It’s October. Time to talk horror. I’ll focus on horror-related posts until Halloween comes and goes.
Anyone who played the original Resident Evil almost twenty years ago remembers the hellhounds. For those unfamiliar with that scene, it goes like this: you, as a player, are lulled into a sense of security. You’re still trying to figure out what kind of game Resident Evil really is as you slowly move from room to room via a series of static camera angles. You walk into a hallway and you sigh because you think it’s yet another pointless space you’ll have to cross. Then an undead Doberman leaps through the window and stops your mother fuckin’ heart. Anyone who tells you they didn’t jump is a liar.
Up until then there had been games like Alone in the Dark, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and a little forgotten gem called D. Those were and still are great, but back then the horror game was usually just a puzzler in a creepy environment. The moment Resident Evil had hellhounds leaping through windows, horror in games became a palpable experience. The earlier portion of the Silent Hill franchise improved upon the formula, managing to milk every second of the dread. Things don’t jump through windows as often as they lure you into them.
The main character of Silent Hill 2 reminds me of that kid every school had, the one whose lips seemed to be permanently stained by Kool-Aid. Everyone looks odd in Silent Hill 2. On second thought, everything about Silent Hill 2 is odd, from the purposely distracting noise filter to the initially odd controls. The 2012 HD Collection rerecorded the voices, which probably would have been for the better had they not used even shittier actors…. or so I hear. (I’ve only played the PS2 version, when I was eighteen, and this review is based on the PC version.) Or maybe the voice acting isn’t as bad as it is melodramatic. Let’s face it, however: video games have almost always been weak in the dialogue department. That doesn’t really matter, however, as the game quickly suspends your disbelief, making the surreal nature of it all reality.
The player takes control of James Sunderland who expects to meet his dead wife at their “special place” in the town of Silent Hill. It opens in a nasty bathroom with James questioning his sanity in a mirror. At this point new players will be expecting the appearance of a health bar to signal the game has begun, but there is no such health bar, no UI overlay whatsoever. It’s just you, your character, and a whole lot of visual noise.
You bumble your way outside, not because the controls are bad, but because they’re unusual. You find you’re in the empty parking lot of a lookout area above Silent Hill. The character pauses to look out over the lake and sees very little through the fog. We’re talking insane amounts of fog here. Is this a dream? one wonders. Would anyone in their right mind descend into such a place? Of course not. James just got an invitation from his dead wife and all but RSVP’d. He’s obviously insane. He’s also your surrogate, as unreliable as he may be, so you’re stuck with him.
You take the steps down and the fog only intensifies. Your visibility is maybe ten feet. You walk and you walk and you walk, all the while hearing noises off the beaten trail. Your first run-in with an enemy doesn’t have it leaping through the window to get you, but baiting you to fall hopelessly deeper into the town. And that’s what the first twenty or so minutes of the game does: it isolates you, it makes you feel lost and hopeless. Sooner than later you find a pocket radio, the static of which grows louder the closer you get to an enemy. From here on out, you’ll hear static more often than you see what’s causing it. That’s suspense. That’s terror.
To say anymore would ruin the game. It’s something to go into without any guides, without having seen any gameplay videos, without knowing just how deep and dark it all gets. Silent Hill 2 could very well be the best horror game ever made. If you’re nervous about the graphics, don’t be. They’re more than sufficient. On the PC, they’re even better than I remember.