Review: Silent Hill 2 peers into our dark future — The Know
Horror novels and films stick with us because they can feel like lived experiences. The same is true of horror video games, which once seemed niche but now sell millions of copies every year on consoles, PCs and mobile devices.
If you grew up playing these games — from the classic Resident Evil series to Dead Space, Prey or Bloodborne — you’ll know that simulated flesh-and-blood is in no short supply. But when these titles worm their way into our minds like memories from another world, they can inspire lifelong obsession.
Take Silent Hill 2, a 2001 game built around isolation and psychological horror. Konami’s PlayStation 2 sequel to the massively successful original was a far better game than it needed to be, serving up gore but also a thick atmosphere of dread and subversive portrayals of typical gaming heroes (the deluded white man at the center of the story, James).
Boss Fight Books, which has published more than two dozen pocket volumes about influential gaming titles spanning Galaga to Red Dead Redemption, let one such Silent Hill 2 obsessive have at it with “Silent Hill 2” (the book about the game, not the game itself), which was published in January. And while deeply personal nonfiction books about video games are easy to find, thanks in part to publishers recognizing the exponentially growing market for them, “Silent Hill 2” is worth reading even for people who have never played eponymous title.
That’s good, because except for a crappy HD “remaster,” finding an original version of the game is harder than it used to be, writes Mike Drucker. As an Emmy-nominated, co-head writer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” Drucker steps away from late-night comedy to explore his quasi-traumatic experiences playing Silent Hill 2. His wit, knowledge and insight kept me riveted while reading about a game I’ve never even experienced (though he encourages readers to do so at various points).
So why would someone intentionally subject themselves to claustrophobic environments, interactive guilt and shame, and violence sourced from the worst of the real world? Because, as previously noted, people have been doing it with movies and books for decades. The interactivity of games only heightens the sense of immersion.
Drucker is a fine guide through this. Having written for Nintendo and Sony, he’s in clear charge of the subject from the opening sentences. But he doesn’t lard the text with jargon for non-gamers, and his rigorous self-reflection leads the narrative down some surprising paths.
In addition to telling the story of Silent Hill 2 — both the in-game story and how it was developed — Drucker traces its origins and apparent influences, ranging from filmmaker David Lynch to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Thoughtful and complex, yet elusive and vague compared to most action-oriented titles, Silent Hill 2 was designed by a Japanese team but inspired by American art, offering an outside perspective on familiar tropes.
“Forcing players to confront trauma through gameplay makes Silent Hill 2 a deeply unpleasant experience,” Drucker writes. “It also makes the game one of the first mainstream titles to seriously deal with trauma, bullying, depression, abuse and suicide.”
And not even in a fun away, as Drucker underlines. The game takes place in the seemingly abandoned town of Silent Hill, where protagonist James shows up after receiving a letter from his dead wife, Mary. James’ search for her reveals twisted truths about himself, but the game unfolds differently depending on how you play it.
Drucker doesn’t soft-pedal the disturbing content that left such deep marks on him. (He’s 37 now, which means he was 17 when he first played it.) He delves into topics of abuse and sexual assault, but includes trigger warnings. The author is anything but blithe in these passages. He divulges that he is a victim of childhood sexual abuse, as well as intense bullying over his weight. He does not take subjects such as suicide or rape lightly.
But he does describe what the game depicts, or at least what it represents, and it is indeed intense (this will not be a surprise to anyone who’s played video games in the last 25 years). Individual characters get their own chapters as Drucker tells the story of the game from different perspectives, always ready to insert a relevant academic assessment. Based on his citations, it appears there have been about 200,000 scholarly papers written about this game, give or take.
He doesn’t go out of his way to draw lines between them, but subjects and themes in the game connect to ongoing real-world debates and events: trauma in isolation (hello, coronavirus); toxic masculinity; violence against women; and how the rest of the world sees the United States.
For a medium known for its heavily commercial products, gaming took a huge leap forward with Silent Hill 2, Drucker argues. That’s a contrast from most survival horror games that revolve around killing zombies with cartoonish weaponry.
“The feeling is less, ‘You have nowhere to hide,’ and more, ‘Where is everyone and what the hell am I supposed to do now?’ ” he writes.
Warning: this video contains mature content.
Discomfort is not always a virtue, but elusiveness can be. Pinning down motivations and happy ends is tough in Silent Hill 2, and like so many other, intentionally mysterious works of art, that facet encourages repeat visits. The dopamine rush of nearly getting it must be repeated, Drucker writes, even as the game forces players to confront the terror of the quiet and mundane.
“There’s a tension between the player controlling James and the character of James himself,” Drucker writes. “It’s like being in a movie theater and shouting ‘Don’t go in there!’ except it’s our job to make him go in there.”
Drucker’s hybrid memoir/critique reckons with a weird sort of nostalgia familiar mostly to gamers. “Fun,” as we know, has different meanings when you’re no longer tethered to the real world.
“If we insist on a game being ‘enjoyable,’ that excludes much of the human experience from being portrayed in games,” Drucker writes, in reference to Shonte Daniels’ article “A Reminder That Video Games Don’t Have to Be Fun.” “Depression, anxiety and guilt aren’t enjoyable. To draw on James’ feelings of stress and loss and confusion, the designers chose to make the player feel stressed lost and confused at the expense of fun.”
No doubt this book about Silent Hill 2 is more fun than playing it. But I really of want to do that now, too.
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