Musical accompaniments for this article: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXmZWN079JI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOK1AEQ-3CQ&list=PL81PCiZWVPTDOvs588fT5Nk08oagI1_17&index=18
We’re nearly at the town now and we walk past a a chainlink fence and a streetsign that both broadly say the same thing: ROAD CONSTRUCTION AHEAD DETOUR/DANGER CONSTRUCTION AREA KEEP OUT. They have a straightforward, literal “meaning” — Silent Hill is in one sense, or at least, to some people, a normal town, with building sites and signs. And a symbolic meaning — Silent Hill is in one sense, or at least, to some people, intuitively, spontaneously, esoterically “constructed” based around their psychology. It’s a building site that builds itself, using Angela’s or James’ or whomever’s brains for materials. And what it’s built for James, or built out of James, when he first arrives there, is an empty street with a shop on one side of it that’s advertising selling flowers. I let go of the analogue stick and the run button so I can angle the camera and look around, and James bends slightly forward and puts his palms on his knees and starts panting to get his breath back, which is a detail I see in a lot of game characters nowadays like Leon and Claire in the Resident Evil 2 remake, and which I remember being included in Grand Theft Auto 3, that came out only a year after Silent Hill 2, but here it’s more human — and humanising — and not just an appeal to some kind of realism, somehow. Videogame characters perform physical activities with impossible strength, stamina and endurance — they can carry dozens of guns, without even having a bag on their backs, and climb sheer rock faces without their grip ever faltering. James Sunderland can do these, too — who knows where he keeps his rifle and his shotgun and all his health drinks — but the fact he at least seems to run out of breath, in combination with his weaknesses and fears, albeit at this point in the game illustrated only through metaphor, helps create the impression of a human being. The limits of his emotional strength wouldn’t seem to matter as much, or suit him, or feel as real or familiar, if he had no limits, or his limits were inhumanly extreme.
In one of the earlier chapters I wrote about how James often “escapes” away from the game camera or describes, inwardly, experiences that only he is having — “it feels like something is groping around inside my skull” when he first encounters one of our save points, which to us is a save point in a videogame and confers no physical sensation, and to him is the opposite, something that physically sensates him and is not a save point in a videogame, but another, in fact the inaugural, oddity he encounters as part of his experience in Silent Hill, “it feels like something is groping around inside my skull” separates us, the players, from James, the character. The game is about him. Arguably us as him, but definitely not just us as us. We might interpret and be active in creating, or playing in a way that complements, his subjective experience, but the experience remains subjective to him. We control James mechanically, but we do not inhabit him, and personalise him with ourselves. In some games, without our input and our projecting our thoughts, feelings and ambitions onto them, the characters have no animus, no meaning. In Silent Hill 2, this dynamic is reversed. Without James’ personality and subjectivity, our actions and inputs would have far less thematic or narrative significance. Pyramid Head would just be a frightening-looking boss who we fight. Our actions in the game are essentially banal — run, shoot, “use”. But they’re given substance by the presence of James, and Silent Hill 2 becomes the opposite of say a role-playing game, where our actions are the substantive component, with all the customising and levelling and managment, and they give meaning to a banal character. You’re invited to consider which you of these dynamics you prefer. Silent Hill 2 makes the point that it is character led in one small but distinctive choice, whereby stopping to collect one of the health drinks scattered around the town’s incipient streets I’ve just started exploring triggers the on-screen disclaimer “I got a health drink”. Not “you got a health drink”, referring to the player; “I got a health drink”, referring to James. This blase videogaming moment, only slightly, pronominally tweaked, is used to help describe James as the narrator as opposed to the narrated to; the subject rather than the subjected; applicant rather than supplicant. We normally use game characters to tell our stories through. Here, James is describing his story to us.
A few more moments of wandering and I (I realise the hypocrisy of saying “I” after I have just finishing labouring a point about how James is not me/us/I/we are not James) arrive at a junction, whereby a short cutscene is triggered showing the game’s first monster, this figure of a person but with the torso half wrapped in this kind of sack with the arms trapped inside it, staggering away in the distance, to which James, in his inner monologue, inscribed on the bottom of the screen, reacts by thinking “That shadow just now…” There is no other response, from either the game or from James himself — no music or animation of him looking afraid or startled. In fact, the elipsis on the end of the subtitle of his intuition makes it seem less like he’s scared by the silhouette of the monster and more like he’s reminded by it of something, like it’s somehow familiar. Again, to me, us, it’s a monster, an enemy, something intrinsic to a game that we know precisely what we’re going to have to do with it and especially now when we glimpse it for the first time has almost no relevance to us beyond that. But to James it seems to be something much more. This is constructed around him.
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