 years of Silent Hill 2

James is subjected to Silent Hill’s harrowing mind games as he interacts with Maria, a sexualised personification of his late wife. Image: Konami.

The original Team Silent made two more follow-ups, Silent Hill 3 in 2003 and 2004’s Silent Hill 4: The Room, before the IP was handed off to American developers and seemingly tainted irrevocably.

Two decades later, Silent Hill feels like a series that’s desperately trying to keep up with the innovations of its watershed sequel, that is when it’s not being developed by master auteur Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame, whose sole Silent Hill entry PT, though hailed as an exciting return for the series, was soured by his acrimonious departure from Konami in 2015.

Konami seems intent on attempting to recapture the cloudy lightning in a bottle that Silent Hill 2 secured, using much of its hallmarks and imagery with none of the soul, character or even thematic weight that made those initial creations so damn compelling and most importantly, unsettling.

Much of the iconography of Silent Hill 2 is lifted without reasoning or context. Pyramid Head, ostensibly a personification of James Sunderland’s subconscious, has since appeared in numerous Silent Hill releases, shuffling through 2006’s Silent Hill film adaptation and again in Silent Hill: Homecoming in 2008, the latter of which Ito was apparently displeased about—there are hints within the game’s lore that Pyramid Head represents a universal punisher within the Silent Hill canon though this is unconfirmed.

The twitching psycho-sexualised mannequin nurses, once personifications of James’s sexual frustrations, have since served as entry-level encounters in later unconnected Silent Hill stories.

Silent Hill 2 saw a rerelease on seventh generation consoles alongside the third game as part of 2012’s Silent Hill: HD Collection, which alongside a plethora of technical issues, lost assets, and bugs, infamously removes much of the fog that made traversing the town so disarming, stripping the town of its stifling uncertainty and revealing the limitations inherent within the technology of the time.

While the series itself seems past floundering, Yamaoka’s recent work with Bloober Team on 2021’s The Medium, itself a next-gen torchbearer for Silent Hill’s brand of dimensional, neurotic horror, appears to hint at a renewed interest in the form of game development that Silent Hill 2 was so instrumental in pioneering.

Silent Hill, as a series, is perhaps best left in the ashes of its past. The legacy of its sophomore entry only becomes secured with each passing year and, with that adage, increasingly more unsurpassable.

Silent Hill 2 is the ultimate attestation of the Nietzschean dictum “gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes back”. It is an unflinching character study into the darkest crevices of the human condition.

It is this universal timeliness that offers the player such a thematic bed that still stands firm two decades later, even if most of the paint has peeled off and the air has eroded with flecks of floating rust.

I’m certain once another decade has passed, Silent Hill 2 will still be residing in the same dusty old corner in my head. Hopefully it’ll at least have kept the place clean.

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