Silent Hill 2: A Pinnacle in Gaming Symbolism

Silent Hill 2 is classic narrative in terms of video games.
Silent Hill 2 is a classic narrative in terms of video games.

For those who have not played a Silent Hill game, the series may simply come across as a survival horror game with creepy monsters. The series itself is much more complex than that; it delves into human psychology with magnificent detail of symbolism and allusion. This attention is part of the appeal of the series. Each game has its own distinct symbols and allusions that are used to add to the overall narrative, however this is most evident in the universally favourite game, Silent Hill 2. The game is a pinnacle for symbolism in the series and gaming in general. As a successor to the original Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2 excels in narrative and the subtle, and obvious, symbolism is part of the reason that the game surpassed the original as a fan and critic favourite. The basic plot is simple; James Sunderland comes to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his deceased wife asking him to come. However, by analyzing a few key aspects of the game we can understand why Silent Hill 2 has achieved such high acclaim due to its use of symbolic meaning.


Setting

The town of Silent Hill itself is a representation of a person’s personal demons. This is evident in all games as each character has their own version of the Otherworld. The Otherworld is a representation of a character’s psyche and constitutes their own personal nightmare. All the creatures in the Otherworld are manifested as the fears that each character has. Silent Hill 2 showcases 3 different Otherworlds: James’, Eddie’s, and Angela’s. Looking at the Otherworld of each character gives a good indication about who they are and what they fear.

The Otherworld's appearance changes depending on a character's personal demons.
The Otherworld’s appearance changes depending on a character’s personal demons.

Eddie’s Otherworld is similar to a freezer; it is cold and dark with hanging bodies. The hanging bodies are similar to meat in a meat locker, a nod to Eddie being bullied because of his weight and how much he eats. The coldness of the Otherworld may represent Eddie’s detachment to the real world and his cold attitude towards people. The player never encounters any of Eddie’s creatures, but Eddie states that he likes killing them, therefore suggesting that the creatures in Eddie’s Otherworld are representative of the people who bullied him.

Angela’s Otherworld is sexual in nature evidenced by its flesh covered walls. One of the rooms in her Otherworld has pistons in the wall that thrust in a manner suggesting sexual intercourse. This is a direct reference to Angela’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father and brother. The room has 23 pistons which could be symbolic of how many times she was sexually abused, however, there is no backing to support this. The player fights the Abstract Daddy boss, a manifestation of Angela’s father, in Angela’s Otherworld. Her Otherworld also has elements of fire; this is a manifestation of Angela’s psychological feelings that she was in a living hell due to her past abuse.

James’ Otherworld is dark and depressing with an overall gloomy atmosphere. The streets and halls are initially deserted in the earlier exploration of the Otherworld, but as the game progresses the creatures come and get progressively harder to kill. This is symbolic of James’ mind trying to prevent him from discovering the truth, since the truth about the death of his wife, Mary,  isn’t pleasant. Water dripping down the walls and hospital gurneys are also common in James’ Otherworld. Gurneys appear regardless of the situation and many beds are covered in white sheets and pillows. This represents Mary’s illness and subsequent death due to asphyxiation with a white pillow. James’ Otherworld changes slightly later in the game once James’ learns the truth about Mary’s death; he killed her. Once James’ realizes the truth the Otherworld has more emphasis on water. The basement of the Lakeview Hotel, the location at the end of the game, becomes flooded and the overall hotel takes on a more realistic, yet burnt look. This represents James’ acceptance of his role in Mary’s death, his first step in freeing himself of delusion, but also how he is drowning in his sorrow.

Characters and Creatures

Like the Otherworld, the creatures in the game are manifestations of a character’s psychological state. Sometimes the creatures take the form of another character. Silent Hill 2 has some of the series most iconic creatures and the meaning behind these creatures in as important as their look.

Pyramid Head is the series most iconic creature.
Pyramid Head is the series most iconic creature.

Pyramid Head is probably the most iconic creature from Silent Hill 2 and perhaps the series in general. Pyramid Head is an executioner who is manifested by James’ need to be punished for his crimes since James has not come to accept his role in Mary’s death. Pyramid Head reminds James of his crimes by consistently killing Maria, a manifestation of Mary, in front of James. Pyramid Head is also a representation of James’ sexual frustrations. The first two encounters with Pyramid Head find Pyramid Head in compromising positions with two other creatures; the sounds and imagery imply that rape is being committed. Pyramid Head’s two weapons, the Great Knife and Great Spear, can also be seen as phallic imagery. Pyramid Head’s main goal is to lead James to the truth, and once James accepts his crime, the Pyramid Heads commit suicide by stabbing themselves with the Great Spear.

The nurses in Silent Hill 2 became the basis for all other future nurses in the series.
The nurses in Silent Hill 2 became the model for all other future nurses in the series.

The nurses are also iconic creatures from Silent Hill 2. Although the nurses were in the original Silent Hill, the look of the nurses in the second game is what carried over into future adaptations. The nurses, like most of the minor creatures, are representative of James’ sexual frustrations. The nurses wear low cut blouses that further emphasize their sexual nature. They also twitch, which could be attributed to the anxiety James feels over his sexual frustrations due to the sexual deprivation associated with Mary’s illness. The fact that they are nurses, figures associated with hospitals and health, is also an association with Mary’s illness.

The Abstract Daddy is a manifestation of Angela's father.
The manifestation of Angela’s father is symbolic of her sexual abuse.

The Abstract Daddy boss is a manifestation of Angela’s father. Angela calls the creature “Daddy,” suggesting that she sees the monster as her father. James does not know Angela’s father so he sees the creature as a monster. The Abstract Daddy looks like two figures lying on a bed engaging in sexual intercourse. The top figure has legs dangling off the sides while the bottom figure of the creature screams in apparent torment. The Abstract Daddy’s method of attack is to “hug” James into its opening slit. This slit is reminiscent of a vaginal opening, further emphasizing the apparent sexual abuse. While Abstract Daddy is directly associated with Angela, it could be indirectly associated with James as a symbol of abusive masculinity.

Maria is James' manifestation of Mary.
Maria is James’ manifestation of Mary.

Maria is a manifestation of James’ late wife, Mary Shepherd-Sunderland. All of her physical features are identical to Mary except her appearance is more sexual. Her personality is also more extroverted and sexually promiscuous than Mary. Maria was manifested by James in order to fulfill his need to see Mary again but also to fulfill James’ wish of what he wanted Mary to be. Maria also appears to have some of Mary’s memories, evident when she taunts James from the jail cell, which further suggests that she is a manifestation. The butterfly tattoo on her hip may signify her “rebirth” as Mary, but it may also allude to her constant resurrections. Maria’s consistent deaths are to remind James of his crime and how he could not save Mary from her terminal illness. Maria could be seen as an antagonist as she represents the guilt James must overcome in order to be free. It isn’t until James frees himself from the guilt, and subsequently Mary and Maria, that James is free to leave Silent Hill and start anew.

The Mary Boss is symbolic of Mary's hatred of her terminal illness and her feeling of confinement.
The Mary Boss is symbolic of Mary’s hatred of her terminal illness and her feeling of confinement.

The Mary Boss is the final boss of the game and serves the purpose of James overcoming his guilt. The Mary Boss may be either Mary or Maria depending on the ending the player gets. If the boss is Mary, Mary will hold a grudge against James for killing her and then proceed to attack. If the boss is Maria disguised as Mary, Maria will get rejected by James, since she is not real nor Mary, and then will attack him in anger. In either scenario the boss takes the physical form of Mary and then transforms into a creature that resembles Mary’s corpse hanging upside down in a metal frame. Instead of hands and feet the Mary Boss will have black tentacles that will attack James and she will spit moths at him as well. The metal frame may embody Mary’s feelings of confinement during her illness and final days, while the moths signify death. The tentacles can be used in order to suffocate James, a throwback to Mary’s own asphyxiation at James’ hand. Defeating the boss is a symbolic release of James’ guilt and he is then free to leave Silent Hill.

Legacy

Silent Hill 2 showcased that games can be narrative art.
Silent Hill 2 showcased that games can be narrative art.

The Silent Hill series applies symbolism in order to enhance the narrative arc and does it extremely well, especially in the earlier games. Silent Hill 2 is a pinnacle point in the series because it doesn’t try too hard and become convoluted, yet it is littered with symbolism and allusion that makes the narrative interesting to analyze. The game catapulted psychological horror into the mainstream and showed that the horror genre doesn’t have to be defined by jump scares. Even the the rival series, Resident Evil, almost followed the path of Silent Hill after Silent Hill 2’s success. The prototype of Resident Evil 4, known as Resident Evil 3.5, featured fog worlds, illusions, and hallucinations. The man behind Resident Evil 4, Shinki Mikami, later created The Evil Within, a game which is heavily influenced by Silent Hill 2. This is noticeable in the art design as well as the psychological themes found in the game.

Silent Hill 2 was one of the first games that showed that video games can be a form of narrative art. The acclaim awarded to Silent Hill 2 is not because of the gameplay, but because of its narrative and willingness to tackle unpleasant topics. The plot line may be simple, but it is realized in a complex and intriguing way. Modern games such as Red Dead Redemption and The Last Of Us also take the approach of enhancing a simple plot. Unsurprisingly, these games also received critical and fan acclaim. Silent Hill 2 opened up a new path in video game narrative back in 2001, and even today the tale of James Sunderland is held in high regard.


Silent Hill 2 may not be a perfect game, but it is a captivating and thought provoking one. The game altered the survival horror genre, as well as the perception of video game narratives. A plethora of games illustrate that video games can be as complex as other mediums, and Silent Hill 2 is one of those games.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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32 Comments

  1. ruthack
    0

    Its not about crazy monsters, its not about scaring you with shock value. it explains itself as the game nears completion and you will be shaking, you will be sweating, you will be truly afraid of the things this game has to offer. it puts you the protagonists mind, and you must protect yourself from the mortal mind’s fears. it is a game of depth and complexity.

  2. destruction
    0

    great game. first one I played and enjoyed every chilling second

  3. Landrum
    0

    I liked the first game, but personally I enjoyed the focus on characters that I believe SH2 did better than the first game. Silent Hill just seems so much creepier when it is imagined as a personal hell designed to mess with James’ head and force him to live up to what he did.

    • Lexzie

      It does seem creepier, doesn’t it? I adore the series, but the cult business just didn’t impact me as much as more personal tales.
      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. Micah Epps
    0

    Hands down, the BEST survival horror and one of the best storylines in videogame’s history.

  5. Steve Hobbs
    0

    Late to the game, but I just got this game two days ago, and I love it. I have two hours into it, but for what I’ve played it’s an great game.

  6. this is a great cure for constipation

  7. Leo Pall
    0

    I actually thought the combat in SH2 and 3 was quite fun, playing as a normal clunky person was really neat and I often killed enemies. The combat doesn’t measure up to RE4’s but RE4 is an action game really, not a purebred horror game imo.

  8. Best game ever made, period. Freakiest game ever made, period. Scariest game ever made? Top 10, maybe, but SH1 and SH3 are much scarier. But this one is much less about scares and terror, and instead is all about the atmospheric mindfuckery.

  9. Sandlin
    0

    I really want to get the HD Collection for my PS3, but everyone keeps telling me that is so full of bugs and glitches…gosh dang it!

    • Lexzie

      I have played the HD collection and there is quite a few glitches. Plus the “upgrade” to the graphics takes away a lot of the fog, which is essential in creating the atmosphere and tone of the game.
      It isn’t a bad collection, but playing the original is much more satisfying. Campy voice acting and all.

  10. The symbolism in Silent Hill 2 is the reason why some fans are not pleased to see the Pyramid Head in other games. Their interpretation is that Pyramid Head is the unique and specific symbol of punishment for James only, so that it would not be right to feature it in other characters’ stories.

  11. SH 2 and 3 are some of the greatest games ever created

  12. priesto
    0

    This game scared me when I was little. Not so much today, but still really disturbing. I love it! Wish my friends could see it that way too.

  13. Al Ragan
    0

    One of the best games of all time!

  14. This is the absolute pinnacle of the survival horror genre. No game has ever topped it and will never be topped. A true masterpiece.

  15. Careless Lion

    This was a really great article that covered some of the best points in SH2. Guy Cihi, the actor for James, did a nice interview with the Super Best Friends and they did a really in-depth discussion on their playthrough. Highly recommend people check it out!

  16. This game’s soundtrack is mesmerising.

  17. it’s maybe the best horror game along with RE4

  18. I remember playing this game as a kid, I enjoyed the fact they could the action with the suspense of a ultimate horror genre.

  19. For me, best game of alltime. Masterpiece in every way possible (the plot, the music, the characters, the places, the atmosphere, the symbolism and the most important: the connection between everyone and everything).

  20. Monique

    Silent Hill is super creepy, but I didn’t realize how well-thought-out the symbolism was until reading this. Thanks!

  21. This game is one of the pinnacles of artistic achievement using its medium. Subtle choices in how you play the game affect its story, not obvious prompts like the much-lauded Telltale series (though I do also enjoy this style of game). It has brilliant aesthetic design, for its city and monsters, a claustrophobic soundtrack and a sense of surrealism in its characters. Another underrated Silent Hill is the Wii title Shattered Memories, one of the only good western-made SH games. The game changed with how you responded in a psycho-analytical therapist’s frame narrative. The writer went on to do ‘Her Story’, a recent game on PC. Check it out.

  22. You broke my heart by saying it wasn’t a perfect game! I loved this article and am SO happy that someone has taken the time to explain the games. Every single one of these games is all based on psychology and symbolism, this game being even more so. All of these games, and even the movies (even though they messed up the second one), have a special place in my heart.

    I loved reading your article, thanks so much for writing it!

  23. Lazarinth

    Great analysis for a great game. Silent 2 is thick with meaning and you picked up on most of it.

  24. I’ve been a fan of the Silent Hill game series for quite some time now. Although the combat leans towards the tedious side, it’s still a really fun survival game that has every element of psychological complexity and adrenaline blasting simplicity from ambiance to imagery.
    I enjoy how the combination of moral decisions you make in the game can alternate the ending you obtain.
    I love how in every game the silent hill universe is tailored to the person who experiences it based on the actions that took place in their normal lives, and the creatures depicted are a direct representation of their own internal conflict.
    There’s also something I like about what people would now consider to be ‘bad graphics’ in the older games, it kind of adds on the the overall atmosphere and creepiness, plus, who doesn’t enjoy a game that messes with their head a little, Silent Hill has never failed, except for the second movie, that failed everyone.

  25. Emily Deibler

    Silent Hill 2 was great. I got chills just by reading through and reminding myself of the eerier moments, and a lot of the horrific things come from suggestion. Fantastic post.

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