Silent Hill 2: Literary Marvel from a Gaming Failure

For those of you who do not know, Silent Hill 2 was a survival horror game on the play station two. The game quickly became a cult hit among many gamers was very well received critically. They hailed it as one of the most fun and most terrifying works to bless the video game medium. However, many gamers also attacked the game as a poorly made, clunky, buggy, sometime straight up broken slog through a boring wanna-be action game.

Interestingly enough, both criticisms are completely true. First, let’s look at Silent Hill 2’s failure as a game. When playing through Silent Hill the first thing you are likely to notice is that the game is ugly. Even for the time the poorly rendered 3d polygons and blocky character models looked completely unrealistic. The second thing you are likely to notice is that the camera acts more like an energetic puppy than a means of actually seeing what you are doing in the game. It bounces around and sticks its nose in every bush and corner and under every desk, lampshade, and really everything except the one thing you actually want to look at. The at other times it will freeze up and staunchly refuse to move as the entire population of monster population moves in to try to murder you. When you finally arm yourself the most you can do with a melee weapon is flail about wildly and pray that you hit what you are aiming for, and when using a gun even the most skilled gamer would be lucky to hit the broad barn at anything closer than point blank range. The puzzles in the game consist mostly of “use every item in inventory on key hole until the door opens,” and contribute little to the game. The story is nothing spectacular, the characters have all the personality of a pile of cardboard boxes, and the voice acting is so bad that the game is actually more pleasant to listen to in a foreign language that you do not speak.

With all of the problems, you might be wonder, “Why would such a bad game be so well received?” The strange thing is that Silent Hill 2’s flaws are also its greatest strengths. The art direction in Silent Hill 2 was actually quite good. The mist that hung around the empty town of Silent Hill made it feel oppressive and menacing, making you feel completely alone. Even when other characters were present it was always impossible to feel completely safe. When enemies begin appearing the blocky, poorly rendered polygons make everything seem unfamiliar and unsettling, and the eerie sound design go miles towards reinforcing the oppressive atmosphere. When confronting the monsters in the town, your sprint button is often a far superior defense than your weapons. You really feel helpless when you fire off your four shotgun shells into an enemy, only two of which actually hit it, and they barely even slow it down. You then run into an old building to escape. It is completely dark. You turn on your flashlight and begin to look around for supplies. You come around a corner in the hallway to see a huge man with what appears to stone pyramid for a head beating the corpse of one of the other monsters against a wall. He looks up at you and begins heading toward you with a massive meat cleaver. You turn around to run. You run back around the corner towards the door only to see that Pyramid Head has appeared in front of you. He takes a swing at you, his cleaver missing you by inches. You turn back around and sprint back down the hallway. Suddenly the corpse that pyramid head was abusing jumps up and grabs you, holding you still. The camera staunchly refuses to stop watching behind you to look at your attacker. You struggle to break free as Pyramid Head shambles toward you. You bash the monster holding you with your elbow, dazing it and forcing it to let go, but it is too late. Pyramid Head takes a chunk out of you with his cleaver then begins to chop up your corpse until the game over menu appears. With your heart racing you take a deep breath and lean back, realizing that you now need a clean pair of pants.

At least for me, Silent Hill two is far better work of the horror genre of than any book I have ever read. The use of the medium allows me to put myself in the main character’s shoes experiencing it myself, while when reading a book it is more like watching horrifying events happen to someone else. I cannot speak for everyone, but for me having the feeling of having personally gone through a horrifying event is far more terrifying than watching the same even happen to someone else. It is here that Silent Hill 2 proves itself as a literary success because it fails so spectacularly as a game.

  1 comment for “Silent Hill 2: Literary Marvel from a Gaming Failure

  1. jpugach
    February 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    As someone who is a rabid fan of the Silent Hill series, i’m going to have to get into some nitty gritty here and be oppositional.

    “Failure” is a strong word, and here i think it is used here a little too casually. As an action game, and maybe even as a video game, yes, it was a failure to an extent (but we must keep in mind the intent of the creators and how they used less-than-stellar gameplay to get their many and varied messages across). The gameplay is not particularly riveting and is, as you say, clunky. But this is not meant to be an action game in a strict sense. In fact, it’s not meant to be a video game in a strict sense. This is a survival horror game, in fact it is considered the epitome and encapsulation of survival horror in its heyday. Puzzles were a must and utilizing intelligent thought rather than clever fast-paced gameplay action would ruin the overall infrastructure of the game.

    The gameplay was hindered by the clunky controls and technology, but this was intentional on developer Team Silent’s part. Making a character too capable ruins the draw of creating a sense of helplessness. James Sunderland is a clerk; not a fighter, not a physically fit person. He’s an average (relatively speaking) guy thrown into an abnormal nightmarish situation culminating in fighting his personal demons. This is an intellectual battle of survival but not meant to be done in a rapid-fire motion manner; it’s a slow visceral [i]experience[/i] and the helplessness Team Silent instills through difficult, frustrating melee and firearm usage is what they were shooting for. The imperfect camera flits around painfully against a player’s will BECAUSE that is how a person would be in such a situation: freaked out and eyes darting in every direction not able to think coherently because of the ongoing experience.

    You did nail the point about running way. That is the bet solution in this game’s situation. Indeed, the technology of back then was limited, but it was utilized in a way that was far-ahead of its time. That mist we are always bombarded with is Team Silent putting on a filter to cover up the limited draw distance of the technology to create claustrophobia, same goes for the darkness of building interiors.
    And true, the polygon count of models back then was incredibly low, but that is again hardware limitation. You are right about the environments and their low polygon textures being unsettling but it’s important to note how decayed and dilapidated (and low polygon counted) everything is which works in terms of symbolism and the game telling its story. No comment on sound because Akira Yamaoka nailed everything right as you put it.

    i’m also a little wary of your description of Pyramid Head because the situations describe, while some of them do happen, is mostly fictionalized sensationalism. Parts, however, are spot on except Pyramid Head isn’t shoving a monster against a wall, he’s seemingly raping the creature which represents women as sexualized objects into a kitchen sink (again, the symbolism and imagery here working in tandem for the story’s sake). At no point does a creature that Pyramid Head kills rise back up for you, and no creature is generally in the same environment during gameplay as Pyramid Head as shown by James’ usage of Pyramid Head’s Great Knife whose scraping sound sends creatures running. But your description of the situation does sum up the fear we’re supposed to encounter playing the game.

    i also say “creatures” specifically because illustrator and monster creator Masahiro Ito creates them more as using deformed body parts of people instead of external and alien creatures to create a sickening sense of being able to relate to these things you kill.

    Another thing that is not explored strongly enough here is the voice acting. Yes, it is not phenomenal. But again a point is being missed here. The developers specifically chose voice actors like Guy Cihi who portrays James because of their less-than-spectacular acting. What they were attempting to recreate and allude to were works of David Lynch whose actors talk much like they do in Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4. Lynch’s characters have a dreamy amateurish sound that gets the exact effect Lynch wants: an awkward yet uncomfortably realistic portrayal.

    As for the story…i can understand why many would not find it very compelling because it is incredibly slow to begin. This is the one thing i cannot oppose because i respect the subjective decision of the story. But, then again, i would argue most do not go for the story because it is a story of far more substance in terms of exploring human nature and taboo concepts in video games than anything had ever been done before or at the time and those are the sorts of things that the general public either shies away from or reacts with hostility and opposition to.

    You are right in that Silent Hill 2 is a literary success and is far more fear-inducing than most contemporary movies and other video games, but i would be careful in what constitutes as a failure and glossing over the story as being “nothing spectacular,” for the story is what video game critics have championed over its noticeably lackluster gameplay.

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