I’ve recently been playing Silent Hill 2 for my PS2. I’m reminded of why this series was once held in such high regard, especially amongst horror game enthusiasts. Silent Hill 2 is a genuinely scary game; when playing the game I find myself wishing I was playing something else.
I mean that in the best possible way. When exploring the empty prison yard with only my weak flashlight illuminating the area, I desperately wish that I was instead playing an RPG or fighting game, really anything else!
After finishing a recent session, I began wondering why I feel so uncomfortable playing Silent Hill 2. It’s not for direct gameplay related reasons; I have enough healing items and weapons to handle the enemies, I’ve played long enough to get a firm understanding of the controls, I know the general behavior of the game. I realized, however, that I didn’t really trust the game.
Sure, I’d made steady progress to that point, but I never discounted the game’s ability to throw me a completely unwarned curve ball at any moment.
Why don’t I trust Silent Hill 2?
The immersive quality of Silent Hill 2 plays a hand in this. There is no HUD, no health bars, stamina bars, ammo counters or radar when I’m playing the game. All that information is kept in the menu which the player has to access, so when I’m exploring an area all I see is my player character and the environment. It becomes much easier to forget that I’m playing a game when the “gamey” elements aren’t present.
More than anything though, I think Team Silent, the creators of Silent Hill 2 predicted the habits of the players and designed the game to unnerve them. There are a number of examples I had found:
1. Item availability
It’s standard practice in survival horror games to limit the amount of useful, “consumable” items the player has access to. This refers to things like health kits, ammo and so forth. As a result the players tend to stockpile them for boss encounters or areas with heavy or intrusive enemy placement.
When playing other games, I tend to believe that the game was designed so that as the player I was given access to enough items to progress through the game. Survival horror players realized it was often times easier to run around enemies then waste precious ammo or risk being hurt by attacking them in melee. As a result many games didn’t even give the player access to enough ammo to kill every enemy in the game.
Now, in Silent Hill 2, I tended to run around monsters that I could avoid, saving my ammo for shooting groups of enemies generally in difficult areas to maneuver. The further I progressed the more ammo I accumulated, which resulted in me thinking that the game was prepping me for an upcoming boss battle or something to that degree. No boss battles that required that much ammo came, and my stock pile continued to rise. Despite this I still could not bring myself to use my ammo willy-nilly, there was a constant sense of unease as I still believed the game is giving me ammo for a specific purpose.
A great example of this is after the prison section. The player character enters an elevator and is able to pick up a health item and three different varieties of ammo. The natural instinct of the player is to expect they are about to face a specific difficult encounter, after all they just cleared a location and have been given ample supplies. The elevator continues to move and the player’s tension increases waiting for the obvious and inevitable boss or enemy encounter. It never comes, however. The elevator reaches the bottom and the player character moves to the next area.
This may be a minor detail, but survival horror fans (the ones who games like Silent Hill are designed and marketed to…well used to anyways,) will no doubt be keenly aware of their supplies. Intentionally misleading them is a really subtle way to mess with their expectations and increase their sense of tension. After all, the game wouldn’t just give you 3 boxes of pistol ammo for no reason, right?
2. Map Information
In normal Silent Hill fashion, players get maps early in their exploration of an area to help guide them. However this again is another opportunity to play with a player’s expectations.
Traditionally large open areas act as arenas for enemy or boss encounters. In many areas in Silent Hill, the player is given a map which they can view and immediately see potential “arenas.” The aforementioned prison yard is one such area. There are several connected narrow corridors, with one set of doors leading to a large, seemingly wide-open rectangle. Every other potential wall or door is marked, and this rectangle is completely bare.
I found when I played, that this was the last area I explored. I made a decision to avoid it based on my expectations, so when it finally came time to explore this last area I made sure to save and equip my shotgun. When I entered this obvious boss arena I ran around trying to discover its purpose. There was a puzzle in the center, so I solved it, convinced and prepared an enemy encounter of sorts was inbound.
A loud painful scream was my reward. A-ha! I knew it! I was given back control of the player character and I quickly spun around to discover …nothing. The yard was as empty as before and there was no sign of what made the scream. I walked, not ran back the way I came because I remained convinced that there had to be something else to this. I collected an item and was then back in the previous hallway.
By giving me the map earlier the game was offering me the chance to “prepare” for the area. It gave me a parcel of information and let me generate my own expectations for what I would face. As is often the case in horror, my imagination was my own enemy. I made myself nervous and tense because I was trying to prepare myself for what I thought I would have to endure.
These two gameplay nuances play off the player’s own expectations, causing the player to generate their own personal tension independently of what the game experience actually is. There are many moments when the game “psyches” the player up and then does not deliver any avenue for the player to expel that tension. Moments like these burden the players with their own tension and force them to carry it onwards, and before it fully deflates, a new unnerving situation arises bringing it all back to the player.
The player’s expectations play a large role in the horror of Silent Hill, and that is one of the reasons why the game is so effective; it’s not trying to scare you directly, it’s trying to make you scare yourself.