Early on in Silent Hill 2, I realized that its protagonist, James Sunderland, was the first video-game character I've ever really cared about. Given video games' well-earned rep as a medium targeted almost exclusively at the sensibilities of 12-year-old boys of all ages, it's a little embarrassing to admit how moved I was by the plight of a pistol-toting guy made of pixels. But then again, James is a supremely complex, tortured, pistol-toting guy made of pixels, and he lives in a very different world from Lara Croft or Sonic the Hedgehog.
As his story opens, James has spent three years in a tailspin following his wife's death from an agonizing, disfiguring illness. Then one day, James receives a letter written in his wife's hand, telling him she's waiting at their "special place," a quaint little resort town called Silent Hill. But when James arrives at the town, he finds it overrun by venom-spitting creatures with foreskin-like sheaths of skin encasing them from the waist up. Poor James, an average guy who looks like Denis Leary after too many late nights, is now trapped in a dark reality with constantly shifting rules, forced to fight for his life when he doesn't even know if he cares to survive.
In the past, when people have hailed a video game as a masterpiece, they presumably weren't holding it to the standards of the best films, books or even TV shows. The Resident Evil and Tomb Raider franchises are impressive technical achievements and great fun, but they're no deeper than the average midnight movie on the Sci-Fi Channel. They're not designed to be. In terms of graphic excellence, Silent Hill 2—with its moody lighting, eerily lifelike characters and completely three-dimensional backgrounds—is a vast leap ahead of these games, and in terms of psychological sophistication, it's like comparing Kafka with a coloring book.
The game works splendidly on the basic horror-movie level, offering up a dizzying assortment of beasties who look like they've staggered out of Freud's nightmares. But there are subtler horrors as well, like the stray graffiti that cruelly mocks James and his grief, or the way we can never quite tell if James is really surrounded by demons or if, maddened by grief, he's imagining the whole thing. And finally, there is the supreme horror that shadows every moment of the game: the loss of a loved one, dealt with in flashbacks of wrenching honesty. This is not the overwrought, Gothic grief you'd expect in a video game; this is a domestic tragedy rendered in state-of-the art CGI. When you hear the frayed voice of James' dying wife, pleading with him to tell her that she'll be okay, that she's not going to die, it's not the unique, vibrating feature of the PlayStation 2's dualshock controller that has your hands shaking.
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The game is a sequel to a less sophisticated offering from some years back, but make no mistake, Silent Hill 2 stands alone—from its predecessor, from its competitors and from its very medium. While other games are content to gratify the baser instincts of your inner 12-year-old boy, Silent Hill 2scares the hell out of the little creep—and leaves him the wiser for it.