STILL HEALTHY

But also we are not James. We are not James.

Reads the instruction manual to Williams Entertainment’s 1995 port to the PlayStation of Doom: “You’re a space marine, one of Earth’s toughest, hardened in combat and trained for action. Three years ago you assaulted a superior officer for ordering his soldiers to fire upon civilians. With no action for fifty million miles, your day consists of suckin’ dust and watchin’ restricted flicks in the rec room.” It’s still unusual that we play someone we don’t know everything about or everything we need to know really from at the game’s outset. Age. Physical skills. Military unit/branch of the police/government agency/otherwise contumacious profession (thief, gangster, etc.)/and then a one-sentence susurration of a personality or impetus for being part of the military/police/government/contumacious profession and that, or slight extensions or variations of that, is often all big-budget games will advance and deem it necessary to advance in terms of character. There are exceptions (I typed and then deleted “worthy exceptions”; I swear to God if you’ve read so much as a semi-good novel or watched a semi-good film you can no longer be expected to have your engine revved, socks rocked, boat floated etc. by even the best-written blockbuster and usually independent as well games) but most of the time the game you’re playing is enough committed to one or more genres and sufficiently packed with action that neither the people who’ve made it nor you really give a shit about the characters. “If I want that kind of material,” once remarked one of my editors, during an email exchange debating the quality of writing in Resident Evil 6, low and produced by people apparently completely uninterested in raising it, even by the series’ historically low and uninterested standards, “then I don’t really go to videogames. It’s not what they’re for”.

Arguably different, or at least motivating Silent Hill 2 to attempt difference, is the fact its genre elements are impelled and coded by, and deferential to the character. The premise, Silent Hill changes topographically depending who’s there, works presumably better the more fractured and fucked up the protagonist. Should say Chris Redfield, definable really only by his membership of whatever fictional special forces group and attendant combat prowess, go to Silent Hill then he’s attacked by anthropoid S.T.A.R.S and B.S.A.A. insignias and walking guns and boxes of bullets, emerging orderly from walls and floors that look like biceps –- that doesn’t sound as bland as I originally imagined, but maybe Gordon Freeman, Link or the guy from BioShock would discover just a plain, white, empty facsimile of a town, the generic field that initiates every new construction in Garry’s Mod, only without having any of the tools, that magnum with the screen on top, to make anything. You have in James Sunderland a character defined more strongly than his videogamic especially action-horror videogamic peers and also a character to whom we are not granted instant comprehensive access. At Silent Hill 2’s opening he matches the profile of all the myriad generic other survival horror avatars, a regular or at least untrained-for-combat/unaccustomed-with-the-supernatural guy who must improvise weapons and navigational equipment to overcome not just enemies but his own physical inability. The game’s initiate sections wherein you as James procure first a map then a wooden plank then a torch then a handgun conform to the same initiate sections of for example Half-Life (HEV suit, crowbar, handgun) Resident Evil (knife, handgun, first-floor map) and Alone in the Dark (oil lamp, sword, revolver). Also similar to the avatars in these games James is ostensively oblivious to the real nature of the horror, and unfamiliar with the monsters, phenomena and surroundings, equal to us the players. Presented as the blandly configured everyman of singular, redemptive conviction as you’d expect from a game, any game, a character whose changing, and progress on the narrative acclivity is represented largely by his acquisition of increasingly functional devices and powerful weapons, who follows the developmental curve same as Doomguy, ascending from humble beginnings as denoted by a pistol to transcendence and actualisation as denoted by a BFG 9000, James is deceptive not only of Mary and himself but also of the players, his operators. Dull and weakly built, videogame heroes are also largely innocent, their studied, designed humanlessness protecting them and their makers from the social or political or emotional rigours and problems with which a literary character may typically be expected to contend. James seems like one of these too but the tame- and jejuneness he possesses at the game’s start later peels back, or is rather flayed off by the town itself, to reveal extensive, dark and deleterious complexities. His behaviour, his obtaining guns and equipment in parallel to expected horror game custom, and how we use him — at first struggling with combat and navigation; becoming progressively more adept at both — in the game’s opening hours serves as metaphor for his own duality and self-deceiving. He seems like our usual barely defined videogame man (“videogameman”) who we may vicariously become, and intemerate of the horrors and their psychological implications that he’s apparently experiencing synchronous to us/but is in fact a killer who has already imagined at some level everything that we’re prompted to find frightening and appalling. A complex relationship triangle between us, James and Silent Hill 2 itself takes more immediate form once we access the in-game inventory. Two items, both of which can be manipulated using the game’s “Examine” function: a Photograph of Mary, which manipulation reveals is “from when she was still healthy”, and a Mysterious Letter, written in “definitely Mary’s handwriting”. Through these we become intimately connected to James, able to access his most sentimental effects and glean their personal and esoteric significance. We are distanced from James as well. The descriptions of these items imply a life lived beyond that to which we are privy or cognizant. We don’t know Mary, what she wrote like or how she looked when she wasn’t healthy, and it’s made clear that James does. When the items are Examined and the text pops up we can read James’ thoughts but not in context. We inhabit and control him, but without any thorough or necessarily comprehensible beyond rote, automatic following of videogame convention reasons why. We drive and do things and put him into situations where things are done to him because we know enough to know we have to go forward and also that he wants to go forward, but a fulsome explanation for why why why is for now inaccessible. Our conducting of James is seemingly impelled by superficiality and adherence to game standard i.e. reach the next area, collect material, find Mary, but these simple impulses are later re-contextualised as the products of James’ unsettled past and spiritual agony. His ostensibly normal things that he does, things that any character in a game like Silent Hill 2 would do, are in fact the products of his oppressive and abnormal characteristics — his “everyday” actions and behaviours that we manipulate like move to the next area to get a weapon and a torch and complete the objective of locating Mary are eventually shown to be machinated and explainable only by James’ terrible, unspeakable repressed violence and trauma so rather than play as him entirely, we play apparently the part of him which knows to do things but doesn’t know precisely explanations why; we play as the active and conscious and reactive waking part of his mind, while James represses his subconscious and the town and by post-modern, metatextual etc. extension the game itself try to draw it out of him and unveil it to us. We begin Silent Hill 2 playing as James’ body and the most straightforward and daily aspects of his thinking and the rest of the game ingratiates us with the rest of him.

Next time: The beginnings of the bonding

The more money I get on Patreon the more pressure I feel to deliver what I have promised by writing this book to the end

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