Sunday, October 3, 2010

Silent Hill Sunday #9: “There was a HOLE here...”

...It’s gone now.

From Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams
Struggling past hordes of lurid, living nor dead creatures and traversing the brutal, hate-soaked terrain of Silent Hill is frightening enough, but what really affects the player after the system has been shut down and a good night’s sleep forfeit are little nuances like this. Clichés generally become the no-thought-required phrases they are because they represent some kind of inalienable truth; thus as much as it’s against my training, allow me to resort to one now: The Devil’s in the details.

And someone at Konami knows their clichés.

The player doesn’t have to find the “HOLE here” message to successfully finish Silent Hill 2 – the locale simply contains hints on where to go next. It’s tucked into an area that veers from the critical 10-star ranking path, which means that only those intent on thoroughly exploring the Nightmare Town will likely ever come across it after their first playthough. So why waste your time with it a second, third or even fourth time around? Simple: It’s a reward of sorts; a cerebral sucker punch appealing to the visceral, masochistic psyche that attracts many players to the series in the first place.

James walkin' around SH
“Okay, so someone covered up a hole with some newspaper,” you might think when you first see it. “Big deal. Let’s move on.”

But then you start to wonder: What kind of a hole was it? A hole in the wall or a hole to …somewhere else? How did the hole get there in the first place, who covered it up, and why would they feel compelled to scrawl the situation on the newspaper they used to fix it? Does this tie in with SH2’s correlation between jumping into holes and diving deeper into James’ fragile, damaged consciousness? Or was it a clever reference to the predicament of Silent Hill 4’s protagonist nearly three years before SH4 was released?

No, I can't explain the cover.
It’s almost a decade after James’ journey first graced my trusty PlayStation 2 and I’m still wrestling with this miniscule aspect of the gameplay. That’s not just good programming or even good storytelling on Konami’s part, it’s an intuitive understanding of the human condition. In his decades-old novel “The Stranger,” author Albert Camus plays on humanity’s need for order and our compulsion to find meaningful answers in everything around us, then he presents the reader with a murder that truly has no purpose. Most characters in the novel cannot accept that the universe is inherently chaotic and humans seek order that does not exist, so they persecute the messenger – the murderer in this case – to preserve their artificial sense of purpose in life. The Silent Hill series seems particularly attuned to this aspect of Camus philosophy, called the Paradox of the Absurd (often mistaken for Existentialism), and “There was a HOLE here” is simply one of thousands of chaotic, meaningless musings scattered throughout the series. It’s a brilliant creative philosophy: Throw it out there and allow the player to obsess over it, looking for purpose and meaning that simply does not exist.

Camus himself looking pale and tragic.

The results are fantastic. What Konami and the Silent Hill series have done to my congenital need for order – and that of many others as well – is the exact opposite of what that cryptic message scribbled in red on old newsprint proclaims: There wasn’t a hole, but it's here now.

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