(Any pictures I add to this post will come from the following gameplay. This footage is nothing spectacular, and is not a prerequisite to understanding this post. If there is ever a point that I am making that requires this gameplay in order to understand, I will include a timestamp so that you can skip the unimportant parts and get straight to the relevant footage.)
In case you missed part 0 where I discuss the different versions of the game in too much detail, and then explain the mods I will be using for the game, I will quickly recap here. I will be playing the Director’s Cut (European PC) version of the game, with the Silent Hill 2 Widescreen Fix, Silent Hill 2 FMV Enhancement Pack, Xinput (adds support for modern controllers), Joy to Key (properly maps the buttons on the controller), and the Silent Hill 2 Fog Mod (restores the fog effects missing in the pc version). If you are interested in these mods, the links are in Part 0. With the technical issues solved, it is time to finally launch the game.
Introduction/ Spoiler Warning
Originally released in 2001 on the Playstation 2 by Konami, Silent Hill 2 immediately garnered critical praise, and would eventually prove to become a horror classic. In this series, I aim to analyse the things that make the game so fascinating and beloved; everything from individual camera angles to how the controls influence the atmosphere of the game. I intend to list complaints as they arise, however, I have only one minor complaint with this game; expect overwhelming praise from this moment onward. This series will cover the entire game from start to finish, so there will be spoilers for puzzle solutions, as well as for major plot details down the road. This game is best experienced with as little prior knowledge as possible, so turn back now if you have any interest in playing it unspoiled.
Title Screen and Starting a New Game
Upon launching the game and progressing past the various company logos, we arrive at the title screen. Even as early as the title screen, Team Silent, the team within Konami that developed the game, has made in interesting choice: the title screen is primarily a black rectangle. Traditionally, a title screen would display an image that the developers feel encapsulates the game, which was the route they went for Silent Hill 1, as well as for Silent Hill 3 and 4 afterwords. Strangely, 2 is the only one that uses this black screen. Having a black title screen was quite common back when hardware was less advanced, but here it is clearly a stylistic choice. This title screen both does and does not perfectly represent the game: it gives new players no idea what the game will be like because the name Silent Hill 2 means nothing to them, whereas returning players will immediately understand what they are about to experience when they see this name. It is as if the developers are saying that nothing can capture the essence of Silent Hill 2 better than simply its simple title card. Or at least that is what I gathered, it is also quite possible that they just did not know what to place here; I like my version better though.
Regardless, choosing new game brings us to the option of Main Scenario “Letter From Silent Heaven”, or Sub Scenario “Born From A Wish”. The Born From A Wish side story was part of the new content added to later versions of the game, so for now we will stick with the main story. After choosing the main story, there are two more choices to make: Action difficulty, with the options Beginner, Easy, Normal and Hard; and Riddle difficulty, which ranges from Easy to Normal to Hard. For this series, I will be playing on Normal for both, as I feel they are the default options, and I feel they offer the best experience of the game. With the difficulty selected, the game begins.
Opening Cutscene (Begins at 2:01, ends at 2:57)
(This cutscene is so good, Konami content id’d it on my unlisted video)
From the opening cutscene, the atmosphere that pervades the entire game is established. Fading in from black, we are introduced to our currently unnamed protagonist; or rather, his reflection. This strange shot, combined with ethereal, otherworldly track that backs the scene, White Noiz, introduces an illusory, dreamlike atmosphere that perfectly mirrors the experience of players who are turning on the game for the first time, and have no idea what to expect. Our protagonist is clearly visible in this dark room, but his eyes are draped in shadow; this unusual lighting further lends to the unreal atmosphere
He then puts his hand in front of his eyes, then pulls his hand downward. Personally, I thought this movement was a way of recomposing himself, of recentering after an exhausting ordeal. After staring into the grimy mirror for a few more seconds, he pulls away, leaning his head back and taking a deep breath as the light in the room brightens. In roughly 20 seconds, and without a single line of dialogue, we have already been immersed in the atmosphere of the game, dreamlike and otherworldly, as well as been introduced to our main character, an exhausted man steeling himself to begin a some unknown journey. The otherworldly atmosphere is reinforced in the next shot, where the room is revealed to be a poorly maintained restroom, the sort you would find on the highway; certainly an unusual place to begin a story. The camera is tilted roughly 45 degrees, placed on the opposite side of the room from our protagonist, with a urinal in the foreground as White Noiz continues to play. It then rotates slowly, as a single line of dialogue is spoken.
This is an extremely bizzare way to begin what is supposed to be a serious game, but the fact it is so odd further lends to the otherworldly atmosphere. The first line of dialogue in the entire game is spoken in this scene, with our protagonist (James) asking “Mary… Could you really be in this town?” With one sentence, the plot of the game is made clear: our main character has traveled to a town with the intention of finding someone named Mary. However, the phrase “Could you really” indicates that this man searching for Mary is unsure if she is in town. This phrasing of this sentence also gives us insight into our main character: even though he is unsure if Mary will be in town, he shows up to anyway in the hopes that she will appear. With this, the first cutscene ends, and control is given to the player.
Control Scheme and Camera
With control granted to the player, the first thing newcomers will notice is the odd control scheme: Silent Hill 2 uses the “tank controls” setup. In a traditional control scheme, you press the direction you want to move; i.e. press left to move left relative to the angle of the camera, and press forward to move forward relative to the camera (forward meaning away from the camera). Tank controls differ in that pressing left rotates the player left, and pressing forward will move the character forward in the direction they are facing. This may disorient players unfamiliar with this type of control scheme, but is both an aesthetic necessity in order to augment the atmosphere (more on this later), as well as a technical necessity in order to work with the camera system. Many large areas of the game, such as the streets of the town that will appear shortly, use a traditional camera system in which the camera is centered behind the player. Many small areas, such as the interior of the bathroom, use fixed camera angles that can not be altered by the player. With a traditional control scheme, the directional controls change every time a new camera angle appears. To demonstrate how disorienting traditional controls with fixed angles can be, let’s examine the bathroom the game begins in.
(Angle 1 top left, Angle 2 top right, Angle 3 bottom left, Angle 4 bottom right)
The bathroom contains four seperate camera angles which change as you move from the front to the back of the room. It starts focused directly on the player, then moves near where the cutscene urinal shot as, then moves to the front of the room facing towards the back, then hovers over the urinals so that the player can see the back corner not viewable in angle 3. With traditional controls holding left on the first angle will move the player to angle 2, and where left changes its meaning: left will now move the player in front of the urinal, as opposed to the first shot where left would move the player to the back of the room. From angle 2, you must now hold down to move toward the camera, where it changes to angle 3. Once in angle 3, you must now hold forward to reach the back of the room. The constantly changing controls are not too cumbersome if you know why it is happening, but it can become a source of frustration quite easily. With tank controls, you simply turn the character left in angle 1, then hold forward to reach the back of the room; because forward always moves the player the direction they are facing, the differing angles have no effect on what direction the player moves.
The question, then, is why use a camera system that requires an uncommon control scheme in order to avoid frustration? Or in other words: Why could they not have just made the whole game use a normal camera, therefore allowing a traditional control scheme? The answer is simply that pre selected camera angles are more both more interesting and more useful for this kind of game, and examples of this come quite shortly. For now though, the only thing to do is head outside.
Second Cutscene Recap (Begins at 3:23, ends at 5:38)
Just in case the previous cutscene went over your head, this one serves as the formal introduction to the main plot of the game. Mary is revealed to be the wife of James, and the reason he is here is that she sent him a letter from beyond the grave, telling him to find her at their ‘special place’. He is skeptical of finding her here after her death three years prior to receiving the letter, but he is still hopeful that this letter might have some legitimacy to it. With this scene over, control is again granted to the player.
How the Design of the Parking Lot Guides the Player
Once in control, the player is naturally drawn to the car visible in the cutscene for a few reasons. It is the largest object in the frame, aside for the restroom off the right, and it is also located near the center of the frame, where the eye is naturally going to rest. Furthermore, the parking lot clearly ends on the right and extends offscreen to the left, encouraging players to explore the left side; this requires moving past the car. The car itself looks unusual: the door is open, and the car is parked sideways. Finally, the camera shifts to an overhead view when the player draws near the car, ensuring that they can not miss it:
None of this exactly revolutionary, but it is this sort of thing that makes or breaks a game. Silent Hill 2 relies heavily on atmosphere to keep the player invested in the game, and anything that interrupts the flow of the player, such as missing crucial items or clues, risks damaging the atmosphere that keeps players interested. It is important to strike a fine balance, though, between not enough and too much direction, as too much direction can also damage the atmosphere; too much risks the player feeling like they are playing a computer program, rather than experiencing a story.
In case none of the visual clues guided you to the car, attempting to exit the area via the street to the right will cause James to state that there is no point going back on the road he came from, and stairs on the left will prompt him to state that there is a map in the car. This is apparently his car, as attempting to reexamine the car will cause James to state that there is nothing else worth taking; the only way he could know this is that it must be his car. His statement that there is nothing else worth taking is an interesting one, but I will leave it alone for now.
Walking for Two and a Half Minutes
With the map collected, it is time to descend the stairs to the trail and begin walking. And by walking, I mean roughly two and a half minutes of uninterrupted walking. You could use the sprint button to get to the end of the trail faster, but I feel that the atmosphere in this game is strongest when it is not being sped through. This trail starts with the camera behind James, but as the player descends its winding slopes, it occasionally cuts to more sinister angles.
To the right of the trail is a fog covered drop off, and to the left is a forest. The camera shifts to both of these sides and looks at James, giving the impression that James, and by extension the player, is being watched by an unseen entity. These sort of odd angles occur for the entire game, and lend to the unsettling atmosphere of the game in a way that using solely a traditional camera can not.
These strange angles, coupled with the sound of what appears to be snarling dogs, lend an uneasy atmosphere to this long walk, without being outright threatening. This tension carries us to the first interruption in the trail, a well on the side of the path.
Examining the well reveals a simple red square of paper at the bottom. James remarks that it gives him a weird feeling, and the screen flashes a blindingly bright red as it cuts to the save menu. I am not sure what the meaning of this red square is, but considering the purposeful manner that the first 2 rooms were constructed with, I imagine that there is a reason for the save point to look this way.
With the first save point available, I decided that it would be a good stopping point in order to prevent this post from becoming even more bloated than it already is. I hope that something I rambled on about here was of value to you; thanks for reading, and I hope to see you next time.