When it comes to scholars on the topic of video games, especially about Silent Hill 2, Marc Santos, Sarah White, and Ewan Kirkland have been some big names who certainly cannot be ignored. These writers lay the foundations for reading and interpreting the game, and they opened the doors for my topic. This post revolves around the collaborative efforts of Santos and White; the next post will focus on Kirkland!
Santos and White have co-written two articles that directly address the game (that I know of). Their 2005 article, “Playing With Ourselves: A Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill,” studied survival horror games under the scope of psychoanalytic theory to “provide insight into the narrative pleasure they provide gamers” (69), and they note that “both Freud and Lacan posit the existence of nihilistic forces operating on a level beneath consciousness” (69). They state that the Silent Hill games have learned “how powerful the question “What the hell is going on” can be, and continually suspends this question to intensify our playing experience… we are never sure whether the games’ deigetic worlds are manifestations of psychotic minds or the results of supernatural forces. This ambiguity becomes intra-deigetic, as the characters themselves frequently question their degree of sanity” (Santos and White, 75).
They specifically discuss James Sunderland’s trip to Silent Hill and how “we as theorists can theorize that the characters are answering the Freudian call to repeat, to work through their repressed psychic trauma” (Santos and White, 75). They state that “our gameplay becomes James’ therapy; he is compelled to repeatedly confront the demons (literally manifested by deformed figures that stalk his every move) of his past and restore his irrevocably fractured subjectivity” (Santos and White, 75). They also note how his “inward trauma transfers onto the world around him—producing not only monsters, but also an entire perverse alternate reality…” (Santos and White, 75). Another important thing they say is that in the town of Silent Hill, “the “evil” we encounter in these games represents the fragility and duality of our own psyches” (Santos and White, 76). (Important set-up here!)
In Santos and White’s 2007 article investigating the same two game series, “Saving Ourselves,” they explore the purpose of the save point: “How else can we save ourselves?” (Santos and White, 1). They bring up the significance of the Silent Hill games from its avant-garde status:
…it anticipates our familiarity with these conventions and works to subvert them, problematizing our desire for stability and coherence…This is epitomized near the end of Silent Hill 3 when a professional character inquisitively questions the “enjoyment” that Heather, our avatar, draws from killing the threatening abjections around her. When she responds that she has only killed monsters, Vincent replies with “they look like monsters to you…” Our game play, which until this point has been comfortably positioned as an analytic activity helping Heather work through her traumas, becomes traumatic. Vincent punctures the fictional fantasy screen, speaking not only to Heather, but also to us. Suddenly the game world collapses around us—for a moment we are subjected as murderers, potentially as psychotic as our avatar and/or as one of the very psychopaths we so confidently believed we were killing. Nothing can be trusted. No longer is it clear that we are working to uphold symbolic order. No longer is it clear that any such order ever has or could so securely exist…to quote Derrida, “order is no longer secured.”
Santos and White make a great point that our main character is not always a reliable narrator, and all is not what it appears to be. They touch on the topic of monsters and the greater purpose they serve, but that wasn’t the main focus of this particular article. However, this observation marks the beginning of what I am interested in discussing further.
For Silent Hill 2, they write about a relationship “between narrative progression and our progression toward death…each scene we enjoy, brings us closer to our narrative’s end” (Santos and White, 3). To keep enjoying the game, we save the game; we postpone the ending, repressing. So they ask the question of “Who is repressing?” I think that is really interesting because, as James is repressing, the player controlling the avatar of James is also repressing; it is a neat little symbolic link, in my opinion, that perhaps gives the player more connection and more investment into James as a character.
They also note the nature of the save screen in the game. The first time James finds a save point (inside a well), he remarks that it feels like someone is digging around inside of his head:
Whenever we use one of these stained save points, the screen is washed over by its uncannily bright red raking us to the save screen….we stare into our avatar’s face as he blankly stares at us. The titles of our save file are distorted and superimposed onto the background, he looks through them at us. For a moment…our play gazes back at us, blankly questioning if our subjectivity is any righter (more “proper”, as Zizek might say), more secure, than that of the character we direct. The game itself becomes a stain, potentially interrupting the security of our own symbolic orders, leading us to question if anything orders our movements, or if we are merely subjects of (by, through) play. (Santos and White, 3)