Silent Hill 2 and the Thread of Tension

This article contains SPOILERS for Silent Hill 2, read at your own peril!

Silent Hill 2 is a game warped by the memories of those who played it.  The whole game resides inside the uncanny valley, and to play it is to be constantly at unease.  The strange way the characters interact, the groans and moans and billowing shutters that echo around you as you make your way through the fog and the world being just a little bit strange all feed into this.  Silent Hill 2 doesn’t want to kill you when you step around the corner, it wants to torment you, to trap you in its psychological hell. So when you finish the game, it weighs on your mind, its claws sunk in, as you contemplate and try to understand everything that has happened.

What slips the mind, what people forget, is that Silent Hill 2 is a game.  And it's not a game in the sense that the oft criticised walking simulators are - it has gameplay mechanics and challenges to overcome.  Unfortunately for the idyllic town, most of the gameplay here is terrible, and actively detracts from the atmospheric horror that has otherwise been beautifully cultivated.  The string of tension is a delicate one, easily broken, and break it does.

Let's start with the combat.  The combat is Silent Hill 2 is incredibly clunky.  There is a long windup on raising your melee weapon and each swing munches up time, leaving you vulnerable the whole time.  The guns are barely any better - James takes an age to both raise and lower his weapon, and there’s no easy way to decide what target you’re aiming at.  Often you’ll end up shooting a mannikin monster on the ground instead of the far more threatening one that’s about to attack.

But none of this is the issue.  James isn’t Masterchief. He’s not a navy seal with over 300 confirmed kills. He’s just a guy, someone with a shady past, sure, but not a killing machine. So the clunkiness present is not only a drawback, its an asset that helps reinforce how out of his element James is.  The problem instead lies in how unengaging the combat system is.

It doesn’t take long to learn the rhythm required to stunlock enemies.  And some of these enemies, even on medium difficulty, can take 10+ swings of your trusty nailed stick to take down.  So the actual mechanical nature of combat is to walk up to an enemy, press R2 to hold your stick ready then press ‘A’ 13 times to eventually bring them down.  This is boring.

Enjoy running around in circles for two minutes while nothing happens!

Enjoy running around in circles for two minutes while nothing happens!

Silent Hill should be scaring me.  I should be counting every bullet that I have to expend.  Instead, I’m bored out of my mind from the tedium of every monster encounter.  My radio crackling should be sending me into a state of semi-panic, not having me me groaning in frustration that I’m going to have to spend the next two to three minutes pressing ‘A’ in order to keep playing the game.  

Silent Hill 2 should look to the Resident Evil 2 remake for how to do survival combat.  Aiming for headshots with limited ammo is such a simple idea, but it captures everything you want from a tense encounter in such a neat package. Headshots are harder to hit, so ammo gets wasted when even attempting to get bullets into the enemy - but shooting the body repeatedly, the easier target, feels like a waste of ammo in comparison.  Not only is the combat far more engaging and requiring of your concentration, it directly feeds into the survival horror atmosphere by making you more aware of ammo conservation. And I understand that Silent Hill 2 isn’t traditionally a combat game - but if you’re going to make me deal with enemies then boredom shouldn’t be the final outcome.  

Luckily, the combat can be mostly avoided, although clearing up enemies in narrow corridors does make exploring each level much easier.  Far more problematic than the combat is the fundamental gameplay loop of searching for key items to unlock the next door/barrier to your progression.  Much of your time in the game is spent aimlessly wandering around in circles, wondering what to do next. The apartment buildings, the hospital and the hotel all seem to be semi-realistic places with hundreds of rooms between them.  And you better believe you’ll be walking up to every single door and trying to open it (succeeding about a third of the time) because the item thats critical to your progression could be in any one of them.

One of the less cryptic moments in Silent Hill 2.

One of the less cryptic moments in Silent Hill 2.

You’re doing all of this in the dark, of course, with certain key items being gated behind others - like when you need to drop a 6 pack of juice on a random garbage bag which contains a random coin that you need to progress.  And while I don’t actually have any issues with the bizzaro dream world logic this requires (Silent Hill 2 may as well be a dream), the lack of direction towards accomplishing these tasks is baffling. And it comes at the expense of that tactile tension; frustration is the death of that balancing act.

Making your way through a new part of the apartment building is creepy the first time you do it. And even the second But by the fifth time, enduring loading screen after loading screen, mashing ‘A’ on every available surface, sprinting carelessly through the corridors, you’ve stopped caring.  Maybe you missed something randomly in the 14th room, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe it’s outside by the fountain and not even in the damn building, but you’ve got no way to actually tell. The scariness and the atmosphere has evaporated as you see the world of silent hill for the video game it is, a collection of corridors and rooms.  Your suspension of disbelief can only go so far and the environment can only be so believable when you start knocking on the fourth door and its walls.

Perhaps this is all just my failing to play the game properly.  I can accept that. But playing ‘treasure hunter’ isn’t what I signed up for with this game.  In our podcast on this episode, I suggested to my co-host (amusingly, also named James) that the game would perhaps be better served as a Telltale style interactive story game.  My reasoning is that I hated most of the gameplay (riddles aside) while I found the story enchanting. I have realised that this request was a mistake, and would take away from the experience.

One of the many great things about this game are the environments and your place among them.  Travelling through the dilapidated buildings, facing the enemies - it's a personal and intimate journey through your own fears and repressed desires.  A less interactive game would create a cold distance between you and what you see on screen. It needs to be you guiding James and being James as he comes to terms with what he's done.

About 3/4s of these rooms are non-existent and permanently locked.

About 3/4s of these rooms are non-existent and permanently locked.

But that doesn’t mean that the searching for items needs to be so tedious.  For example, James is already making notes on his map, crossing off rooms that are inaccessible.  If he also marked off whenever a location was cleared out of key items, that would mean less time spent wasted going between loading screens and rummaging through rooms with nothing in them.  My co-host had what was potentially an even better idea - have the radio emit static - the same static as when close to monsters - whenever you are near a key item. It would alert you that there’s something vital nearby, while also putting you on edge because of the potential threat.

The point of all this isn’t to bash on Silent Hill 2.  But it is to point out where it fails as a horror game: where the tension is broken, and it's inevitably because of some major problem with the gameplay.  Movie directors have it easy - they get to control the camera angles and the pacing exactly to their choosing. But more could have been done to keep players engaged in its world, instead of flailing about in the throes of tedium.

I won’t be returning to play Silent Hill 2 any time soon.  Playing it was a chore in a lot of ways, and even as I gradually fell under its spell I couldn’t let myself forget that.  Now that I’ve spoken my piece on the podcast, and written these words here I can let myself forget. I can remember the tears in my eyes as I hear Mary read her letter to James, and the feeling of revulsion as I realise what exactly the doormen are.  I just hope I don’t end up in some idyllic tourist town, with my nightmares come to life to make me confront those awful memories once more.

You can listen to our podcast on Silent Hill 2 here.