Before I begin, know that there are major spoilers ahead. So yeah, you've been warned.
You might as well consider this the start of the top 10. Why? Well, here's a reason: I think about Silent Hill 2 almost every day. Admittedly, it has not crept into my thoughts constantly since it originally came out; I played it for the first time early this year, nearly nine since its 2001 release. This fact protects my opinion from any claims of wearing rose-tinted glasses, etc. and serves to make my adoration for the game all the more surprising and pure. Silent Hill 2 is an early PS2 survival-horror game that has shitty gameplay, grainy graphics, amateurish voice acting, and mixed review scores. Nevertheless, it's astoundingly brilliant; one of the most thematically rich and deeply impressive video game experiences ever crafted.
The story begins with everyman James Sunderland receiving a cryptic letter from his late wife asking him to return to Silent Hill, their "special place." Foolish horror protagonist that he is, James drives to the peaceful little resort town, now blanketed in fog, to search for the source of the mysterious message. It's a pretty creepy set-up that presents the player with enough motivation to move James through the rather lifeless environment for hours on end.
I guess I'll get Silent Hill 2's major problem out of the way sooner rather than later: it is not a good "game." After getting over the initial shock of whacking a pale, squirming humanoid wrapped in cellophane to "death" with a 2x4, it soon becomes apparent that the combat is clunky and boring. The puzzles, which provide the game's only challenge, are more often than not either thoughtless fetch quests or obtuse riddles. They certainly have some quirky charm, though; hints are many times provided through rhymed poems, and one solution involved pulling a key out of a drain with a strand of hair. It would be a shame, however, to think that SH2's failures in the gameplay department make it less than worthwhile, or that it would make more sense to be made for another medium instead, such as film or literature. Silent Hill 2 should be a video game, because video games generate a special kind of empathy between audience and protagonist, and because they allow for much greater investment in that character's occupation of and interaction within a fictional space.
Player-character James is average looking, unwise, and poorly acted. He's also one of the best video game heroes ever, because (without the brooding "antihero" pathos of someone like Kratos) he's severely fucked up. The late-game epiphany that you should have already figured out (and that I knew of before playing) reveals that James killed his wife, Mary. He's tucked the horrible truth into the darkest untouched corners of his subconscious, convincing himself that she perished three years ago to a terminal illness. It takes a trip through the worst place on Earth for him to come to this unsettling realization. He's a lovable sad sack of a murderer, making him the perfect persona to enter into as you make your way through the blood-and-rust tainted industrial nightmare world that Silent Hill becomes.
This squalid, depressing town is one of the most fascinating locales in all of gamedom. The first major location is the Blue Creek apartment complex. I thought this place was creepy when I was walking cautiously through its eerily dark hallways and dilapidated rooms, but now I scoff, "That was scary? How was that scary?" You see, I've been spoiled by SH2's later environs, particularly Toluca Prison and The Labyrinth. To get to the latter, James must willingly drop down a ridiculous series of holes in the floor, leading one to question just how deep underground (or rather, into the recesses of his own mind) he has gone. The Labyrinth is, as its name implies, a confusing maze of dimly-lit wooden hallways, with ladders that lead down to murky flesh-colored rock caverns and dirty knee-level water. It is the single creepiest fictional place I've ever seen, much less explored, and because of it, I've been almost completely desensitized to all other attempts at horror, in video games and beyond. Needless to say, atmosphere is one of Silent Hill 2's strong points.
To augment the game's atmospheric and emotional power, Akira Yamaoka composed a fitting soundtrack, with clanging industrial ambiance and haunting piano melodies. Sound is obviously key to the success of any work of horror, and Silent Hill 2's unnerving audio gets the job done with aplomb.
The final ingredient in the game's cauldron of scares is of course Pyramid Head, the super-masculine rape-happy helmeted executioner who stalks James every step of the way and represents his secret desire for punishment. Pyramid Head might just get my vote for best video game villain ever: he is the embodiment of terror.
All of these elements combine to make for an effectively frightening product, but don't express how profound an experience Silent Hill 2 is, how I fear it and love it in equal measure, how it is actually as incredible an artistic achievement as anything else this medium has produced, and most importantly how it says something meaningful about humanity that doesn't come across as corny and trite. Although he has done a terrible thing, James has a shot at redemption. There are multiple endings, and a careful player could make sure to get the best one through their actions, the one that sees James leave Silent Hill and cure the festering illness in his soul.
There are others who have come to Silent Hill, willingly or not, but unlike James (and excepting Laura, the innocent little girl), they are all doomed to their own personal hells. One of these poor souls in particular, 19-year old Angela Orosco, leaves a painfully lasting impression. The player gradually learns that she was physically and sexually abused by her father, which led her to stab him to death and run away from home. There are even strange creatures resembling human-door (yes, door) hybrids called Abstract Daddies which represent him. The last time you see Angela, she's standing on the steps of a burning staircase with James at its foot. As the flames grow, James mentions that "It's hot as hell in here." Angela continues walking up and then turns around as a wall of fire cuts her off from the lower section of stairs that James stands awkwardly on. "You see it too?" she says. "For me, it's always like this." She turns again and walks upwards into the darkness. And it is crushing. Her last words to James have quickly become my favorite video game quote. They are suffused with an unbearable sadness, and I think about them often. There is a whole other world of people who have to live helplessly in personal hells like Angela's; for their own sins or those that others have committed upon them, they walk the Earth with the awful weight that is a broken soul. In the characters of James and Angela, Konami's Team Silent have expressed darkly universal themes yet to be surpassed in the world of video games.
I didn't even talk about Maria, or the room with the butterflies, or the videotape, or the moaning ghost in Toluca Prison, or how Mary's letter slowly disappears as the game goes on. But I suppose you really do need to just play this masterpiece yourself to appreciate all of its evil genius. I was deeply, personally affected by Silent Hill 2, and I don't know what else a video game has to do to be held in high regard.