Silent Hill 2 #3 | Environments and Level Design

"Don't get all holy on me James, this town called you too"
                                                                                      - Eddie

Check out part one here (plot outline) and part two (characters and monsters) here.

Silent Hill 2 Analysis environments The town of Silent Hill can be regarded a character itself; once a resort area that tourists in particular visited, it is now a place of reckoning for people such as James, Eddie and Angela to face. By 'calling' guilty parties, the town forces people to accept their crimes by creating their own nightmare world for them to face. Architecture and environment design throughout the town has the ability to project aspects of a person's psyche in order to mess with their heads more, as explained in the past blog. Usually in the forms of clues or objects that help to push the character closer to the truth (e.g. flashlight) that are essential for progress. Examples of this concept that have been created specifically for James present themselves sporadically during gameplay:
  • The most obvious one: Mary's letter to James, the words of which gradually disappear as you progress. Showing that it was just a method of calling him to Silent Hill. 
  • The muffled chatter heard when you first pick up the radio is inaudible (intentionally), but transcribed it says: "Why did you kill me James?" 
  • When James first picks up the flashlight, it's on a mannequin that is wearing the same clothes that Mary wore 
  • The dead body in the apartments, "an image straight out of James imagination" according to art director Masashi Tsuboyama, with the same model structure. The stance of the corpse hunched over in front of the TV foreshadows what James does after viewing the videotape. 
  • Message at Bar Neelys "If you ready want to see Mary, you should just die. But you might be heading to different place to Mary, James" 
  • The letters referencing the Abyss that hint James to the Historical society explicitly state that he needs to keep moving forward in order to "stare into himself". 
  • The grave inscribed with his name that must be jumped into at the end of the Labyrinth. This area also contains the graves of Eddie and Angela - because you're now aware of their sins & why they were called to the town. 
  • The map of the Lakeview Hotel that has the words "waiting for you" written on it. 
According to the making of video: "All these mysterious details come come together to form a visual background ideal for creating impressions of solitude. Suggesting a parallel dimension". This idea of solitude is a staple of any horror game, since isolation is always going to be much more frightening that being surrounded by a reliable group. It's reinforced by the deserted streets and empty apartment/hospital/hotel complexes, a visual representation of how hollow and depressing James has been since he found out about Mary being ill. One of the reasons the Silent Hill series is regarded more as a psychological thriller rather than just a horror game is this focus on shaking the emotions of the player, to make a much more mature and mentally disturbing experience.

As mentioned in the analysis of Pyramid Head, the town has called James to force him to understand what he's done, it is a town for those who have sinned and must face their truths head on. This is why players are helped in their journey by memo's that very often point you in the right direction. Admittedly these different items and messages act as forms of tutorials to help the players themselves know where to go but they're still valid as devices that help to deepen the plot because they've been purposefully written to do so.  A memo at the start for instance, titled 'Dead Man's Notes' is found on a dead body (obviously), and helps to inform the player that they must find a light and a weapon in order to defeat the enemies. Written by a man that kept seeing different 'demons' throughout the town - demons that his friend was unable to see himself, he questions whether they were in fact an illusion  that his mind dreamed up. This individual was on a similar journey to James, but was clearly unable to defeat any of the monsters himself.

silent hill 2 environments and level design analysis
Another example of this is present in the prison section, a memo entitled 'Prison Guard's Diary' describes criminals as people who "do not feel remorse" and who (even the uneducated ones) "will use what little words they know to justify themselves". It is in the prison where you'll find rows of cells containing invisible beings that not only emit an eerie noise but who are also susceptible to being shot and killed by the player, you don't gain anything from doing this and these beings are unable to harm you in any way. Therefore they could be read as a symbol of Mary, since like her they are trapped and defenceless creatures that are not killed out of necessity or through any kind of justification.

As James becomes more and more unstable, the environments start degrading. Take, for example the Lakeview Hotel, which appears 'unchanged' from James and Maria's last visit but transforms into a wet and run down building after he watches the videotape. This is because the setting now reflects what it is truly like, when he first enters the building in its clean and untouched state he's still labouring under the apprehension that Mary is still alive, but once he's figured out the truth this veneer of normality disappears. The whole hotel setting therefore can be seen as a form of symbolic purgatory, where James is judged after appropriately after watching the videotape.

In the Making Of Silent Hill 3 video (roughly 18 mins in), there is a section on how the Silent Hill games have a tradition of setting scenes in toilets (the SH2 making of also states that the bathroom was the first room that was designed; hence all other rooms were modelled on it). Masahiro Ito, art director explained this focus that Team Silent had:

"In Japan, there's a tale of horror that takes place in toilets, that's why we connect them with fright. Until recently the Japanese still used the 'squat type' toilet, there was a story that children had fallen in. In a way the toilet can be taken as a spooky hole, impossible to get out of once you're in fall in"

Although speaking of the game that succeeded SH2, there are several points here that resonate with James' experience. Not only is the toilet setting a repulsive and therefore scary one, its inclusion as the first location supports Ito's words about the setting being 'impossible to get out of' (in other words - a point of no return). James' has decided that he's determined to carry on even though he believes his wife to be dead. The monotonous and protracted journey into town that you must take, as mentioned in the plot outline was purposefully designed as such to make you feel like there was no turning back - and once you're in the town itself there is no choice but to move forward because of the presence of chasms and blocked off streets.

Silent Hill 2 Analysis environments and level design
In a similar way the prison too is impossible to backtrack out of to the surface once you've entered it. A setting so obviously inherent with the themes of guilt and entrapment that you cannot leave conveys how this stage of the game is the moment in which James truly starts to question his own sanity - and is literally unable to escape from his remorse. After running away from his responsibilities for so long, he can do so no longer, only can he move onwards.

The creators points are also constantly reinforced throughout in the forms of holes in the ground which Ito alludes to, Geographically impossible descents in the Labyrinth/Historical Society have been intentionally placed there not to resemble anything real, but to have symbolic meaning instead. Upon exiting the Labyrinth, James emerges outside to find himself somehow on ground level, despite not having ascending any stairs - the obvious connotations of this are:

1) That James is descending to hell
2) That the town is literally digging deeper into James' memory as he gets closer to the truth.

The next time James ascends is hours of gameplay later, before the climatic boss fight on the roof of the Lakeview Hotel. This is because he now knows what crime has been committed, similar to the final meeting with Angela who ascends a staircase adorned with flames before disappearing forever.

With no real tutorial, the game mechanics themselves contribute to the towns mystique by making navigation somewhat confusing for the player. Complex puzzles dotted around non-linear environments that are full of locked doors and maze like corridors leave you constantly struggling in one way or another. There is never a clear-cut method of advancing through buildings, backtracking and memo reading are essential in order to navigate the different diversions and this isn't even mentioning the mutant freaks trying to kill you. This makes the surroundings feel like a living, breathing character despite it literally being devoid of any other human life. One that is watching everything that you do and adapting its atmosphere accordingly like a 'weird faceless malevolence' as Ben Croshaw puts it. Surprisingly, monsters don't really represent much of a threat; with guns and powerful melee weapons at your disposal it's quite easy to make it through to completion without dying as long as you keep an eye on your health. Yes, it seems that it's Silent Hill itself is the most effective enemy, it's certainly the one that gives you the most trouble and Team Silent create apprehension even time you set foot in a new room.

"Never has Horror been so poetic. Never has emotional ambiguity been so skilfully exploited. The creators of Silent Hill 2 are artists and their game is a work of art"


Douglass C. Perry interview with Takayoshi Sato. IGN. (2001)

Justin Keeling interview with Akihito Imamura. IGN. (2001)

Silent Hill 2 Making of Video. Fun TV.

Silent Hill 3 Making of Video. WE Productions.