One of the greatest strengths of the early Silent Hill games - developed by internal Konami studio Team Silent - is their exceptional character design. The characters presented in these games are among the best in all of gaming history at illiciting emotional responses from the players - both positive and negative.
It all starts at the top, as the protagonists of all three games stand tall and proud as paragons of game character design. This blog will contain major plot spoilers for Silent Hill 1-3. Read at your own risk!
Harry Mason as a relatable Joe Everyman
Having relatable and likable characters is essential to the success of just about any horror story (whether in the form of a book, movie, game, or any other medium). It's hard to feel afraid for a character that you just don't care for.
Harry Mason is just an average Joe.
Harry Mason of Silent Hill is a great example of a relatable "Joe Everyman" protagonist. Harry is a simple writer trying to take his daughter on a vacation. He wrecks his car and wakes up to find his daughter is missing in a seemingly deserted and haunted town that is closed off from the outside world. Harry isn't a superhero or elite special forces operative. He's just a guy. He could be anybody. This makes him instantly relatable to an audience.
On top of that, he's a loving and devoted father, and a role model for all would-be video game dads. Being tasked with finding his young and frightened daughter in the haunted streets only further cements his relatability, as almost all human beings are hard-wired with the instinct to protect children - especially their own. I've already gushed about Harry's fatherly prowess in my Father's Day Tribute to Harry Mason blog, so I won't go into too much detail here.
Harry is 100% devoted to his adopted daughter.
Harry puts himself through a literal hell in a desperate attempt to find his daughter and protect her from the horrors of Silent Hill. This task is his singular devotion, and everything else is tertiary. He doesn't care about what happened to the town. He doesn't care about drug trafficers selling narcotics to tourists. He doesn't even care about saving the world from crazy cultists and their demon god. Finding Cheryl is item numero uno on his todo list, and even the slightest diversion into any other task results in an "Anyway, I have to go find Cheryl" prompt to resume the search.
Even if the player doesn't have kids, the idea of wanting to protect a family member or loved one is universally-relatable. Despite the very BIG things going on around him, Harry's quest remains simple and personal. He barely even understands what is going on around him. This is something that virtually anybody can sympathize with. Let's face it, not everybody is a noble knight whose sole concern is saving the world from evil. Most of us just want to look out for ourselves and those who we care about.
If we happen to save the world in the process: great! Harry perfectly stradles that middle ground between "selfless" and "selfish" that so many of us drift between every day.
Horror games weren't very personal
Protagonists with partially selfish motivations isn't uncommon in video games:
- Mario may be saving the whole Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser's tyranny; but he's really just out to save Princess Peach.
- Link resurrects every century to save Hyrule from the tyranny of Gannon; but (like Mario), he's really just out to save Princess Zelda.
- Cloud Stife may be destined to stop Sephiroth from destroying Gaia with Meteor; but he's really just after vengeance for the murder of Aerith (and also trying to figure out who he is).
Part of the reason that these characters are so loved and respected is because we, as players, also feel a personal desire to help them on their quests. This personal connection to the character is something that was unique in horror gaming at the time. Other horror game protagonists were just kind of there, without any real personal or emotional necessity for being there.
Edward Carnby of Alone in the Dark was just there doing his job and decided he could save the world while he was at it. His co-protagonist, Emily Hartwood, has personal reasons to be there, but it's wishy-washy and kind of uninteresting because her uncle is already dead, she just wants to find out why he died, but she already has a pretty good idea.
The main characters of Resident Evil had absolutely no personal motivation for staying in the zombie-infested mansion. Once they found out that there were booby-traps, zombies, giant spiders, killer plants, and lickers inside the mansion, they should have had no problem escaping through the doberman-guarded front lawn! They're just dogs! The stuff in the mansion is way more dangerous!
Once the agents regroup, there is really no reason to not open that door anymore.
There isn't anything pushing them forward besides professional obligation. There's nothing wrong with professional obligation being the motivation for a character's actions, but it doesn't create any personal investment in the character's story. Playing the game is just doing a job.
And as a player, we don't really have any concern for rescuing the missing squad mates. The game hadn't spent any time developing these characters, so the audience doesn't care for them. And even if we are worried about our character's safety, or the safety of our "friends", there's also the nagging knowledge that these people are elite special forces; they should be able to take care of themselves!
Having a personal connection to the character really amps up the fear. Not only are you afraid for your own safety (as the player), but you are also concerned about Harry's personal quest to save his daughter in a way that you just aren't with Edward Carnby or Jill Velentine / Chris Redfield. Resident Evil 2 even pulls a page out of Silent Hill's playbook by focusing the story of one of its protagonists on a personal quest to recover a loved one (Claire Redfield is in Racoon City to look for her brother, Chris).
Heather is the believable girl next door
Heather is also an exceptional character due to her believability as a young, female protagonist. She is (quite possibly) the single most mature depiction of a female character in all of gaming history up through the 128-bit generation (although the protagonist of Beyond Good and Evil may give her a run for her money).
Heather has modest good looks, in start contrast to most female game characters.
Heather earns our respect
Heather has girl-next-door cuteness, but she's not exageratedly feminine. She has modest breasts that she covers with a thick jacket; she has freckles; her blonde hair is dyed (and black roots plainly visible); she has dark, tired eyes; and her legs are far from the silky-smooth perfection of most other video game women. Awkward fashion sense aside, she looks and behaves like a real 17-year old girl that you might meet at the mall. On top of that, she is strong, independent, and fully capable of keeping her wits about her in the most hellish of situations (literally).
But she's not perfect. She's slightly angsty, has a bit of a temper, experimented with cigarettes, and seems to be quite sexually frustrated and self-conscious about her appearance. Again, all are qualities that you would expect from any normal teenage girl that you might run into at the mall.
She deserves instant respect as a female character for the maturity of her aesthetic design (again, fashion sense notwithstanding), but is also a well-conceived and well-developed character overall - regardless of gender. Her development arc is full and tragic. The adoration that she has for her father is well-established in the opening segments of the game. And even though the game manipulates the player into wanting Heather to get home so that her father can protect her, she is fully capable of handling herself and is by no means a "damsel in distress".
She doesn't need a male character to protect and coddle her, but she would certainly feel better with her dad around! This is a perfectly natural and believable characterization, and not at all misogynistic or sexually exploitative.
A proxy father
As a player, we care about Heather's father very early in the game because Heather's affection for her father is so well established. When her father's identity is strongly hinted at (about a third of the way through the game), and the player realizes that he is Harry (and that Heather must, therefore, be Cheryl), the player's bond to her father is strengthened by our own existing attachment to that character.
The game successfully creates a proxy bond between the player and Heather's father through Heather so that we care for him even though we don't yet realize that we already know him. We'd care for him to some degree regardless of who he is. And then the game informs the player that you've already had a personal bond with her father all along. This helps to even further strengthen the affection that the player should have developed for Harry by playing the first game, and serves to dramatically strengthen the emotional impact when his murder is revealed halfway through the game.
Silent Hill 2 as a character study of James Sunderland
I almost don't even need to bother talking about James. Silent Hill 2 has been analyzed nearly to death. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation refers to Silent Hill 2 as the "game [he] replay[s] every now and again to remind [himself] that [...] gaming is still worth defending." I agree with him completely. Silent Hill 2 may be the example of the best-conceived and best-written narrative of any game ever made.
The reason for this is that Silent Hill 2 isn't really about what is happening. The game isn't about the plot. The game is about James. It is a detailed character study of its own protagonist. Every element of the game's design from level and monster design, to inventory items, to non-player characters, and even the soundtrack relates in some way or another to the personality of James.
Like Harry Mason from the first game, James is in town looking for a loved one - in this case, his wife, Mary. But like Emily Hartwood of Alone in the Dark, Jame's loved one is already dead. Or at least, she's supposed to be dead. But he got a letter from her telling him to meet her in their "special place" in Silent Hill (they had honeymooned there years prior). So he wanders into town despite red flags flying up everywhere the moment he steps out of his car, and ends up taking a trip so deep down the rabbit hole that if he met the Queen of Hearts, she'd be speaking Chinese.
James quite literally dives deep into his own subconscious.
The characters that he meets all act strangely, as if they all have something seriously wrong with them.
And guess what? They all do have something wrong with them! And so does James.
The environments that you travel through will also be strange and somewhat crazy, making it seem as if the world is just reflecting Jame's own inner mind. At one point, you are prompted to jump down holes, descending further and further into craziness, simulating the descent into Jame's own subconscious.
Even the game's most direct antagonist, the creature known as Pyramid Head, is a manifestation of James' own subconscious guilt.
Over the course of the game, we become intimately familiar with who James is - or at least, who he has become since the trauma of his wife's illness.
I am James, as you are James, as you are me, and we are all together
But Silent Hill 2 goes a little bit further. James isn't exclusively characterized by the designers and writers of the game. The true cleverness of Jame's character comes from how he absorbs an element of the player's personality, providing insight into how you (the player) treat your game characters, and possibly providing insight into your own psyche.
The game tracks certain subtle behaviors over the course of the game. Little things that you wouldn't expect the game to track or to have any significance. These aren't major choices like what you would get with Mass Effect's "Paragon" and "Renegade" options or any of the multitude of stupid "moral choice" subsystems that so many RPGs insist on including. Instead, the game keeps an intense eye on how you play the game, how you treat James, and how you treat other characters (particularly Maria), and then it uses those behaviors to fill in the last piece of Jame's personality: how he handles the outcome of the story. Your playstyle will result in obtaining one of the game's three default endings:
- By not healing yourself after taking damage, you treat James as if he doesn't value his life. By also examining Angela's knife and exposing James to the very depressing memories of Mary's illness, he becomes suicidal, and you achieve the "In Water" ending.
- If you don't drive James to kill himself, then the treatment of Maria becomes the biggest modifier for which ending you get. If you take good care of her by staying close to her, preventing her from taking damage, and checking up on her when you leave her by herself, then James will begin to transfer his feelings for Mary onto Maria, and you will achieve the "Maria" ending.
- If you ignore Maria and fail to protect her, confront the memories of Mary's illness, and stay loyal to Mary, then James will follow through on Mary's final wishes and adopt Laura, achieving the "Leave" ending.
There's other unlockable endings, but I won't discuss those, since most players won't encounter them. Besides, only one of the bonus endings is even remotely legitimate (although still "meta"); the other two are just jokes.
By letting the player's behavior dictate the resolution that James comes up with for his situation, we feel that much more deeply connected with James. A little part of me is in James - for better or for worse. This makes him a character that is incredibly hard to forget!