'Silent Hill 2': The Oppression of Atmosphere

Eric Swain

I stared into a void. My eyes just could not comprehend the nothingness. Had someone walked up to me for whatever reason, I think that might have been it for my nerves. And I wasn't even playing Silent Hill 2 anymore.

Silent Hill 2 is regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. And until recently, it has been one of the gold stars on my pile of shame. What better time to play it than the end of October, the month of horror and dread? But then what can I say about the game that has not already been said.

Silent Hill 2 is one of the most picked over games in history. Everyone knows the themes, the meaning, and the more unnerving moments of the title. Likewise, the tenets of design are so well known that even people that haven’t experienced the game first hand can sing along. This was no more obvious than in Konami’s recent HD Silent Hill 2 and 3 collection in which they removed the fog. Nary a word of explanation had to be said before everyone scrunched their eyebrows together, tilted their head, and mouthed “what the hell?” However, to know is one thing, to understand first hand is another.

Silent Hill 2’s atmosphere is oppressive. The fog is so thick you could cut it with a butter knife. It seems to move around you. It feels as if protagonist James Sunderland is in a bubble that moves through a sea of fog. It’s claustrophobic. It creates the feeling of an atmosphere that presses in around you, and while you can move forward, there is always the eerie sense that you are about to hit a dead end and be trapped.

The most practical design advantage this gives the game is that it limits your eye sight. That’s the fog’s purpose. It was meant to hide the weak draw distance of the PS2’s hardware capabilities. In the game, the fog also hides things you know are there, but that you know not where. You hear scratching, clicks, and moans from creatures seemingly coming from everywhere around you. The danger is known, but not seen. The game hides the specifics needed to defend yourself and that is what turns your guts. It is what tenses your muscles as you ready yourself to respond to anything from anywhere, slowly damaging your nerves in the meantime.

That is what we all know intellectually. It’s what over a decade of examination and criticism has taught us. But in a way, it still is only a simulacrum of isolation and atmospheric oppression. The opportunity still exists to escape by turning the console off to avoid the self-induced nightmare -- an opportunity that James Sunderland does no get to enjoy. The tension leaves once the game is off because there is nothing in it that can hurt you in the real world. Like with all fiction, your brain just knows it isn’t real even if it does push those thoughts to the back of your mind for a time for the sake of enjoying the work.

Hurricane Sandy has been and is currently wrecking havoc on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Canada, and most devastatingly in the Caribbean. I live in New Jersey, which has been declared a federal disaster area by both Governor Christie and President Obama. Thanks to the particular geography of my town and my home street in particular, we were saved from the vast majority of the devastation. One tree fell over and thankfully missed hitting my house like it did last year, and from what I can tell, the entire city has lost power. This happened in the late evening and was more of a nuisance at first than anything else. We were blessed enough to be safe from the much worse devastation wrecking the coast and our neighbors in New York City. With contact pretty much cut off save for a tiny sliver of 3G from which I was able to get updates every few hours or so, one tends to turn our attention to our immediate surroundings. One of the consequences of the hurricane was that I was not able to finish Silent Hill 2, but within a few hours, I felt like I didn’t have to.

We don’t appreciate darkness in our modern era. There is always some form of light somewhere, from streetlamps to computer screens and even the stars still provide us some light. However, in the total overcast of the storm and the complete blackout, darkness had become almost tangible. I know where the furniture and walls all are, but I could not make out their shapes. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. I went to bed, but woke up in the middle of the night. I could not get back to sleep and my phone was running low on power.

So, I did the only reasonable thing that I could do. I went on a trek to locate a flashlight inside a compartment that is behind a door in a room piled up with stuff in the farthest part of the house. All the while, the forms of tables, chairs, and the basement support piling loomed out of the darkness as I got close before fading back into the darkness. All the while, the winds battered the house, while the walls and windows creaked and howled. I wondered a few times if the creek next to our house was going to flood again. I couldn’t see it. In fact, I could barely see anything looking out the windows. It was just as dark outside as it was inside.

Eventually I just lay there in my own head waiting to fall asleep again, the sun to come up, or the roof to cave in. Whichever came first. I stared into a void. My eyes just could not comprehend the nothingness. Had someone walked up to me for whatever reason, I think that might have been it for my nerves.

When you’re alone with no stimuli to keep yourself occupied you being to imagine things. You don’t see fantasy images, but you begin to think, “What is just beyond my perception?,” and you have no way to confirm one way or the other whether or not that is the case. I don’t think that it helped that I was playing Silent Hill 2 earlier in the day. I didn’t imagine monsters or figments of my psyche coming to get me, but instead the weight of the oppression created by the game’s atmosphere. It cuts off your vision and limits your knowledge only to the special relationship between yourself and your own body. Everything else is beyond your scope and beyond your knowledge. The unknown is supposedly the scariest thing to humans. I think it might be more accurate to say the unknown mixed with a good chance that it’s going to hurt you.

To know something is true about an experience isn’t quite the same as experiencing it first hand. That is one of the purposes of art -- to create simulacra of experiences within the safe vestibule of a medium. It’s why things like books, movies, and video games are called mediums. There has to be an understanding that there will be something lost in the translation of plain, old representation and that something called artistic license is needed to cover the gap. At the same time, such artistry makes the experience more real and more unreal simultaneously. Horror is always like that. The danger is always projected and even the effect that the work can project into the real world via our fight or flight triggers is minor compared to real world situations and tragedy.

In this case, the fear isn’t the heart-pounding danger of something that exists beyond your comprehension. It is a compounding uneasiness that builds into dread, then terror, and finally horror. The waiting is the worst part. Go on long enough and something happening, anything happening becomes desirable because some release in some part of you is all you hope for. Though seeing things in a different light the next day, I really am glad the tree missed the house and that I can turn off Silent Hill 2.

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