Like a lot of Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack, the music that begins playing partway along the run down the mountain is repetitive and monotonous, a slow, churning sort of sound that crests and recedes, crests and recedes in a heavy and even pattern. I’ve written already about the eponymous town’s consumptive, sentient behaviour, the way it lures people to itself in order to activate and feed on their darkest emotions. This music, at one level, is the sound of digestion, a monotonous, functional kind of chewing, swallowing and processing noise that reflects Silent Hill’s predatory nature: as James draws closer to it, the town works up its appetite and begins eating him. This rising and falling, coming and going, arriving at a sound that’s louder and sort of revelatory before dropping away from it and back into obscurity reflects also the ceaseless and infinite ordeal of being alone and ruminating on oneself, the churning thought process of misery and enervation. Throughout Silent Hill 2 — for example, when he meets Maria and then she dies and then he meets her again and then she dies again, or when he seemingly successfully traverses some area of the landscape only to find himself back at its start and with the landscape completely changed, like those hospital or labyrinth sections — James experiences what seem to be reprieves from his torment, or finds what appear to be answers to his questions, only for those reprieves and answers to be reconfigured, twisted, into greater and deeper agonies. I find myself mentally searching for something about myself that might justify myself as a good person, who shouldn’t hurt or kill himself, and but when I find it, feeling like because I’ve decided I’m kind or principled or determined enough to deserve to live, feeling also and more so like I must be arrogant or deluded or onanistic to think such flattering things about myself, and that being arrogant, deluded or onanistic, or all three, is reason enough to be someone that I should kill, and then so on. The same personal questions leading to the same personal answers to the same personal questions to the same personal answers to the same personal questions is something emphasised in this motif of Silent Hill 2’s music– you will notice similar sounds and patterns across most of the game’s soundtrack.
It’s emphasised also by the appearance of the game’s first save point, in fact, the appearance of the save points in general. The act of saving your progress in a game naturally creates and denotes a sense of security: if I die, or if there’s a power cut or something and the console turns off, I can start again from here. At the simplest technical and practical levels, this is still true in Silent Hill 2. But the presentation of the save points introduces a sense of dubiousness and uncertainty, as if to suggest that saving is having some kind of hurtful and irreversible effect on James, and perhaps also yourself. The save points appear as perfectly angled, brightly coloured red squares. Amidst the game’s chaotic aesthetic and visual code, its dreary palette, decrepit architecture and pulsing, irregularly proportioned monster characters, the save points on one hand offer a reassuring sense of cogency and consistency — most of what you see in Silent Hill does not look how it ought or you would imagine it to look, but these red squares are precisely, simply red squares, and each time you find one, it’s as if you have regained a certain level of control/reached an oasis of normalcy. On the other hand, as they are essentially the only “normal” or true-looking objects you find in Silent Hill, they become also the strangest and most abnormal, the elements that look the most artificial, deliberate and by extension ominous, a dead giveaway of the existence of a malevolent and authorial force guiding James to his emotional destruction, and you as a player to witnessing it. The first save point is located at the bottom of an empty water well. When you activate it, subtitles for James’ inner thoughts appear, explaining that “looking at this makes me feel like someone is groping around inside my skull”. The actual save screen, where you move your cursor and select a memory card slot and create a new save, is backgrounded by a watercolour illustration of James’ face. These elements in combination help to accentuate a difficulty or pain inherent to memory, or at least to James’ own experiences of remembering. The previous chapter argued that the physical act of traveling downwards in Silent Hill 2, for example down this opening mountainside or into the various basements of the various buildings that James explores, mirrors James’ mental process of descending into realisation and rapprochement — staring downward into the well, to access saves, “memories” created within the game, serves a neat also postmodernist example of how Silent Hill 2 conflates James’ association with his past with his current descent, something re-emphasised by the pain that he describes in his skull, affirming that looking back at himself, almost literally looking back on himself in this case, is painful; the word “groping” helps to characterise exactly the source of this pain, that is, his sexual predilections and violence towards Mary. That portrait, which stares out of the screen similarly to James staring into the mirror during the game’s opening, insists that your creating a memory of your progress in the game is intimately somehow entwined with James himself, that the subject of memory is something which closely involves and effects him. Though not an exact metaphor, there’s a certain loose poetry in the idea that the “memories” we create as players are also a source of his affliction, him being a character for whom looking back at himself is ultimately totally emotionally destructive.
The red squares become as duplicitous and unsettling a prospects as rumination and self-exploration, generating feelings of progress and development while at the same time creating more pain and inner turmoil.
Next: people over things
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One thought on “CHAPTER SEVEN: GROPING AROUND INSIDE MY SKULL”
A fantastic close reading. It’s been a real pleasure to read this so far.
Have you ever read 1982 Janine by Alasdair Gray? I’m only a little way into it, but it’s directly and focussedly about misogynist fantasy being borne of/entangled with male inadequacy and self-absorption. It’s fascinating, and obviously has deep parallels with this series and with SH2.