This essay closely examines John Ruskin’s literary concept of the pathetic fallacy within the parameters of the survival horror videogame Silent Hill 2. More specifically, I draw upon trauma theory and the burgeoning theoretical field of interactive media to reorient the ways in which we think about the unreliable subjectivity of psychological horror narratives. These ideas are dissected in scene and image-specific analyses that seek to address the issues of unreliable narrators in videogames and what it means to play and actively inhabit such a role within the eponymous town’s malleable, digital environment.
In semi-darkness it is often especially difficult to distinguish a life-size wax or similar figure from a human person.
– Ernst Jentsch, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”
We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In thinking about the under-studied narrative specificities of videogames as a distinct artistic medium, many as-of-yet unanswered questions arise in applying the theoretical texts of comparative literature with an interactive medium. Videogames are an emergent art rapidly discovering its own means of articulation, consequently offering opportunity for fresh insight into literary theories often exclusively studied only within the strictures of printed literature. This is a medium that demands new means of analysis and critical thinking, levying distinct rules not present in comparatively passive forms like film or literature. Instead, the immediate, active participation of videogame play not only opens up means for expression, but also reframes how we examine storylines focalized on a subjective player experience. The developers of videogames understand this medium’s stronghold over player agency and individual character identification, frustrating thereby traditional theorizations of unreliable narrators and over-determined imagery embedded within a surrounding environment. Videogames afford scholars an unconventional addendum to the study of comparative literature, destabilizing and subverting how we approach narrative elements of space and temporality. In particular, the survival horror genre within videogames and the beguiling Silent Hill 2 offers ample room for critical discussion in the ways in which suspect psychological states completely alter surrounding game environment in meaningful and symbolic ways.
The narrative thrust and critical appeal of the Silent Hill videogame series lies in its engagement with its eponymous geographic space; that of an idyllic town transformed into a hellish purgatory for characters seemingly gravitating towards it. While not a direct continuation of the first Silent Hill game released in 1999, Silent Hill 2 works as a standalone title with a self-contained story disinterested with the cult trappings of its predecessor and more invested in the psychological underpinnings of its setting. Authored in 2001 by a collective of writers, developers, designers, artists, and musicians known as “Team Silent,” Silent Hill 2 makes use of its fictive spaces as a means to displace a character’s psychic trauma. The game follows the surreal, Orphic passage of protagonist James Sunderland through Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his supposedly dead wife Mary Sunderland, summoning him back to the town and driving his mind into a delirious state. The town thus becomes a vessel in which the psychologically disordered James can pour out his grief into. Consequently, Silent Hill provides monsters that reflect and respond to this agitated mental state, and James’ surroundings accommodate and intensify his unhinged desires and fears. This subjective experience of Silent Hill as a space to externalize human emotion calls to mind what literary critic John Ruskin calls the “pathetic fallacy,” a term in which “violent feelings… produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things” (Ruskin 160). Silent Hill 2 is a game fundamentally structured around the pathetic fallacy because James and other supporting characters experience Silent Hill in their own subjective ways; all of which are filtered through individual trauma and unreliable, psychologically imbalanced narration. Silent Hill’s shifting landscapes and grotesque monsters re-form with each individual perspective, and the game’s cast of characters reckons with their repressed memories via their relationship to the surrounding environment in a means resembling Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy.
Silent Hill 2 operates within the framework of a typical survival horror videogame, a genre particularly invested in a player’s interaction with space, and this emphasis opens up opportunity for engagement with the pathetic fallacy. Survival horror exists as a genre unique to videogames by nature of its gameplay design and its participatory investigative mode. Quoting videogame academics Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith, and Susana Pajares Tosca, game theorist Ewan Kirkland defines the survival horror game as “games in which ‘the player controls a character who has to get out of some enclosed place solving puzzles and destroying horrific monsters along the way’” (Kirkland “Storytelling,” 62). The environment is fundamental to the survival horror because characters must probe around their surroundings to advance the narrative, and frequently, characters project their frustrations and anxieties into these spaces. This genre challenges the agency typically afforded in the interactivity of videogames, instead undermining player centrality in favor of what theorist Tanya Krzywinska argues as a “more acute experience of losing control than that achieved by most horror films” (Krzywinska 20). Kirkland identifies the effect of this kind of gameplay, namely, “the sense of helplessness, entrapment and pre-determination that they generate,” and in probing the game space, subjective experiences can emerge (Kirkland “Storytelling,” 64). These subjective experiences take the form of a character’s uncovering of their own repressed memories and a troubled internal psyche, and the survival horror offers spaces that serve to address these anxieties. For example, Kirkland notes that survival horror frequently depicts “places which confuse and confound: mazes of rooms and corridors filled with traps, dead ends and locked doors which the player must navigate,” thus coding a character’s psychic uncertainty with aspects of an uncanny game space (Kirkland “Horror,” 2). This evocation of the uncanny reveals the role of unconscious desires and fears as influencing the game space, and a survival horror like Silent Hill 2 applies these emotional imbalances to both psycho-sexualize and confound its characters’ journey through the town to the point of unreality.
The various spaces of Silent Hill 2 echo certain emotions and feelings that the characters themselves display, as though these emotions were being projected to the surrounding environment. As previously mentioned, a sense of an “intellectual uncertainty” plays a vital role in defining the uncanny (Freud 221). The feeling of the uncanny emerges as a facet of game space, often taking the form of labyrinthine corridors (the prison/labyrinth area) and duplicated rooms (the hospital) meant to suggest the psychic disorientation of Silent Hill 2’s characters. Moreover, gaming critics have noted other potential sources of inspiration for gaming space, notably “expressionism (which maps emotions onto physical space) and romanticism (which endows landscapes with moral qualities)” (Squire 7). Sensations, emotional states, and affectations of characters are mapped onto the physical world of Silent Hill, and this phenomenon embodies what Ruskin defines as the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin delineates this device in his 1856 text Modern Painters as “…the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us” (Ruskin 159-160). In the case of Silent Hill, the town resembles that of a harmless, abandoned town when in its default, neutral state. Only when a summoned victim arrives to reckon with a psychological imbalance does the town shift according to the victim’s unconscious, traumatic conflicts. For Silent Hill 2’s protagonist James, his subjective experience transforms the town into a hellish, monster-laden undertaking. The town filters the appearance and meaning of its locales and monsters for an individual subjective consciousness, thus accounting for James and fellow visitor Angela Orosco’s widely differing reception of Silent Hill. Thus, the town in its entirety exists as a pathetic fallacy: James’ experience of Silent Hill is true for him yet untrue for Angela because her version of the fictive space carries a different meaning and appearance altogether. Moreover, characters like the child Laura who lack the “influence of emotion” that the town demands sidesteps the sinister quality of the town entirely.
The pathetic fallacy involves an attribution of inner feelings and concerns to the physical world, and Silent Hill 2 immediately anticipates this relationship in its opening moments. The game begins with James Sunderland staring at his mirrored reflection, suggesting a confrontation with one’s inner consciousness but also envisaging his own presence already visibly mapped onto the surroundings. The mirror’s tight framing traps James within his surroundings, anticipating the oppression he will face upon arrival in Silent Hill and suggesting the character’s own interior claustrophobia that must be gradually brought to bear. While delivering his opening monologue explaining his reasons for coming to the town, James overlooks Silent Hill and bordering Toluca Lake amidst the series’ iconic sea of opaque fog, implying a sense of murkiness and indecipherability of his own motivations. The fog below comes to represent James’ own confusion; a sentiment echoed in his self-doubting question, “So then why am I looking for her?” The re-emergence of his ostensibly dead wife renders a chaotic experience of Silent Hill that can be attributed to the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin notes that the fallacy is that of “willful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational” (Ruskin 160). Silent Hill 2 signals that James is an unreliable narrator and that the player’s experience of Silent Hill will undoubtedly be filtered in his own subjective interpretation of his surroundings. Gaming critic Bernard Perron argues in his book Silent Hill: The Terror Engine that Mary’s letter “leaves him unbalanced. He goes to Silent Hill hoping to establish that she’s really alive and waiting for him” (Perron 59). James’ assumptions and desires render his reality of events suspect. Perron goes on to claim that “the experiential route is his own nightmarish delusions and that the monsters are a projection of his psychological state,” an argument that hinges on the pathetic fallacy’s dialectic between violent feelings and a receptive environment (Perron 60).
The extended journey down a lone forest path before reaching Silent Hill serves to underline the landscape’s otherworldly, almost dreamlike connection to James’ unconscious anxieties. The thick fog that blankets the environment draws James deeper into the woods, creating half-formed shapes only to be swallowed back into obscurity. This long, completely harmless passage through the forest evokes a surreal dream state as though it were a visualization of a murky, repressive unconscious state in which fog obscures all memories. At this point in the game, the indefinite landscape shrouded in fog reproduces James’ denial of mental clarity, casting this entire sequence in a liminal space that transitions between the real world and the oneiric world of Silent Hill. Moreover, Silent Hill 2 offers voyeuristic point of view perspectives from within the forest as though James is being watched, thus lending the surroundings a sense of sinister agency. Ewan Kirkland claims that the effect of this unidentifiable framing “creates a generically-appropriate experience of entrapment and claustrophobia, surveillance, and subordination” (Kirkland “Storytelling,” 69). The prolonged duration of time descending into Silent Hill further adds to a sense of oppressive forces exacerbating James’ unease. Art director Masashi Tsuboyama notes in a behind-the-scenes documentary of Silent Hill 2 that “we deliberately made the descent through the forest towards the cemetery longer. It’s so long you don’t feel like turning back. At the same time, it makes you realize just how totally isolated the city is… and you also!” (Beuglet). In addition to a sense of oppressive isolation, Kirkland notes that the prolongation of time in this segment can also “enhance the games’ sense of generically speciﬁc pre-determination, and underline the chaotic irrationality of Silent Hill’s game universe, while exploiting established horror texts’ use of surrealism and expressionism for their intended effect” (Kirkland “Self-Reflexive,” 408). The game developers employ these aforesaid artistic strategies to identify the psychological traumas of Silent Hill 2’s protagonist and map it onto the landscape; the ‘forest walk’ anticipates the more complex engagement between mental state and setting.
Upon arrival in Silent Hill, the game opens up its environment to feature archetypical horror locales and ruined, Gothic-esque buildings that prompt a self-exploration of unconscious fears and assumptions. Moreover, the town includes mundane landmarks of mythic Americana, featuring sites like “Happy Burger” and “Pete’s Bowl-o-Rama” that evoke hokey, small-town idealism. Nevertheless, the overgrowth, fleshy textures, and bloodied floors within buildings indicate something sexually perverse and putrid beneath the seemingly innocuous lakeside destination. Thus, the town of Silent Hill serves as a mirror for James himself: ostensibly innocent and faultless, but gradually revealed as corrupted, wretched, and damnable. In an essay applying the devices of Gothic literature to the 1995 videogame Phantasmagoria, writer Angela R. Cox argues that horror spaces represent physical and moral confinement, claiming, “It is the remnant of what is perceived as an oppressive past, where not only is the physical space confining, but so is the moral space” (Cox). This argument bears many similarities to Silent Hill 2’s application of its titular space as inherently tied to moral tension. The game frequently lures players in with a seemingly familiar vision of domesticity and the household, only to warp it into the realm of the unfamiliar and the strange. This tension lies at the heart of Sigmund Freud’s essay on the uncanny, in which he identifies a tension between the heimlich, or “belonging to the house,” and the unheimlich, that which “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (Freud 222 & 225). Silent Hill conjures James’ repressed unconscious in its unheimlich elements, including dead bodies scattered around town as a constant reminder of his dead wife. Ewan Kirkland recognizes that the evocative, grimy aesthetic of the town induces “…childhood memories and psychological disturbance,” and he references Freud in claiming that these images “…constitute the ‘sense of a once-buried spring bursting forth unexpectedly, of the unheimlich compared to a disquieting return’” (Kirkland “Horror,” 3). For a character like James, Silent Hill exists as a horror space meant as a place of psychological and moral reckoning, and the aesthetic strategies of the game closely examine his inner psyche.
Silent Hill 2 offers familiar horror settings including apartments, a prison, a labyrinth, a hospital, etc., and the derelict structures of abandonment and decay suggest James’ rotting mental state and steadily degenerating reality of events. Because Silent Hill alters itself to fit with each passing guest’s troubled psychological makeup, the town has a level of agency in this ability to tailor its own visible components. Kirkland agrees with the claim that Silent Hill can serve as a subjective manifestation of the unconscious, stating that “locations frequently seem inspired by protagonists’ own memories or emotions” (Kirkland “Discursively,” 319). For example, the apartment section in the beginning of the game serves to invoke James and Mary’s mundane domestic life prior to her terminal illness, but the ruined aesthetic also insinuates their crumbling relationship towards the end of her life. Moreover, the apartments are the location in which James first encounters the recurring pyramid head monster. Here, the pyramid head monster is seen raping a mannequin monster, a surreal vision that reflects James’ own repressed libidinal tension and unrestrained desires. James witnesses the horrific sight while peering from behind slits in a closet, suggesting a voyeuristic sexual perversion that has thematic and visual precedence in similarly minded works like the films Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). The apartment’s assortment of claustrophobic hallways and sexually charged imagery conveys the aforementioned physical and moral confinement, and also reminds James of his sexual dissatisfaction when Mary was confined to her sickbed.
Ewan Kirkland maintains the importance of game space in relation to narrative development, asserting, “Architecture is a recurring metaphor used to understand video games, and in survival horror buildings and spaces tell stories, much like the documents which litter them” (Kirkland “Storytelling,” 75). The prison and labyrinth portion of Silent Hill 2 best reinforces this claim because its architectural abstraction directly conveys James’ own psychological perturbation. The path to the prison involves a seemingly endless descent down a hidden staircase, evoking a descent into the unconscious and suggesting the uncanny repetition theorized by Freud. The underground prison symbolizes a place of unconscious punishment for James, where the character can even find himself locked in a cell further underscoring his masochistic reception to the town. Moreover, the labyrinth embodies James’ unconscious defense mechanisms that vigorously prevents him from advancing towards the repressed truth behind Mary’s death: that James killed her out of grief towards the final days of her life confined to a sickbed. These labyrinthine passageways offer literal dead ends and adversaries to discourage progression. Both the prison and labyrinth seem conjured up from the unconscious altogether, lacking a foundation in reality because of its impossible location deep underground. Thus, these spaces are particularly marked as a pathetic fallacy, embodying not physical reality but James’ unconscious desires for punishment given his frantic, masochistic inner state.
The psychosexual inhabitants of Silent Hill’s locales are just as evocative of the pathetic fallacy as its spaces, materializing from James’ violent emotions under the influence of a guilty psyche. James’ personal trauma – entrenched guilt and psychosexual malaise – projects onto the monsters in the form of hyper-sexualized limbs and grotesque, confined bodily forms. These monsters represent very subjective visions of Silent Hill, as each character experiences the town differently given their circumstances. When James explains the danger of Silent Hill’s monsters to the neutral, innocent child Laura, she responds “Huh? Are you blind or something?” to suggest her own impervious experience of the town. Likewise in Silent Hill 3, the response to the main protagonist’s comment on the monsters of the same town, a supporting character responds “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” John Ruskin’s writings on the pathetic fallacy explain this subjectivity across experiences, claiming, “Everything in the world depends upon his seeing or thinking of it, and that nothing, therefore, exists, but what he sees or thinks of” (Ruskin 158). In the case of James Sunderland, his experience of Silent Hill depends on his state of guilt and sexual dissatisfaction. Consequently, plenty of the monsters he encounters incorporate torsos, legs, and other disembodied parts that prey upon James’ libidinal tensions. For instance, one apartment room houses a “leg monster” amidst sexualized mannequins and disembodied limbs scattered around a darkened interior, contrasting a de-sexualized, lone limbless mannequin wearing Mary’s dress in the lit center of the room. A loaded image such as this intensifies James’ libidinal tensions and informs the player of the character’s psychological state projected onto an unreal environment.
The pyramid head monster explicitly reflects James’ own sexual displacement not only in its overtly phallic features (its helmet and sword) but also in its aforesaid rape of a mannequin monster. In addition, the pyramid head monster implicitly confronts James’ guilt over killing Mary because of its executioner-like appearance and demeanor, and James’ inability to kill the monster without first admitting his guilt bespeaks of its role as a divine figure of moral reckoning. The hospital segment of the game offers especially overdetermined monsters in regards to libidinal conflict and guilt, featuring grotesque yet sexualized enemies. The so-called “sexy nurses” or “bobble head nurses” in this portion of the game suggests James’ displacement of a frustrated libido towards the nurses that would have surrounded his wife during her illness. The low-cut necklines and short skirts of the nurses that clash with their repulsive, bloodied figures indicate James’ own sexual frustration that endures even during his Orphic journey through Silent Hill, blending Eros and Thanatos in equal measure. Finally, numerous monsters also induce James’ specific anxieties regarding Mary’s sickly state and his revulsion to her, including monsters that seem embedded in bed frames and swollen bodies that resemble dying hospital patients.
Alongside the tailored monsters of Silent Hill, the enigmatic character Maria operates as an agent of the environment itself, symbolically serving as a vessel for James’ psychological confusion and eventual remorse. Her confrontational demeanor that drives James towards greater self-examination suggests her role as a human manifestation of Silent Hill itself, functioning as a mouthpiece to castigate James’ actions. Moreover, Maria exists as a sinister double to the absent Mary in her uncanny visual and acoustic resemblance. This doubling effect mystifies James, who claims that she “could be her twin. Your face, your voice, just your hair and clothes are different.” Nevertheless, Maria emerges as a figure beyond just a projection of Mary, but as an idealized version of her. That is, a flirtatious sexual fantasy not afraid to bare skin. James’ steadily developing desire for Maria throughout the game arouses the thought of his potential infidelity during Mary’s hospitalization, as well as his sexual frustration yet again. Even more so than the monsters that Silent Hill provides, Maria represents sexual temptation meant to challenge James’ unconscious anxieties and desires. She also serves as a reminder of Mary’s illness and death because Maria inevitably falls victim to sickness and confinement to the hospital just like James’ dead wife, signaling an uncanny compulsion to repeat James’ repressed trauma.
The three deaths of Maria – at the hospital, the prison, and the hotel – exacerbate James’ trauma over his culpability in killing Mary, and this uncanny reemergence of a supposedly repressed guilt occurs in a displaced figure in James’ vision of reality. Kirkland recognizes the frequent ruptures in James’ repressed psyche, noting, “In searching for James’ dead wife, game progress involves player and character confronting questions surrounding his role in Mary’s death. Did James kill Mary? Was it assisted suicide or something more sinister? Did James really love Mary?” (Kirkland “Discursively,” 319). Maria’s confrontational nature throws these questions out for James to address; her question “Why didn’t you try to save me?” exemplifies the kinds of rhetorical questions that likely ran through James’ guilt-ridden mindset while Mary was bedridden in a hospital. The conversation that takes place through prison bars roughly midway through the game demonstrates the self-examination that Maria personifies for James, as the scene is visually evocative of the opening mirror scene monologue. Nevertheless, James’ persistent inability to grapple with his repressed wrongdoing renders his experience with Maria increasingly chaotic and unreal. This denial of truth relates to John Ruskin’s conditions for the pathetic fallacy, in which he writes, “The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy is… that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them” (Ruskin 163). In Silent Hill 2, James typifies exactly this kind of helpless individual because he’s completely unable to deal with his grief, relationship with Mary, fidelity, and accountability in his violent actions. He even admits in the climactic final encounter with the dual pyramid head monsters after Maria’s final death, “I was weak. That’s why I needed you. Needed someone to punish me for my sins…” Thus, the final enemy boss that takes the form of the sickly, distorted Mary signals James’ cathartic revisitation of the killing in order to achieve closure with his trauma. Kirkland notes that this resolution makes sense in the psychological development of the character, because “Killing Mary, in this context, represents a repetition of James’ act of euthanasia – a misogynistic obliteration of the woman he grew to resent, the manifestation of his guilt and self-loathing” (Kirkland “Self-Reflexive,” 413). Only then can the monstrous visualization of Silent Hill and the trauma that has persisted throughout the game finally dissipate.
Just as important as James Sunderland in understanding the pathetic fallacy in relation to Silent Hill 2 are the supporting characters, Angela Orosco and Eddie Dombrowski, two other visitors to the town who also contend with a psychological trauma in far differing ways. As previously mentioned, individual characters experience Silent Hill in a unique manner dependent on their psychological states, and these two characters insinuate that their trauma alters their surroundings to fit their conditions in a manner resembling the pathetic fallacy. The initial encounter with Angela witnesses a belligerent, distrustful, and fearful young girl when James reaches out to her. The recoiling gestures that Angela demonstrates speaks to a history with abusive, violent men, a context that the game develops in a later encounter amidst a psycho-sexualized enemy boss battle. This scene reveals the way in which the pathetic fallacy operates dialectically between a troubled psyche and the space around a character. James stumbles upon Angela cowering like an infant amidst her personal tormenter, the so-called “Abstract Daddy,” in a grotesque rendering of a child’s bedroom. This enemy boss battle represents one of the few times in which another character’s experience of Silent Hill empathetically bleeds over to James’ world, allowing the player to fully comprehend their isolated conflict. Angela’s damaged psychological makeup distorts game space and evokes a history of sexual abuse, revealing oppressive, piston-like objects penetrating through vaginal orifices embedded in a fleshy, surrounding environment. The abstract daddy monster attacks in a manner that suggests sexual molestation, grabbing James’ face and enacting a suctioning gesture with its vaginal orifices. Inversely, Eddie Dombrowski endures Silent Hill in an entirely different light, grappling with perceived harassment from others who make fun of his overweight figure. His paranoiac state stems from a history of senseless, reactionary murder, and rather than face his psychological imbalance directly, the town becomes receptive to his apathy. Thus, Silent Hill serves as a sinister refuge for Eddie, and his indifference towards dealing with his trauma stuns James, who exclaims, “This town is full of monsters! How can you sit there and eat PIZZA!” Rather than seeking cathartic redemption, Eddie wallows in his own insecurities and horrors. This static, insecure mentality emerges as part of game space during the violent clash with Eddie in a meat locker, in which the hanging meat carcasses resemble the bloated belly of Eddie in a grotesque, externalized caricature of his disturbed psychological state.
Although the pathetic fallacy can be easily applied to the receptive landscapes of Silent Hill and its psychologically apposite characters that interact with it, the irrational and otherworldly still lingers on to challenge this argument. Rather than neatly fitting in an easy psychological and literary interpretation, a number of factors invoke the supernatural to complicate the narrative. Angela Cox writes on Gothic horror to explain the effect of this resistance to interpretation in relation to fear, arguing, “…terror is the sense of dread, the anxiety produced by the sense that there is something just beyond perception at play; horror is the realization of that dread, the actual encounter with something shocking” (Cox). Silent Hill 2 acknowledges this sense of horror in both its otherworldly quality completely removed from the logic and safety of reality as well as its ambiguous, contradictory multiple endings. Moreover, the context of Silent Hill 2 as a game that shares the universe of other titles mired in the occult convolutes the setting as something supernatural rather than just simply psychological. The periphery ghost stories, town tragedies, newspaper clippings of murder, etc. further complicate the narrative and supplement the ambiguity of Silent Hill’s nature. Finally, the role of the seemingly omniscient Laura and her place in the multiple endings suggest a greater supernatural force at work. Laura seems to have an omniscient knowledge of the characters, appearing as a tormentor of Eddie (who she calls a “gutless fatso”) and James (who she claims “didn’t love Mary anyway!”). Moreover, it’s to Laura that James admits his incrimination in killing Mary after watching the revelatory videotape that encases his fuzzy memories and to her that he seeks forgiveness. Consequently, Laura may serve as a personified doppelganger for the town itself alongside Maria, and her union with James in one ending (in which they leave Silent Hill together) suggests a continued trauma and supernatural presence. The other endings – a watery grave with Mary or an ominous union with the sickly Maria – are also left open-ended as to the absolution of James. Ewan Kirkland lists both “the multiple diegesis of Silent Hill’s various ‘alternative’ dimensions and realities” and “the inconclusive narrative aperture of the games’ many ambiguous and sometimes contradictory endings” as upsetting a smooth interpretation of events, and this potential ambiguity may repudiate a total understanding of Silent Hill as solely relying on the pathetic fallacy (Kirkland “Self-Reflexive,” 411).
In examining the close intersection of survival horror videogames and literary conceptualizations such as John Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy, we are better able to appreciate and understand the ways in which literature can inform new and exciting forms of interactive storytelling. Silent Hill 2 exists as a particular landmark in survival horror storytelling, renegotiating player relationship with onscreen characters and frustrating the prototypical imagery of an idyllic town through the eyes of an unreliable, psychologically damaged figure. The 2001 game’s enduring influence and appeal to the literary can be traced down even to more recent titles, bespeaking the ongoing interchanges across mediums. The 2009 release of Climax Studios’ Silent Hill: Shattered Memories further complicates the figurative, illusory quality of the eponymous town and introduces a Borgesian conundrum. Game writer Sam Barlow envisages a storyline that both reboots and reimagines the events of the first game in the series, framing the reality of Silent Hill through the untrustworthy perspective of one receiving a series of psychological tests in a psychotherapist’s office. The answers to these tests directly affect physical appearances embedded within the environment and character behaviors when the player delves into the revisited storyline of the 1999 game Silent Hill. Thus, Shattered Memories sharpens and reframes how we come to read the original work and introduces a new understanding of the pathetic fallacy given its fresh narrative framing. Likewise, the even more abstruse interactive teaser game for the unmade Silent Hills by renowned developer Hideo Kojima, christened P.T. (Playable Teaser), proposes ontological riddles regarding the nature of digital realities and the psychological malaise that distorts such worlds. Very much continuing the work of games like Silent Hill 2, P.T. recreates a simulacrum of suburban spaces mired in intense psychological horrors. Its singular labyrinthine corridor that recurs throughout the entirety of the game suggests a kind of philosophical inscrutability and untreatable trauma that cannot be fathomed but endlessly reproduced. Silent Hill 2 depicts a pathetic fallacy with multiple endings; Shattered Memories and P.T. multiply these fallacies ad infinitum.
The alterable landscapes and inhabitants of Silent Hill 2 evoke the pathetic fallacy typically evoked in Romantic poetry and literature, and the unique capability of videogames to position the audience within the subjective reality of the player-character opens up interesting possibilities for this theory. Because videogames channel the player through the specific viewpoint of a singular character at any given time, game space directly contorts to the psychological trauma of that character. The connection to a literary device in which one’s inner emotions and anxieties map onto the surrounding environment fits a game specifically entrenched in psychological, even Freudian horrors. In opposition to the passive quality of spectatorship in film, the active investigative role set forth in videogames (especially in survival horror) directly positions the audience in the inner subjectivity of a character. This unique positioning can induce unreliable, skewed perceptions of the surrounding game space as in James Sunderland’s reception to Silent Hill. Moreover, the close relationship between player and character in videogames allows for an intertwining of shared feelings – fear, dread, emotional catharsis, etc. – not possible in any other medium, thus prompting an added dimension to the applicable literary theories. Examining videogames like Silent Hill 2 through the lens of theories like the pathetic fallacy demands an examination of the active participation of audiences and the shared consciousness between player and character. For those willing to engage in a medium often overlooked and underappreciated, these games will sidestep easy interpretation in favor of a more difficult crossroads of skewed perspectives, repressed memories, and entire worlds. ■
Beuglet, Nicolas, dir. “The Making of Silent Hill 2: Alchemists of Emotion.” Fun TV: 2001. Television.
Blue Velvet. Dir. David Lynch. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), 1986.
Climax Studios. (2009). Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Multiplatform: Konami.
Cox, Angela R. “Sierra’s Phantasmagoria: Translating the Gothic.” Play the Past. 24 Sep 2013. Web. Retrieved 9 Nov 2013.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” James Strachey, ed. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955. 219-52. Print.
Kirkland, Ewan. “Discursively Constructing the Art of Silent Hill.” Games and Culture. 5.3 (2010): 314-28. Print.
——. “Horror Videogames and the Uncanny.” Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. (2009): 1-4. Print.
——. “Storytelling in Survival Horror Video Games.” Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009. Print.
——. “The Self-Reflexive Funhouse of Silent Hill.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 13.4 (2007): 403-415. Print.
Kojima Productions. (2014). P.T. PS4: Konami.
Krzywinska, Tanya. “Hands-on Horror.” Harmony Wu, ed. Axes to Grind: Re-Imagining the Horrific in Visual Media and Culture. Special Issue of Spectator 22.2 (Fall 2002) 12-23. Print.
Perron, Bernard. Silent Hill: The Terror Engine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.
Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Shamley Productions, 1960.
Ruskin, John. “Of the Pathetic Fallacy.” Modern Painters. Vol, III. London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1856. 157-72 Print.
Squire, Kurt and Henry Jenkins. “The Art of Contested Spaces.” Game On. 2002: 1-19. Print.
Team Silent. (1999). Silent Hill. Multiplatform: Konami.
——. (2001). Silent Hill 2. Multiplatform: Konami.
——. (2003). Silent Hill 3. Multiplatform: Konami.