18/07/2017

EPHEMERA: SILENT HILL 2 EDITION

We’re going from the ridiculous to the sublime at VGJunk today, because after writing about “worst game ever” contender Rhythm Beat last time out I decided to give myself a break and play through the best game ever, Silent Hill 2. Okay, okay, I know that’s subjective. It’s my favourite game ever, though, and probably always will be if even Bloodborne couldn’t shift it from its lofty perch.


I usually play through Silent Hill 2 at least once a year. Not last year, though – I played Silent Hill 4 instead for the purposes of this article, so never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my art. That just means I’m really looking forward to playing SH2 again, though, and in this article I’ll be pointing out a few of the things that caught my attention during what was my thirtieth-ish playthrough. With that in mind, this article will contain spoilers. Lots and lots of huge, end-game spoilers right from the beginning of the article, so if you’ve never played Silent Hill 2 but you’d like to one day then skip this article. Seriously, if there’s any game where spoilers should absolutely be avoided, it’s Silent Hill 2. To reiterate: watch out for spoilers. Okay? Okay. Right, let’s get started.


I’ll begin in the very first area of the game: a disgusting, piss-drenched men’s toilet! This neatly sidesteps the issue of why you never see protagonists go to the bathroom – in Silent Hill 2’s case, it because protagonist James Sunderland has thoroughly evacuated himself before embarking on his adventure. That’s not why I’m talking about the toilet, though. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to this strange piece of graffiti on the bathroom wall. Weird bowling-pin creatures with shocked expressions make an interesting change from the usual “LEEDS UTD 4EVA” or “Dazs mum is a slag” you see scrawled on toilet walls, but I’m more interested in the writing around the graffiti man. Here’s a closer look:


That certainly looks like Hebrew writing to me. But what does it say? Sorry, but that’s where my knowledge of Hebrew ends, I’m afraid. I tried to puzzle it out on my own and didn’t get very far. A bit of internet research suggest a few other people have also tried to figure it out, with the result that the writing might be a list of names for God in Hebrew. The one just to the left of the little dude’s neck looks like it could be “Adonai,” for instance. Personally, I’m not so sure. It depends on whether this image was taken from somewhere or if it was created specifically for the game by SH2’s graphic artists. There are other instances in the game of text in different alphabets, (and we’ll get to that in a bit,) where Konami simply replaced the English letter with its closest equivalent from the Greek alphabet, so that might also be what’s happening here only with the Hebrew alphabet. You’re all welcome to have a crack at deciphering this thing, but I’m happy enough just to use it as an example of Silent Hill 2 hiding mysterious titbits that may or may not have a deeper meaning amongst the game’s graphics.

UPDATE:


A big thank you to the people in the comments below who filled in the blanks on this mysterious bit of graffiti. It turns out they are the names of God, and I even managed to find the original source image! Check out the comments for a bit more info. 

A little further in, and James encounters both the game’s first monster – which he promptly batters to death with a stick – and the franchise’s iconic radio, which emits static as a warning when monsters are nearby. However, in Silent Hill 2 the radio serves another purpose: it sends James a message from his dead wife Mary, encouraging him to hurry up and find her. Just to make one hundred per cent sure you get it, here come some enormous spoilers. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


The message you hear is garbled and patchy… but not as garbled and patchy as the game wants you to think it is. Check out the subtitles in the screenshot above – you can see there are only snippets of the message coming through, until you stop reading the subtitles and actually listen.



At about 23 seconds into the clip above, you can clearly hear James’ wife say “why did you kill me?” thus revealing Silent Hill 2’s most shocking plot twist about five minutes into the game. That’s what you call a ballsy manoeuvre, folks. The thing is, out of all the people I know in real life who’ve played Silent Hill 2 not one of them has ever noticed Mary spoiling the game. I know I didn’t, I had it pointed out to me years later. It’s pretty amazing, really. My explanation as to why so few people pick up on this is that a) you’re not expecting to be told the game’s plot twist right off the bat, b) people assume that there’s nothing to hear because they take the game’s insistence that the message is garbled as fact and c) you’re actually reading the subtitles, assuming that they’ll tell you any important information. It’s a fascinating psychological trick, honestly. Risky, but I think it pays off nicely.

Now that James has a weapon and a radio, he can spend some time wandering around the foggy streets of Silent Hill trying to figure out where to go next. Or, you can take in the town’s architecture at your leisure, because it’s not exactly difficult to avoid the monsters. That way you get so see what Silent Hill has to offer as a resort town, including a couple of cafes and bars, a restaurant that promises “humongous burritos” and whatever this place sells.


I had a hard time picking a favourite shop name from Silent Hill 2, especially when you consider other contenders are a shop called “I Love Groovy Music” and the ultra-appropriately named “Cafe Mist” but in the end I had to go with “Magical Envelopes” because, c’mon, magical envelopes? On one level I appreciate the absurdity of it, because quite possibly the least magical thing I can think of is a manila envelope. On the other hand, Silent Hill 2 does literally start with James receiving a magical envelope, so now we know where the dark forces of Silent Hill do their stationary shopping.


Moving on to the apartment building portion of the game, and here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned anywhere before: this spooky picture. The one on the right. What do you mean, “it just looks like trees?” Let’s zoom in and enhance:


There are a couple of skulls on that picture, and there’s nowt more spooky than skulls. It’s perhaps a little too obviously spooky for a Silent Hill game, a series whose sense of dread usually comes from unsettling weirdness. It definitely leans towards the “lenticular Halloween decoration” end of the fear scale but again, it shows there’s always something in Silent Hill 2 worth keeping your eyes peeled for.

The apartment building is also where you meet Pyramid Head for the first time, and one of the most iconic monsters in modern videogaming gets a suitably powerful introduction. Now, I suspect that when most people think of Pyramid Head’s introduction they think of the cutscene where Pyramid Head attacks some other monsters while James hides in a wardrobe, and I can see why: it’s a disturbing, aggressive scene that quickly cements Pyramid Head as something even more dangerous than the other creatures in the game. However, I much prefer the moment you get your very first look at Pyramid Head.


For me, it’s the single most effective “scary” moment in videogaming, and all Pyramid Head does is stand there, basking in a faint red glow. James’ monster-detecting radio is going bananas so you know that this mysterious figure is a monster, but beyond that you know nothing about it as it stands there and watches you from behind the metal gate, just obscured enough that you can’t make out its exact form. The dread comes from not knowing what Pyramid Head’s intentions are – other monsters would be jerking and flailing towards James in an attempt to kill him, not calmly surveying the scene. It’s the opposite of a jump-scare, I suppose, and it’s extremely effective in instilling an extra layer of uncertainty and nervousness in the player.


Speaking of Pyramid Head, here’s the first time you have to fight him. When you “win,” Pyramid Head simply turns around and walks away, but I totally forgot that if you chase after him he will turn around and start trying to kill you again. Man, that’d be a really embarrassing way to die in Silent Hill 2, huh? Killed by a boss you’ve already beaten. What kind of sap would fall for that, he chuckled awkwardly to himself as he loaded his last save file.


Before we leave the apartment building, I’ll take this opportunity to mention (again) that there’s a message hidden around the edges of the coins used in the coin puzzle.

After trekking through the apartment building, James meets up with Maria. She’s a (more spoilers) not-real duplicate of his dead wife with a more licentious personality and Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe. James and Maria eventually make their way to the hospital, but the exertion is all too much for Maria and she has to have a little lie down.


There’s definitely humour to be found in someone laying on a bare, stained mattress in a filthy abandoned mental hospital full of monsters and saying “Mmm. So comfy...” A pitch-black kind of humour to be sure, but it’s still there. Of course, now I’m wondering whether Maria’s exaggerated assessment of the hospital’s sleeping arrangements is completely intentional and she’s trying to convince James to stay with her, maybe get on the bed with her and give up looking for his dead wife. If that’s the case, she should have probably picked a location that doesn’t look like a nightmare scene from Jacob’s Ladder.


Here’s a save point adorning the wall of one of the other hospital rooms. I love that the save points in Silent Hill 2 are just… red squares. Pieces of paper, possibly. Their very simplicity makes them mysterious, especially when James comments that it feels as though “someone’s groping around in (his) skull” when he looks at them. I think one of the reasons SH2 is so effective at unnerving the player is that it’s so close to being almost over-familiar, but then it veers away into the kind of strangeness you might not expect. This is presumably the result of a Japanese team of game developers making a game that’s hugely inspired by “Western” horror – the works of Stephen King and David Lynch, for instance – but then adding their own sensibilities to it, creating something at once familiar and alien. I mentioned this in a previous article, but take Pyramid Head’s design, for instance: the way he looks in the Silent Hill movies, with the extra greeblies on the helmet and the sheer pointiness of it all – that’s how you’d expect him to look in a Hollywood horror movie. His original game design, however, is both clearly monstrous but unnervingly abstract, and it lets you know that Pyramid Head is something other than just a monster.
Where was I? Oh yeah, save points. As well as being mysterious, their simple shape and vivid colour also makes them easy to spot while you’re traversing the town, which is nice.


There’s also this scene right near the end of the game, where the developers made damn sure you knew it was time to save your progress while simultaneously making you dread whatever’s coming up next. It’s something so horrible it requires nine goddamn save points! Good job on making even such a basic mechanical element as saving your game a vehicle for horror, Team Silent.


In the hospital’s shower room, there’s a trail of fluorescent green goop running down the drain. Given that this is Silent Hill, this fluid could be all manner of unpleasant substances, but I’m going to assume that it’s a reference to the undead resurrecting serum from the Re-Animator movies. Do I have any evidence to support this claim? No, I do not. I just like Re-Animator, and I especially like the idea of Herbert West pitching up in Silent Hill. He’d probably love it in Silent Hill. There’s a regular supply of dead bodies to re-animate and enough mysterious disappearances that it’ll be ages before anyone even suspects him. Presumably Herbert West would inhabit the regular, non-nightmarish Silent Hill, though. The haunted, psychological-torture version of the town only seems to ensnare those with deeply repressed guilt, and Herbert West has never felt guilty about anything in his life.

After the hospital, James heads to the Silent Hill Historical Society. Open Friday-to-Monday, kids under five go free, ask us about the town’s history of evil religious cults and lake tragedies. There are a few notable relics of Silent Hill’s past in the Historical Society, mostly in the form of paintings. The most famous is that huge painting of Pyramid Head that dominates one wall, but some of the others are interesting, too.


For instance, this fairly unremarkable picture actually depicts the room where you fight the game’s final boss, a nice little piece of foreshadowing.


There’s also this one, called “Crimson and White Banquet for the Gods.” It’s a little hard to see here, but that’s okay, I’ve got a close-up.


As you can see, it shows some people participating in a ceremony, including someone wearing robes and a big, red, triangular hood. Hmm. I’ve always been partial to the theory that on James’ first visit to Silent Hill – back before he killed his wife and descended into a nightmarish psychological hellscape – he saw this picture on a trip to the Historical Society and it stuck with him, later informing the appearance that Pyramid Head takes as it is manifested from James’ mind. The chap in the red hood, one Jimmy Stone, also pops up in Silent Hill 4 as one of the ghosts, because one of the big themes in Silent Hill 4 is taking minor world-building elements from Silent Hill 2 and making them more “important.”

Via the expedient method of jumping down some seemingly bottomless pits, James finds himself in a prison for the next portion of the game. One great thing about the prison is that it shows how much you can get out of playing through Silent Hill 2 multiple times. On your first playthrough, the prison seems appropriate because it could represent how trapped James is feeling by his situation, his inability to protect Maria and his reluctance to accept his wife’s death. On later playthroughs, however, and especially if you got the ending that explains James killed his sick wife for selfish reasons, you’ve got an extra layer of meaning as you realise that prison might be where James belongs.


There are a few moments that hammer this home, some of them less subtle than other. James briefly gets trapped in a cell, and there’s a scene where he pulls down a noose so that it frames his head, that kind of thing. The moment pictured above is one I’ve never really thought about before, though, showing James on the “wrong” side of the visitor’s booth while the camera – that is, the player – views him through the security glass. It’s a wonderfully crafted little scene, and a pleasing reminder that even after playing SH2 dozens of times I’m still finding new ways to enjoy it.


On a lighter note, there’s a gallows in the prison. No, wait, bear with me. You see, you can climb up the gallows, and you can also fall off them.


James’ weird falling animation and comically heavy thud as he hits the ground provide a welcome moment of levity in a game of such unrelenting horror, and as such I chuck myself off this platform a few times every time I play through the game. Well, they do say nothing relieves a stressful situation like a little gallows humour. Oh, cool, that was the joke that finally killed my soul.


Also, the prison has some surprisingly cheerful signage on its bathroom doors.

The final area of the game is the hotel, and just outside there’s a fountain that’s making me question my conception of what a bird looks like. I always assumed it was supposed to be a fish, perhaps one that sprays water out of its mouth. You know, one of those sculptural fish you sometimes see that look like medieval drawings of dolphins. But no, James says it’s a bird and he’s looking right at it. Who am I to question his taxonomical skills? I can see it as maybe a stretched goose, I suppose, although rather than a fish or a bird it reminds me most of a sandworm from Beetlejuice.


Finally for today, it’s the moment just before you face the final boss. Visually, it’s a beautifully composed image: stark and plain, which I’ve always taken to represent James letting go of the delusions he’s been labouring under for the rest of the game. All that’s left is to confront “Mary” and bring it all to an end, whatever end that might be. One touch I really like is the quietness of the scene: as you approach this final encounter, there’s no music and the only sounds are James’ footsteps and a light rain. You get here by climbing up a huge metal staircase, and when you enter the room the staircase falls away beneath you to show that there’s no going back – but it does so silently, without the sound of crashing metal you might expect. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, but it works out well because if there was a sudden loud noise it would really detract from the scene.


So that was a bunch of words about Silent Hill 2, huh? Yeah, it didn’t really fall into the usual Ephemera article style, but sometimes you’ve just got to write about what makes you happy and rambling on about SH2 does make me happy. Now I’ve just got to decide between playing through Silent Hill 2 again or moving on to Silent Hill 3.
 

7 comments:

  1. Thirtieth-ish times? Sound like you've played it a lot more than one a year.
    On a side note, this made me check the Silent Hill 2 webpage (japanese since it came up first) and fittingly it seems to have been untouched since 2002.

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    1. Well, I played it multiple time to get all the endings when I first got the game, then I did the same thing when I got the Director's Cut version, so that's over ten playthroughs right there.

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  2. If I can bring some input about the Hebrew writing... Mostly those are Names of God. The " signs denote acrostics. יאהדונהי are the two names YHWH and ADNY interwined, a classic kabbalistic Name. יאהו also comes up in kabbalistic sources. It's also the standard Hebrew spelling of Yahoo! שדי/Shaddai is a classical Name of God in the Bible. Above it is כאל, which means "like El", so maybe the two lines should be read as "like El Shaddai".זל"ה is more obscure, it could mean "this is a quotation from the author" or it could be a misspelling of ז"ל, "may his/her memory be a blessing", which is usually appended to the name of the deceased. The last line, ככה תורתינו, clearly means "Such is our teaching" or "Such is our law". The stick figure at the center, with its birdly feet, would not look out of place on a Medieval Jewish amulet.

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    1. The drawing and writing do come from a Jewish amulet (not sure if it's medieval). According to the Dictionary of Demons by Fred Gettings (where it appears on page 148), it represents the demon Lilith, and is meant to ward her off.

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    2. It makes sense the team might have the book on hand when making the game. And Lilith would be the obvious one to reference.
      Oddly enough Fred Gettings only has a Wikipedia page in French and Japanese.

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    3. Thank you all very much for this information! Ah, if feels good to have a mystery solved, and I've updated the article. Thanks again!

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    4. Yay, I'm glad my interest in the black arts has finally done some good! Now if only I could banish all those pesky nameless horrors...

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