Having apparently forgotten the recurrent nightmares it gave me the first time around, I recently decided to fire up my battered old laptop and play through Silent Hill 2 again. Turns out, it’s still scary.
Silent Hill 2 was first released in 2001 (I try not to dwell on the fact that it was almost fourteen years ago that I played this on the PlayStation 2) and while it is certainly dated in many respects – the unwieldy ‘tank’ controls that won’t let you turn and move at the same time stick out as does the combat which feels clumsy and stilted – it remains terrifying.
As you travel through the fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill, it starts to get under your skin. Slowly – but surely – a sense of creeping unease and disquiet will start to play on your mind and it sticks with you long after you’ve turned it off.
This is largely due to the design of the game’s enemies: horrific Jungian archetypes that are directly connected to the psychological workings of the protagonist James Sunderland and, by extension, the player. The hideous, twitching ‘Bubble Head Nurses’ and the screaming ‘Mannequins’ (creatures consisting of only two pairs of female legs) were designed to be sexually suggestive and representative of James’ subconscious sexual desires during his wife’s hospitalisation while the iconic ‘Pyramid Head’ reflects his guilt and desire to be punished.
The town itself feels as if it’s out to get you. The thick fog, low lighting, and narrow corridors make Silent Hill feel heavy and claustrophobic. With such a limited field of vision, it’s easy to lose direction and get lost in the mist; it’s a confusing place when you’re calm, when you panic it becomes almost labyrinthine.
Everything in Silent Hill 2 has a somewhat dreamlike quality and it’s never explicitly clear what – or who – is and isn’t real. The dialogue – and its delivery – can be toe-curlingly cheesy but this, somehow, feeds into the surreal, otherworldly ambiance and makes the whole thing even more unsettling.
These are some of the features that make Silent Hill 2 stand out as the pinnacle of psychological horror in gaming and, unfortunately, the horror genre has fallen out of favour in the last ten years.
With the notable exception of Dead Space in 2007, very few noteworthy big-budget horror games have been produced in the last decade. After Resident Evil 4, most entries in that series have been fairly lacklustre and tend to be more action-oriented while more recent – Western-made – entries in the Silent Hill series have retained the setting and the Cronenberg-esque body horror of Silent Hill 2 but they lack the subtle touches that truly get under your skin.
While there have been some excellent indie horror titles (Amnesia: The Dark Descent being a prominent example) and even some substantial AAA releases in recent weeks (Alien: Isolation for one), there haven’t been many satisfyingly scary games and certainly none with the subtlety and overall weirdness of Silent Hill 2. It looks like that might be about to change however.
P.T. (or ‘Playable Teaser’) has players – in the first-person – walking through a fairly innocuous hallway in a family home but, after walking through the door at the end of the corridor, you realise that you’re back at the start of that same corridor. Although, this time, something’s wrong.
With each pass of the hallway, things start to get unhinged. The radio will turn itself on to tell you a story about a deranged father who killed his family, a baby will start crying unrelentingly, and you’ll start to hear footsteps behind you but turning around could prove fatal as it soon becomes apparent that a ghostly visage of the lady of the house is following you; and she’s never too far away.
At the end of the demo – if you have the nerves to make it that far – it is revealed to be a playable announcement for the next entry in the Silent Hill series with auteur developer Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) at the helm. P.T. certainly captures some of what made Silent Hill 2 great and, as far as I’m concerned, it looks like the series might, finally, be getting back on track.