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The genius of Silent Hill 2

Steve Williams explains his passion for the twisted town...

A door. Beneath a lake. A rusty door in a blank square of concrete, its shadows piled with blackened filth I don't look at too hard. A door, sitting in silence at the bottom of a very long, very cold, very ordinary concrete stairwell. A door.

A door I don't want to open, because I'm scared.

Silent Hill, and Silent Hill 2 in particular, realise the difference between scary monsters and scary times, and use that knowledge to sensational effect. Scary monsters are only scary to sleepless six year-olds. Scary times creep up on grown men and women in the middle of the night during deep, sweating sleep, when real life comes crashing through the veil and all bets are off.

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Most survival horror games, both before and since - Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark, FEAR, Dead Space... take your pick - rely on shock. But there's nothing shocking about a door, not even one beneath a lake.

Silent Hill 2's genius is to build such associations, create such nerve-tightening expectations and generate such a feeling of muddled helplessness that you - OK, I - genuinely fear opening it.

Horror games are not 'pant-wetting' or 'shit-yourself scary,' as the pathetic hyperbole so routinely and predictably goes. Even Silent Hill is mostly unscary. But at this door and during enough other series moments that pinned this town in my head forever, I really didn't want to find out what lay ahead.

THE DESCENT
The brilliance is, of course, that I'm forced to anyway - forced to open those doors, to leap into the black holes with no visible bottom, to reach shoulder-deep into the crevice that has no right to exist - because my character is desperate, reckless. Suicidal? Murderous? Perhaps those too. It's about as far from Leon Kennedy and his carefully conserved ammo as you can get.

How does it do it? Here's a theory. I once worked in an office with a static electricity problem. After a few weeks I found my hand disobeying my brain - some lizard part of me had learnt that touching the metal meant pain. I'm talking inch-long blue bolts, here. It was a purely Pavlovian reaction: door appears, hand freezes; bell rings, dog salivates.

Silent Hill sets up a similar reaction in me, even without pain. I'd learnt that opening such a door meant half-seen enemies and awful numb-controller fights and maybe death in a place so terrible it'd taken James Sunderland over half the game to reach it. Silent Hill is a special place.

The series leaks with ominous symbolism. The PSone original opens with a car crash, a daughter gone missing, light draining from a noon sky as an air raid siren wails... then blood, razor wire and a school. A darkened school still full of children; skinless, knife-fingered children, like Swindon at night.

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The series repeatedly returns to institutions - schools, hospitals, churches, sanatoria, prisons, police stations - the apparatus of everyday life. They're always broken. They represent your world's descent into chaos, and in chaos - in nightmares - you're not in control, hence the other brilliant design decision; to cast you as a normal person uncomfortable with guns, one who can't really fight and is not particularly agile.

SLIPPING AWAY
It was a brave decision, too, as the 'poor combat' came in for inevitable criticism, especially as the otherwise all-conquering Resident Evil was itself coming under pressure to modernise its own rotting controls. Yet 'improvements' to the Hill since have only proved the original choice right, as increasingly savvy characters such as Origins' Travis Grady - a tough trucker - and Homecoming's Alex Shepherd - a soldier - have removed some of that frustrating, but vital helplessness. Without it, Silent Hill veers into a cavalcade of unscary 'scary' monsters for sleepless six year-olds.

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