Welcome, friends, to Top of the Food Chain. This is going to be my new series for comparisons, particularly sequels, remakes, retreads, what have you.
The survival horror genre of video games is a relatively new territory for me. I’ve watched a ton of horror movies, specials, and even a few t.v. shows, but with games, I either don’t have much time, much money, or the right platforms to play. Or, you know…general distractions…
That said, I’d heard numerous people talk up the Silent Hill series; even Yahtzee Croshaw, who is infamous for taking the piss out of even his favorite games. Silent Hill 2 is one of his favorite games ever, and the best in a series that has, in his humble opinion, trickled down into mediocrity since its adoption by American developers (see any of his Silent Hill reviews).
But is 2 really better than its predecessor? Which one is truly the scariest?
To answer these, let’s look at the games together and weigh their merits. In this semi-case study, we might also discover what makes horror gaming unique and, in a word, terrifying.
I’ll start with Silent Hill. Because, you know, it came first.
*Spoilers below, if you haven’t gleaned that already*
You play as a man named Harry Mason, a writer, widower, and adopted father to Cheryl, a little girl that he and his wife found abandoned as a baby. He gets into a car crash while he and his daughter are on vacation, and wakes up to discover that he’s at a very…unique destination.
Silent Hill, Maine.
…Yep. If there’s one thing I learned from this man in particular, it’s that you don’t go to Maine. Ever. Things will kill you there.
Harry sees his passenger door sitting wide open, and sets off to find Cheryl in the creepy, foggy, nearly deserted town; sparsely salted with monsters, and generously peppered with bizarre lighting and weather shifts.
Let us disregard that in real life, any person with half a brain would beat a path out of there. Best case scenario, they do so to call for back up.
Also put aside that unless there is a cut scene (i.e. a nicely rendered scene where the player doesn’t have to press any buttons for a bit), Harry says virtually nothing. Not even so much as a “what in holy %$@& is going on here?!,” like a normal human being would conceivably say. He might as well be taking a leisurely jog through Central Park in the summer time.
Harry slowly discovers that there is an evil cult that has been growing in the town for quite a while. Their goal is to birth their deity into the world, and to do that, the cult leader, Dahlia Gillespie, burned her telekinetic and bullied daughter (think Carrie, but less secretive about her powers from the get go) alive in one of the impregnation rituals, and kept her in pain and suffering for many years. Alessa, the daughter, who was understandably resistant and angry, was able to refine her abilities through her pain, and she split her soul in two to escape and halt the birthing process.
Cheryl is the other half of Alessa. Dahlia summoned Cheryl to Silent Hill so that she could complete the ritual, but Alessa wanted to end her pain and finally die. The town became foggy, dark, and dangerous because Alessa’s power wreaked havoc on it, and the monsters within all represent her childhood fears and anxiety.
Along the way to figuring things out and stopping the god from being born, Harry meets a few people. Dr. Kaufman, Dahlia, and nurse Lisa Garland are all involved with the cult in varying degrees, and Cybil Bennett is a policewoman from a neighboring town, investigating the sudden lack of communication from the Silent Hill police. She gets possessed at one point, and you can either choose to save her or kill her.
There are four possible endings to the story, and certain factors within the game determine which ending you get. The ending that continues the story into Silent Hill 3 (Silent Hill 2 is a story that is unrelated to the first game) has the god defeated, Dahlia and Cybil dead, and Alessa reincarnating herself and Cheryl wholly into a new baby, later named Heather, who Harry flees town with.
Quite a lot there, isn’t it?
Silent Hill 2′s story is a bit simpler. At least, in words.
A man named James Sunderland gets a letter from his previously thought-to-be-dead wife, Mary, asking him to meet her in Silent Hill. Confused but suddenly hopeful, James travels to the town in search of her, coming across monsters and a few other human characters who are either strange, unhelpful, or some combination of the two.
Like Harry, James could leave at any point, but chooses not to. And while seeking out a young, defenseless child might be slightly more justified, James is all the more tragic and compelling for his utter refusal to give up.
There is no cult or crazy Carrie girl directly referenced in this plot. The monsters are all representations of James’, and occasionally other people’s, psyche; his feelings of guilt, frustration, sadness, and sexual repression while his wife was alive and suffering in the hospital.
Again, there are multiple endings depending on what you do in the town, ranging from ambiguous to silly to depressing.
Believe it or not, both stories (Silent Hill 1 and 2) don’t tell you much outright. You have to figure things out from the clues, the symbolism, and/or (depending on your laziness) the Internet. Newspaper articles, diary entries, and forms are scattered everywhere, if you have the patience to seek them out.
If you don’t have time or patience, and instead enjoy beating bad things with various weapons until they fall down, there’s some of that as well. But both 1 and 2 are extremely plot-driven.
The fact that I am revealing far less about 2 probably tells you right off which game I think is better, but for fairness sake, let’s look at a few more elements of distinction.
It’s utter crap. In both games.
I’m not going to lie. I want desperately to tie a leash to the camera and force it to stay still just so I don’t get disoriented, or miss small, crucial details.
It’s not cinematic in the same way as something like Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, but the way the camera angle changes when you, say, run from one side of the street to another, or down an alleyway, remind me shot techniques you’d see in a movie. Nice to watch, but not practical for viewing, especially at important moments.
Losing control of where you can look isn’t scary. It’s frustrating.
Trying to memorize and master the controls, on the other hand, do contribute to the tension and scares in some scenes (particularly when you’re caught in a bad situation), but sometimes, they too are more frustrating than horrifying. After all, you should have a fair shake at killing what is trying to kill you.
But at the same time, it can make you feel accomplished and proud to have survived in the end. And really, the people you are playing in each game are average Joes, so I guess the game developers were trying to convey that experience faithfully…by handicapping you.
Even with your flashlight, some areas are still just too dark.
Ammo and various weapons are scattered throughout the town, but you really have to keep your eyes open for them, or you could walk right by. And trust me, you don’t want to pass up a steel pipe.
In certain fights, you have to switch between guns when you run out of bullets, or settle for the slower, but far less wasteful process of just bashing the monsters’ heads in with melee weapons. Either way, enemies have no life bars. You have to just keep hitting them until they fall down; in most cases, when the static on your radio cuts off completely.
Fighting multiple monsters at a time was as hopeless and frustrating as wading through a river of molasses, so when I could afford to, I just ran away. But sometimes you don’t have that option. And not everyone plays the same way, so…yeah.
You do have some long stretches of no monster encounters in both games, though, which helps build good tension. The town has two main phases in the games: half of the time, the nearly deserted, “foggy” phase,
and the other half with many monsters, clanging sounds, decay, and steel grating in the “Other World”.
I can’t rank either game higher than the other in this aspect. At best, gameplay is irksome but fun, and at worst, it makes me want to chuck my controller at the T.V. The aspects I personally liked least were: having James or Harry stay in one place for too long, or having to hunt for more health and ammo when it’s scarce and hard to see, and you’ve pretty much milked every spot in that place you can’t leave until the story progresses.
Let’s give the two a solid tie there.
Both games have a nurse monster for the portions where you wander around a creepy, run down hospital, because who doesn’t love hospitals?
But otherwise, the creatures that you come across are as different as night and day.
Note here that the designs are similar to that of bugs, reptiles, and other animals.
In Silent Hill, the monsters are all based on the abused mind of young Alessa. She was afraid of things like bugs, dogs, and dinosaurs, like any little girl might be. Add in the abuse that she suffered from the other kids and adults in her life, and you could see these things coming to life more dangerously in her twisted imitation. Monsters in a more traditional sense, like the Wolf Man or Dracula.
The Beast for the first half of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the hag from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and most of the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches were frequent personal night terrors for me as a girl, but many people my age said Gmork from The NeverEnding Story was the greatest monster of their childhoods.
Imagery tends to frighten children more, but when they reach adulthood, they tend more to fear concepts and behaviors. But they are not mutually-exclusive at all. The transformation scene in Disney’s Pinocchio was horrifying to watch for many, both for the imagery and the concepts it presented. And how about that lovely scene from All Dogs Go to Heaven, where Charlie dreams of going to Hell?
In terms of games, how about all of the grown adults peeing their pants over Five Nights at Freddy’s? It isn’t just the jumpscares, people.
But in real life, if you came across a giant bug or dinosaur thing, it’d be scary mostly because it’s immediately threatening, even people who aren’t normally scared of those.
In the first game, the monsters didn’t horrify me (except for maybe the creepy nurses). I just really feel like I’d only be scared in the most basic sense, if I was actually there. And depending on how invested you are, they won’t horrify you either.
Fitting Alessa, the horror of these monsters is more basic and childish. Dare I even say natural?
Silent Hill 2, on the other hand…
It takes a natural approach as well; to take an aspect of life that we, particularly those who were raised in heavily Judao-Christian societies, are all uncomfortable with on some level, and twist it into something truly gruesome.
James’s fears are much more adult in nature, and because of the themes of repression and anger, most of the monsters are effeminate and sexual; the former with the exception of Pyramid Head, or the “Red Pyramid Thing” as it is called above.
Pyramid Head is perhaps the most iconic thing about this game, occasionally stalking the protagonist with lumbering steps and a big blade dragging on the floor behind him. But more often than not, he attacks the other monsters, in decidedly more…suggestive ways.
Whatever malevolent forces are at work in the town in this game, it’s clear that they want to torment James and drive him utterly insane before they kill him.
The nurses make a return, but they wear distinctly shorter, tighter outfits. The Lying Figure monster limps about in a straight jacket made of its own skin. The Mannequin is literally two sets of female legs sown together hourglass style. The Abstract Daddy looks like two people under a flesh sheet on a flat bed or stretcher.
Adult themes all around, but they don’t feel like a cheap gimmick used just to be scandalous or “edgy”. Even if you don’t know what each of these monsters represent in the minds of the characters, you don’t have to know. Just their appearances and movements make you uncomfortable, and they’re coming right towards you, moaning and groaning, invading your personal space. And even when the creatures are scarce, the very prospect of being isolated with these things in dark, sometimes claustrophobic spaces adds more tension and fear.
This approach is more psychological, and that atmosphere is all the more brilliant for it. You can easily feel as lonely and anxious as the protagonist would, and see the depths of his denial and delusion projected all around him.
Everyone has a unique fear or set of fears, stemming from childhood and other life experiences. But sex is a universally awkward subject, so point goes to Silent Hill 2.
Music and Sound
I’d say the quality is about the same in both games, for the most part. It’s quiet and haunting when it needs to be, followed by clangs and other hectic effects when there is action. While not musical, the use of the radio static to signify an approaching monster is both useful and creepy, if not groan-inducing after the umpteenth time.
The first game’s opening music, “Silent Hill,” is incredibly memorable with its initial twangy mandolin melody, and “Carousel Battle” sets a good mood for potentially disturbing fratricide, Silent Hill 2‘s perhaps most famous song, “Promise,” is both pretty and unsettling, with and without context.
The voice acting in both games is, quite frankly, terrible. The sound effects are the same quality, and do what they have to in order to get across this creepy world you have to transition through. So I’m calling it another tie for the sound aspect overall.
I can’t pick which soundtrack I like better, and while they’re both good, I wouldn’t list them as the biggest reason to play either game.
Silent Hill is a good series of games (from the 3 I have played so far). Both in this specific comparison have frustrating controls and prima dona movie cameras at times, which can unfairly boost the difficulty and frustrate gamers, but the story and atmosphere are where the games really shine.
I didn’t mention graphics above just because they were good for their time (very good, in fact), but aside from the gorgeous cutscenes in Silent Hill 2, they are very outdated and kind of ugly by standards now.
Overall, Silent Hill 2 is the superior game, and an 8/10. It has a better twist, better “character development”, greater room for interpretation, and the monsters are more memorable and likely to frighten, regardless of age. It truly is a classic game, despite some slow moments; smaller than its predecessor, and yet larger, more isolating, horrifying, and mysterious without the hokey, bulky cult backstory and characters weighing it down.
When you get right down to it, games have the potential to be more horrifying because it’s an interactive medium. It puts a real-life person in the place of the character, as their brain, and the trick is to convince said real person that they are really there, and that they can be hurt. And unlike movies, you have some agency; the ability to make decisions and change aspects of the story (those that you are granted).
If a game truly manages to pull you in, you will be afraid. You will feel the consequences, even just temporarily, and your heart will pound a hole in your chest.
But horror movies and horror games both have the same pitfall: no investment, and automatically, the audience isn’t scared. If films can put us in the moment without us having any control at all, what’s you’re excuse? You had one job, developers, and you failed.
It’s not really about finding each person’s unique fear and exploiting it, hoping every gamer who comes to play ends up crying for mommy. Like all good storytelling, it’s about conveying a genuine human experience and, in this case, showing us how horrifying it can be. Fear can be everything, from the general, great unknown that we will never truly explain, to the knowledge that we aren’t all that different from the “monsters” that we condemn, lock up, vilify, kill.
And in video games, basic, deep-seated fear is easily accomplished by just giving us a gun. The gift of an illusion; making us think we’re so capable – that we could protect ourselves, our homes, and our loved ones – before showing us just how screwed we still really are.
You’ve got to be creative, especially without the Oculus Rift.
*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.