How Silent Hill 2 utilizes a restrictive gamer contract to create an intense horror experience.
Often lauded as the best in the series, Silent Hill 2 is an excellent exploration of a game that introduces intentional handicaps and limitations in the game design in order to facilitate a horror experience. It relies on an implicit contract between the game and player, a concept that Justin Keverne explores in a blog post on the topic. As he aptly summarizes about the nature of this contract, “So might players not owe it to themselves to be more forgiving, to enter into a gameplay contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable and engaging experience?” It’s a concept that’s key to understanding Silent Hill 2 because it forces a variety of player input handicaps to make a stressful and engaging horror experience. A camera that barely functions, a combat system that creates confusion, and a level design of constant locked doors cease to be the signs of weak programming or game design and instead become the hallmarks of terror.
This is a game about crippling and confusing the player input. And it starts it off with a surprisingly logical decision: there is no in-game tutorial. Nothing is explained to you upon entering Silent Hill, a theme that is consistent with the plot and imagery as well. Players will fumble with buttons and controls until they figure out how to manipulate the environment. The problem gets further compounded by the strange and erratic camera. You’re constantly checking the map to see which way you’re facing, which way you need to go, and struggling to make sense of the world you are exploring. In this way the camera and lack of tutorial serve to induce the same state that the protagonist is having: a hallucinogenic and confusing nightmare. This works in conjunction with the combat. The camera can often leave you unable to see enemies, forcing you to rely on the scrambled radio and dark music to warn you that trouble is near. When you press L2 to get your bearings, the camera swoops and pans erratically, further enhancing the confusion and vertigo. The game explores this idea of a handicapping game contract in the opening moments by keeping the player from doing anything but confusedly walk around as well. As Iroquis Pliskin notes in a blog about game pacing, Silent Hill 2 withholds your ability to fight for hours to induce stress and helplessness. There is a constant barrage of growling, confusing camera, and blinding mist, all while the growing apprehension that something bad is going to happen builds. The first encounter with one of the zombies is an exercise in fidgeting with controls as the player tries to figure out which buttons lock on, swing the plank, and let him dodge. The system is mastered easily enough after this initial terse encounter, but by not having a tutorial the game cleverly forces the player to experience similar confusion as James (the character you play) in that moment. Just as he is stunned by the monstrosity moving towards him and trying to cope with the threat, the player is figuring out how to fight back and keep themselves alive. This becomes a consistent theme of the Silent Hill 2 game contract: it uses the game design to force the player to experience what James is experiencing in its own distorted way.
This dangerous environment is reinforced because the game design plays on your inability to fight competently even after mastering the controls. No matter what, the player knows they are never going to be that great at combat. There is no easy way to dodge every attack, gun ammo always seems intrinsically finite (despite the mountains of bullets you gather), enemies have random amounts of health, and health kits always seem like they may run out (despite the mountains of them you find). So while in reality there is plenty of health and ammo, because of the awkward controls and atmosphere the player never loses the sense of danger. There is no colt .45 here, no katana like in subsequent games to make you feel like a badass (or even competent). Walking down that long corridor below the Silent Hill Historical Society into a dark abyss creates teeth-grinding dread because the player knows that each and every zombie or monster will have the ability to hit them. There is no dominating these creatures, as even the weakest zombie can spray you with vomit. The camera and combat make it so the player is never in full control, the sound and setting serve to remind them of how dangerous a condition they are in as a consequence. These themes are further reinforced by several encounters with the boss Pyramid Head, who has no health and cannot die. Having an unbeatable foe in a game like this draws out discovering this information in a much more horrifying way thanks to the control scheme. It is not until after several clumsy swings and stabs in the gut that we realize our efforts are having no effect whatsoever on the monster.
In addition to the opening in the forest, several sections of the game use level design to fill the player with apprehension. By placing people in apartment complexes, hospital wards, hotels or an underground prison the game abandons the large sprawling environments of other horror games. You are always in a confined space. Levels often feel as a rat in a caged maze would, finding dead end after dead while you seek out some item or clue on how to progress. The constant repetition of placing a door that the player can never open creates a sense of the unknown. That there are places in Silent Hill we will never go into or understand. Even when the player steps outside, often to great relief, there are still countless stores and buildings that are locked and impenetrable. It both creates the sensation of being in a real city or building but also plays on the usual Metroid design of filling out a map. In a normal game, we can go everywhere in the environment and see everything. Here, James merely marks locations that he will never access. Barriers he will never cross. The player, stuck with this unfulfilled desire, is only left more stressed and disturbed at their inability to do anything but struggle through the city.
So what kind of story is facilitated by the mechanics of this limited game contract? What is the expression permissible in this limited language as opposed to a game that gives us a broad and diverse ability to express competence and superiority? The game is about James’ nightmarish confrontation with the guilt and suffering that came from the slow death of his wife that ended with his murdering her. It is formed like a nightmare and is filled with logical inconsistencies and surreal characters. Of the few “normal” people James encounters, none of them have rational conversations or coherently discuss the hellish town they all sit in. They ultimately serve as psychological foils for James, with each character representing a part of his psyche that came about during his wife Mary’s slow death. Eddie is the gluttonous and selfish part of James that wanted his wife dead. When they finally engage in a gun duel, James has the personal revelation that he has killed another human being. Angela is the shame-filled and abused part of James that came from his torment as Mary descended into madness. Her final scenes depict fading into a burning Hell, sadly explaining that she deserves what she got. Laura, the small blonde child, represents the anger and childish hope that drives James to live in denial. Indeed, she is the character whom James follows for most of the game and in one ending literally follows her out of Silent Hill. And Maria is James’ wife restored to health. She’s lustful, coy, dependent, and totally unstable. On three separate occasions James is forced to confront her dying because of him, the slow manifestation of his realization of his own awful crime.
The monsters themselves operate in a similar psychological manner. Most of them manifest James’ guilt and hatred during Mary’s final days. Some are literally walking shaped like vaginas, some are deformed nurses that represent the women James encountered whiles sitting in the hospital with his wife for days on end. Others are merely manifestations of anger, wielding giant phallic swords and screaming in rage anytime they see James. The various bosses are all variations of vaginal images or caged bodies, the latter manifesting the sense of imprisonment that James endured while his wife was sick. Finally, there is Pyramid Head. We are introduced to him in a homage to David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’, with James peeking through the screen of a closet in horror. We then bear witness to the awful deformed sexuality of Pyramid Head and his sexual abuse of the zombies around him. Often wielding a giant spear, Pyramid Head is the manifestation of James’ shame at killing Mary. He finally understands, “I was weak. That's why I needed you...needed someone to punish me for my sins...but that's all over now...I know the truth.” Indeed, it is Pyramid Head who kills Maria, the incarnation of Mary, over and over. It is Pyramid Head who performs awful acts of lust and violence that James so ardently tries to deny. And throughout the various encounters James has with him, Pyramid is always unkillable. The game design does not allow James to remove his literal shame until he has confronted it within the story.
This is only one interpretation of the game. There are far more literal ways to see the events of Silent Hill 2, and subsequent games seem to indicate something more than a nightmare took place. But within this game alone, where a metal can is filled with light bulbs and buildings shift from being totally intact to crumbling into decay in a single sequence, little is certain. The greatest moment of the game is when James finally discovers that he murdered Mary. He is forced to watch this on a videotape and when it ends he is sitting in front of a white T.V. screen. Yet the scene in the game is similarly all white due to the mist and blooming effect in the room. It eerily echoes the exact same thing the player is doing: staring in disbelief at the same kind of screen as James. That moment where both the player and James are doing the same thing epitomizes what Silent Hill 2 is all about. Using a game contract that the player must accept as necessary for the experience, it puts you in the shoes of James as he lives out a dark nightmare of grief, guilt, and limited abilities as he navigates his shame.