Silent Hill 2
So I figured enough time had passed and I could journey back to the little lakeside town of Silent Hill. The first impression I had as I began playing the game was what a difference in graphics there was between this and the first one. The Playstation 2 was a huge leap forward from the Playstation 1. The other thing that quickly became apparent (which I had read about) was how little Silent Hill 2 had to do with Silent Hill 1. Yes, there was a town covered in mist full of creatures. Yes, there was a radio that emitted static when the creatures got close and a clip light that barely illuminated the gloom. But everything else was different. None of the characters from the first game returned. No plot points continued. Even the town itself was laid out differently. The biggest difference though was that instead of a horror story full of demon worshipping cults, psychic teenage girls, and haunted architecture, Silent Hill 2 presented a psychological tale of guilt, repression, and the inability to be honest with oneself. In the first game, as Harry, you were attacked by a hostile environment and at the mercy of forces not in your control. While James faces a hostile environment, it is very keyed into his mental state. Instead of Silent Hill alternating between fog and a bloody alternate reality, in this game the progression is gradual. You really get the feeling that you are falling deeper and deeper into one man’s psychosis. The fact that near the end of the game you have to repeatedly jump into abysses accentuates this feeling.
Silent Hill 2 is an incredible game. It is proof that video games can be more than simple entertainment and are actually a valid artistic medium. One can see the artistry in the control the creators have over the elements of the game. It has an incredibly reserved pacing that makes the player feel an ever increasing tension. And all the pieces of the game fit together not to reveal a hidden story, but to reveal character and theme. It’s almost a literary game in how it’s put together. And it’s incredibly sad. There are multiple endings and the one I got was “In Water,” which is a torturingly ironic conclusion to a harrowing personal journey.
So I want to throw out a few ideas. If you haven’t played the game, none of the rest of this post will make much sense.
It’s all about a misreading.
The set up of the game is that James has received a letter from his dead wife, Mary, in which she says that she’s waiting for him at Silent Hill. Yet, at the end of the game we realize that this interpretation of the letter is wrong. I’m not exactly sure if the letter at the beginning of the game is the same one that is revealed at the end and James just never read the whole thing, or if the letter at the end is the second letter that the girl, Laura, runs off to find in the hotel. Either way, it completely changes the meaning of what we are shown in the beginning of the game, what we are lead to believe through James’s point of view.
First, he thinks a dead woman sent the letter. He believes his wife died three years ago and her ghost has just sent him a message. Yet through the course of the game, mainly through James’s interactions with Laura, we realize that Mary did not die three years ago and, in fact, probably died quite recently. Also, we learn that Mary wrote several letters as she lay dying in her hospital room. One was to Laura and Mary had given it to the nurse to give to Laura after she was dead. Yet Laura got ahold of the letter before then. Still, this explains why James received a letter from a “dead” woman. Mary wrote it as she was dying, just as she wrote the letter to Laura. And, just as the letter to Laura, Mary gave it to a nurse to send to James after she was dead. So the delivery of the letter from Mary is not a supernatural act. We only see it that way at first because we are experiencing the game from James’s point of view and his repression and guilt make him unable to see things clearly.
This also leads to the second point, why James thinks Mary is in Silent Hill waiting for him. He wants her to be alive. He wants to see her one last time. So his mind is going into the realm of magical thinking, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion. But Mary isn’t in Silent Hill. She’s dead. The final letter makes this clear: “In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill… I feel so pathetic and ugly laying here, waiting for you…” Mary is writing this letter from her hospital bed and she’s thinking of better times. She’s thinking back to her vacation in Silent Hill with James. This is where her mind goes, her paradise to help her get away from the hell that has become of her life due to her illness. Her “special place” is all of Silent Hill, as James himself suspects. She is waiting there, but only in her mind. She its telling him that while her body is being destroyed her mind is still like it always was. She still loves him and longs for the connection that they used to have. In the hotel after James views the video, he tells Laura that Mary isn’t there. He finally realizes his delusion. His whole quest, the whole premise of the game, was simply self delusion borne from his guilt.
His supernatural misreading of the letter is due to James being unable to face the full truth.
It’s all about love.
As others have pointed out, this game is actually a convoluted path designed to make James finally admit the truth to himself. For James, honesty opens too many Pandora’s boxes. But that is just what Silent Hill does for him, makes him confront those demons. Pyramid Head is just James’s worst fear about what he actually is: an immoral, selfish monster. James uses this creature to torture himself and at the end of the game he realizes this and so Pyramid Head commits suicide. With this, James is free (almost- there’s one last battle) of his self delusion.
What he is finally able to admit, which is shown in the “In Water” and “Leave” endings, is that while he deeply loved Mary, the long illness also made him hate her. He never wanted to admit that to himself and so that hatred became a monster inside him. And it made him doubt whether killing Mary was a kind act of euthanasia or a vicious act of murder. This doubt has eaten away at him and is the source of the visions he sees in Silent Hill. No one else sees Silent Hill the way he does. The monsters in the game are from James’s own mind. The architecture, at least the state it’s in, also relates to his mental state. For example, after James views the video, the rooms and hallways of the hotel drip with water, as if the very building were weeping.
The question is, once James has admitted the truth to himself, what does he do with it? This is shown in the various endings of the game. Again, the “In Water” and “Leave” endings show us Mary’s full letter. The emotions surrounding that letter change depending on which ending you get. I got the “In Water” ending, which means that James has chosen suicide. He drives his car into the lake and we watch bubbles drift lazily up to the surface as the letter is read. I have to say, this is easily the saddest moment I have ever experienced in a video game and one of the saddest moments I’ve experienced in any medium. I think the fact that I had just spent hours navigating James through his own hell made the ending so affecting. The immersive quality of playing a video game can open up a person’s emotion in ways that other media can’t.
What’s so sad, and so fitting, about the “In Water” ending is that it shows that James is unable to escape his guilt. He might be able to admit to himself what he’s done, but he can’t forgive himself for it. The act of killing his wife killed him also. That alone is moving, yet that coupled with Mary’s letter is even worse. Because Mary forgives him. She lets him go. Obviously, when she is writing the letter she doesn’t know what James is about to do, but she knows how her illness has affected him: “But I’m afraid James. I’m afraid you don’t really want me to come home. Whenever you come see me, I can tell how hard it is on you… I don’t know if you hate me or pity me… Or maybe I just disgust you… I’m sorry about that.” Then she says: “That’s why I understand if you do hate me.” So she sees James’s darkest feelings and she forgives James for feeling them. “These last few years since I became ill…I’m so sorry for what I did to you, did to us… You’ve given me so much and I haven’t been able to return a single thing. That’s why I want you to live for yourself now. Do what’s best for you, James.” Mary sets James free. But James can’t set himself free. The best thing that James can think of to do is to kill himself. He can’t move on, even though Mary tells him to. And so we have two people who love each other deeply, but who are victims of cruel circumstance. Yet you can see their love in James’s misguided quest and in Mary’s final words. There are no villains here, just two lovers, one of whom is unable to deal with the cruelty of fate and his own tortured emotions. As the last of the bubbles fade, Mary says: “James… you made me happy.”
And my heart is crushed.
(written March 12, 2010)