Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Silent Hill 2 [part 3] - Level Design

For my third and final submission on Silent Hill 2 I will be taking a look at the level design which is arguably the strongest feature of the series. What must be understood about the areas within SH2 is that every area is relevant - whether it’s a cramped hallway or a seemingly, never-ending staircase descending into darkness. Every area has some kind of symbolic reference.

The first area the player (as James) finds themselves is in is inside a grubby public toilet. This area acts as a precursor for the rest of the game as it describes the gritty, explicit nature of the game. One should also note that James begins the game in doors; this wasn’t by chance – it was a conscious decision.

The detailed appearance of this area indicates the mood for the rest of the game. 

The next area you traverse into is literally Silent Hill – most of the world you will be exploring will look similar. Everything looks old and decayed; the layers of dirt over the roads and buildings add to the degraded feel of the ghost town. One might also notice how the town is near the sea, emitting a sense of isolation. And of course, the most noticeable feature: the fog (or ash which is never made apparent in the 2nd game). The fog actually serves a technical purpose – it hides the draw distance and acts as a filter to cover up any textural shortcomings.

The fog filter is not only an aesthetic feature lending to mood of the game but it is also designed to cover up any technical shortcomings. 

Even the placement of certain characters is crucial to the game and its symbolic nature. James first encounters pyramid head behind bars separating a corridor. He only shows up clearly however when the player directly faces PH; this is our first clue into its true identity. Pyramid Head is actually James’ mirror image, and the fact that he is first seen behind bars is crucial. Silent Hill is considered a place where people go to be punished; James’ vision of PH behind bars is how the town reacts to him.

 Your first encounter

Another clue into James’ psyche is when we first encounter Mary’s dress on a mannequin. This tells us that James only ever viewed Mary as an object; something to simply fulfil his sexual desires. The player also finds the torch-light attached to wear Mary’s heart would be, brightening up the dark room around it. This gives us some insight into Mary’s personality – how she brought light into the world.

I"n my restless dreams, I see that town... Silent Hill."
Another area which truly tests the player is on the long, dark, descending stair case. This signifies James’ journey down into hell and is literally a 2 minute journey from the top of the stairs to the bottom. This tests the player in more ways than one; constantly wondering if they should turn back being the most prominent. What makes this interesting is that during this section of the game James’ and the player’s psyches are directly connected; both are experiencing frustration and doubt, as well as a feeling of dread. This wouldn’t have been possible if the staircase hadn’t been so long and time consuming to descend.  

When I reached this part of the game I thought I had encountered a glitch since I didn't appear to progress whilst descending the staircase. The game affected my sanity in this way.

One thing which I believe separated the level designing process for the Silent Hill team as opposed to most other video game producers was that the psychological references took priority, and even determined the design over actual consideration to how they traverse. In a large amount of games, priority seems to be taken on scale and variety in level design. In the Call of Duty games (vulgar) for instance, the priority seems to be on how adaptable to multiplayer gaming they are. The levels most likely started off as a sequence of buildings and shapes in which artistic flair can be adapted and a basic concept can be applied.

In conclusion, I find Silent Hill to be one of the most relevant games to the industry. It truly denotes game design at a deep level, taking psychological as well as artistic significance into consideration. I honestly haven’t come across a game which has evoked so much thought and interactivity from the player. The characters, story and setting are enough to rival any film. If gaming was ever to be considered an art form then Silent Hill 2 would be the Da Vinci of the genre. It’s just unfortunate how the series has declined and lost its intelligent and brilliantly conceived sense of story-telling.      

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