The relationship between player and character differs from genre to genre, game to game. Often, the end objective is to invest the player in the plot just as the controlled character is invested. The problem is that the player can never be as invested as the character because there are no real consequences for the player.
You die in a game, and it means little to your real life. You might get mad, frustrated, annoyed but at the end of the day you’ll be alive.
The character and player will never totally connect. There will always be dissonance. The absolute very best we can do is bridge that gap and put the player in the same shoes as the character.
Most worrisome is the relation between the player character during cutscenes and the player character during gameplay. Having different repercussions or different rules for the character during cutscene will lengthen the rift between player and character. Gameplay will feel more like we’re guiding or controlling the character instead of playing as the character. We’ve all played the game where the PC takes dozens of bullets to the face during gameplay only to be seriously hindered (or killed) by a single bullet via cutscene.
The same could be said for themes, motifs and character goals. Let’s look at Max Payne 3. In one cutscene, Max laments death, hates that he’s surrounded by it, and, haunted by his past life, effectively starts drinking himself to death. Heavy stuff. In gameplay segments, Max is a merciless killing machine.
But, let’s be honest, the downfalls of this disconnect are nearly unavoidable within the medium. Even Half-Life 2 and Bioshock have sections where the player cannot control the character. What we’re interested in is minimizing these pitfalls or using them the same way you’d use any game mechanic— as a device meant to pull the player towards one theme, tone or to better tell a story. In Bioshock, for example, some cutscenes are explained within the game world. In its masterstroke, Bioshock commentates on the player/character relationship, using this disconnect as a way to approximate mind control.
All of these ideas play a huge role in making Silent Hill 2 the game it is. We’ve all read the theories and the many analyses on themes and messages hidden deep beneath Silent Hill 2’s murky waters. We’re going to touch on all that, but the focus will be on our relationship with its main character, James Sunderland, and how that relationship assists Silent Hill’s ambitious themes and meanings.
Silent Hill, est 1810
At the start, we know next to nothing about James Sunderland. In fact, we arrive in Silent Hill 2 with James, a letter, an objective and not much else to go on. James himself is bland, maybe even uninteresting aside from his peculiar objective—he’s in town to visit his wife, which should be difficult on account of her being dead.
The use of anonymity to strengthen empathy is common in traditional fiction, and it’s even more common in video games. James is used as a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto.
We’re a bit confused as to who James really is, why he’s here or why he would ever consider the possibility of his wife waiting for him in Silent Hill. But that’s okay, after all, James is a bit confused himself. We’re forced to piece together James Sunderland with him.
Interpretation of Silent Hill 2
You meet your first NPC before entering the town proper– Angela– a woman just as lost and confused as James. You meet three others in town– Eddie, Mary and Laura. Most conversations feel off, almost as though the characters see a different Silent Hill than James.
James evades twitching ghouls while weaving through abandoned apartments, hospitals and prisons on his way to meet Mary at the Lakeview Hotel. Meanwhile, Laura and Eddie enjoy a pizza pie at the bowling alley. And Angela seems convinced that a disgusting door monster (yeah, you read that right) is her abusive father.
Most notably, no one ever mentions the grotesque monsters– even Eddie who could use a good scapegoat for all the murdered bodies lying around that he totally didn’t have anything to do with.
Once we realize that everyone’s seeing their own version of the town, the player’s forced to question whose version is real. This helps create a complicated, but strong, connection with James Sunderland.
The Silent Hill we see must be a mirror of James’ own psyche. Some monsters represent James’ repressed sexual urges; others represent his guilt. But these ideas aren’t limited to the game’s enemies. Silent Hill 2 uses its game environment to layer motif and theme. Words on walls, paintings, dead bodies and mannequins all hint towards SH2‘s underlying meaning. The game forces James to descend into the depths of the town. There, he explores nightmarish mazes and dark tunnels only to ascend again and finally arrive at Lakeview Hotel, at his truth. These peaks and valleys resemble James’ own struggle and arc.
As it turns out, James Sunderland is about as unreliable a narrator as we can get. We learn (with him) that he murdered his wife. Then, everything clicks. His trip to Silent Hill wasn’t a last ditch effort to be with his wife, it’s his punishment for her murder.
This is one of the few works of any fiction where we are the unreliable narrator.
There was a man here. He’s gone now.
The player doesn’t know anything James doesn’t, and James doesn’t know much we don’t have access to. This might seem irrelevant or even accidental, but it goes a long way in establishing an immediate connection between us and James Sunderland.
James never references his life outside of Mary and that damn letter. All we know is his objective. He received a letter from his dead wife, beckoning him to Silent Hill. So now he’s in Silent Hill, and so are we. The game starts at the rest area, and it ends on top of the Lakeview Hotel. We never step a foot outside of Silent Hill, and we never spend a second away from James Sunderland. We don’t experience anything James doesn’t in that time. So where does James Sunderland end and the player begin?
Understanding the potential disconnects between cutscene and gameplay is integral here. In Silent Hill 2’s cutscenes, James makes illogical decisions that sometimes border on the absurd. He leaves his car door open, he leaves his light on while hiding from Pyramid Head, he sticks his hand inside a hole in the wall, he sticks his hand in an absolutely filthy toilet, he jumps down monstrous holes that seem to have no bottom. And, most of all, he fails to ever really question why he’s come so far to search for someone he watched die. As the player, we’re forced to sit there and do nothing.
James shows a total disregard to many things that would concern real people in real life… sort of like a person playing a video game… or a person in the midst of a dream… or maybe both. The entire Silent Hill 2 experience mimics the phenomena many of us have while dreaming. We can see ourselves make stupid, irrational decisions but can’t affect them.
And it’s not just James. Everyone’s confused. Eddie can’t remember why he’s running from the police. James confuses Maria with Mary. Mary confuses herself with Maria. And Angela thinks some of the shambling monsters might be her family. Everyone’s confused. Just like you.
All of these decisions aid a very conscious effort by the developer to give Silent Hill 2 an ethereal, dream-like quality. This idea that the game is less a (traditional) game and more a dream helps legitimize the motifs and themes surrounding James’ psyche—the guilt, the sexualized enemies, etc. This… this experience that is Silent Hill 2 works because of our connection to James Sunderland. There have been movies like this— Jacob’s Ladder, maybe Mulholland Dr. depending on who you ask— but what better medium to enter the mind of our protagonist than video games?
The reason why Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3 aren’t as powerful as SH2 is because the connection to Heather and Harry Mason isn’t as strong as our connection to James Sunderland. Heather and Harry both reference events outside of the game frequently, namely their relationship to one another. But worse than that is the way Silent Hill is portrayed in each game– as a haunted place where bad shit happens. There’s no subtle character study here; enemies don’t reflect Harry Mason’s empty life or his deep desire for a new leather jacket– but it’d be hilarious if they did. The end result is a less interesting, less innovative, but still well made horror-adventure.
So where does James end and the player begin? Well… Somewhere. The game handles it so well that the distinction is seamless. Take the Uncharted series. Nate and Sully reference adventures we’ll never have, people we’ll never meet, and there’s even an entire marriage between Uncharted 2 and 3 that we’ll never experience. There’s just as many cutscenes in Silent Hill 2, but we feel infinitely closer to James than Nate. As a result, we’ll never ache for Drake’s pitfalls like we do for James Sunderland’s. We play through Uncharted, we experience Silent Hill 2.
Silent Hill 2 proves that we don’t necessarily have to feel like we are the character in order to connect with the character. Every player character doesn’t need to be Gordon Freeman or Link in order for the relationship to succeed. Problems arise when we feel like we’re watching instead of playing as the character.
Silent Hill 2 is one of the few games that understands the disconnect and how to use it to further its goals. The relationship between character, player and cutscene can be used to write inspired scenes and create imaginative gaming experiences. There are many constraints placed on any fictional medium; we can’t actually see the characters great novels tell us about; we can’t know what iconic movie characters think. It’s what these mediums do with these limitations that’s most impressive. It’s exciting to see what games can do with the restraints put on them by the medium. It’s exciting to see where the medium will go. How it’ll evolve. At the center of that evolution is the character/player relationship—a relationship totally unique to the medium.
Limbo analysis incoming.
Written by AJ Cooper & Mason Miller