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How ‘Silent Hill 2’ became the horror game with one of the highest replay values

Horror is one of the most popular genres of fiction around, with films, books, poetry and the like supplying us with endless nightmare fuel. We love the thrill of being scared because we know we’re still the ones in control—it’s all fake in the end, which makes us feel safe enough to ignore our physiological flight or fight reaction. That’s why horror games have been so popular in the past too, with memorable franchises such as Resident Evil and Amnesia, and even some non-horror titles bringing their own brand of spooks to the table. But one series, for a time, stood above all else when it came to just how scary a game could be: Silent Hill. 

While the first game’s signature thick fog came as a happy accident after the developers were trying to remedy hardware limitations, it was 2001’s Silent Hill 2 (SH2) that really stuck in fans’ minds, leading it to being widely considered as the best one out of the series due to its harrowing story and, most importantly, the way it deals with self-reflection and trauma. But in order to truly understand the perfectly-crafted terror of SH2, we must go back in time first. History lesson, anyone?

What is 'Silent Hill'?

Silent Hill was first released for the PlayStation 1 (PS1) by Konami all the way back in 1999, three years after the release of Capcom’s mega success, Resident Evil. From then on, the two were considered rivals in the survival horror game genre. To put it simply, each Silent Hill game features a protagonist who—knowingly or unknowingly—has a connection to the fictional American town of Silent Hill. They are instinctively drawn to it, and once there, are forced to face their darkest secrets and confront the sins of their past.

What starts out as a romp through a fairly ordinary, if creepy town, soon turns into a nightmarish bid for survival as it periodically transforms into the ‘Otherworld’, a demonic and twisted version of Silent Hill filled with creatures so violent and disturbing they’ll leave you with nightmares for weeks. The story goes that many years ago, the Otherworld was created by a cult that still secretly operates within the town. It is here that protagonists must face their demons and uncover the truth of why they were drawn to Silent Hill in the first place.

Many fright fanatics consider Silent Hill as the stronger series when compared to Resident Evil due to the fact that, as the games progressed, the latter became more action-focused and lost its horror edge. As time went on however, the roles suddenly got reversed—Resident Evil went back to its horror roots and Silent Hill began to lose its way. Titles such as Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Downpour just didn’t have what the first four prior games did. As much as it hurts to admit, the once great horror franchise has now disappeared into the ether, with no new entry since 2012.

However in 2014, a glimmer of hope appeared for the series in the form of a demo called P.T (meaning playable trailer). It was released on the PlayStation store and was confirmed to be a new Silent Hill title named Silent Hills to be headed by Hideo Kojima of Kojima Productions with the aid of horror legend Guillermo del Toro and The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus. 

Sadly, only a year after, Del Toro announced that he would no longer be a part of the project, presumably because of Kojima’s departure from Konami. Just days later, P.T was officially cancelled and the demo pulled from the PlayStation store, leaving many fans angry and inconsolable. There has been no news of a new Silent Hill title since then.

Trauma and self-reflection

Now that you’re up to speed, let’s move on to the topic at hand: SH2, and how it accurately portrays the self-reflection and trauma of protagonist, James Sunderland.

SCREENSHOT recently spoke to Silent Hill fanatic Konstantin Kunow, who shared his vast knowledge about the way the game uses symbolism to illustrate Sunderland’s trauma and inner feelings.

At the very beginning of the game, we are introduced to Sunderland, a widower who travelled to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his late wife Mary, who he lost to a violent and mysterious illness, telling him that she is waiting for him there. Spooky, indeed.

A little further in, Sunderland discovers a radio which is spewing out static—Kunow believes this to be our first encounter with the game’s symbolism. “One of the first hints we get is the radio at the beginning, where we hear Mary’s voice for the first time,” he explained. “Her words are constantly disrupted by the radio static, but if you listen closely you can hear her asking why he killed her.”

After this unnerving scene, our protagonist is confronted with his first monster: a Lying Figure. Their whole bodies are encased in a straitjacket of flesh, with tell-tale female legs and are wearing what looks like a pair of high heel shoes wrapped in flesh. While quite a common enemy, they are an important one, as Kunow pointed out, “The Lying Figures symbolise Mary and James’ helplessness during the disease.”

These disturbing creatures attack by essentially throwing up on Sunderland, and if we stick with the idea that they represent Mary, then, as Kunow puts it, they are “also her lashing out towards James with words full of hate.”

“It also resembles James’ disgust towards Mary,” Kunow added, referencing one of the game’s cutscenes where Sunderland’s dead wife can be heard saying “I look like a monster.”

The first Lying Figure is stood next to a corpse which looks suspiciously like Sunderland, and although it’s not hostile, it stirs something in Sunderland which triggers him into killing the monster. Given what we’ve just discussed, I think you can see what’s happening here…

As you progress through the game and start to uncover Sunderland’s backstory, you realise that the town, and therefore its monsters, are trying to guide him towards the truth that he has tried so hard to repress.

“Most of the time, it’s subjective,” Kunow told us. “The Otherworld hospital, with its walls covered in dirty blankets, resembling Mary’s rotting skin, confronts James with his sin of being disgusted by his weak and lonely wife.”

However, the game doesn’t freely give this information to Sunderland, nor the player. As he fails to get the hints provided to him, the town seems to become more and more desperate to convince him of his guilt and traumatic past. One of the best examples is with the character of Maria. “James is forced to experience the death of Mary again and again by [the town] letting him see a reflection of her in the form of Maria being killed by Pyramid Head over and over again.”

“After this, the town even directly accuses him in Neely’s bar, telling him he should die and that he would go to hell,” Kunow added.

Our game expert believes that, overall, Silent Hill wants to support Sunderland and wants him to find the truth, albeit in a twisted and depraved way. “A good example for that is Pyramid Head,” he added.

Pyramid Head is probably one of the most iconic horror monsters out there—with a massive metal pyramid-shaped object on its head, a giant rusty sword and a skirt made of skin, it is the manifestation of Sunderland’s wish to be punished for Mary’s death. Who knew, heh?

“Throughout the whole game, Pyramid Head is semi-hostile towards him [James]. Sure, he can kill James, but most of the time he kind of guides him through the town,” explained Kunow. “In the first level he paves the way for James to continue, or in the hospital where he kicks him off the roof, allowing the protagonist to get to a room he couldn’t access before.”

Does ‘SH2’ convey the trauma portrayed well?

While all the symbolism is there and extremely prominent throughout the game, it does beg the question, how does all this translate to the player? Is it obvious that this is about Sunderland’s trauma? Kunow believes it does. 

“I think SH2 displays trauma in a very unique kind of way—a kind of ‘show, don’t tell’ way. The only way you can understand the story is by observing and interacting with the environments and witnessing James’ reactions to them.”

And this is what makes the game so enjoyable. It doesn’t hand players everything they need on a plate. Instead, it makes you work for it, guides you when needed but never gives up its secrets readily either. Even after two or three playthroughs, there still might be parts that you missed previously and are just beginning to understand.

“You are forced to decipher the gruesome hints the town gives you, which is very unsettling but intriguing at the same time. I personally think that’s brilliant […] but it requires the ambition of the player to go for the truth.”

So, in essence, yes, the themes do translate over, but only if you are willing to work for that understanding—much like how The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask deals with the different stages of grief. Overall, Silent Hill 2 gets all the horror elements right, but it also nails something that a lot of games since have fallen short of: story. Not only does it bring the scares, but it also brings a sense of intrigue and mystery while telling the heartbreaking story of a man coming to terms with the atrocities he has committed against the one person he loved more than anything in the world.

21 years after its release, SH2 still has so much to give. It will scare you half to death and make you cry even harder—something that a lot of AAA horror games fall short of these days. One thing is for sure though, Silent Hill may have lost its way, but the stories the series has told will stay with us forever.

Isolation, fear and foreboding: how the original ‘Metroid’ turned out scarier than actual horror games

Horror games are plentiful in the gaming world, from Resident Evil to Silent Hill, it’s a fan favourite genre to be sure. But it’s only in the last few years that we’ve seen horror games back on form, with the release of Resident Evil 7 in 2017 really sparking the ‘return to terror’. Previous titles such as Resident Evil 6 and Silent Hill: Homecoming swapped a lot of the spooks for action, leaving many players underwhelmed and feeling like the genre was losing its way.

But what if I told you that there is one series out there that has consistently kept up the scares over the 36 years since it first graced our screens? Oh yeah, and it’s not even a horror game. I’m talking about Metroid, Nintendo’s answer to Alien and possibly the scariest non-horror game franchise out there. What the heck is he going on about, you ask? To understand that, you have to understand Metroid’s history first. Let’s take a look.

History of ‘Metroid’

Metroid was originally released in Japan on the Famicom—Japan’s version of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)—in 1986. Set on the planet Zebes, the story follows Samus Aran as she attempts to retrieve the parasitic Metroid organisms that were stolen by Space Pirates and their leader Mother Brain, who plans to replicate the Metroids by exposing them to beta rays and then use them as biological weapons to destroy Aran and all who oppose them.

From there, a story of galactic proportions was set into motion, with the sequel, Metroid II: Return of Samus releasing for the Gameboy in 1992, where Aran is tasked with travelling to the Metroid home world of SR388 to destroy them all, as they pose too great of a threat to the galaxy. While escaping the planet however, the hero witnesses the hatching of a baby Metroid, who imprints on her, believing Aran to be its mother. She then escapes with the baby and hands it over to the Galactic Federation for safe keeping.

In 1994, Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released and continued not long after the events of Metroid II. The research station where the baby Metroid was left is attacked by the Space Pirates and their leader, a giant pterodactyl-like monster known as Ridley, and the baby is stolen. Aran, who responded to the station’s distress signal, follows the Pirates back to their home world of Zebes and once again braves the depths of the planet to retrieve the baby Metroid.

At the stories’ culmination, Aran—who had been gravely injured by a rebuilt and more powerful Mother Brain—is saved by the baby Metroid, which sacrifices itself in order to bestow the Hyper Beam on the game’s hero, a powerful weapon that is strong enough to destroy Mother Brain once and for all. In a nail-biting escape sequence, Aran escapes the planet as it self-destructs.

It wasn’t until 2002 that we were able to witness the next instalment of Aran’s legacy. Metroid Fusion for the Gameboy Advance (GBA) was released and followed our main character, sometime after the events of Super Metroid. After being infected by an unknown organism on SR388, referred to as the X Parasites, Aran almost dies, but is saved by a vaccine made from the cells of the baby Metroid. As it turns out, the Metroids are the natural Predators of the X. She also gains the ability to absorb X Parasites, much like the Metroids.

Her infected suit parts are sent to the Biological Space Labs (BSL) for testing, but an unexplained explosion rocks the station and Aran is sent to investigate. The X are able to perfectly mimic any natural organism they infect, and due to her infected suit containing organic components, the X creates a powerful clone of Aran with all her strongest abilities known as the SA-X.

Throughout her adventure, Aran is stalked by the SA-X and it is discovered that BSL has been secretly cultivating Metroids. Our hero, not able to allow the Metroids to live, sets the station on a collision course with the nearby Metroid homeworld of SR388 and both are vaporised in the explosion, while she escapes in the nick of time.

19 years later, the fifth and final instalment of Aran’ story came out: Metroid Dread. Following the events of Metroid Fusion, the Galactic Federation receives a video showing surviving X Parasites on the planet ZDR. They send seven Extraplanetary Multitform Mobile Identifiers (EMMI) to investigate but shortly after lose contact. Aran is sent to investigate and discovers that some of the Chozo, an ancient, highly intelligent race are still alive, and that one of them, Raven Beak, wishes to resurrect the Metroids using the Metroid DNA implanted in her at the beginning of Metroid Fusion. Finally confronting Raven Beak aboard the floating fortress of Itorash, Aran’s Metroid DNA fully awakens and after defeating the villain, who becomes infected by an X Parasite, drains the life from him.

As Itorash crashes into ZDR and the planet begins to self-destruct, Aran finds herself unable to return to her ship due to her new abilities. Quiet Robe, a Chozo who is able to wield the X and aided Aran during her adventure appears and allows himself to be absorbed, quelling her Metroid abilities and allowing her to escape, thus bringing an end to her legacy.

What tricks does ‘Metroid’ employ to make it feel like a horror game?

With all the sci-fi elements present in Metroid, it’s not hard to see how it can easily utilise horror elements to its advantage. Let’s break these elements down, shall we?

Style

For a game from 1989, Metroid is absolutely dripping with style, from its fascinating environments to its detailed character designs. But it’s how it uses these elements to induce fear and a sense of isolation that is really incredible. From start to finish, the game employs a completely black background. As soon as you boot it up, the title screen is just black with only a little environment visible. Once you begin to explore, the only pops of colour you see are Aran, who is a vibrant orange, and the different terrain and enemies you encounter—but throughout your travels you will be actively destroying bits of the environment while looking for hidden items or passageways, only adding to ever encroaching blackness.

This use of colour is also the only way you can really know what part of the world you’re in, as there is no map system, really driving home that you are lost and on your own in the depths of an alien planet.

This use of, or rather lack of colour, brings about a sense of isolation and oppression. It follows you everywhere—there’s no escape from it. Additionally, all the shades used are of a darker hue, meaning when you enter an area like an item room which uses a bright grey/white colour scheme, it almost stands out like a beacon of hope. A little respite from the darkness of the rest of the game. It explains why the final area of the game, Tourian, has a similar colour scheme to the item rooms. You’re so close to the end of the game, to escaping, it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Sound

Sound plays a huge part in any video game, and it’s one of the key components of creating true immersion. Metroid does this incredibly well, especially for an NES game from 1989. Its limited, 8-bit soundtrack, while simple, really adds to the creepy and foreboding atmosphere the game creates.

The title screen starts off with a rather unsettling mono bassline, which immediately lets you know that the adventure to come isn’t going to be a walk in the park. This leads into a much more upbeat theme as you start your adventure and make your first descent into the plant. It bravely sends you off on your quest and fills you with a sense of hope. Very quickly though, this optimism is replaced with an awkward, uneasy creepiness. The music in Norfair in particular, moves in such weird and unpredictable patterns that the pauses sound almost deafening and it does a very good job of putting you on edge.

Enemy sound effects have a sullen and dull moodiness to them, which directly opposes Aran’s crisp and bouncy sounds, cementing the fact that she is the hero and that she is agile and strong. One piece of music you will encounter frequently throughout the game is the item room theme, which is particularly unsettling due to its rising and falling, bumpy bassline and high-pitched melody that plays on top. For a room that, on the one hand, gives you some respite with its colour scheme, it pulls away from that with its uneasy music, letting you know that while you may be safe for now, there’s still much worse to come.

Substance

Metroid comes from an era when video games were still very hard to complete, and lives were employed as a way to keep players going as an incentive. But Metroid in particular broke the mould, and did away with lives. If you died, you died. You needed to use a password to return to vaguely where you were before. This feature, which now would seem archaic with our quick saves and auto-saves, added tremendously to the tension felt by players. One mistimed jump or missed shot from your arm cannon and it was game over, literally. You don’t even start the game at full health, and there are plenty of rooms with enemies whizzing about that could get you killed instantly, so picking your battles and the route you take was something you really had to think about.

Metroid does a really good job of providing a good selection of enemies and long, obstacle-filled corridors for you to navigate, but as mentioned earlier, don’t expect any help. Without the use of the internet to aid you, you had to rely on memory—or if you were lucky, a paper map provided in an issue of Nintendo Power, Nintendo’s gaming magazine, but those who had one of those were few and far between. You really were left on your own in a dark, alien world, and it was all up to you whether you succeeded or failed in your quest. Your only respite was the design loops and backtracks built into the game to make exploration easier. Other than that, there was nothing else that could help you.

Well, there you have it. A game all the way from 1989 where characters were only a few pixels high, 8-bit music was considered the pinnacle of gaming and one that wasn’t even created as a horror game can still leave you feeling unsettled and on edge. While there are those out there who much prefer a good gory horror game, or a spooky, spine-chilling film for that matter, the way Metroid uses colour, sound and design to create isolation, fear and foreboding is undeniable. So the next time you go to pick up the latest horror game, just think to yourself: is it scarier than Metroid?