Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. This week, Andy returns to the foggy streets of Silent Hill 2.
Having finished Silent Hill 2 more times than I can remember, I know what lies around every corner, but the atmosphere is so thick and oppressive I still can't play it for more than an hour at a time. This is partly down to the filthy, flyblown grime of its hospital corridors and fogbound streets, which seems to seep through your monitor. But mostly it's because of how it sounds.
The audio design is rarely talked about with the same adoration as the wonderfully dark story and surreal, twisted art style, but it's just as important. Audio director Akira Yamaoka used sound and music in interesting, unusual ways to create an air of both low-key melancholy and gnawing terror – whether it's a lonely, solemn piano playing after a particularly harrowing moment in the story, or the sound of some unfathomable horror lurking in the shadows. If you haven't played Silent Hill 2 – and I don't blame you, because the PC version is difficult to track down – the game stars James Sunderland, who receives a letter from his wife, Mary, who died three years earlier. She says she's in the town of Silent Hill, in their 'special place', and James travels there to meet her, only to discover that the town is abandoned and crawling with bizarre creatures. It's one of the best videogame stories ever told, with unforgettable twists and turns that I wouldn't dream of spoiling. It sidelines the series' bloated mythology of cults and magic to tell a tragic, human and oddly romantic tale.
Sound contributes to the action, as well as the atmosphere. When monsters are nearby, James's radio shrieks with static – a sound that makes you instinctively grit your teeth and prime your weapon for whatever abomination is waiting in the mist. But later in the game, while exploring a Civil War-era prison buried deep beneath the town, the static begins to crackle and... there's nothing there. Team Silent regularly subvert your expectations like this – but only very subtly. It isn't just unnerving, it reinforces the idea that you're playing a character who may not be entirely sane.
Subversion of traditional game design is a crucial part of Silent Hill 2's black magic. For the first 30 minutes all you do is run down a seemingly endless path, through a fog-cloaked forest. Occasionally you'll hear a distant growl, or branches snapping, and with every step you grow more fearful of what lies ahead. Later, you climb down a set of stairs that seem to go on forever, deeper and deeper into the earth, and the lower you go, the more intense the sinister groaning of some horrible machine gets. Remember, this wasn't an indie game, but a big budget production that sold 1.5 million copies. Can you imagine a major publisher taking a risk on such a bizarre, slow-paced game today? It'd never happen. The gloomy forest hike features one of the game's neatest audio tricks. As you're walking through the fog, you hear footsteps behind you crunching in the dirt. You stop, and so do the footsteps. You turn around and, of course, there's nothing there. It's a tiny thing, but so effective. In another scene you find yourself in the centre of a large courtyard, when suddenly you hear the sound of a horse galloping around you. It's totally unexpected, utterly inexplicable and weirdly unsettling.
In an apartment that you visit early on in the game, the room is totally silent except for a faint, eerie whispering that's mixed so low, you wonder if you're actually hearing it at all or if the game has finally destroyed your nerves.
Yamaoka's score is perfect, and one of the few game soundtracks I can listen to like a regular album. The music is eclectic, ranging from Nine Inch Nails-style industrial noise, to gentle ambience, and melodic, Americana-flavoured rock. But even with this broad spread of genres, it's totally consistent with the mood and tone of the story. Whenever I listen to it (it's been on my various iPods for almost a decade), I'm instantly transported to those misty streets.
There's a clear Twin Peaks influence in the music, which also extends to the idea of an everyday American town concealing dark, otherworldly secrets. Team Silent's influences are diverse, from the films of David Lynch to the ominous, abstract paintings of Francis Bacon. The town's streets are all named after horror writers, and the disturbing 'otherworld' alternate reality – heralded by the wail of an air raid siren – is clearly influenced by the overlooked horror classic Jacob's Ladder.
When it was released in 2003, Silent Hill 2 ran badly on most PCs. On today's very different hardware it runs surprisingly well. Just make sure you download the Enhanced Edition patch (opens in new tab), so you can run the game in modern resolutions. At 1080p it looks unexpectedly good, the low-res textures only adding to the grubbiness of the world. The lighting is still impressive, the long, dynamic shadows dancing around the room as you swing your flashlight around.
I wouldn't call it a good game. The controls are clunky, the camera twitchy and the puzzles obtuse. But overlook that and you'll find one of the most affecting, atmospheric, brilliantly paced and memorable horror experiences on PC. In a weird way, the clumsy combat makes it scarier. James is just a regular guy, so it makes sense that he isn't a crack shot with a pistol or shotgun.
If you like horror, or just want to be told an emotional story, you should book a holiday in Silent Hill as soon as possible. And if you've played it before, it's worth experiencing at a sensible resolution. The big reveal at the end catches you completely off guard, and makes you question everything that's happened up until that point. You'll never forget your first journey into this seriously broken town.