The following article contains spoilers for Silent Hill 2 — and its maps.
Silent Hill 2 is no stranger to deception. Not only does the game’s story hinge upon a lie, but within minutes of playing, it’s pulling the wool over your eyes. Take the opening path through the forest; as you descend towards the town, growls echo in your ears. It sounds like the original Silent Hill’s skinless dogs are about to leap out of the undergrowth, and even if you didn’t tackle that game, it’s still disconcerting.
In truth, there’s absolutely nothing there — there’s not a single canine foe in the whole of Silent Hill 2. What you’re hearing are sound effects, nothing more. The game is equally adept at fooling the eye; as art director Masahi Tsuboyama explains, Silent Hill 2’s locations are designed to simultaneously repel and attract you. The further you push into this survival horror’s foggy world, the more those small deceits take root. Wonder why you’re still thinking about the slumped corpse in Blue Creek Apartments? That’s because it was protagonist James Sunderland’s character model, masked by a copious amount of gore.
The game’s most surprising act of deception, however, relates to its maps. Silent Hill 2 specializes in keeping you on edge, rather than just flinging monster after monster at you. That’s why maps initially become your rock, something to cling to when it’s doing its level best to mess with your head.
It’s certainly no coincidence that the first item you acquire, before you get your hands on a torch or weapon, is a map of Silent Hill. The town may be hovering between worlds (depending upon how you interpret series lore), but having a map grounds you, anchoring the town and you to reality, at least temporarily.
By contrast, the first time I hit the map button and saw a black screen with the words “I don’t have a map of this area,” a chill ran down my spine. Logically, I knew Silent Hill 2’s beige abominations didn’t care, but having that paper safety blanket still gave me a measure of comfort.
Except, as I made my way through Blue Creek Apartments, something happened — I found myself in an area that, according to the map, didn’t exist. The arrow that represented my protagonist was no longer contained within those familiar rectangles; it was in the map’s blank area. This sudden revelation filled me with terror, and even now, my stomach drops just thinking about it.
Up until that point, I’d taken the map as gospel, but this was just wrong. Logically, one would assume the map was out of date. However, I became convinced I was suspended over some abyss and that, far below, some Lovecraftian entity was preparing to rise up and drag me down.
Nothing happened, but I still scurried to the next room as fast as James Sunderland’s feet would carry me. If I hadn’t happened to glance at the map, I’d have been none the wiser; I would have walked leisurely through, grabbed the item I needed, and been on my way. But now, I couldn’t stop thinking about the void, the no-space that, for all of a minute, I’d been occupying.
Silent Hill 2 pulls the same trick a few more times, leaving you exploring an area that’s off the map, which is as worrying as having no map at all. That alone is reason enough to distrust your map, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Silent Hill’s locations, for all their locked doors, make a kind of sense, even when you’re in the rust-and-blood-spattered otherworld. There’s an unpleasant moment with a disappearing lift button, but it still feels as if you’re within the boundaries of a functioning, albeit very disturbing town.
Silent Hill 2, on the other hand, makes you feel like you’ve been plunged into purgatory; the world becomes increasingly warped, taking its cues from James’s psyche. The further you progress, the more obstacles are placed in your path and the more distorted the world becomes.
It’s not just locked doors you’re dealing with, either. Each map ends up covered with red marks, half of them representing barriers that, like the prison bars in the opening apartment level, have no right to be there. Consequently, your map serves as a disquieting reminder that you’re being led through labyrinth after labyrinth.
There is an alternative, however, to dealing with Silent Hill 2’s maps, and that’s to ignore them entirely. Barring one area, the game doesn’t force you to pick them up; it’s not like you need another reminder of its wrongness. Just leave them pinned to that grimy wall or laying on that oddly stained table. But faced with a total lack of guidance, I’ve yet to achieve the feat of just walking on by. Sure, you could try drawing your own maps, but you’d end up with something that would give M.C. Escher nightmares.
The overworld maps aren’t any more comforting, omitting things that might at least lend some kind of logic to your journey. As you descend Silent Hill 2’s massive staircase, ending up in Toluca Prison, you can gawp at the map all you like. But there’s no prison anywhere on the map or anything to account for your journey into the earth. Make it through the main prison and you’re presented with a map that not only has you walking the void, but lacks any kind of label. You’re not in the prison, you’re not even in Silent Hill, you’re just… somewhere. Nowhere.
It’s fitting that the maps of Silent Hill 2 should contribute to the overall confusion and distress, rather than relieving it, particularly given how unreliable James’ recollections are. I’ve yet to encounter a survival horror game that rearranges the map while you’re not looking, but if we ever get a Silent Hill 9, that could be the next unsettling evolution. And if you find yourself stranded in an unfamiliar, foggy town, maybe bring a pen and paper from the car and don’t take conveniently placed floor plans at face value.