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The Hidden Choices of Silent Hill 2

A Special Halloween Edition!

This is the eighth in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

In our previous blog post, we outlined the differences between the open and closed ethical designs postulated by video game expert Miguel Sicart and the apparent moral divergence trees in games with strong narrative frames. In this special Halloween post, we’ll discuss a lesser-used method of manipulating narrative structures to influence player ethical behavior--but nevertheless one that we think has yet to be exercised to its full potential. That is: the “hidden” moral divergence tree, wherein players are not confronted openly regarding choices that will affect the outcome of the in-game narrative. The strongest use of this particular tool can be found in one of the most beloved entries in the now culturally defunct run of survival horror games popularized in the later 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Silent Hill 2 is renowned for dealing with themes largely absent from contemporary game narratives. It is also superior in its combining the narrative framing of the situation with the ludonarrative of its design. Because SH2 was driven by a narrative plot, it required the semi-closed nature of the moral divergence tree, but since those were a relatively unknown concept at the time, SH2 opted to hide the determining algorithms for the story from the player. The result adds to the suffocating atmosphere of the game, since the player does not know what choices they’ve made will affect the outcome or how.

The story in SH2 is not told well, with cut scenes demonstrating the resource proficiency of daytime soap operas with similar mistimed melodramatic acting. The real story takes place when the player has hold of the protagonist, James Sunderland, an effeminate weakling (one of the first videogame protagonists not in a position of power) who has long suffered since the death of his wife, Mary, three years ago. Because of this, he is immediately sympathetic in the eyes of the player, and after receiving a letter telling him that his dead wife is waiting in their “special place,” a vacation spot in Silent Hill, he sets out on a dark damsel-in-distress mission to rescue her.

While the set-up is not unfamiliar to gamers, there are twists that engage the player emotionally from the start. Dead bodies littered around the lifeless, fog-cloaked town bear a faint resemblance to James himself. The prototypical zombies/monsters that James faces don’t look or behave like monsters from any other survivor horror game. Many of them seem more pathetic than threatening. A familiar wretch in the game resembles a pair of legs stuffed into a body bag. Their attempts to attack involve vain flailing. Another monster lingers on the ceiling of an abandoned hospital, offering the impression of a frightened patient attached to its bed. It can only grip James with its shriveled bare feet. These, we realize, are reflections of James’ memories of his wife’s struggle with her disease; presumably lung cancer.

Because of the engaged symbolism of the game, SH2’s puzzles and the actions of the player begin to take on a dual meaning. While the Rational Player is infused in solving the riddles that lead them closer to the larger truth of Silent Hill, the Active Player is also deciphering these encounters as text. Is Maria, one of the few remaining Silent Hill inhabitants, a projected sexualized doppelganger of James’ wife? Can she be trusted to help James (i.e. us)?

Media and Screen Lecturer Ewan Kirkland approaches the game from a literary analysis perspective in his essay, “Restless Dreams in Silent Hill: approaches to video game analysis":

In SH1-3 players cannot jump, swim or drop objects, no matter what combination of buttons are pressed. Interactivity is therefore an extremely, maybe necessarily, structured experience. More specifically, progression and eventual completion of the adventure game depends upon players enacting sequences of more-or-less pre-defined actions, representing sometimes singular, often multiple, but always limited routes through gamespace and the unquantifiable possibilities of player interactivity. Consequently Atkins [see G. Douglas Atkins, “Reading, Deconstruction, Deconstructive Reading” pg. 51] posits the ‘ideal reader’ performing a ‘perfect reading’, discovering all secrets, obtaining all objects, and achieving completion in minimum time (Journal of Media 170).

Because of the limitations of the narrative, the player’s few relative moral choices are given more weight. If the player trusts Maria, attempting to save her repeatedly and checking up on her often when she’s sick, the player will earn what is known as “The Maria Ending,” in which after discovering that he was responsible for mercy-killing his wife, he takes Maria to replace her. Her coughing represents that James has not made the necessary “change” to be forgiven, and is doomed to repeat the hellish cycle of his wife’s disease with Maria. This also recalls all of the dead Jameses in the town, as though he has been repeating this cycle over and over, just as the player repeats sections they have played before, replays the game to earn new endings, and so forth. In SH2, the ludic cycle of playing, losing, replaying is actually worked into the game narrative and reflects the cycle of us, video game players.