Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a series of articles about what works and what doesn’t work in given video games, and if it even matters. The first game I’ll be looking at is one of my absolute favorites, Silent Hill 2. For those who aren’t too familiar with the game, it’s an older survival horror game released by Konami back in late 2001. I imagine most any console gamer has played at least one game in the series, though I argue that this particular entry trumps the others quite easily.
I remember the first time I popped Silent Hill 2 into my PS2. Back in high school, my good friend Ario often kept me up to date on the latest games. While neither of us were particular fans of the survival horror genre, Ario had been talking up Silent Hill 2 for quite some time. I wasn’t really familiar with the series at all, having not played the first game. Ario swore that this sequel was going to be frightening, and would be a departure from the “kill everything that moves” feeling prevalent in the genre around this time. I gave him a slight benefit of the doubt, and we rented the game soon after it was released.
That night, surrounded by several of my good friends, I embarked into the world of Silent Hill 2. While I only ended up playing the game for about an hour or so in that sitting, my first ventures in Silent Hill revealed many of the qualities I would later reflect upon and praise. Playing as the game’s protagonist, James Sunderland, we’re brought to the town of Silent Hill in search of his dead wife. James had recently received a letter from her telling him to meet in their “special place.” Disobeying his own belief about how absurd this is, he chooses to follow up on it. We’re dropped on the outskirts of the town, and we begin our descent into it.
Aesthetics and Trickery
The game establishes a tense and claustrophobic feeling from its onset using both sight and sound tricks. While James is walking toward the town, the camera angle is often changing to disorient the player. There’s a thick fog present, obscuring the player’s vision and only allowing for brief visibility. Along with this, the player can hear multiple sets of foot steps aside from his own. Stop and these footsteps also stop. This is an important aspect of the game that really carries on throughout its entirety; there always seems to be something there, but just out of view and inaccessible. Until this time, I feel that survival horror games often tried to scare the player with a visible task, often in the form of “I have to kill x amount of monsters but I only have y amount of bullets.” Silent Hill 2 doesn’t need to throw monsters at you to create fear. It uses the player’s perception against them, and rather the idea of what could
be out there. Hell, the whole “sound as fear” mechanic carries over further into a radio the player receives early on in the game that sputters to life with white noise when nearing an enemy. Again, the player may not even see the enemy, and may not encounter them all together despite the radio static. Yet, this sound regularly puts the player into a state of high tension. Along with sound effects and camera trickery, the game’s varied music further succeeds at creating unease (I’ve personally always really appreciated the Silent Hill 2 OST, for the record. Akira Yamaoka is a legend).
The art direction of SH2 is pretty impressive all around, but it specifically shines in the area of enemy design. The enemies were created to do more than just look unique and scare the player (I assure you, though, that they do both of these things), as they mostly all have a deeper meaning in relation to James Sunderland. The metaphorical meaning behind these monsters works very well at enhancing the story and giving more credibility to their design. In the world of Silent Hill, people essentially make their own monsters, and James is no exception.
The various creatures of Silent Hill 2 are explained in detail here
The game, thusly, succeeds in being aesthetically pleasing, intelligently designed, and thought provoking. These elements come together and create a game that evolved the genre in terms of atmosphere, tension, and storytelling. Yet, it was still plagued with one of the largest issues of survival horror around that time…
Control, until the release of Resident Evil 4, was always pretty pathetic in survival horror games. Slow moving characters and auto aiming were normal in the genre pre RE4. Silent Hill 2 was no exception, except it stood out like a sore thumb in a game that was otherwise stellar. When James is turning, he does so at a snail’s pace. Holding “up” always moves James forward, and “backwards” always moves him back. While one might think this is ok in theory, actually attempting to properly control James can be a frustrating experience at times. With the camera angles changing at various intervals, the player often forgets that the controls are relative to how James is facing rather than how the camera is looking at James. Admittedly, the first time I played this game, the controls didn’t bother me too much. At that point in my life, I was a really hardcore console gamer. I was pretty used to adapting to lots of different control schemes, so while SH2’s controls felt awkward, the game was still incredibly playable and it didn’t hurt the experience for me.
Recently, however, I went ahead and purchased SH2 as I wanted to play it again for the purposes of this article and to show a friend of mine the game, since I still believe it to be one of the highest points of the survival horror genre. We had just finished Playdead Studios’ “Limbo,” a brilliant puzzle/platform game with intuitive and modern controls. Immediately upon holding the controller and moving in Silent Hill 2, my friend remarked about the difficulty she was having with the clunky controls. “Limbo was straight forward and I didn’t have any problems with it [the controls],” she remarked. She handed the controller over to me, and I played a section of the game. Having played primarily PC games for the last few years and stepping back into this ancient control scheme, I have to say that I really agreed with her. While I managed the controls a bit better, I understood why a more casual audience would have found grievances.
As A Whole
I don’t think the poor control ends up mattering in the grand scheme of things. When I put everything together in Silent Hill 2, I look at it as a game that isn’t really intended for that casual audience. Rather, it’s a game that I feel is intended to be played through when one has the time to devote solely to it (basically, play it from start to finish without other games in-between). There are so many little nuances to pick up on in the game, and its vast metaphors and rich story demand attention. If one is to play through it simply to casually shoot things
as they might in any other survival horror, they may not really care for the game that much because the controls are not going to cater to them (Silent Hill: Homecoming is really made to fit that experience…also, it’s quite possibly the worst entry in the series…coincidence?). Instead, the full benefits of the game actually come about from a player who insists on exploring over mindless shooting, on discovering more about the town over simply going from point A to point B, strategy guide style (speaking of which, I can’t tell you how much one would miss by following a strategy guide. It would really ruin the experience). I think it would be accurate to say that Silent Hill 2 will give back what one is to put into it.
In the case of Silent Hill 2, poor control does not result in a poor game. Yet, bad controls have certainly ruined other games that could have been brilliant. Do you have any experience with games that had many great mechanics in place but unfortunately weren’t fully realized due to faulty controls? Or perhaps the alternate, a game like SH2 where the good aspects far outweighed the bad?