Where Literary Meets Binary

The Literary Substructures of Silent Hill 2 and Mass Effect

Filed under: Blog |

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

If you’ve read our previous posts, we’ve been outlining how different game designs designate which paths players will choose throughout video games, and how those choices reflect the game’s literary relevance. As we’ve pointed out, whereas open moral game designs do not require the use of structured narratives, divergent path models depend on them.

The Mass Effect trilogy succeeds at being moral literature simply because the written story is engaging enough to make the decisions relevant to the player in a moral sense. The series head writer, Drew Karpyshyn, has even written several successful novels based on the game’s universe, demonstrating that the story translates from one medium to another. Silent Hill 2, interestingly, is the only game of the “Silent Hill” series to have admittedly been inspired by a work of literature. Takayoshi Sato, the CG designer and scenario writer for SH2, admitted in an interview with Gamasutra.com that “the basic storyline was based on Crime and Punishment.” The game’s lead composer, Akira Yamaoka, echoes this claim in an interview with 1UP.com: “He cites the Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment — also a story of murder and the culprit’s subsequent guilt — as Silent Hill 2‘s literary corollary, adding that heavy themes often find themselves sacrificed for the sake of safe, popcorn entertainment; and, as a developer, taking on such controversial topics is what interests Yamaoka the most.”

While Crime and Punishment interacts with readers in a way that videogame narratives cannot, its horrific moral story of murder and the protagonist’s subsequent self-imposed suffering for his crime are reflected in Silent Hill 2, and where printed literature gives an author passage into readers’ minds to twist and manipulate them into an intimate engagement of analysis, video games allow players to invade the text.

The moral decisions one makes in SH2 are some of the only real freedom provided in the game, but since they are hidden, the player is not certain when or where they are making them. All the player has are clues to the effect, often seen in symbolism reflected from Dostoyevsky’s novel. The duality between Mary and Maria comes from the similar duality in Sonia, the love interest in C&P, who is both a whore and a devout and pious Christian. Mirrors are symbolic of the “intrinsic duality” of the plot structure in SH2, also found in the reversal of roles in C&P. This level of depth rewards players for repeated play-throughs, despite the game’s clunky combat mechanics and cheesy dialogue. It is the ludonarrative structure of the game–rather than the structured narrative of the story–and the panoptical effect of the hidden moral divergence tree that sets the foundation for one of the most horrifying and atmospheric games of all time.