It’s unlikely there will ever be another game like Silent Hill 2. Between Akira Yamaoka’s sound work, psychological, adult subject matter and Masahiro Ito’s abstract monster designs (including his crowning achievement, Pyramid Head), it’s more than earned its status as a pioneer of the genre. Fans disagree the effectiveness of the voice work, however, with its strange pacing, pauses, and delivery, yet this is arguably just as integral to the experience.
For whatever reason, when Konami decided to release the Silent Hill HD Collection in 2012, they chose to add new vocal performances for SH2, a measure that many found disrespectful to its original source material. As might be expected, the new acting took what felt like a more professional tone, reflecting how far games had come in the eleven years since SH2’s first release.
But it doesn’t work. For starters, Konami cast Troy Baker, just on the cusp of becoming the most ubiquitous voice actor in gaming, to play James Sunderland, SH2’s tortured protagonist drawn to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife, Mary. Like any great actor, Baker can and often does change his voice to fit a performance, yet the original recordings for James — and the entire cast — are so indelible to their respective characters that hearing anyone else’s pipes is immediately jarring. As James, Baker never really stood a chance at fan acceptance, and it seems cynical that Konami would be so seemingly callous with their own series.
More to the point — especially for people who haven’t played SH2 before — the original vocals sync up with the town, and the themes of the series, remarkably well.
It would make sense that a game about a cursed town known for summoning people to confront (and exorcise) their inner demons through horrific psychological manifestations would lean heavily on surrealism; whether it’s entirely intentional or not, every actor in SH2’s original cast plays off each other as if they’re in a dream, often with disconnected or exaggerated inflection and timing.
Coupled with Yamaoka’s trip-hoppy machine work soundscapes, its makes for a bizarre atmosphere. SH2’s cast behave in erratic ways across its script, from the oddly childlike Angela, who you eventually learn is the victim of sexual assault by her father, to Eddie, an angry, obese man whose deep-seated insecurities belies a psychotic paranoid streak.
Each performance has its own tic. The way Eddie earnestly swears up and down that he hasn’t done anything wrong – or that he’s not at fault – despite not being accused of any crime, for example. Or how Angela alternates from talking about her “Mama” the way a little girl would, to becoming a caustic woman, mistrustful of James both because of his sex and her ability to seemingly see his true nature. In one way or another, every character is something of a foil for James (especially Maria, a sexualized quasi-doppelgänger of Mary, whose shared scenes with him are some of SH2’s most otherworldly), even as they reflect various states of psychological trauma within themselves.
Watching the story unfold whenever one of the characters is speaking is like trying to push against some dense, unseen force that hinders making sense of what’s happening. As with any weird dream, you can comprehend it, but even when you do, something is always just a little bit off, like dialogue in a David Lynch film.
The most significant aspect to this is probably the fact the script itself seems detached from reality, figuratively and otherwise. James’s journey through the town is a purgatory; his progression from locales to locale is often non-linear, and he is tormented by hideous creatures, unsettling not because they follow horror archetypes, but in how their rough-hewn bodies are made up of a jumble of familiar parts — arms, mouths, torsos — melded together and twisted with things that don’t belong. Things like metal bars and straitjackets, somehow covered in viscous brown skin. In Silent Hill’s spaces and things, it’s never quite clear what’s real and what isn’t.
By way of that example, what you often experience in SH2 is something that you can’t logically process. The voice work operates on that principal too; reactions to events or dialogue are usually not what you expect. Take when James first meets Eddie – he’s hunched over a toilet in a ramshackle apartment, puking over the discovery of a nearby corpse.
“It wasn’t me! I didn’t do it,” he sputters, retching. When James asks him what he’s talking about, Eddie continues, insisting his innocence in between spitting and continuing to throw up. The sound of his being sick continues throughout the cutscene, despite its narrative need to set up Eddie’s character and demeanor while both giving players James’s first impression of him and furthering the circumstances of the town itself.
It’s a weird choice, especially as James introduces himself before calmly asking, “Who’s that dead guy in the kitchen?” Each character seems in their own world because, to some extent, they are — the way Silent Hill presents itself to any one person depends on their personal experiences.
While you can take your pick from just about any cutscene in the game to get other examples of SH2’s unusual vocal work, the best may be at the end of the game, when James encounters Angela on a burning staircase, resigned to her own hell. It’s the only time SH2’s representational spaces appear to overlap between characters.
Initially mistaking James for her mother before coming to her senses and remembering everything she’s endured, Angela sneers at him for his expressed sympathy; she then asks James to return the kitchen knife he found her holding earlier. When he refuses, she scoffs.
“Saving it for yourself?” she asks, coldly.
“Me? No, I’d never kill myself,” James replies, taken aback.
Without another word, Angela begins slowly climbing the stairs as James looks on, his inner thoughts unknown. A very long beat passes — so long you think the scene will end without more words from anyone.
“It’s hot as hell in here,” James finally says, almost absently.
“You see it too?” Angela turns, her voice hardly a question. “For me, it’s always like this.” She walks on; you don’t see her again.
Without their dissociative performances, this scene — already laced with surreal uncertainty on paper – would never have worked. With them, it’s the embodiment of everything that makes Silent Hill 2’s acting brilliant in context. It wouldn’t be the same without it.