July 19, 2007 8:04 AM | Leigh Alexander
[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]
Konami’s survival-horror bacchanal Silent Hill 2 relies on dynamics of aberrant psychology as its most pivotal element. All of the Silent Hill games do, to some extent—but entering the mind of a man in his own private Hell has never been so stark, so unsettling, or so delightful as it is with protagonist James Sunderland. We’re introduced to James in the opening, when he receives a letter from his deceased wife, Mary—supposedly dead of fatal illness three years prior, summoning him to the town of Silent Hill, where she’ll be waiting in their “special place”, a hotel room where they once vacationed together.
Of course, this is illogical. The town of Silent Hill, its crumbling borders preventing escape, its evolving scenery defying reason, plays the role of a biblical Limbo in these games; the protagonists are inserted into the disorienting nightmare to confront symbols of their inner darkness. Mary’s impossible invitation, then—via a letter whose writing grows fainter, fading as the story progresses—is more of an invitation from James’ subconscious to explore the events of his past. We know—though we hope against hope—that Mary just can’t really be waiting for us in Silent Hill.
But could James, who feels himself a grieving widower, truthfully be a mercy killer? Or is it something even worse?
This column has touched before on the ways that any conflict, any symbology, any thematic element in games (or anywhere else, for that matter), when broken down into its simplest parts, will in its reflection of human nature fall squarely into one of two camps. The fundamentals of existence; sex and death. And the most effective, engaging games tend to balance both elements handily. Blood-explosive slaughterhouse violence in games tends to feel hollow after a while, whereas games that are little more than interactive skin mags feel cheap. It takes the artful arrangement of both, supported by a plausible network of human psychology, to truly compel a player-- and the ways in which Silent Hill 2 accomplishes this balancing act is worthy of examination.
As obscured in layered drama (much of it open to interpretation) as the fictional town of Silent Hill is in white fog, James’ actual nature and motivations are highly open to interpretation. Analyzing the symbolism that appears with pitch-perfect thematic consistency throughout the entire game, however, the deliciously twisted realities, like the clamor of madness from every dark corner of the game’s world, are impossible to ignore. Examine the symbols, and the truth floats to the surface—and so, Silent Hill 2 might be one of those few well-woven game stories in which the worst ending is actually the most appropriate one.
The twisted symbolism of Silent Hill 2 tells the story’s true throughline more directly than its action. The game’s varnish of dread comes as much from the effective sexual symbols as it does from the meting out of death and the fear thereof. It’s the violence, of course, that’s overt in a survival-horror game, but the characterization of James is actually completed in these slightly more subtle elements.
Take, for example, the infamous Silent Hill nurses. These faceless, bloody-smocked and stilted white dolls appear in some form in every incarnation of Silent Hill-- which makes sense, considering that a hospital is significantly involved in each story. The nurses hold particular significance depending on the context—as avatars for Lisa Garland, drug-addled on White Claudia and nurse of the unfortunate Alessa, in Silent Hill 1, or holding similar significance for Silent Hill 3’s Heather-as-counterpart, fated to be impregnated with a god. The most compelling thing about the locations of Silent Hill is that, at the same time they resemble the dark fringes around a particular location, they are an accurate reflection of the hero’s most aberrant mind. For James, then, the medical staff might simply be reminders of his numb vigils at Mary’s fetid sickroom.
They might—if not for the particular variations Silent Hill 2 takes on their appearance. In cap and apron, stockings, and an impractical mini-dress, they’re more like fetishistic symbols than memories of real nurses. As shambling, moaning aggressors, they’re representative of the deeply repressed sexual frustration experienced by a man losing his young wife, and his objectification of women in general—a theme supported by the appearance of Maria, a scantily-clad, self-centered and manipulative identical doppelgänger of Mary. In every purr, in every unsubtle flirtation, every flick-roll of her hips, she reminds James that she’s everything Mary never was.
Silent Hill 2’s supporting characters perhaps offer much clearer thematic support for James’ madness, Examined individually, they could be seen each to represent some specific facet of James’ conflicting emotions. We meet fat Eddie Dombrowski, who kills to empower himself, when he’s vomiting his self-disgust in an apartment bathroom. Angela Orosco, who seems psychologically arrested in childhood, presents the face of a woman damaged by her father’s sexual appetites—and wants to kill herself, torn by guilt and rage. The scene in which James must rescue Angela from the monster that terrifies her is ripe with rather graphic symbolism—the player battles a hulking shape that resembles a man bent over a small bed, while surreal-looking sphincters open and close on the wall all around them. Only the child Laura, who, as confounding as she is, is an innocent—seems to come from outside of James, acting as a guide of sorts in the fog-shrouded purgatory.
And she hates him.
Some of the first enemies James confronts resemble piecemeal jointed mannequins, naked, shiny and flesh-toned, jerking as they move. But while they may be composed of human parts, they’re not even complete mannequins—instead, they appear to be two hips fastened end-to-end, thighs splayed. In one of Silent Hill’s apartments, your light might fall on a dark corner where a whole, faceless mannequin stands, wearing Mary’s clothes.
The mannequins appear fairly early in the game, and the immediate onslaught of these telltale monsters is like a sudden break with reality—and for James, one could theorize that might be exactly what’s happening, thrusting him into a white-edged limbo state deep inside the self, wherein he has the opportunity to confront the truth about himself and his deeds.
Perhaps it’s not a matter of choice; perhaps it’s simply that the truth won’t be denied any longer and breaks free, howling angrily into the rift in his psyche.
The most infamous of all Silent Hill 2’s creatures is the blood-colored Pyramid Head, face obscured by a massive three-sided helmet. On first meeting him, we see the behemoth commit what appears to be the act of rape on one of the hip-and-thigh dolls as it kicks and squirms. Neither of the objects being shown are human, nor is it viscerally graphic, but it’s one of the most disturbing scenes in video game history, ensconcing the blade-dragging, faceless monster as a fan favorite among all game villains. It should be noted that Pyramid Head rarely confronts James—in one chilling moment, he stands on the other side of a metal fence, just watching. Waiting, like a judge.
But he kills Maria, James’ fictitious illusion of his wife —ruthlessly and repeatedly, allowing James to viscerally re-experience (perhaps, masochistically) his torment and guilt.
Pyramid Head is completely invulnerable to James’ attacks until he recognizes his weakness—and kills Maria himself, one more time. She’s lying, necrotic and immobile on her back, and calling James’ name softly, with that familiar voice. The story’s been well engineered to make Maria repellent to the player by this point—she’s a ghost, a hallucination of madness, a manipulative woman, a tease, or a monster herself. We’re glad to kill her.
Which is exactly how James must have felt when he smothered Mary with a pillow.
It’s revealed that Mary’s last days were spent being self-centered and difficult, even abusive towards James, and that her illness had become repulsive. But it’s never indicated either way whether James’ swift retribution was an act of mercy for a woman who was no longer herself, or the cold strike of resentment, frustration, disgust, unsatisfied sexual appetite. It’s here we find that Mary’s original letter of invitation—to meet her in a hotel room, no less—was nothing more than a blank paper, something James imagined all along.
Interestingly, Silent Hill 2’s climactic confrontation is against two Pyramid Heads, making a triad of creatures whose nature as victim or aggressor isn’t clear. Eventually, the two Pyramid Heads self-impale, destroying themselves, and leaving behind one egg each that can be used to unlock the door to the final area. Both red eggs are identical, but bearing synonymous names—“rust-colored” and “blood-colored”, and the fact that it doesn’t matter which you take suggests that victim or murderer, James’ fate is the same.
The “bad” ending, called “In Water,” is stunningly easy to come by, provoked almost by the natural course of playing the story—for example, examining certain objects, like Angela’s knife or a murderer’s diary, or attempting to conserve healing supplies. After reading Mary’s farewell letter, James ends up in his car at the bottom of a lake, consumed by madness and ready to “be together” with Mary again. The fact that a player will achieve this ending simply for exploring the world and its objects thoroughly-- as any good gamer is wont to do-- is very telling.
There's no real happy ending to this story, but even a good ending wouldn’t be appropriate. While it is possible, to some degree, to play through the game in a way that allows James to come to terms with what he’s done, it feels much more wholly a story to let James run a more fatal course—and this is due entirely to the environmental symbolism, the pervasive suggestions of James’ inner perversion, torment, shame, and grief, drawing the image of a man who perhaps was once a loving husband, but who’s since spiraled into madness. The true genius of Silent Hill 2 is that it often feels, just for a while, like it’s taking us with him.
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer