I watch a lot of horror movies. Or, I did, at least. In the same way that at some point spicy food becomes the only type of food that certain people want to eat, or that a person continues to drink harder and harder alcohol until their liver fails, I hit a point midway through adolescence where I no longer understood the desire to sit down and watch a movie that wouldn’t, at minimum, feature someone being stabbed to death. The net goal was to make the people sitting in the room with me uncomfortable. I may have been doing all of this just to get more of the couch to myself.
And so it would make sense that I also love horror games, but the opposite is in fact true: I hate horror games, even though I play them quite regularly. The sardonic remove that makes viewing horror films so invigorating is stripped away and I am just stuck yelling at the TV screen for my character to move faster, goddammit, why does he turn like that, run! By design, these are stressful experiences. And I say fuck stress, generally.
These competing emotions made beating Silent Hill 2 a powerfully non-fun experience for me, playing as the game so directly does to both of these opinions in direct succession. On one hand is a game of deep anti-player mechanism: a thudding stretch of exploration and muddy combat through a sprawling, ugly city, in which the player’s primary activity is to pick things up and put them places, often with little inherent logic. I conquered this expanse with a walkthrough on hand, shouting directions to my roommate in an attempt to bee-line as quickly as possible between the various save points and scripted events. When one of us got exhausted, the other would take the controller. The amount of forethought and careful planning put into each portion probably resulted in a near-perfect runthrough, but trust that I feel no pride over this accomplishment. I played the game as a coward would.
The reward, though, was getting to enjoy one of the three or four best narratives in the history of videogames, and I mean that in the cinematic sense: these cutscenes are an audio-visual feast, in their murky, dogshit way. Because that cathode-ray fog that defined the first Silent Hill is, in the sequel, all-encompassing. Walls bleed into carpets, a big red-brown run, and the characters look soft, human, although still firmly on the other side of the uncanny valley. The morality is foggy; the unreality is foggy. In one of the most singular scenes in the game, the protagonist questions a man who won’t stop puking into a toilet. We barely see either actor’s face; the camera just stays in the dark hallway behind them, slowly twisting at a spectral angle as the protagonist plies the stranger for info, and that stranger responds by vomiting ceaselessly into the toilet. This too is the fog.
Throughout this scene—and every other one in the game—the characters speak patiently, in soft, unpracticed tones. The dialogue comes at the alien clip (full of stops and starts, weird peaks and valleys) of so many Japanese-produced videogames, but here it feels in service of the game’s tone, adding to the lost, dream-like feel. The first chunk of the game is spent chasing some little kid around the city, and when you finally find her, giggling under a bed in a pitch-black abandoned hospital, she calmly intones, “What’s the big deal?” When the protagonist realizes she may not be from this world, his response is clipped, “But, last year, Mary was already …” the ellipsis effectively ending the sentence. Then, perking up: “This is no place for a kid! There are all sorts of strange things around here.” The duo jogs back out into hell, never so much scared as dazed.
That deeply standard-definition presentation, and the raw, amateurish performances, combine to create the feel of a medium playing to its weaknesses—and then transcending them. Videogame actors, even the hyper-real LA Noire or Kevin Spacey types, do not look like humans, as we know quite well, and their voice acting is categorically incompetent. But in Silent Hill 2 these limitations congeal into virtues, the stiltedness of the acting and blurriness of the textures becoming bedrock components of this particular vision of hell. It’s a case of the software matching its hardware, the way James Brown’s drums kick harder on the vinyl they were meant to be played from.
But that’s the interesting thing about the game’s aesthetic, singular as it is: it’s near-impossible to experience today, unless you own the PlayStation 2/Xbox original and a fat old TV to play it on. In what is perhaps the quintessential resolution-gate in videogames, Konami remade Silent Hill 2 (and its lesser sequel) in HD, to the immediate outcry of its most ardent fans. This is the type of thing I normally sleep quite soundly without ever acknowledging, but then, the type of people who would ardently appreciate a game about murdering a sick woman are strange birds to begin with, and in this case they were spot-on: Konami did alter the delicate blend of good and bad that defined the original. That fog that swept around and through every scene, indoors and out, was turned into a weird scrim of white stuff hanging behind the characters, who, now in crisp HD, look pulled from the Thunderbirds:
Most damningly, they re-recorded all of the dialogue with new voice actors. That haunted, diffuse quality is replaced with the same stuff that plagues all other videogame cutscenes—specifically, Troy Baker. Eurogamer, for their part, covered the shit out of this controversy as it happened, all of which seems like gamer-caterwauling until you get your mitts dirty and listen to the actual changes. Ignore if you can the general tone of the video below; its juxtapositions make its case strongly enough:
All of which has put me in a bit of a bind. Over the years, I’ve become less indulgent of horror movies’ whims, which rarely challenge themselves or subvert expectations but blankly deliver, in the way one might expect a pornographic film to. And so I’ve doubled down on the horror I know I like—Lynch and Cronenberg and Argento, and, indeed, the cutscenes of Silent Hill 2, which remain inimitable. As I’ve attempted to revisit them, though, I’ve found myself stymied. Everything is on the internet, and the cutscenes are, but not as I remember them. There is this weird, ambitious attempt to stitch all the cutscenes together, along with gameplay footage, into a coherent movie. (This is a fairly common thing with these games.) There are the weird, bastardized HD versions, on which I must side with the angry fans. And then there’s this loveless compilation of them in glorious standard definition, compiled by a person named y2jarmyofficial, a frankly baffling name which is written over the screen in a hot-pink font I can only assume is called “sandals.”
And hey: that sucks. It sucks real bad that y2jarmyofficial went and did that, but over time I’ve come to appreciate it. In a way, it adds to the shittiness so central to the entire Silent Hill 2 experience. When James unloads a pistol from a distinctly Blue Velvet-esque closet at Pyramid Head the violence has the feel of a snuff film. As James confronts a lost soul in a burning stairwell at the game’s operatic climax, y2jarmyofficial stays plastered on the screen, almost mocking the mournfulness of the story. On the other hand, maybe a broken game—a game about brokenness—is unbreakable.
What none of this changes—not the HD remixes, not y2jarmyofficial’s bad font choices, not even Troy Baker—is Akira Yamaoka’s score, which remains unsullied. The Lynch comparisons with the game are easy, but the shoe fits, and Yamaoka’s long, maundering synthesizers are pretty direct evocations of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack work for Lynch. But Silent Hill 2’s triumph is that Yamaoka doesn’t stop at this evocation, but layers percussive intrigue over top: the almost random vibes of “World of Madness” sound more like Oneohtrix Point Never; “Ashes and Ghost” has more in common with the depravity of early Swans; and the sprightly, almost uptempo “Null Moon” recalls the influential Japanese hip-hop producer Nujabes.
Yamaoka’s soundscapes are what hold Silent Hill 2 together, despite all its wild iterations, and they’re what I’ve come back to over the years, even streaming behind hot-pink YouTube usernames. It’s not enough to say that I just like the soundtrack of the game, but that the soundtrack is emblematic of everything I like about Silent Hill 2. Where so much modern horror delights in the mere delivery of gore, or in subtle, inside-baseball variations on that delivery, Silent Hill 2’s pleasures are much smaller; they’re knotty and internal and wholly of its own creation. We normally talk about the series as being psychological, in contrast to perhaps the viscerality of Resident Evil, but I think it’s more than merely psychological. Silent Hill 2 is character horror—it’s personal horror—and it’s all the more remarkable for the dank slop of audio-visual vomit through which it relays its ideas.
My point is that this is worth revisiting, in any old form you can stand it.