Sunday, November 30, 2008

Retrospective :: Silent Hill 2

This trend of reviewing or discussing games here is starting to upset me. Nevertheless...

For the past year, ever since I was made aware of its existence, I've been trying to hunt down a copy of Silent Hill 2 for the Xbox. Not one of the stores here in Saskatoon have stocked it in years, which isn't surprising, and I've been sitting on the Goozex queue for over a year, which is a bit more surprising. People who have it don't want to part with it, it seems. I finally got a used copy of it from After a year of patiently waiting, I finally clutched it in my trembling hands. Reverently, I placed it in my Xbox. I felt like I was about to have a religious experience. I tingled all over. I shivered and quivered. I broke into a sweat. I was terrified that it wouldn't live up to its legendary reputation. I, in other words, was more excited to finally play this seven year old game than I was to play almost anything else released this year, including Gears of War 2 or Fallout 3. I closed my eyes, closed the tray, and played the game.

And it was nearly sublime, as sublime as a game can be I suppose. I thought I'd experienced most of what games have to offer at this time. I thought things like Braid and Bioshock represented the best argument for games as art. I knew that the medium's potential had been hinted at in the past but I had no idea that someone had actually crossed, with bold step and stern gaze, the invisible threshold separating entertainment and art upon which games always stumble. I thought I'd already seen the medium used as effectively as anyone knew how to use it yet. I was wrong. Silent Hill 2 is the single best argument for games as art. Or perhaps it's an argument for how games are not art, since its exceptional nature only casts all other attempts into shadow. I've always known that the series had some serious punch to it. I liked Origins, which was the first Silent Hill game I played (lame, I know), I liked the action-oriented Homecoming probably more than it deserves, and I loved The Room... but those games are nothing - and I mean nothing! - when compared with the genius of Silent Hill 2. (Okay, The Room is still damn brilliant. It is much, much better than either Origins or Homecoming.)

As I was playing it, everything just felt right. The game mechanics, the dreamy sometimes atonal, sometimes discordant music, the ambiguous dialogue scenes, and yes even the dated graphics engine that powers this "last generation" title, all seemed to perfectly coalesce into an experience unlike any other. Silent Hill 2 transports you. You play as James Sunderland, an emotionally damaged man looking for his wife, Mary. Mary's been dead for three years, however, having died of a terminal illness. Yet inexplicably, James receives a letter from her saying that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill. So James sets out to find her, to discover the truth, and in doing so is propelled into a nightmare that is poignant, haunting, horrifying and absolutely beautiful.

The Silent Hill franchise is famed for its horror, and rightly so. Its twisted human shapes, dredged from the depths of eros and thanatos, can be truly disturbing projections of agony and despair. What the series is less famous for, though, is its beauty. The Room hints at this beauty but the American efforts at the series, Origins and Homecoming, basically banish it from town in favour of a constant sense of oppression that developers seem to think horror gamers require. Silent Hill 2 is beautiful, however. Tonally, it's like Braid meets Hellraiser. And shockingly, it retains the intelligence of both (and by Hellraiser I mean the Clive Barker film and not the bastardized sequels that followed in which, like the recent entries into the Silent Hill franchise, the parts that made it special were jettisoned to make room for the more spectacular parts that only made it conventional). Silent Hill 2 isn't just a survival horror game, you see. Like Braid, the game is an exploration of a theme. It is a psychological landscape translated into game mechanics. It is the projection of a troubled psyche. If you just want to be dropped into a town and be able to start blasting away at beasties, stay away from this. Play Resident Evil. Or Homecoming. Silent Hill 2 requires something more from the players, though. It requires human sympathy and a familiarity with the ambiguous. The game won't fill in all the pieces, won't launch into scenes of unnecessary exposition in which what you are seeing and doing is explained. The game doesn't interpret itself for you. It lets you feel the game. The metaphors are never mentioned, they are played. James rarely, if ever, comments on what he is doing. The player directly experiences the horror, the pathos, and the bright shining moments of insight, and the developers leave it up to the player to make of those moments what he can.

This sort of story-telling is rarely found in games. Developers almost always, and I don't know why, feel as if they need to spell out the game so explicitly that every single moron that picks up the game can follow it. Even Dead Space, my choice for Game of the Year, is pretty obvious on the story end of things, though it is admittedly more maturely crafted than most major releases. And I think that is what's missing in most games, maturity. Silent Hill 2 is mature. I don't mean "mature" as in Rated M (though it is); I mean mature as in grown up, sophisticated, self-aware, meta, etc. It feels like a game made for a truly adult audience, not the prurient adult audience that simply looks for blood, breasts and bad language.

2008 is being considered one of the best years for gaming in a long time. Aside from a few notable releases, however, most of the games currently being celebrated are the quivering fascinations of the moment - the shiny, hot, but ultimately shallow ephemera of an always insatiable market. Not one of the major developers show much interest in crafting compelling, introspective, thematically tense games. They are only after the spectacle. We have an entire industry scrambling to foist upon the market nothing more than summer blockbuster-style extravaganzas... and we have an audience gobbling it. Silent Hill 2 demands a higher standard.

A while back, I wrote that gaming grew up with Braid. I was wrong. Gaming grew up a long time ago with Silent Hill 2 but, outside a few of the upright heart and pure, nobody seemed to notice or care. You should care. Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece, the type of game rarely attempted and even more rarely executed. It has flaws and limitations, but those are mostly matters of technology and software. In vision it is nearly perfect.


Daniel Terner said...

Funny you mention that the graphics are dated - they are, but the game stands out in my memory as near photorealistic. I guess it just became such a part of my imagination that I think back at it more as a memory than a game, if that makes any sense. It was one of the first Xbox games I played, and I distictly recall not realizing the moment where the opening cutscene ended and character control began - the protagonist was staring into a dirty restroom mirror, and I waited a good few minutes for the cutscene to continue before I realized the rest was up to me.

dcornelius said...

I get that, how it could feel more like a memory than a game. It takes on an almost dreamy aspect because you want it to be more than a game.

Life of Turner said...

You must be sick of school, with how many games you've been playing lately. Congrats on finishing. I mean school, not the game.

dcornelius said...

Actually, I'm no where near finished. These last couple days are going to be murderous. I'm writing non-stop. I only wrote this piece because I needed - physically needed - to think about other things, even if only briefly.

I'm not sick of school. I'm collapsing under its pressure.

Nevis said...

Great review! And you're going to do fabulously on your papers. I have faith in you!