31
Oct
10

Happy Halloween: Silent Hill 2’s Deception

[In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together this spoilerific post about the much loved game, Silent Hill 2.  Nothing about the game is given away until several paragraphs in.] 

It goes without saying that games are for your entertainment.  Each game is constantly trying to nudge the player in the direction of what may be most satisfying to them, but this is accomplished indirectly.  There is rarely a game where hitting a “yay-button” is actually fun to play. When things are that simple, it becomes boring.  The player doesn’t want to know exactly how they will be entertained, they want to be able to think about it, and allow it to unfold spontaneously.

Thisnudging” done on the game’s part is done with the consent of the player. But would the player want this to go as far as being manipulated, or even lied to, for something as inconsequential as a video game?  What if you were being deceived and instead of the games goal being to entertain you, it is to frighten or disturb you instead?  This can occur more often than you might think in video games.  And we enjoy them for the same reasons that we enjoy haunted houses or froghtening movies.  People enjoy being scared without ever being in danger.

If I had to guess why we enjoy being scared, I would say that it is because it’s a pretty good way to elicit a candid reaction.  You can spend your entire life getting to know yourself, and it’s a task which we aren’t always thinking about.  The difficulty in this lies with reconciling the person you are, and the person you want to be.  When you’re scared, there’s no room to think about who you want to be.  It can be a liberating experience to have the living daylights scared out of you.

Games present a convenient way to learn how we might project ourselves in different situations.  They can trick us into believing we’re doing something more meaningful than it really is, and a good game can catch you off guard, causing you to react spontaneously to something that’s entirely imaginary.  When you combine this with our own desire to be scared, an intense variety of immersion can result.  Silent Hill 2 accomplishes this in a manner that has made it in the eyes of many gamers as one of their most favorite video games.

Cast in the role of James Sunderland, you must help him to try and learn the truth about his late wife, Mary.  He has come to the town of Silent Hill at her posthumous request.  For the player, the absurdity of the scenario is overshadowed by James’ desire to see Mary again.  He clings to the desperate hope that he may get to see Mary one more time.  His “I got a letter” speech grabs the player’s sympathy, and if you buy his opening remarks, it never lets go.  Even if she isn’t there, you still have reason to help him through what looks like a difficult time, in a dangerous town.  Or you might just be curious to know more about their relationship and why he’s so intent on trying to find someone who is already dead.

You navigate the misty depths of the town.  It is abandoned, save for a few disturbed individuals who don’t appear to have the better sense to leave.  It’s never clear what had happened to the town, but there are arcane references to its past that have been scattered about, many times in the form of puzzles.  It takes more and more effort to move further into the town.  Some buildings and streets have been destroyed, and you are forced to traverse derelict buildings.  The dangers emerge starkly from the fog as you are being stalked by very malevolent creatures.  It is isolating, but James never questions what he is doing there, and never stops to think why Mary would select this town.  You do though.  It could be that he is just that devoted, maybe desperate, to see her again, but it doesn’t feel right at all.

Slowly, corrosively, you are given reason to believe that the nature of James’ grief is of a very different variety.  Lust, fear, doubt, and selfishness begin to creep into the story.  A doppelganger of Mary follows him around the town, trying to tempt him into believing that she is who he really wants.  And James gives indication that maybe it’s true.  The focus shifts from the pursuit of Mary to James himself.  The oddities of the situation are too numerous to ignore.  Other characters that have been drawn to the town call his bluff.  They are all guilty of something, and had come to terms with their own wrong-doings, with the exception being James, who has claimed to be entirely innocent throughout the journey.  His actions betray his own uncertainty, as well as the player’s.

James is not well, but he’s the protagonist of the story.  The player needs to reconcile what James has shared about himself with what they are learning about him.  Continuing to play becomes a passive moral choice: should the player continue to help someone who has probably done something terrible?  Without knowing what exactly he had done to be summoned to Silent Hill, the player is placed in a very uncomfortable situation.  It is far more uncomfortable than just passively watching James, as if he were a character in a movie.  The truth is only revealed through the concerted efforts of the player.  There’s no closing your eyes and waiting for it all to be over.  Completing the game requires an uneasy closeness to James Sunderland, who may accept responsibility and seek forgiveness, or he may continue to dig deeper into his delusion.

Your sympathy is turned entirely on its head when James finally acknowledges that he is not there out of love for his wife, but for the guilt of knowing that he had killed her out of his own selfish interest.  Her disease had become a burden in his life.  Even while he still loved her, he was so overwhelmed by the impact she had on his life that he had snapped and never recovered until now.  It is one of the most unsettling challenges to the player’s investment in a game character that I’ve ever seen.  By this point, you may be horrified by the truth, but still not repulsed enough to quit helping James either.  The player’s investment in his journey is not easily set aside, and they may be disturbed to find that they may still sympathize with him.

The climax in this dissonance between the player and the game culminates in James’ final confrontation with Mary (depending on what you’ve done, it can be Maria instead.)  She attacks him in what could only be what James had projected she had become in his mind.  After crippling the monstrous form she had taken, you are forced to adopt James’ crime as your own. The game waits for you to strike the final blow against Mary/Maria before the game ends.  There is no longer any threat to James.  This final moment of game play is the last step in James’ (as well of the player’s) acceptance of the truth.  It is a profoundly disturbing moment.

The resolution that follows is determined based on how you’ve directed James through the game.  While some of the conditions for these different resolutions are a bit nonsensical, their intent signals how the player is rewarded (or punished) for their sympathy for James.

  • By helping him to accept the truth and to maintain a positive disposition, James will come to grips with what he’s done and grant Mary her wish that the character Laura be adopted.
  • If the player lets James show preference for Maria, a manifestation of his own lurid desires, then James will leave with her instead, only to have the same disease as Mary emerge in Maria.
  • If James is allowed to suffer a great deal of damage without healing, then James falls into despair and ends up killing himself after his final conversation with Mary.

It is a very affecting game for those who are drawn into James Sunderland’s emotional trap.  It forces the player to confront feelings they would have never imagined having to take on.  Silent Hill 2 wasn’t popular for it’s combat and game play mechanics.  But it really stuck with players in how it tricked them into being complicit in James’ murder of Mary.  James is a character that would be outright rejected if the truth about him were known upfront.  But by the time you understand, you can’t as easily express disgust for him without showing disgust for yourself as well.  Silent Hill 2 is unique among games, and even other Silent Hill games, for it’s brand of storytelling that crawls under your skin, but still manages to compel you continue.  It’s never “fun” to play, but it’s ability to manipulate the player’s expectations makes it nearly impossible to turn away from after you’ve been ensnared.

James Sunderland

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