Where Did We Go Wrong?

Recently, I finished Silent Hill 2. Many people urged me to play it. I was holding out for the HD Version. However, that turned out to be crap. So I had no excuse and cave in.

And boy have I been missing out. I was expecting a masterpiece. And I wasn’t blown away at first. Details like the controls and the visual design of the interface haven’t aged very well. But as the game progressed, I finally understood what made this such a critically acclaimed title. Here is what stood out for me:

  • Pacing One thing that did surprise me from the beginning was the deliberate pacing. For example, the game opens by having the player walk down a very long path. It’s a calm and uneventful sequence. It’s clearly a deliberate tool to emphasize the feeling of the main character’s loneliness and the remoteness of the place he is going to. There are multiple, similar sequences in the game. It’s a surprisingly well thought-out and effective way to control the pacing. Something you don’t see often in modern games, where pacing seems to have only one setting: eleven.

  • Discovery Another thing that is actually quite different from modern games is the sense of discovery the game conveys. There are often very few hints on where to go to next. No big glowing arrows, quest logs or radars. You just need to figure it out yourself. Being lost is something the game actually deliberately conveys. Very early on, the game kinda drops you off in a district of the town and let’s you figure out the way on your own. The same happens later when you explore an abandoned apartment building. You need to systematically try out each and every door to figure out how to continue. What really helps in both cases is the ingenious map system. You always find maps of the areas you explore and they are perfectly integrated into the setting. The indoor maps often are emergency evacuation maps, for example. The outdoor map is a road map you brought with you. As you explore, the protagonist automatically writes down notes with a pen on those maps.

    Silent Hill 2 Map

    The map integrates seamlessly into the setting and emphasizes exploration.

    It conveys perfectly the idea of utilizing found resources to search for a way in an unknown environment.

  • Story & Writing Many Japanese games often suffer from incoherent plots or dodgy writing. Certain ideas often just don’t translate very well across cultures. Surprisingly, Silent Hill 2 gets away quite well. The writing sounds a bit odd in some cases. But it never crosses the line. The plot gets pretty crazy too. But it all comes together in the end. The reason for both may be the fact that there is a very simple, honest story beneath it all. It’s really just about the protagonist and his wife. There are some hints of some ancient burial grounds and mass murderers. But they are never allowed to over-shadow the simple, emotional main story.

  • Maturity Finally, the game actually seems like it has been made for a mature audience. It deals with a lot of mature topics such as sex, marriage and death. They are addressed in a subtle and therefore disturbing way. The gameplay is reminiscent of horror shooters like Resident Evil. But Silent Hill 2 seems to have none of Resident Evil’s sensationalist stupidity. The combat never really takes precedence. The story stays personal and doesn’t dissolve into genre tropes.

What is perhaps most surprising is that the game was made 10 years ago. It was in the early days of Playstation 2. You can tell that this could have been the future of gaming: cinematic, well-written, mature, emotional games for a gaming audience that coming of age.

But that future never really arrived. Silent Hill 2 turned out to be a dead end. What we instead got was loads of shallow, forgettable, adolescent action and exploding production values. Immediately after finishing, I tweeted “Where the fuck did we go wrong?” and received a lot of resonance.

The conventional response was that developers / publishers went for mass audience and big money. But somehow, this doesn’t seem like a fitting explanation. After all, Silent Hill 2 apparently sold very well. So having the creators make another one would seem like a logical choice if making money was a goal.

Granted, the original team did create a Silent Hill 3, but apparently that title didn’t succeed where Silent Hill 2 did. Which made me consider that perhaps Silent Hill 2 was an accident. After all, there are things wrong with it too. For example, some puzzles lack polish or even sense. Use canned juice to unclog a trash chute? Use the “fish key” to open the suitcase?

But then again, I haven’t played Silent Hill 3 so I can’t really tell. Perhaps those of you more familiar with the series can help out? What do you think?

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

4 responses to “Where Did We Go Wrong?”

  1. Thomas Grip

    I thought SH3 was definitively a step down from the second one. The story lacks the simple core (as you describe) that SH2 have. It also does the terrible mistake of trying to tie up loose ends and do fan-service by linking back to SH1. It is not really bad game, but I think they failed to see what was really interesting in SH2, or perhaps it success made them really focused on making something mainstream?

    I think SH1 and 2 are by far the most interesting of the bunch and I think SH1 has plenty of things that top its sequel, such as better enemy designs (especially their AI) or better locations (I loved the light house, bridge, church, carousel, etc in SH1). SH2 has the better plot, characters, pacing and that sort of stuff.

    Regarding the map, while I agree it is innovate in some ways, I kind of hate it. In all Silent Hill games, you have to constantly look at it and it quickly becomes annoying and makes you never really get an intuitive feel for the locations. This was what lead all Penumbra maps to be in-game instead of some separate GUI.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      I see what you mean with the map. It’s true that you end up over-relying on it. It often feels like exploring locations is pointless until you found the map. On the other hand, it really helps with momentum. Even if you find another closed door, you still get a sense of progress because that’s something that adds to the map.

  2. Michael Samyn

    I have started a thread on notgames.org to discuss this:

  3. Auriea

    Play Silent Hill 3. It is very good. Not like Silent Hill 2 but still…


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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