Warning – this article contains major spoilers for Silent Hill 2!
Silent Hill 2 is often revered as one of the most influential horror games of all time, and more importantly, one of gaming’s most polished offerings in terms of storytelling. Yes, it plays like your rudimentary third-person adventure game, and its iffy combat leaves a bit to be desired; however, the guts and guns belie the stunning emotional weight of its narrative, of protagonist James Sunderland’s compelling journey in the perpetually-foggy nightmare of the iconic, cursed town.
With Sunderland, Team Silent has crafted one of the most convincing videogame protagonists around, and in my humble opinion, one that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with our industry’s best. On the surface, Sunderland’s quest is to explore the town to find his wife, Mary, who apparently succumbed to illness some years before the events of the game. However, while this would be more than enough to provide a gripping backdrop – after all, how many games have you receiving a letter from your dead wife? – the meat of Silent Hill 2’s tale goes beyond this premise.
Crucially much like his predecessor, Harry Mason, Sunderland is an everyday sort of bloke. He’s a store clerk by day, and has no discernible special skills, unless you count his ability to nonchalantly shove his hand down blocked toilets (anyone who has played the game will know what I mean). The fact he’s an ordinary guy makes him an extraordinary player character, and one that we can instantly relate to. After all, he could easily be one of us. He’s not a skilled marksman or acrobatic, arse-kicker of all evil, and that always makes for the best type of protagonist – namely, one you can believe.
However, it’s his diversity as a character that defines Silent Hill 2’s mild-mannered hero. Just like the cursed town is split between two distinct incarnations – the calmer ‘fog’ reality and the malevolent ‘Otherworld’ – the same can be said about James. There’s the juxtaposition between the mild-mannered, loving chap we are introduced to and the ‘other’ side to this persona, which quickly manifests as he explores the town – namely, one of a sexually repressed individually and a killer.
This is the single most important aspect of James’ character. Prior to the game, unable to cope with the grief of seeing his beloved suffer in her sick bed, he smothered Mary to ‘end’ her suffering, as the video tape in Room 302 in the Lakeview Hotel reveals. She didn’t die three years ago; she most likely passed mere hours before James arrives in town, where he comes to presumably commit suicide. However, the memory is repressed. Throughout the game, these events are slowly unearthed through the trials and tribulations that Sunderland endures, and was indeed reminded of by the various creatures that stalk the streets.
Remember the Mannequins? Well, they’re a metaphor for James’ sexual frustration. Maria? While open to interpretation, it is largely assumed she is to be a manifestation of the town, acting as both a perennial reminder of James’ loss (given that she is a doppleganger of Mary) and, owing to her more sexualized appearance, his own desire of what he wanted Mary to be. And finally, we have Pyramid Head: Silent Hill’s inexorable, giant knife-wielding punisher, who shows up frequently to torment our hero by ‘killing’ Maria on multiple occasions.
Through these myriad of narrative threads, James becomes so much more than a simple protagonist killing enemies and finding his lost loved one. It’s a personal journey on so many levels; the fact James descends into the abyss later in the game is a direct reference of Sunderland digging deeper into his own subconscious in an effort to unearth the truth. No, he’s no perfect, and he’s done terrible things, but we still feel an enormous amount of sympathy for him. More importantly, we want to discover the truth; we feel compelled to follow his journey through to the end, where James admits his wrong-doings. “I was weak,” concedes Sunderland. “I needed you [Maria] to punish me…"
Multi-layered characters like Mr. Sunderland are a rare commodity these days, and in the 12 years since Silent Hill 2’s release, there haven’t been many games that have come close to matching Sunderland. Here, we have a character who ostensibly seems like a nice enough chap, but underneath, he’s in fact a very disturbed young man, who is pretty much responsible for creating the horrors that players encounter throughout the game. The fact such an ordinary individual is capable of such traits, and the subsequent journey he undertakes to discover the truth, is what makes James Sunderland one of the best videogame protagonists of all time.
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