Learning the Lay of the Land – Silent Hill 2 by Mike Drucker and Boss Fight Books

I’ve known about Silent Hill’s existence for a solid chunk of my life, but I’ve never really given the series the time of day. It’s lived sort of on the periphery of my gaming awareness. I know about the Pyramid Head and the Bubble Head Nurse enemies because they were slapped on tee shirts. I also remember seeing ads with a frozen girl on a swing in Nintendo Power for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

I even completely forgot that Playable Teaser, aka PT, on the PS4 was actually a demo/concept for Silent Hills until Mike Drucker mentioned it near the end of his book calling PT “the second-best game in the entire series.” I guess I’ve played one of the best (and hardest to acquire) Silent Hill games then!

When Boss Fight Books put out a call for review copy requests , I decided to reach out. I’ve never played a full-blown Silent Hill game. I’ve also never reviewed a book before. So I decided to take out 1 1/2 birds with 1 stone (or is it two birds with half a stone?) and review Silent Hill 2 by Mike Drucker.

I was drawn specifically toward this book because of the contrast between the subject matter and the author himself. Mike Drucker is a writer and comedian and the idea of him writing about a horror video game is naturally enticing. I imagine that juxtaposition was a solid hook in the pitch: It certainly sunk its hook me in.

Small side tangent, my first memory of Mike Drucker was this tweet. It made me chuckle so much that I decided to make it the first quote in a note on my phone where I’d store favorite, well, quotes. I liked the tweet so much that I didn’t double check his name. Sorry Mike.

I was expecting a lighter jaunt through Silent Hill 2, where jokes and japes would guide me through a game and series I really knew nothing about. Maybe I should have retained what the back cover said,

“With an in-depth and highly personal study of its tragic cast of characters, and a critical examination of developer Konami’s world design and uneven marketing strategy, Drucker examines how Silent Hill 2 forces its players to grapple with the fact that very real-world terrors of trauma, abuse, shame, and guilt are far more threatening than any pyramid-headed monster could ever be.”

Drucker’s exploration of Silent Hill 2 is poignant. More than just cutting through the layers of fog that surround the game design, its characters, and reception, Drucker shares with us his own life experiences, giving Silent Hill 2 a tangible nature I never would have had from a YouTube breakdown or some forum post. It’s Drucker’s personal story and connection to the game that elevates my understanding of Silent Hill 2.

Konami’s team clearly had a bold vision of putting the story “on the stick,” an element of game design I am clearly fond of. What Silent Hill 2 did nearly 20 years ago is still talked about; not just in the context of the game itself and its apparently abysmal “remaster,” but also when games today strive to be more than reaching a flag or being the last character flossing on the map.

It sounds like the team used the new power of the PS2 not to make mind-blowing realistic graphics or a sweet, huge open haunted house, but used the computational power to restrain the player and rob the main character, James, of any sort of power.

“…Sacrificing gameplay for the sake of atmosphere During the opening of Silent Hill 2, you do… well, nothing. The ’survival’ part of ‘survival horror’ doesn’t start until later in the game than you’d expect.”

Silent Hill 2, however, takes its time. To Tsuboyama, creating a sense of place within the town of Silent Hill was far more important than emphasizing the dangers inherent in it. Not to mention that walking a long path through fog until you find yourself in a graveyard is a pretty strong symbol for death.”

I can’t help but compare what Silent Hill 2 goes for emotionally through the controller to what Naughty Dog attempted with The Last of Us Part II. These games sound like they weren’t inherently designed around being “fun” to play. They use gameplay to elevate engagement to serve the story.

“If we’re going to tell this story, we have to go there. We have to make you feel uncomfortable,” he explains. “We don’t use the word ‘fun’ but it needs to be engaging. If you care about this character, and there are stakes, you are engaged. I don’t want you to willy-nilly commit these acts. I want you to feel these moments.” Neil Druckmann in an interview with Variety, June 13, 2018

I’m not here to say gameplay first vs story immersion first is fight worth even having. They serve two entirely different purposes and audiences. A game like Resogun or Forza Horizon 3 have little to no plot, but they are some of my absolute favorite gameplay focused games. I love the way Nakey Jakey describes it in his video on Naughty Dog’s “outdated” game design: Goopy Goblin Gamer Brain. For some, gameplay is the king. For others, gameplay is the medium for the message. Drucker’s exploration of the world and characters of Silent Hill 2 guided me through a town I had only heard of in passing as if I grew up in it all along.

Drucker also showed restraint throughout the book. There is a tight focus on the Silent Hill 2 from its development to its reception and legacy. He analyzes the game and character design and how it makes the audience tick all these years later. I learned not just about what drew James, Maria, Eddie, and Angela to the demented town, but what has kept fans returning to for nearly two decades.

Silent Hill 2 (the book) is engaging and fascinating. Whether you have played Silent Hill 2 or any Silent Hill game, Drucker makes you feel like you know each layer that makes up the little American town. His writing has peaked my interests into the world of Silent Hill more than some frozen little girl advert or even Hideo Kojima himself ever has. Now when I go into my retro game stores, I am keeping my eyes peeled for Silent Hill 2 and not that HD collection. Why did Drucker have to write about such an expensive game?