On Silent Hill 2, Grieving, Relationships and Identifying with Game Characters
“Games are power fantasies.” If you’ve spent more than five minutes talking to anyone about videogames, you probably know the concept. It’s a popular idea. To a certain extent, I even understand it. Playing Jet Set Radio makes me feel free and lawless and infectiously optimistic; No More Heroes 2 makes me feel a sense of unearned mastery as Travis gracefully dismembers wave after wave of cartoon goons. Psychedelic “pretty colors and happy sounds” affairs like Audiosurf and Rez can both thrill and relax me. The act of playing a game can sometimes even help ease my chronic anxiety (another article altogether). So, I get it; kind of.
Except, I don’t. Not really. Thinking of some of my favorite games—Siren, Sanitarium, Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly (the subtitle there alone is a delicious little piece of fascination for me)… Harvest Moon, Legend of Mana… More recently, the Amnesia series—most of them don’t make me feel powerful at all. On the scarier end of the spectrum, some of these games make me feel actively powerless. Siren, in particular, I had to set aside for a long time, because the sense of helplessness and hopelessness got too intense (you may find it interesting to know that it was the first school sequence, where you play as a defenseless teacher protecting a child, that made me stop and think, “Okay, this is a little too much for me”).
Maybe being a woman has something to do with it. This has been on my mind a little, lately. Most gamers seem to come to identify with their player characters, when they don’t right away. Growing up with games, they were an outlet for frustrated gender expression (‘nother ‘nother article), but there were never really very many good playable female characters. Sure, I always picked Princess Toadstool in Mario 2; I always played Nicole in Guardian Heroes; I prefer Jill Valentine to Chris Redfield. But these always felt too obviously like The Girl Characters. Their stats were lower; they were weaker, slower; their paths were a little easier; their skills a little sparser; there was, often, just less to do with them. Even perennial Feminism in Games favorite Samus Aran was originally only female as a gotcha, and a number of Metroid games reward the player for completing the game under time limits with a shot of Samus in her underwear.
A few more modern games like the recent Fallouts do a much better job of making your character’s gender a valid choice, but the damage had been done. I grew up thinking that the little guy on the screen wasn’t like me; so, on a fundamental level, that identification isn’t there. Logically, though still not acceptably, this disconnect between playable characters and my identity led me into the unpopular experience of actually enjoying games like Xenogears or Dreamfall, where the player character is explicitly Not You. It’s interesting to me, how other players react to playable characters saying or doing things they don’t like. In a very real sense, I can understand that completely, that disconnect between experience of self and external perception (again, whole other topic). But it’s often not how I play games.
I like story driven games. Less so, as I get older, and the number of games with stories that catch my eye dwindles. That’s okay. There are still more wonderful books in the world than I’ll ever be able to read; I’m not hurting for good stories. It’s debatable whether the drop-off is due to me maturing, or game culture, er, un-maturing, or both, but the reality is, very few games engage me much as an adult. So it’s lovely when a game can give me a story that means something to me. Lovelier still when that story means more to me as the years go by.
FEAR OF BLOOD
I was a big Silent Hill fan. Back when there were only the two games under Takayoshi Sato (1 & 2) and Keiichiro Toyama (1 & Siren), and none of my gamer friends would play them. They’d all play to the first semi-open world part of each game, when the game gently guides you into a few specific locales, emphasizing mostly freeform-ish exploration, declare it boring and move on. Impatience is a terrible curse on the medium. Of course, they all got into the series in a big way with the third installment. By that point, Sato and Toyama had left, and you could feel it. Masahiro Ito and Akira Yamaoka (The Art Guy and The Sound Guy, respectively) stayed on, and you could feel that, too. Silent Hill 3 is a visual and aural feast. It’s still one of the most beautiful looking, sounding games that I know. Tragically, though, it’s hollow. It’s monster horror. “Resident Evil on psychedelics,” is how I described it at the time, and I still smirk at my razor wit.
The Room would mark a recovery, as the remaining development team worked their way around the big Sato/Toyama shaped hole and came up with something original and interesting, but the series would drop off into irrelevance and franchisedom soon after. Shattered Memories, which I haven’t gotten around to playing yet, looks like a fantastic final send-off to the series. Even if it ends up being another imperfect game, the concept and the attempt at pulling the series out of the blood-and-rust franchise hole it fell into are admirable.
Holes and falling into them. That would be a good lead into talking about Silent Hill 2, wouldn’t it? In an ideal world—one in which every moderately successful game doesn’t automatically spawn a crappy multimedia franchise—we wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2. We’d have the game called Silent Hill 2, but we’d know it as A Letter From Heaven, its subtitle, or as something else. Jim’s Holiday Adventure, maybe. Whatever its status as quasi-sequel or original work, we’d have it. It’s one of the only games that had to be made; that had anything to say.
At sixteen with your whole life ahead of you, Silent Hill 2 is not especially scary. You probably don’t know yet what it means to lose something fundamental and irreplaceable. You probably don’t know yet what it feels like to do things you can never forgive yourself for. You don’t know what you’d do, if you had a chance to reverse a loss like that and find redemption. So, the game is beautiful, it’s dreamy, it’s a tragic romance—but it’s not yours, yet.
At twenty eight, in the middle of a severe respiratory infection, pondering your mortality, after losing your job, just before your boyfriend breaks up with you, as death and loss are leaving their mark on you, while you’re secretly falling in love with impossibilities and doing your best to hide from life, Silent Hill 2 makes a lot more sense—and it gets under your skin. You know it’s only going to get worse from here. The use of color and imagery, the various symbolism—water being of course a generative force, so all this black, stagnant water that keeps rising, that Pyramid Head drains and James eventually dives into during the fractured climax, is interesting—all adds up to a texture of illness. There is (literally! it’s a visual filter) an uncanny film over everything. Things are Not Right about this place.
It’s an old story. A man and a woman happily in love on the eve of their wedding night, each finding fulfillment in the other, opening doors in each other’s hearts that couldn’t be turned by anyone else. Until a tragedy occurs—the woman dies, the man goes mad with grief. Eventually, in his madness, he discovers a doorway to the Underworld, and he goes in after his lost love. Strange and discomforting sights he’ll see, and a bargain will have to be made. He’ll win that bargain, and bring his love back up the long, ascending path that leads into life. The condition of the bargain, of course, being that he can never look back at her until they are both again in sunlit lands. Of course he looks back.
Maybe I shouldn’t romanticize. But the game itself is in large part about the urge to romanticize, and the shattering of the comfortable myths we make to bury the hard truth. One of my favorite moments is when Angela, who up to that point had come across as The Victimized Woman to an extent, mocks James’ (and, presumably, the player’s) unspoken but indicated notions that he could possibly save her. She is her own person (maybe; if she’s not, as I’m fond of thinking, James’ guilt personified), her history hers alone to bear. The sexist notion that all she needs is a man to protect her does nothing but provoke a bitter laugh as she walks to her doom. Still: the hard truth won’t necessarily kill romance, when we dig it up. Sometimes it just makes it easier to touch.
Like its cinematic cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Silent Hill 2 is about a relationship and, more specifically, about how one half of that relationship recalls it wrongly. Unraveling the “how you remember” from the “how it was” is a sometimes painful, sometimes touching, always surprising thing to do, after a relationship has ended. How on earth do we forget so much? Not just the insignificant details—what so and so wore on such and such day—but the anchors of our hearts: the words that made us fall in love, the secrets that drove us into silence.
James is someone who forgot too much. He wanders through a literal fog, following increasingly brighter lights. He wades through rising black waters until he has no choice but to submerge himself. Every hall he passes through is covered in mildew and water stains. He leaps into bottomless pits; he digs things up. It may seem obvious, to describe it so plainly, but the symbolism is subtle and effective. It registers—this search for truth—but it isn’t understood, the first time around. It is dangerous to identify with him, as an avatar for the player. Maybe you do, automatically, because you’re used to that. I wasn’t, and didn’t, and so feel mixed with the horror a pity and a kind of love. You can play him as yourself, if you like. You do so at your own peril.
SONGS OF PLEASANT GLEE
The final choice in Silent Hill 2 is a choice between eggs. As a parting act of servitude, the dual Pyramid Heads offer James two eggs; one is dark crimson, the egg of Innocence; the other a speckled, faded red, the egg of Experience. They’re not named that; it’s not that obvious. But that’s obviously what they are. Like any good symbol, you can reverse them if you want; they’ll still be the same. The player can choose to use either egg to progress through a set of locked doors. It’s not a puzzle. As far as I’m aware, the choice affects nothing, except perhaps slightly pushing you toward one ending or another, but it occurs so late in the game that it would hardly matter. On a purely mechanical level, choosing to hatch either the egg of Innocence of the egg of Experience is a useless choice.
On an emotional, human level, it may be the most meaningful choice a game has ever offered me. It is a profound choice: in the face of loss, guilt, mortality and heartache, do we choose to accept the heavy lessons of life, even if they fade our colors and weigh us down, or do we choose the levity of being simply grateful for Peake’s “miracle enough” of having lived at all?
I don’t know.
Silent Hill 2 made me cry a lot more as an adult. It did before, but it wasn’t mine then. One thing remains the same, between then and now: I’ve always loved how such a dark story—about death and grieving and illness and guilt and euthanasia and suicide and magic and the faintest glimmer of redemption—ends on such a tender moment. This simple affirmation of life and of love in spite of everything tears my heart in half:
“You made me happy.”
When we grieve for anything, we grieve for happiness ending. We may all eventually have someone we would chase through the Underworld for five more minutes together with. It’s better, perhaps, to remember the happiness than to leap through chasms, hoping one of them will lead us outside of life and time. Maybe keeping that happiness alive as a living memory helps us heal, after experiencing a loss. There is a hole there; so fill it with happiness grown together.
Then it’s gone.
Erika B. has written 2 FGEC articles.
Sometimes I have thoughts about videogames. Sometimes they end up here. Don't blame me; I don't know how they get out.