This article contains plot spoilers for Silent Hill 2, in case that wasn't already obvious.
Silent Hill used to be an idyllic New England tourist trap. Now it's Hell. If you find yourself there, walking its fogbound streets, you've probably done something terrible. It's a place where sinners are lured and judged by the ancient, unholy evil that lurks there, and your journey through it is shaped by your own anxiety, fear, and guilt.
This dark presence roots around in the dingiest corners of your subconscious and brings the worst bits to life. What you see, others won't, because it's a personalized nightmare created just for you. It's a supremely fucked-up town, and home to one of the best, most emotionally charged stories ever told in a video game.
Silent Hill 2 was released in 2001 for the Xbox and PlayStation 2, and is by far the highlight of the series. It's a survival horror game, but it's no Resident Evil. While Capcom's famous series is all B-movie zombies and cheap jump scares, this game is defined by its genuinely unsettling atmosphere, its bleak, psychological story, and its David Lynch-inspired marriage of the mundane and the horrifying.
You are James Sunderland, a widower who receives a letter from someone claiming to be his dead wife, Mary. "I'm alone there now," it reads. "In our special place, waiting for you." This "special place" is, in fact, Silent Hill, and James drives there alone. He knows it can't be his wife, but he goes anyway. Something is drawing him there.
You arrive and find the town choked by a dense, swirling fog. It's completely abandoned, but there are traces of life everywhere. A car sits in a gas station with its engine still running. Signs hang in windows advertising sales and upcoming events in the community. But then it gets weirder. Roads suddenly end, with gaping chasms where the streets used to be. Bizarre, cryptic messages are scrawled on the walls. "There was a HOLE here," one reads, written in what looks like blood. "It's gone now."
Occasionally you'll hear the distant wail of an air raid siren. This heralds a shift to the "Otherworld"—a disturbing alternate reality that has become a hallmark of the series. The fog is replaced by a stifling blackness. The jarring, industrial sound of grinding and pounding machinery fills the air. The walls are rusted and metallic.
As if that wasn't bad enough, throughout the game Sunderland is confronted by a series of disturbing monsters. Writhing sacks of flesh staggering around on twitchy legs; hospital nurses with grotesque tumors obscuring their faces; contorted spider-things made up of the plastic arms and legs of shop mannequins. It's the strangest, creepiest selection of enemies I've ever seen wriggle out of a video game artist's imagination.
He also has a stalker, named Pyramid Head by fans, but who remains nameless in the game. This creature, whose head is a large, crimson metal triangle (hence the name), seems to be shadowing Sunderland, and sometimes it tries to kill him. It's omnipresent, impossible to kill, and utterly terrifying. I'll never forget the first time I saw it, standing perfectly still, just staring at me. That moment said everything I needed to know. I was no threat to this thing, and it had taken a special interest in me.
The search for Mary—or whoever sent the letter—takes Sunderland to a hospital, an apartment block, a bowling alley, and an old Civil War prison. I learned about the town's troubled history from documents and newspaper clippings. I met a handful of other characters, including a flirtatious, enigmatic woman called Maria who looks eerily like my dead wife. As the story unravelled, slowly, and I discovered more about James and his marriage, I started to feel uneasy. Something wasn't right.
Sunderland finally arrives at his and Mary's "special place"—a hotel perched on the edge of a gloomy lake. The same one they were guests at when they visited Silent Hill before she died. I fought my way through yet more disturbing creatures, and find their old room. I enter, and it's here that Silent Hill 2 hit me square in the gut with an almighty emotional sucker punch that left me reeling.
A distorted VHS tape plays on a television, and James sits down and watches it, dumbstruck. It shows him by his dying wife's hospital bed, smothering her with a pillow. All this time, you've been in control of a murderer. I looked at the letter in my inventory, and it was blank. There was never any letter; Sunderland was lured to the town, by the town, to face judgement. He's another sinner who's arrived for his court date in Hell.
It's a cheap trick, but an effective one. I was made to sympathize with Sunderland, thinking it was the tragic story of a bereaved husband chasing the ghost of his dearly departed wife. I thought he was the victim, being hounded by malevolent monsters. But it's all in his head, and those demented creatures are his own sick creation. He's the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and he fooled me. Big time.
Team Silent, inspired by, among other things, the paintings of Francis Bacon, designed these monsters to reflect Sunderland's mental anguish. Those fleshy things represent hospital patients squirming in agony. The mannequins are a manifestation of his frustration. The nurses... Well, isn't it obvious?
Creepier still, each creature was designed to be subtly sexually suggestive, with slender feminine legs and plunging necklines. A lot of dark shit has been bubbling away in this guy's head, and now it's boiling over into the world around him. Video game enemies have come a long way from anthropomorphized mushrooms.
And what about his pyramid-headed predator? Nobody knows for sure except Team Silent, but a popular theory is that it's a kind of otherworldly executioner, and signifies Sunderland's unfulfilled desire to be punished for killing Mary. Or maybe it's just a dude with a pyramid on his head. It doesn't really matter, because its constant, looming presence makes it a powerful, unnerving nemesis. It's a shame Konami had to milk the character dry, including a bewildering appearance in a cutesy Game Boy kart racer.
This is all pretty deep, morbid stuff, but that's what makes Silent Hill 2 so special, and so much more than just another survival horror. Absolutely everything, from the monsters to the town itself, is designed to support the plot. Everything is so nuanced and considered, it's devastating that the series has taken such a nosedive in recent years.
Fourteen years since it was first released, few video game writers have come close to the intelligence and artistry of its storytelling. And now that Team Silent is no more—the development group was disbanded by Konami in 2004—it's unlikely that I'll ever experience that magic in quite the same way ever again. The Western developers who have since taken over the series make decent play-it-safe horror games that have none of the provocative, subversive spirit of the originals. They aren't terrible, but they aren't Silent Hill either.
Silent Hill 2 is a game that lingered in my thoughts long after I'd finished it, and snuck uninvited into my daydreams. When the curtain was pulled back and Sunderland was exposed, I was tortured by conflicting emotions. Did he do a terrible thing? Absolutely. Is he a monster? Probably. But I still need to keep him alive until the end. I need to protect him from these demons. It's a game that burrowed under my skin, made me think, and made me feel. The controls are clunky and the voice acting is abysmal, but that's all part of its idiosyncratic charm. There'll never be another game like this.
There is hope for the series, though. The next game, Silent Hills, is being helmed by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, a developer who has made a career out of subverting expectations and messing with our heads. I can't think of anyone better. It's being co-created with film director Guillermo del Toro, and will probably be released sometime next year. It might just be the game that brings the series back from the brink.
Follow Andy on Twitter.