Saturday, March 3, 2012

Silent Hill 2: An Analysis of Memories

I wanted to share an essay I wrote on Silent Hill 2 a couple years ago because of the new Silent Hill HD collection coming soon. It's pretty heavy stuff and not exactly blog-friendly either, but here it is. It's an essay about the relationship of memories and the characters of Silent Hill 2, particularly the protagonist, James Sunderland. I've come to believe that SH2 might be what sets video games apart from the rest of the other media in terms of storytelling as an art form. Within you'd find how games are an interactive experience, but the control is still in the developers hands. Just because you want a certain outcome doesn't mean you'd get it. Silent Hill 2 is truly a revolutionary way of telling stories in a video game environment, and it's really a shame that no other game seems to have been able to replicate it. Please comment if you want to discuss about anything in the essay.

An Analysis of Memories in Silent Hill 2
In The Life of Reason, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana 82).  Progress is therefore dependent on one’s retentiveness of memories.  Silent Hill 2 is a survival-horror video game by Konami that explore this idea extensively with its protagonist, James Sunderland, who finds himself wandering  the supernatural ghost town of Silent Hill in search of his deceased wife, Mary, who was killed by a disease after a long period of hospitalization.  At the end of the game, a video tape revealed Sunderland as an unreliable narrator, exposing the fact that it was Sunderland himself who murdered Mary. There are three main endings that investigate the consequences of Sunderland’s actions within the game. Depending on the player’s choices, the game will determine Sunderland’s, not the player’s, state of mind to determine the ending.
 Silent Hill 2 uses characters as a symbolic device to represent memories, delusions, and the future.  Mary is a representation of Sunderland’s memories and “exists only on a video tape and as a photograph in the player’s possession” (Kirkland 174), Maria is a representation of delusions created by Silent Hill based on Sunderland’s desires, and Laura, a daughter figure to Mary and James, is a representation of the future left behind by Mary in her statement that she had planned to adopt her if it were not for her sickness.  Sunderland’s memories threaten to destroy him.   His fate depends on how well he deciphers the truth in his memories and whether or not he accepts responsibilities for his actions.  Sunderland’s journey through Silent Hill reveals that guilt is self destructive if it lingers.  In order to lift the tensions on memory caused by guilt, one must first have the courage to stop blaming others by accepting the responsibility of their actions and then to stop blaming oneself by finding forgiveness from within.  
James Sunderland was not the only person drawn to Silent Hill.  Angela Orosco and Eddie Dombrowski are characters that have similarities to Sunderland in that they both have a violent background with unresolved emotions leading to guilt.  Orosco killed her abusive father and Dombrowski killed a dog and wounded a policeman before arriving in Silent Hill, and while they appear sane in the initial stages of the game, they occasionally show signs of repressed violent tendencies.  It helps to understand a little bit about childhood trauma on the adult mind to understand why some of these characters behave the way they do.  Gil Eyal in “Identity and Trauma” notes, “Because it is too painful to remember, trauma is repressed.  Repression, however, is active and motivated forgetting, and it is preserved only through a constant internal vigilance.  This constant effort distorts the personalities of the adult, in extreme cases causing individuals to dissociate and split their personalities” (21).  The sudden change to violent behavior in Orosco and Dombrowski is because of their split in personality.  Including Sunderland, all of these characters feel intense guilt and are drawn to Silent Hill.  Who gets to leave the haunted town is decided by the choices they make when confronted by the materializations of their remorse characterized by the demon’s appearing within their personal Silent Hill. 
Orosco and Dombrowski were not able to leave Silent Hill.  They are examples of people that are consumed by their guilt and were never able to recover from them, and Silent Hill takes their lives as a result.  In order to recover from trauma, one needs “to recover the memory of the original trauma and acknowledge it” (Eyal 22).  Dombrowski was the worst of the three as he was never able to acknowledge what he had done.  Unlike Sunderland, he did not forget about how he killed the dog, rather, he is in strong denial that killing the dog was wrong.  He is running away from the responsibility of his actions.  Eyal says, “To tell the truth about the past [does] not mean simply to recover an event that was lost or censored, but to own up to its significance; to recognize that one has denied it in the past and to accept responsibility for one’s moral complicity” (22).  Most of the things that Dombrowski says are evidence that he pushes responsibilities away from himself whether or not it was his responsibility to take. 
When Sunderland sees a dead body in an apartment room Dombrowski was in, his first says to Sunderland, “I didn’t do anything.  I, I swear!  He was like this when I got here…” (Silent Hill 2).  When James catches Dombrowski expressing his joy in killing someone, Dombrowski responds, “B,but… it wasn’t my fault.  He, he made me do it!” (Silent Hill 2).  Time and time again Dombrowski denied responsibility for all of the murders he committed.  Although within Silent Hill, Dombrowski had resorted to violence, he does have a side that desires forgiveness.  Early in the game, Laura asked naïvely why Dombrowski would not just simply apologize for his actions.  Dombrowski responded, “It’s no good.  They wouldn’t listen.  Nobody will ever forgive me” (Silent Hill 2).  He clearly felt guilty about what he had done within the initial parts of the game.  It is clear that Dombrowski had fallen into Silent Hill’s appeal and lost the chance to recover by continuing his denial of responsibility. 
            A common theme in the characters in Silent Hill 2 is that they were all running away from responsibility.  While Dombrowski blamed others for his wrongful actions, Angela Orosco is a character that blames herself.  Killing her abusive father was an act of self defense, yet the event still caused her great guilt.  Eyal says, “It is not knowledge per se that could overcome forgetting/denial, nor even persecution and condemnation” (26).  Orosco condemns herself.  Forgiveness cannot happen if one cannot first forgive oneself.  All of the characters see the surroundings in Silent Hill differently.  Sunderland generally sees the town as an abandoned ghost town with decaying walls and rusted fences.  At the end of the game, Sunderland briefly enters Orosco’s world, and there he saw everything engulfed in flames.  He expresses that it was “hot as hell.”  Orosco responds, “You see it too?  For me, it’s always like this” (Silent Hill 2).  It is as if she believed she deserved to go to hell for what she had done, and Silent Hill’s paranormal nature granted that thought by surrounding her with hell’s flames.  Unable to forgive herself, Orosco wanders Silent Hill forever in torment.
It is important to understand that the individual player’s decisions made in controlling Sunderland directly changes the outcome of whether or not he leaves Silent Hill safely.  James Paul Gee in “Why Game Studies Now?” describes how even though the game has an authored story, the player’s input helps create an entirely different story from the one the game designers intended.  Gee says using Castlevania, another Konami game, as an example, “Your Alucard [Castlevania’s protagonist] is different than mine.  Yours had a different trajectory than mine.  The hero is thus not Alucard from the designer’s story or you the real-world player.  It is Alucard-you, a melding of the virtual character, Alucard, and you” (60).  This applies to Silent Hill 2 more significantly.  By controlling Sunderland, the player is creating a new character not intended by the designers. 
Depending on the player’s actions, one of three main endings can be achieved, but there is only one “good” ending that concludes with Sunderland surviving his experience in Silent Hill.  Bernard Perron, further elaborating on this idea, says, “If to play means to pretend to be someone else in the framework of a playful activity and to behave accordingly, it implies that the gamer forms one body--but not one mind as we’ll see—with his player character” (142).  The outcome of Sunderland cannot be preconceived by the player as the endings are directly related to Sunderland’s state of mind, not the player’s.  While the player’s actions has a hand in changing Sunderland’s state of mind, there is no way players can tell what it is, whether Sunderland was becoming more hopeful or depressed, until the end.  What the players do for Sunderland to have a change of his emotional state is not easily predictable.  These are not simple good or evil endings in which there are dialogue trees to choose from, and choosing good responses as opposed to evil responses would give players the good ending.  Silent Hill 2 simply changes the resulting ending because Sunderland, as controlled by the player, had found messages that Sunderland may not have found otherwise  These messages may change his emotional state of mind.  For example, if the player finds the audiotape imparting details about Mary’s dying condition left behind in Silent Hill’s hospital, Sunderland’s own psyche is change into a more depressed state, and the ending would also change accordingly.  The player themselves would not have known what was in the audiotape and would therefore not have any control over Sunderland’s state of mind. 
In the three different endings, Sunderland is accompanied by one of three symbolic characters: Maria, Mary or Laura.  Sunderland meets Maria, the representation of delusions, at the Rosewater Park, one of James and Mary’s “special places.”  Besides Maria’s more exotic tastes and personality, Maria looks identical to Mary.  Because of this, Sunderland constantly makes the mistake of calling her Mary.  Maria often joins Sunderland in his journey through Silent Hill, but is killed by a monster known as pyramid head.  Maria appears before James multiple times even after her apparent death, but she is executed again and again within Sunderland’s reach.  Each and every time Maria is killed, Sunderland feels intense remorse because of his inability to save her.  In response to Maria’s first death, Sunderland says, “I couldn’t protect her.  Once again, I couldn’t do anything to help” (Silent Hill 2), alluding to his failure in saving Mary.  The pyramid heads kills Maria for a final time in front of Sunderland by running a spear through her back.  Finally realizing why he was seeing Maria die so often, he says, “I was weak.  That’s why I needed you…. Needed someone to punish me for my sins…. But that’s all over now…. I know the truth….” (Silent Hill 2).  Sunderland finally understands that Maria’s constant revivals and violent deaths is Silent Hill’s way of fulfilling his desires to punish himself as Sunderland believes he should atone for his crime.  The pyramid heads are the representation of executioners who are supposed to carry out the punishment.  By seeing Maria, Mary’s double, violently murdered, Sunderland is forced to watch his wife killed in front of him again and again to remind Sunderland of his crime.  As much as Sunderland desires to forget about his mistakes, he cannot forget them.
Silent Hill is a place that both torments their visitors and also grants their desires.  This is clearly demonstrated by associating the dead bodies with Dombrowski and Maria’s shocking resemblance to Mary but with a sexualized appearance.  Dombrowski is a coward who runs from responsibilities.  The desire that Dombrowski wants granted is of human beings readily available for him to shoot down as opposed to Sunderland’s Maria.  These humans are like Maria, delusions caused by Silent Hill.  Throughout the course of the game, Maria will be the only character to accompany Sunderland.  How friendly the player behaves toward Maria shows how Sunderland is falling for Silent Hill’s “gifts.”  The further one falls for Silent Hill’s gifts the more one denies the truth.  Sunderland denies the truth of how he murdered his wife.  By falling in love with Maria is to deny his responsibilities in what he did to Mary.  Dombrowski denies the fact that he had killed a dog and injured an officer.  They are both running from responsibilities.  By observing Dombrowski’s personality changes as he accepts Silent Hill’s gifts shows what might happen to Sunderland.  In Sunderland’s first encounter with Dombrowski, there was a dead human body outside.  Dombrowski was in the restroom vomiting.  The next encounter shows Dombrowski perfectly calm, perhaps even happy, eating pizza in a bowling alley.  The third time shows Dombrowski holding a pistol saying, “Killin’ a person ain’t no big deal.  Just put the gun to their head…pow!” (Silent Hill 2); afterwards, the player finds a dead body shot in the head. Dombrowski is clearly transforming from a man looking for forgiveness to someone who enjoys murder.  By comparing these encounters with Dombrowski, players can see that the worst thing Sunderland can do is to take Silent Hill’s gifts, fall for Maria, and as a result, fall deeper in denials.
The ending titled “Maria” is one that shows the possibilities of an ongoing cycle if Sunderland had continued to be indulged in his delusions.  It is achieved by protecting Maria when she travels with Sunderland and by attempting to revisit her body when she dies.  Actions that demonstrate Sunderland’s special interest to Maria will grant the ending.  It is the only ending in which he confronts Mary rather than Maria in the final encounter.  Killing Mary a second time, Sunderland convinces himself that the Mary he just confronted was also an illusion created by Silent Hill.  He tells himself that the real Mary had already died. Ewan Kirkland says regarding this event, “Killing Mary… represents a repetition of James’ act of euthanasia – a misogynistic obliteration of the woman he grew to resent, the manifestation of his guilt and self-loathing” (413).  If Silent Hill was a manifestation of his guilt and self-loathing, then the Mary he just killed is indeed an illusion.  She was an incarnation of Mary that existed in his mind because of his guilt.  When Sunderland first saw this Mary, he says, “I couldn’t watch you suffer.  In response, Mary says angrily, “Don’t make excuses, James.  I know I was a burden on you.  You must have hated me.  That’s why you got rid of me… James, do you really think I could ever forgive you for what you did?” (Silent Hill 2).  Because the real Mary was deceased, the Mary that Sunderland had confronted was created from his memories.  What Mary said is then the reflection of Sunderland’s conscience about whether or not he should be forgiven, which is evidently no.  In this ending, Sunderland follows in Dombrowski’s footsteps.  Sunderland felt guilty for what he had done but blames it on Mary by saying he couldn’t watch her suffer.  Mary had to point out that another reason why he did it was because she was a burden.  By blaming her and by denying any ulterior motives for taking Mary’s life, Sunderland was denying all responsibility for his actions.
Sunderland decides to leave Silent Hill with Maria, but as they were leaving, Maria coughs.  The scene ends with Sunderland saying, “You’d better do something about that cough...” (Silent Hill 2).  Maria was created from Sunderland’s memories, and her coughs are a sign that Mary’s sickness was also replicated in Maria.  Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is hinted at in how Sunderland continues to deny his crime of killing Mary once again, and his decision to leave Silent Hill with Maria makes it clear that Sunderland is still indulged in his delusions.  Eyal says, “They will be continuously haunted by unconscious trauma, and highly susceptible to repetition, even when, or precisely because they try their hardest to put the past behind them” (26).  Sunderland’s denial of his second killing of his wife and his desires to be with Maria are a clear sign that he is trying to put the past behind him without acknowledging his own faults.  Maria’s final coughs show that nothing is resolved.  Sunderland had already killed Mary twice.  When Maria’s sickness escalates to Mary’s condition before she died, Sunderland will kill Maria like he did Mary. Sunderland will then figuratively kill Mary for a third time.  Sunderland is condemned to repeat the past until he conceives the truth of his actions.
            In the ending titled “In Water,” Sunderland takes Mary’s dead body after she gives him her last words and runs his car into the lake, committing suicide.  There are many ways to achieve this ending, but one of the most baffling ways is to find a diary entry that chronicle a patient who had to stay in bed for extended periods of time and listening to a cassette tape that reveals to the player that Sunderland had nursed Mary’s health for three years, knowledge that was not known until listening to the tape.  According to Kirkland, “Diary entries largely serve a confessional or eye-witness story telling function.  Audio and video cassettes operate as documentary, revealing hidden, invariably sinister, truths” (410).  Finding more about the truth is somehow more punishing then not as the tape and diary are optional discoveries.  By listening to the cassette tape and reading the diary entries, Sunderland’s suicide ending is evident that these items reminded him of Mary’s pain and his powerlessness to help.  They were causing him to be depressed, so it becomes apparent that this ending is a representation of a fault in Sunderland that was also found in Orosco: blaming oneself cannot bring about forgiveness. 
Unlike the “Maria” ending, Sunderland meets with Mary on a hospital bed at the end.  There, he asks for forgiveness and Mary replied, “I told you I wanted to die, James.  I wanted the pain to end” (Silent Hill 2).  Sunderland confesses, “That’s why I did it honey.  I just couldn’t watch you suffer…. No, that’s not the whole truth.  You also said that you didn’t want to die.  The truth is… part of me hated you.  For taking away my life…” (Silent Hill 2).  Mary then tries to console Sunderland.  She says, “You killed me and you’re suffering for it.  It’s enough James” (Silent Hill 2).  The difference between this and the “Maria” ending is that Sunderland acknowledges both reasons that motivated him in killing his wife.  Mary did not have to point it out to him.  She, however, points out that Sunderland is suffering for it, and he certainly is.  Mary’s presence in Sunderland’s car as he drives into the lake is a representation of how Sunderland to let go of Mary, thus has yet to forgive himself for what he had done.  He drowns in a place of memories with Mary.
            In the “Maria” and “In water” endings, Sunderland does not safely leave Silent Hill.  In the “Leave” ending, however, he does.  Sunderland realizes the truth of his actions, but also the path to move on.  In this ending, he once again finds himself meeting a bedridden Mary.  Some of the dialogue has changed, however.  In his confession, he says, “That’s why I did it honey.  I just couldn’t watch you suffer.  No!  That’s not true… You also said that you didn’t want to die.  The truth is I hated you.  I wanted you out of the way.  I wanted my life back….” (Silent Hill 2).  Mary responds, “James… if that were true, then why do you look so sad?  James… Please… please do something for me.  Go on with your life” (Silent Hill 2).  Subsequently, Sunderland takes Laura with him and leaves Silent Hill.  Sunderland has at last forgiven himself for killing his wife and by taking Laura with him when he leaves Silent Hill he is looking towards the future along with the memories left by Mary. 
            Sunderland was drawn to Silent Hill along with two other outsiders: Angela Orosco and Eddie Dombrowski.  All three of them had memories of guilt and Silent Hill had tested them in their ability to cope with this guilt.  Conveniently, Orosco and Dombrowski were hints at what Sunderland’s fate if he was to fail Silent Hill’s test and be destroyed by his memories.  Sunderland’s own character is directly manipulated by the player.  Depending on the players’ actions, the game changes the ending based on Sunderland’s state of mind by the end of the game.  The “Maria” ending portrayed Sunderland as if he was Dombrowski, devoid of all responsibility, and as a result, doomed to repeat history.  The “In water” ending portrayed Sunderland as if he was Orosco, full of self-blame and depression.  Even if he believed Mary had forgiven him, he could not forgive himself.  It is in the “Leave” ending that Sunderland was able to properly cope with his guilt by first learning the truth about his repressed memories to start the healing process, second to forgive oneself to not linger in depression, and then finally to progress forward in life by taking responsibility and learning from one’s own choices.

Works Cited
Eyal, Gil. “Identity and Trauma.” Project Muse. Web. 25 Nov. 2009.
Gee, James Paul. “Why Game Studies Now? Video Games: A New Art Form.” Games and Culture. Sage Publications. Web. 25 Nov. 2009.
Kirkland, Ewan. “Restless dreams in Silent Hill: approaches to video game analysis.” Journal of Media Practice 6:3. 2005. 167–178
---. “The Self-Reflexive Funhouse of Silent Hill.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. Sage Publications. Web. 25. Nov. 2009.
Perron, Bernard. “The Survival Horror: The extended Body Genre.” Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. Ed. Bernard Perron. North Carolina: McFarland, 2009.121. Print.
Santayana, George. “Reason in Common Sense.” The Life of Reason. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1954. Print.
Silent Hill 2. El Segundo: Konami, 2001.


  1. An absolutely excellent write up. I've been playing through the game many times recently and have grown a major appreciation for its way of using symbolism and semiotics to tell a brilliantly subversive yet unnerving narrative. Truly a psychological horror masterpiece.

    1. Wow, thanks for the compliment. I didn't expect anyone to stumble on my essay, let alone actually read it. The first few Silent Hill games were certainly masterpieces of symbolism and semiotics. SH3 will probably always leave the strongest impression on me with its incredible use of circles throughout the game.