Skip to main content

Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Why Silent Hill 2 is still the most disturbing game ever made

Dirty old town.

This week we learned that Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro are collaborating on a new game in the Silent Hill series. Despite both men having a reputation for attaching themselves to projects that either take years to materialise, if they happen at all, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this could be the best thing to happen to Silent Hill in over a decade. Why? Because both Kojima and Del Toro are into weird stuff.

Silent Hill needs to be weird. Properly weird. The recent sequels - basically everything from Silent Hill 4 onwards - have just copied the surface grunginess of the series; the twitching stitched-up nurses, the rust and ash textures, the constant fog. What they've missed is the weirdness.

Let me explain, for those who have never played Silent Hill 2, or those who only ever played it once. One of the secret endings to Silent Hill 2 can only be achieved once you've earned all the proper endings on one save file - playing the game through to completion three times in subtly different ways. Then you have to find a key that only appears under these circumstances, and use it to open a special room.

Not the most cryptic clue, admittedly.

Do all of that, and you get to see heartbroken hero James Sunderland fall to his knees in horror as he discovers what's behind his recurring nightmare. It's a dog. An adorable Akita breed, sat in a control room, making James' life a literal hell. There is no further explanation - just a credit-roll accompanied by upbeat barking.

It's a weird punchline to a very weird game, one that you really have to work to achieve, and for all its goofy humour it's still very much in line with the queasy dream logic that makes Silent Hill 2 the most genuinely unnerving game I've ever played. This is a series where horror doesn't just mean blood and blades and sirens, but that dizzying nightmare feeling that things just aren't right.

In many ways, Silent Hill 2 is more of a remake than a true sequel. It picks up concepts and aesthetics but none of the story threads of the first game, released on the original PlayStation back in 1999. Much as Sam Raimi returned to The Evil Dead and did it over again with more confidence, more energy and more bravado, so Team Silent seized the PlayStation 2 and used it to recreate Silent Hill as a more fully realised vision of psychological terror, without the daft demonic cult nonsense. I love Resident Evil in all its cheesy glory, but it's a gloopy B-movie, all Savini gore and Hammer melodrama. Silent Hill is gaming's Carnival of Souls or Repulsion; haunting, sombre and uneasy. It lingers.

Sure, the broad strokes of the gameplay may follow the genre tropes put in place by Resident Evil. You'll collect keys, health items and ammo. You'll batter monsters to death and solve arcane puzzles. That's just surface stuff though. It's a disguise; borrowed skin stretched tight over something else entirely. What's really happening is a psychological experiment in which you, the player, are being studied just as much as poor James Sunderland, as he staggers about the town looking for absolution for the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. The stroke of genius is that you don't even realise this until the end. Or rather endings.

Why are there so many filthy toilets in horror games?

There had been alternate endings in games before, of course. The first Silent Hill had a couple, but what makes Silent Hill 2 so damned sinister - and still amazes me to this day - is that the ending you get isn't based on anything you can easily quantify. The game doesn't unlock a specific ending just based on what you did, but rather how you did it. The code is constantly appraising James' state of mind based on your portrayal of him, and deciding how his tale should end accordingly.

Even typing that out now, I'm still impressed at just what a bold and creative decision that is. How many times you make James look at the letter sent by his dead wife. The way James treats other characters. The way James treats himself. Even whether you listen to key bits of dialogue in full. None of it seems important at the time, but it's all being studied, not against some binary good/bad basis, but on a more nuanced emotional scale.

Does James deserve a fresh start? Can he move past his love for his wife, or forgive himself for her death? You're making the case throughout the game, and you don't even know it. James is being judged, just as your control of him is being judged. It's true role-playing, bleeding from the digital to the physical and back again. To discover that it may all be in the paws of a dog is a joke, but also an entirely plausible additional layer in a moral experiment of cosmic proportions. I worked harder to see that dog ending than I think I've ever worked to earn anything in a game before and since, and I don't regret a single crazy minute.

I felt grubby and uncomfortable after each playthrough, not because of the veneer of grime and viscera, but because Silent Hill 2 is, ultimately, a tragedy about real human emotions. And, in its over-arching multiple ending metagame, it manipulated me to explore those emotions, using my completist nature to make me relive James Sunderland's mental breakdown over and over, from different angles. Silent Hill 2 made me feel used, and I loved it.

Best game ending ever? It really shouldn't be a question.

That's what has been missing from the series. The manipulation. The off-kilter madness. The worlds within worlds on top of worlds, in Silent Hill itself and between the player and the game, all tied together in an elaborate metatextual knot. The sequels, particularly those developed in the west, saw only the gore and the monsters. They saw Pyramid Head as an iconic slasher movie villain rather than a very specific Jungian symbol. They saw the fog, the meat and the rust, heard the sirens, and slavishly copied them while spectacularly missing the point.

Finally, that may be about to change. Hideo Kojima has long said he'd love to make a Silent Hill game, and since this is the guy who made Psycho Mantis taunt you with the contents of your memory card, I'm confident he sees the potential for more than just a gonzo splatter game. What dark mind-f***ery will he get up to with today's consoles? And, with movies like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Del Toro is a proven expert at creating fiction where fantasy and reality overlap in unexpected ways. He also has a knack for understanding the monster, for giving even the most repellent creature a reason to behave as it does. They make a compelling team.

It's been a long time since I've looked forward to a stay in Silent Hill, but with these two rebuilding the town I'm confident that the foundations will be wonderfully, woozily weird.