Saturday, October 2, 2010

Video Game Assessment: Silent Hill 2 (2001)

Silent Hill 2 is known to most people who have ever been into the survival horror video game experience. Made for the PlayStation 2 for the console in 2001, it has become known as one of the best video games of all time.

Video Games tend to have a history as having storylines that aren't amazing or plots that are very simplistic, but this game has much more than just a simple plot. You may be wondering why I skipped Silent Hill, the first game in the franchise, and while it is true that I've never played the game and thus couldn't review it, it's also true that Silent Hill 2 is very much a standalone game. No characters from the first game appear in this game (except arguably the town itself), and this makes the game even better. I know I started this paragraph off talking about storylines and I'm getting to my point slowly, but surely. This game stands alone on its own without the first game's help to hold it up. It's story, although slow, is stunning and creepy and drags the player right into the madness of the town itself.

I've played a lot of survival horror games over the years and I'm going to review some of them this month, but this game is the review I've been looking forward to the most. Silent Hill 2 is one of my favorite video games of all time despite the graphical limitations for an early PS2 title and the not stellar gameplay. Strangely enough though, these things don't take away from the greatness of the game. On the contrary they add to it. The graphical limitations and strangely squarish polygons along with the mist which is a staple to most of the series, make the game somewhat more terrifying, almost as if you've wandered into some strange and horrific land of misshaped everything. The story feels so real despite the terror which adds to it. And the controls being utter crap just means that running is always an option, possibly a preferable option and it lead to an atmosphere of non-confrontation.

I just spoke of atmosphere, so I'm going to go into detail. This game is all about atmosphere. That's a strange word to use to describe a relatively simple thing like the look and feel of the game, but the atmosphere of the game is done phenomenally, and I don't use that word lightly. You can pick any movie, any book, and I don't think they'd quite be able to draw me in the way this video game did back when I first played it, and it's all because I, and I'm going to guess we, can relate to the main character, or a character somewhere in the plot. We can relate to a crappy world of nonexistence, a mad place of confusion and fear. This game takes the deepest fears in our minds and turns them out for all of us to see. It's wonderful and terrifying to see what terrors reside within us all.

I guess I should mention the plot a bit, although I really don't have to. This game is good enough that being unknown to you should force you to look into it.

The plot follows one James Sunderland who has just received a letter from his dead wife, who has been dead for three years. I know the postage system is slow... but DAAAAMN... Anyway, she writes:
In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill. 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...

Yes, James Sunderland, your dead wife is "waiting" for you. This is a bit of a problem... no, this is a huge problem. James wonders about this. He has no idea what to expect or what's in store for him, all he knows is that he wants to see what the letter is talking about... and maybe see if he can find his wife amidst a tourist town that the had a nice vacation in before she became ill and died.

The video game starts out in a dingy bathroom and outside is a dingy world. Silent Hill doesn't seem like the nice town everybody makes it out to be. In fact, the main road is closed and there's nobody around but strange noises in the mist...

Eventually James makes it into the middle of town through a graveyard meeting a young woman named Angela in the process. He comes to find that the town is... well, it's empty. There's nobody there and many roads are cut off through strange means. He sees creatures in the midst, some of which attack him, others of which want nothing to do with him. The player is drawn into the story just as James is. What could happen next? What's in store for our hero?

James wanders around the town until he finds an apartment building. He needs to go through it to find what he believes may be the "special place" Mary, his dead wife, speaks of. He thinks it could be a park. He goes into the apartments finding various empty rooms and some strange monsters and eventually a young heavyset man named Eddie who he finds vomiting into a toilet. The mood changes as James meets Angela again and she seems to be contemplating suicide. He takes the knife she is holding from her and is watched and later attacked by a monster known only as Pyramid Head.

Now, Pyramid Head is one of the most famous monsters in video game history. I won't say much about him yet. He torments James along the journey, as James goes from the park, to a sanitarium, to a historical society, to Nowhere, and later to a hotel. Along the way James meets two more characters of interest, a stripper named Maria who looks remarkably like his dead wife except for the stripper part, and a young girl named Laura.

James goes through Silent Hill focused on his one goal of finding his wife, but the game's strength relies on the other character's stories as well. We only get bits and pieces of who they are and what they're doing in Silent Hill, but their stories are every bit as beautiful and terrifying as the story of James and Mary.

James makes his way through the various places always with his mind set on finding Mary, but Pyramid Head has different intentions. He kills Maria in the basement of the sanitarium and James is forced to watch and unable to save her. The problem is that James meets up with Maria again throughout the story and every time she is killed again, but more and more quickly. She also seems to know an alarming amount about his wife and himself...

As it turns out, Maria is a dream within James' head. She was born from his desire for his wife to be alive still. Pyramid Head is the tormentor and punisher of James throughout the game and this is because Pyramid Head is James' guilt for doing the unthinkable.

I'm going to spoil the game here. Why? Because leaving this part out leaves out a large chunk of the story. James' dreams up this town of punishments because he has murdered his sick wife, smothered her with a pillow actually, just a little while before the start of the game. The letter is his own delusion he dreamed up so that he wouldn't have to face being her killer. He makes himself forget what he has done and the game is pretty much the town itself forcing him to remember and to face what he had done.

The psychological horror aspect of this video game is undeniable and visceral. It's a wonderful story that plays out in such a way that by the end you're unsure of whether to tremble or to cry. The atmosphere and the characters lead to something so believable, a prison of the mind, a trial of the mind... and it's a wonderful weaving of both story and character to make something wonderful out of both.

This game is frankly terrifying, especially if you're like me and played it blind the first time you ever played it. You don't know what's going to happen next or where the story will lead to next. You don't know where everything will lead and it makes the game horrifying. Will a monster jump out at you? Will the invincible Pyramid Head attack you around a corner? Where might the story lead to next? What the game makes is something fantastic, a great story, believable and sad characters, great and meaningful monsters and enemies, and most of all, one of the best plots I have ever seen in any medium.

I could compare books and movies to this game, but most fall short. The only book I can think of with anywhere near the emotional story is House of Leaves which I may review this October... but I'm not saying now, and Jacob's Ladder which I already said I'm planning on reviewing. So, I may make some comparisons when I get to those reviews.

But anyway this game is great. If you have a PS2 (or XBox or PC since the game is on all three), pick this game up. You won't be disappointed, but you may be terrified. If you have a weak stomach or weak heart, just read this review and look at the images and have a good time thinking about how terrifying a video game can be. This is on of my favorite video games of all time, and I can't help recommending it to the populace. I'm actually currently replaying it and it's still terrifying.

Anyway, as I've said, this game is fantastic and wonderful, and you'll see me gushing about this a million times over as I compare and contrast it to other psychological horror plots and stories, because this one is at the pinnacle of the psychological horror genre and... well, it's at the pinnacle of plots in general.

All right, that's enough of me praising something. Let's just move on from here...


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