Outlast, Resident Evil 7, Amnesia: Rebirth, The Evil Within: They come with jump scares, disgust, bowels and holes in which we hide. They come with good stories, good graphics, gore and – at times – screaming streamers on YouTube. I've played them all, but something was always missing. Terror. Panic. Real horror?
I entered the room in Silent Hill 2, I had previously saved. In the apartment all I saw was an old, dirty wardrobe and trash on the floor; I couldn't peek around the corner or see what was happening here. Silence as I took a step forward. One more step and I was ready to turn the camera and finally see what was waiting in here when heavy machines pummeled in my ears, high-pitched clinking and a dull roar. I ran away and I didn't even know what before.
Is Silent Hill 2 the worst game ever made?
Is there a "worst horror game ever"? I don't know, but I've scoured various Reddit forums for that same question, over and over again over the past few years. As a horror fan, at some point it is no longer so easy to pick out really scary games from the tangle of new products. And speaking of novelties: Newer games in particular have seldom actually scared me, as if sharing them too softened became – just as many AAA titles carry increasingly simple game mechanics piggyback to the player.
My research for the worst horror game ever led me to Amnesia: The Dark Decent years ago. Good old memories of a trembling protagonist who hides in the closet while I talk to him – my screen – well. Amnesia is wonderful and so is the new part Amnesia: Rebirth has it all, as I was able to discover with pleasure.
And yet. Was that all the horror genre could offer me?
Two years ago I came across an indie horror genre that was mainly dedicated to silent hill-esque games: bizarre pixel worlds, the soundscape of which was often reminiscent of large industrial companies, strange puzzles and protagonists that go deeper and deeper into subway Tunnels or sewer systems migrated. Lost in Vivo or Concluse, both little known and both wonderful, taught me that there was something else; something that is a kind of in me terror stoked. Something that wasn't nurtured by jump scares.
I loved Silen Hill-esque games more than the triple-aces of the horror industry, and it was time I finally met the grandfather of it all: Silent Hill 2.
The terror that today's games can no longer foment
Silent Hill 2 is not based on jump scares, disgusting intestines or playing hide and seek with invincible monsters. Much of what is considered good form for today's shockers does not exist in SH2. You play in the third-person perspective, where the camera angles are often predetermined. You own weapons and kill monsters. Dilapidated buildings, rooms or people are more numerous than bloody scenes. There is no system by which your sanity is measured; all you have is an inventory and a life gauge.
You start out in a disgusting public toilet, The edges of the toilets are yellow, there is rubbish everywhere and the walls are covered with dirt and tags. Your protagonist James Sunderland looks in the mirror and mumbles a name: Mary. The introduction that follows is dreamy, bizarre, beautiful – James' wife died three years ago and yet she wrote him a letter saying she was waiting in the town of Silent Hill. That doesn't make sense, does it?
Anyway, I keep going. James is only a short walk from Silent Hill, but as soon as I step through a kind of forest, it becomes Fog so thickthat I can barely see anything. The camera pans and I see James from the front; when I run forward I don't know where. Then a noise. Like the distorted sound of an animal tearing flesh to pieces? I stop. Nothing.
Go on, and again – the same sound, kind of choppy. I'm not feeling well, and then there is a well that I stop by. Inside is a red piece of paper that James tells me about: "When I look at that, it's like someone's groping in my skull." He's right because it's a save point.
That was when Silent Hill 2 had me. With nothing more than a camera, dirt, a single, repetitive sound and a story that made no sense and yet was strangely beautiful. It is terror that this game – at least in me, but also in many others – awakens, and terror does not get old. Silent Hill 2 may be the best horror game I've ever played.
Throw up, holes and machines
“There was a HOLE here. Now it's gone." Once in Silent Hill, the game begins to swallow you up little by little. The fog remains, but disgusting creatures with legs or meatballs for their heads trudge across the streets. Protagonist James acts apathetic and slowly and precisely beats to death everything that comes in his way. Are there still people here? Oh yes, I meet someone who hangs over a dirty toilet in a trashed apartment and the soul pukes out of the body. Why is he doing this? Maybe ate something wrong. I speak to him in my apathetic voice and ask myself if James or he or anyone even understands what is going on in this game.
Outside in the hallway again machinerybooming through headphones. I'm still looking for Mary, nothing else matters. Even if I have to reach into dripping holes in walls without knowing what is waiting for me. At one point the music frightened me so much that I ran headlong out of the house. Funny, because in that room that I later enter again there is nothing at all.
Terror. I'm not the first person to write about Silent Hill 2 and yet I have to wonder how one 19 year old game can inspire, fascinate and shock me more than any other horror game in recent years. Is horror dead? Is horror too mainstream? Is horror still about stirring up fear? Or is Silent Hill 2 such an exception that simply no one can get at it?
Netflix and Amazon: The 30 Best Horror Movies of 2020.
Well, I'm happy to have found my game for Halloween 2020 anyway. Even if I will face the same problem afterwards: what now? I can already see myself playing through the Silent Hill series, although the second part is supposed to be the best. And it will stay as long as triple-A horror remains what it currently is.