This post contains full spoilers for Silent Hill 2. If you have somehow still not played through it then rectify that immediately and then return here.
October is here dear readers; the month that everyone's minds begin drifting towards the slew of horror games on offer. Bloggers will be recounting their tales of terror, youtubers will be scaring themselves on camera for your amusement, and nearly everyone with an interest in the genre will finally be playing through Evil Within come next week.
The horror genre is one that I've never really leaned one way or the other with. There are plenty of great horror games but usually it needs to be pretty unique to get me to try it out, rather than being a part of the landslide of first person indie horror games we've seen over the past few years. My favorite type of horror will always be of the psychological variety. I love the idea of the human mind being the true source of terror in a story. With that in mind I'd like to talk about what is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of psychological horror: Silent Hill 2.
I've said it before and I'll say it again; Silent Hill 2 is a masterpiece of story telling. It's also a fantastic example of a series evolving and finding it's true potential. This is a game where the devs said to themselves "I mean, we've created this creepy setting and it's pretty cool, but surely there's more we can do with it than dark cult magic bullshit." I'm no huge fan of the first game (nothing against it, it just wasn't up my alley), but the second entry is one of my favorite games ever. From the brilliant introduction that tells you just what you need to know to get started to the creepily bizarre characters to the fantastic enemies that all have meaning behind their designs.
Silent Hill 2 isn't necessarily a game that exists to try and make you jump from your seat or be terrified to sleep at night; what it really wants to do is make you think to yourself "...what the FUCK is going on right now?!" and it does a damn good job at that. The town of Silent Hill is so incredibly surreal that it's difficult to not become completely enthralled in it. Seeing insane sights like the infamous "There was a hole here. It's gone now." sign or the strange prison deep beneath the historical society leaves you so incredibly intrigued that you can't stop yourself trying to find some small form of understanding.
If you're unfamiliar with the premise of the game or have forgotten over the years then allow me to enlighten you: James Sunderland has received a letter from his wife asking him to join her at their special place in the town of Silent Hill. The kicker here is that James' wife, Mary, is dead. While venturing through the foggy ruins of the town he discovers strange creatures and even stranger people. One of the latter is a woman named Maria; a gal who looks uncomfortably similar to his former wife, but with a much more forward personality.
Making your way through the town you battle many remarkably disgusting enemies who each represent something within James; the creepily attractive nurses representing both his difficulty staying committed to his wife and the terrible memories associated with hospitals, and the infamous pyramid head representing things such as his darker thoughts, his masculinity, and his desire for punishment. The amount of detail and thought that went into each of the character and monster designs is astonishing.
Equally impressive is the way the scenery and the mechanics of the game tell you even more about this crazy world of Silent Hill, even when you think you're learning something completely different. For example: there is a fantastic scene in the prison area where you find Maria (whom you believed to have been killed by pyramid head earlier) locked in a cell. You make your way into the room adjacent to her cell and have a seat in a chair in front of the bars and have a conversation with her that leads to more questions than answers, with her briefly drifting into Mary's personality before snapping out of it to remind James of his place. During the scene the camera changes between angles around the room, swapping between her side of the bars and your own. This wonderfully subtle change in perspective plants the idea in your head that it may not be Maria who is really locked away, but James who is locked away in his mind and the pain hidden within it.
Learning the truth behind James' journey to Silent Hill is a moment of realization that I'm sure most who played this game will always remember. Finally making your way to you and your wife's special place and seeing the VHS tape of old memories and the truth behind Mary's death is a fantastic turn of events. Mary had been stuck bedridden in a hospital for a long time due to illness and James had been finding it harder and harder to cope with having to take care of her and remain faithful until he finally took her life in a moment of weakness and selfishness.
The letter he had received from Mary was written by her before her death to be given to him after she passed away from illness and James, in his fragile state of mind, used it as an escape to convince himself that he could somehow get his wife back. The specifics of the ending after that change depending on how you went through the game, but hearing Mary's voice read her full letter as James finally exits the haunting town of Silent Hill serves as a fantastic epilogue. It's a wonderfully tragic story of horror and suspense that keeps you going and looking out for the tiniest details in the strange environment.
The mind is the most terrifying place in the world in my opinion. No matter how much a movie or game or event scares you in the moment, when you're laying in bed that night it's your mind that convinces you that, even though you know that what scared you isn't real, you should still pull those covers up just a little bit higher just in case. A story where the fears a character is seeing are pulled straight from his or her mind and are therefore impossible to escape without coming to grips with them is a truly intriguing story for me. Imagine if your worst experiences in life; all the terrible decisions you made or thought of making, were given physical form. Your depression and your hate manifested in a form with the ability to inflict harm on you. THAT is true horror.
If you know of any other great psychological horror stories or just have a different idea of the pinnacle of the horror genre then feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading!