James was dead. I had killed him.
As I sat watching the credits roll on Silent Hill 2‘s “In Water” ending, I wondered what I had done to deserve such a heartrending conclusion. After doing some online research, I discovered that not only did the choices I made have an effect on the ending, but also, the way I played. The game had analyzed my playstyle and assumed that my choices reflected James’ character’s psychology. I had received an ending as a result of my own customized James Sunderland. Silent Hill 2 does this in such a way that is understated and subtle, integrating the narrative with seemingly inconsequential choices you make as a player.
I had never before come across a game like this. Most other survival horror games I had played telegraphed when I was making choices that might have an effect on my ending. If they did not, they at least made it abundantly clear that the choices I was making would have an effect on something. Silent Hill 1’s requirement for obtaining the Good+ ending, for example, required me to collect a bottle of red liquid. Then I had to douse Cybil in it to prevent her death. Cybil’s survival was a factor in the game that had apparent significance; it didn’t disguise itself as a minor event.
But Silent Hill 2 does things differently.
The factors that contribute to receiving an ending in Silent Hill 2 are so seemingly minuscule in nature that players will most definitely overlook them on their initial playthrough. I know that I did. How was I supposed to know that simply examining Angela’s knife would lead to James’ suicide? Or that not keeping my health at a respectable level would indicate a low desire to live? That diary on the hospital roof? Reading that also factors into receiving the ending where James kills himself.
Because these choices are so cleverly integrated, so well hidden, they deter players from attempting to receive a specific ending. The endings then, flow more naturally from the players’ choices, reflecting the James that they unconsciously craft. James becomes an avatar for the players, a character that they can fully invest in. Each ending also gives a different spin on James.
The “In Water” ending, which I first received, deals with a James that was mostly angry at Mary for robbing him of his life:
James: Forgive me.
Mary: I told you I wanted to die, James. I wanted the pain to end.
James: That’s why I did it, honey. I just couldn’t watch you suffer. No, that’s not the whole truth. You also said that you didn’t want to die. The truth is…part of me hated you for taking away my life.
He has recognized his sin, as well as his primary motivation for his deed. James, overcome by the guilt.
Many have argued that this ending fits most thematically and organically into Silent Hill 2’s narrative, but I tend to disagree. The ending that serves Silent Hill 2 best is the ending that the player crafts through his own James. So in the case of “In Water,” of course James commits suicide. He’s been showing signs of neglecting his welfare throughout the entire narrative.
This line of thinking also fits for the “Leave” ending as well, as examining Mary’s picture, re-reading her letter multiple times, and not spending too much time with Maria shows that James is truly intent upon finding his wife again. His efforts result in him receiving forgiveness from Mary and him leaving the town, with Laura trailing behind. Conversely, if James dotes on Maria and protects her from monsters, he will receive the “Maria” ending. This ending infers that James has learned nothing from his ordeal, and it ends with Maria coughing, implying that the situation will repeat itself in the near future.
The other two endings, “Dog” and “Rebirth,” don’t lend themselves as well to this theory. The requirements to obtain these two endings require knowledge outside of the in-game universe. Repeating the game three times to get the “Dog” ending, for example, isn’t something that the character can do organically. Neither would James know to collect the materials needed for the “Rebirth” ending in order to resurrect Mary.
It seems as if this particular way of treating the protagonist and the game’s endings worked well enough for Silent Hill. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories carried over the system of psychological profiling, allowing gamers to answer questions asked to them by the in-game counselor Dr.Kaufman. These are broken down into different types of questions that deal with sex, family, school, and other facets of life. The main plotline concerned itself with Harry Mason searching for his daughter, Cheryl. Yet intermittently, throughout the game, these counseling sessions take place. The answers given to certain questions affect how Harry interacts with other characters and with monsters in his environment.
Players knew that their choices in the counseling sessions would alter the game’s mechanics. Yet they did not know that they were playing as Cheryl while answering the questions. Furthermore, they were unaware the answers she gave would change the type of father that Harry ultimately turned out to be, or was. Indeed, within the last few minutes of the game, it is revealed that Harry died years earlier in a car crash. The Harry you play throughout the game is simply a fantasy of Cheryl’s.
Depending on how the game was played, players received one of three initial endings and one of four after endings. The first three vary by how Cheryl reacts to her father’s appearance at the counseling session. In the first two, she accepts her father’s death and moves on with her life. The variation between the two focuses on whether she blames Harry for everything that has transpired or not. In the third ending, she refuses to accept his death and returns to her delusions.
The after endings are four different videotaped conclusions that each give a different spin on Harry’s character. “Love Lost” paints Harry as a family man, who consoles his daughter after he divorces Dahlia, his wife. “Sleaze and Sirens” colors him as a womanizer, “Wicked and Weak” as an abused, non-confrontational man, and “Drunk Dad” as a washed-up alcoholic.
Both of these games feature psychological profiling as a way to establish character. While Silent Hill 2 profiles its gamer secretly, Shattered Memories lets the player know that the choices that are being made will have an effect on the ending. However, in both cases, players are unaware of how their choices will define the characters they are playing as.