As an educator, I can confirm my controversial belief (and with some certainty) that video games are the nascent form of cultural expression in the 21st century. It might be time for us all to emerge from Plato’s cave and accept that some of the traditions we know and love are dead or quietly dying. There. I said it.
Media theorist Mackenzie Wark made this claim years ago and I admit I was one of her early cynics. I enjoyed video games and never doubted their value, but to place them above the time-honoured concepts of what a significant “text” embodied was unthinkable. It’s a concept Marshall McLuhan explored in the early 60s when assessing the restrictions of linear thinking adopted by Western worlders. And he kind of blamed this old-fashioned notion of text consumption. But it’s with a heavy heart that I concede defeat, because I resisted this modern prerogative for fucking years.
Could it be that literature and cinema only seek to reinforce the “real”—a cultural scrapheap of simulacral icons and fractured images—or are video games just more effective at inducing a genuine liminal experience by proxy of their immersive nature? And that’s to say nothing of VR’s stereoscopic vision which broadens the gamespace as an important kinetic field.
Let us consider 2001’s sequel to Silent Hill. Most people would agree that Silent Hill 2 is the kind of experience that leaves psychological and subdermal scarring (in the best way). Konami gave us a Dostoevskian powerhouse—a genre-defining chef-d’oeuvre. Re-playing it, Silent Hill 2 also has such a defined aesthetic, drawing as much on the economy of fear as it does on the immediate exterior fleece of monsters and spooky locations. It succeeds in every way imaginable. It creates its environment with such definition and confidence that it has endured. In my opinion, Silent Hill 2 is legitimate art. YouTuber and architectural/video-game essayist Jacob Geller agrees, stating the caveat—“Every video game is legitimate art. ‘Art’ is not a signifier of quality, it’s a category. Frozen pizza is legitimate food, and so is filet mignon. Sonic 2006 is legitimate art, and so is Silent Hill. What sets Silent Hill 2 apart is that it’s good!”
Geller goes on to explain that none of the choices made by the developers were made because “that’s just how video games work.” Part of its success is the confidence with which it projects its own self-contained philosophy.
Jacob Geller: Instead, every mechanic and environment feels like it feeds back into the larger ethos of the game. For example, almost every door in the game is locked, but there’s no way to establish this except jiggling every handle. In another game, this would be an irritating time-waster. In Silent Hill 2, however, this feeling of being lost and trapped is core to the experience, so the constant locked doors make sense.
Chris Kelso: That’s quite a specific and unusual commendation. Outside of delayed gratification, the lack of (or denial of) access to content would be a criticism.
JG: I also think an undersung part of Silent Hill 2 is it’s exactly the size it needs to be. Any bigger and it’d likely need to add filler gameplay that held less thematic resonance. Any smaller, and it wouldn’t be able to fully steep the player in the impossibilities of its world. Finally, I think Silent Hill 2 gets that horror stories are more memorable, and ultimately scarier, when they have unexplained absurdity as well as overt terror. There’s a reason the dog-man scene in The Shining is one of its most iconic moments. The game’s tone would exhaust itself if every character was a Pyramid Head-esque nightmare. But because it also has the dream-like humor of Eddie and the strange seductiveness of Maria, the player is constantly unsettled. This is something that I think modern horror titles—Amnesia, Outlast, etc—are missing.
Wark’s exploration of gamespace is undoubtedly valid and not one to be stubbornly dismissed by literary intransigents. She defined the “gamespace” as a liminal theoretical environment that encompasses. Silent Hill 2 offers us one man’s specific projection of an indeterminate state. Our protagonist, James Sunderland, is riddled with guilt and denial. The town is guilt-manifest. A rural fog-fucked small town in Maine. The use of uncanny full motion video and standard real-time rendering gives the gamer the feeling of cross-reality. We might be immersed in realism one minute then thrown into a world which expresses the heavily-pixelated and mechanical limitations of early millennial PS2 graphics. It feels very deliberate.
CK: I love your video essay “An Uncanny Reality,” and you do mention the impact of Silent Hill 2’s FMVs, but I’m curious: what was your initial experience the first time you played Silent Hill 2, if you can remember it or reflect upon it? Were you immediately aware you were having a liminal experience?
JG: I first played Silent Hill 2 in 2019. Prior to playing it, I assumed that I absorbed most of what made it special from broader gaming culture. Video games are largely iterative, so I guessed that even though I hadn’t played Silent Hill 2, I would have seen most of its tricks from its successors. What blew me away about the experience was that it’s still so singular. From the very first cutscene, I feel like the game establishes a wholly unique tone—and that’s what really pulled me in. Other games can copy individual tricks or design decisions, but Silent Hill 2 seems impossible to copy because the eerie in-between state that the game places itself in requires basically its entire length to explore. I’m not sure if I was aware of the game’s liminality from moment one, but I immediately knew it was doing something off the beaten path.
CK: Is it advantageous or useful for a player to be consciously aware they are in a liminal space? Why might someone choose to experience Silent Hill 2’s particular purgatorial environment?
JG: I think “liminal space” has come into common parlance relatively recently; I don’t think most players at the time would have been able to apply this concept to why the environments in Silent Hill 2 are so compelling. In fact, I think the game does an excellent job of subtly introducing themes of liminality without consciously alerting the player. Stepping through a hole in the wall from one apartment building to the other doesn’t necessarily call attention to itself. It’s only when the player is ten stories under the historical society, in an overtly impossible space, that they might realize this has been happening the entire time.
CK: It seems obvious to say that Silent Hill creates a very unique liminal space, but can you see the environments in the game seeping back out into this reality, a kind of reverse projection mapping?
JG: The magic of many of Silent Hill’s environments is how reasonable they are. The apartment buildings are not impossible, the hospital could very likely exist. There are countless real dark hallways full of locked doors. By introducing an intensely personal horror and uncertainty to these spaces, Silent Hill 2 makes us suspicious of the same spaces in our own life.
Chris Kelso is a British Fantasy Award-nominated genre writer, illustrator, and anthologist. His work has been published in 3:AM Magazine, Black Static, Locus, Daily Science Fiction, Antipodean-SF, SF Signal, Dark Discoveries, The Scottish Poetry Library, Invert/Extant, The Lovecraft e-zine, Sensitive Skin, Evergreen Review, Verbicide, and many others. He has been translated into French and is the two-time winner of the Ginger Nuts of Horror Novel of the Year (in 2016 for Unger House Radicals and 2017 for Shrapnel Apartments). The Black Dog Eats the City made Weird Fiction Reviews Best of 2014 list.