How Silent Hill 2 Made Personal Demons Into Physical Ones
When it came to horror in late ‘90s and early 2000 video games, there were a couple franchises that most perfectly represented the polarized ends of the playing field. On one end, you had Resident Evil, whose forte was in shock and gore. Capcom delighted in jump scares, blood and violent imagery that would dive deep into our souls to produce jarring terror. Konami on the other hand chose to take a far more slow burning approach with the Silent Hill series. These games focus on building dread, filling worlds with ghastly foreshadowing and psychological messages. It’s not about jumping at the player. It’s about letting them come to a terrifying realization of the predicament. Perhaps no entry in the Silent Hill series has ever captured this as well as Silent Hill 2 did. It was today in 2001 that the world returned to the sleepy little lakeside town to unravel a morbid mystery that would still haunt us many years later.
Development on Silent Hill 2 began immediately after work on the first game was released. With the town and environment of Silent Hill already explored and understood, the core focus of Silent Hill 2 shifted heavily to creating a strong story and characters. The original concepts were offered by the CGI director of both the first and second game, Takayoshi Sato. Sato a good portion of his ideas on the book Crime and Punishment by famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. From this, the team drew strong themes of metal anguish, moral dilemma, justification of misdeeds and murder. The team would further expand upon this, exploring numerous taboo themes through the progressive stories of several damaged characters as they come together in Silent Hill, each unraveling a little bit of what comes to be the hellish manifestations of their own impure lives.
More than anything, Silent Hill 2 lets its monsters tell of the darkness in the characters. Each monster in Silent Hill 2 was designed as a specific facet of James’ negative psyche, but a startling revelation comes when we find that every character sees the town and inhabitants of Silent Hill in their own personal way. Meanwhile, Akira Yamaoka was tasked with another crucial portion of Silent Hill 2: sound. Yamaoka created both the main theme of the series and the sound effects used in the game. With the theme, he wanted to create a bold beat that evoke a sense of sadness from players. When creating the sound design throughout the game’s scenes, he focused heavily not just on creating discomfort and fear through sound effects, but where to leave the player in absolute silence. Yamaoka claimed that these moments were just as important for the breathless sense of dread as the player comes to expect that something terrible could happen at any moment.
Terrible things certainly do happen in Silent Hill 2. The story kicks off with James Sunderland driving to Silent Hill on a message from his wife Mary, asking him to come to their special place. The problem lies in the fact that Mary died from an illness three years before. James seeks to discover the truth behind the letter, even hoping against hope that Mary might somehow be alive. It isn’t long before James finds himself caught up in the city as nightmarish creatures begin to appear and hinder his journey. All the while, James discovers other people in the town, including a woman with a striking resemblance to Mary that calls herself Maria.
Much like early Resident Evil, control in Silent Hill 2 is a tank-like affair. Players journey through the town discovering clues and coming across monsters that they can either fight or run from. Running is sometimes the best bet as often, the best weapons James has going for him are melee weapons like wooden boards and pipes. A bigger emphasis was set on unraveling clues, discovering puzzles and solving them to move forward in the game. Of course, as the player explores with James, they sometimes find themselves in the Otherworld, a staple of the Silent Hill series where environments take on nightmarish new twisting and turning psychological mazes.
Silent Hill one introduced a new brand of psychological horror quite different from the brand that Resident Evil was spinning at the same time. The Silent Hill games adhered to a style that pushed players deeper into uncertainty and forced them to confront deeper themes of discomfort and fear rather than adrenaline pumping gore. There have been many Silent Hill games, but arguably none that have stressed these themes as heavily or as well as Silent Hill 2 did. For its conveyance of the taboo throughout the characters and the world around them, Silent Hill 2 was a masterpiece.