[8 October 2013]
Silent Hill 2 is one of those games that has entered the gaming canon as not only one of the scariest games ever made, not only one of the best games ever made, but also with the distinction of being one of the most aesthetically resonant games ever made. This last accomplishment is quite an achievement, especially for a game released nearly a decade before a sizable amount of gamers even cared about such things.
Twelve years later, games at all levels of the industry are created with an eye towards art, the discourse surrounding games has advanced quite a bit, and the craftsmanship of virtual game design has likewise advanced. The unspoken question in light of such advances is: “Has Silent Hill 2 held up over time?” Has it held up for newcomers to the title with over a decade of expectations to contend with? Is it only a product of its time and has it therefore aged poorly?
I didn’t get to finish or even get that far into Silent Hill 2 last year thanks to a certain hurricane knocking out our power for a few weeks. It returned to the pile of shame, the save file taunting me. Taunted me harder than most of my other shiny new games still in the shrink-wrap. The thing to remember is that Silent Hill 2 wasn’t just hailed as a great horror game, but as a masterwork in its medium, period. I’m not sure that I want to contend with that assertion quite yet. No accolade or condemnation should be thrown about lightly, but high praise like “masterwork” even less so. I’m not ready for that internal debate. Yet.
Instead, I’ll answer the previous questions. I have never played a Silent Hill game before. I knew the premise of the series, some of its more famous monsters, and even some of the memes that have spawned from it through sheer osmosis. But for one reason or another, despite owning copies for years now of both Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2, I’ve never played them. For all intents and purposes, I’m coming into Silent Hill 2 completely clean.
The first thing one notices after seven years of experiencing the high fidelity titles of the current generation is the wonkiness of this game’s graphics. They consist of those blocky character constructions that are indicative of the PS2 era, offering the best attempt at realistic fidelity possible at the time. The environments look better, but they are comprised of high textures mounted on narrow spatial geometry. The notorious problem of draw distance, hidden by the infamous fog surrounding Silent Hill, obscures this problem in outdoor sequences and the darkness in looming corridors masks the problem in the game’s interiors.
The controls are likewise wonky. Walking can be real pain if you intend to do more than move in a straight line. Combat is sticky, as James Sunderland seems unwilling or unable to grasp the concept of “hurry, man, monsters are about to kill you” when attempting to use any of the game’s weapons. In fact, despite being in a town full of horrors and people that are all kinds of off kilter, James seems very content on working at a very methodical pace.
And despite everything wanting to kill you once you stop being aggressive, it is super easy to avoid dangers and survive. Few, if any things, are an actual threat. Even Pyramid Head for all the bluster and hype surrounding him is super easy to avoid and beat. The other challenges of the game, the riddles, are more time wasters and delaying tactics than any serious challenge. The game arbitrarily locks doors requiring circuitous routes or the gathering of items to proceed.
There is no element that would pass muster nowadays (save the sound design—here’s a lot that modern games could learn from its implementation) and that hasn’t been infinitely improved upon in the ensuing decade plus. And yet, were this game to come out today, instead of twelve years ago, I’d want it to be exactly same as it is.
It’s true not a single element is all that great and barely functions, but as a whole, everything fits neatly into the greater objectives of the game. Challenge isn’t the name of the game. For Silent Hill 2, it’s the creation of a sense of uneasiness. It doesn’t matter that you can run around the enemies and never take a swing at one. The game couldn’t care less if you did or not. They’re just there. They serve no purpose other than as metaphors for James’s fractured and guilt ridden psyche. They are obstacles meant to slow him down.
Likewise, the puzzles and locked doors. They are delaying tactics meant to stretch out the running time of the game and that force you through the entirety of buildings over and over. Doing so creates a sense of place and continually forces the uneasy atmosphere of the world upon you. As frustrating as it is to backtrack through the same corridors searching for some obscure item to allow progress, something fundamental would be lost in the process by the straightening out of the line.
But most of all, what works is the look of the game and the behavior of the automatons in it that we call characters. Both the monsters and the main cast benefit from the low-grade textures and poly counts. The patients wouldn’t be halfway as unnerving as they are without the clockwork-like skittering of a few frames repeating themselves as one of these creatures moves across the floor, or the jagged, diagonal motions of the nurses be halfway as threatening as an enemy that was more direct and fluid in its advance towards James. The fact that you can walk right by them as they ready their attack or give you the time to respond in James’s own time creates tension. It’s the same relative timing of any other combat game. The animations are just slowed down, so we as players can’t wait to know the result of our actions.
The cast itself, despite being only as closely analogous to humans as the game can muster become, likewise, even more unnerving in how close they seem to be to human, but still fall short. They fall into the uncanny valley, a quirk of early video game CGI, but Silent Hill 2 works it. Maria’s mouth is just a little too wide and every time that she smiles I get the feeling that she is about to go for my throat. Seriously, it’s Joker wide. Eddie’s skin seems made of plastic, and he is seemingly not really comfortable with his arms. Angela doesn’t seem to have in between faces that her muscles move through when she switches from one emotion to another. And James’s unemotionally blank face and calm expression seem a little out of place given what’s happening around him.
There’s a scene right at the beginning of the game when James is washing his face. He rubs some water on his cheek, but his hand stays in that cupped position and doesn’t quite seem to come in contact with his skin. Skin depresses and molds around whatever is touching it, but the CGI can’t seem to get the movement right no matter how detailed the textures get. What we get instead is an action figure’s hand rubbing on the face of one of those modern Japanese robots.
However, during the game, you’re not thinking all these detailed thoughts concerning why these quirks seem off putting in the moment. They are just off putting. Nevertheless, these oddities don’t wreck the experience of the game, in which the experience should be all about being as off putting as possible.
So has it aged badly? It really depends on your metrics. If you think of games as belonging on some absolute scale where advancement is always a positive, then, yes, quite badly. But if you determine the worth of a work from the actual conduct of the elements such as art direction and graphical fidelity, then I think it might have gotten better over time.
Back in 2001 all games looked something like Silent Hill 2. Any game that strived to be as realistic as possible in their drive towards fidelity was going to look and act something like this game. However, unlike other games of the era (many of which have faded from our memory and our assessment), Silent Hill 2 put its unusual looks to work. It knew what it was from its surface polish to its very core. It has only become more apparent over time and in contrast to modern standards that its age is a benefit and not a detriment to the experience it wishes to evoke.