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Game developers shouldn’t be afraid to make you cry

If you asked me a year ago if I ever thought a video game could make me cry, I’d have said, "No" with resounding confidence. However, I’d quickly follow it up with, "But I wish one would."

In the past few years, I’ve become more sensitive to traumatic elements in movies. It could be simply because I’m actively exposing myself to movies with situations worth crying over, be it Rabbit Hole, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Blue Valentine, among others.

It’s not just depressing situations that get my waterworks going, though. For instance, the first time I saw Inception I teared up during Joseph Gordon Levitt’s spinning hotel fight because I thought it was beautifully shot. In Drive, I also tear up in the climactic car chase’s concluding shot for the same reason.

In the video game world, though, nothing made me come close to crying until I played the Silent Hill HD Collection.

 

Even though I had played Silent Hill 2 about once annually since the year it came out, it never emotionally got to me. I believe I was too young, only 13 years old,  when I played it originally.

Silent Hill 2 is the only game I’ve played (and perhaps the only one I’ve heard of) that requires a moderate level of life experience and emotional maturity to fully understand the story. How could I have possibly comprehended its intense themes of love, loss, disease, abuse, and sacrifice with my immature mind? The simple answer is: I couldn’t. I was too focused on other things most 13-year-old kids would seek out, such as the graphics and combat. I blew through it and enjoyed it, but didn’t fully understand it.

A decade later, now that I’ve graduated high school, have my bachelor’s degree, and have been in a serious relationship, Silent Hill 2 was nearly a completely new experience.

The first time I teared up was when James encounters Maria in her pseudo-jail cell that follows Pyramid Head’s labyrinth. He thought he had lost her, yet there she was, beckoning him to come forth.

She places a hand on his cheek and says she’ll be whatever he wants her to be. Her smooth delivery combined with James’ somewhat shocked emotion got my bottom lip quivering a little bit. It was a simultaneous rush of grief for James and nostalgia for the game itself.

Later on, when James reaches the hotel room and watches the videotape, his world starts falling apart around him. These last moments before you head out to the concluding areas of the game are a perfect example of why the symbolism in Silent Hill 2 is so powerful and brilliant. When James experiences extreme stress or trauma (which happens only a few times in the game) the entire environment around him alters.

When he exits the hotel room, it suddenly looks as if the hallways, which were once in normal working order, have been engulfed in flames and water damaged from the sprinklers. Mold and char climb up the walls, and caution tape blocks doorways.

The camera twists as James fumbles down the hall. He gets lost as he tries to escape. Doors take him to various places and connect to random hallways. He is exhausted, miserable, and confused. The scenery reflects that. Akira Yamaoka’s score also reflects it. Most of the late-game music sounds like dissonant horns blaring while a chorus of giant, rusty rods are harshly rubbed together. It creates a feeling of dread, sadness, and discomfort, which is exactly its goal.

Just before James enters one of the final hallways of the game, he runs into Angela, a bleak character who has popped up from time to time. In this encounter, her misery flares so brightly that the stairs around her ignite. Her emotions bulge out from her own personal hell, and James experiences them with her.

Because Silent Hill is meant to be a unique experience for each person who is drawn to it, the intimacy between James and Angela’s shared experience is incredibly deep. Their overlap in emotions caused my face to burn as tears fell down my cheeks. Angela is a distraught character, and, in my opinion, one of the strongest supporting characters I've encountered in a video game.

As James trudges down the final hallway, a conversation he once had with his wife surfaces in his consciousness. In it, he recalls how irritated she became with him for bringing her flowers as she lay on her deathbed. Her disease is talking. She demands that he leave. I cried. She instantly regrets the lash and begs him to come back. I cried more.

The sound of rusty rods rubbing together stuck in my head and exhausted me on multiple levels. By the time James walks up the staircase to the final area, I felt like I’d run a marathon and read 50 textbooks back-to-back. My mind was fried, my body hurt, and I was a weepy mess.

That's the power of Silent Hill 2 – a power I have yet to experience in another video game.

Mass Effect 3 also had me in tears on a few occasions, but I wasn’t nearly as distraught and exhausted as in Silent Hill 2. Mass Effect made me ache to see crew members, with whom I had spent tens of hours (not to mention an entire game) getting to know and help, either die or almost face death. After my Shepard explored the caves of Utukku and persuaded the Rachni Queen to join forces with humanity, Grunt stayed behind to take care of business in the caves. A soft piano score settled in over clips of Grunt, whom I adore, fighting for his life in the dark caverns. I was a mess. There’s no other way to put it. I thought he was a goner for sure.

At the end of the scene, Grunt came marching out of the cave to return to Shepard’s vehicle. I wept out of pure joy. Grunt was alive!

I had other situations with Thane Krios and Dr. Liara T'soni that also caused me to tear up considerably. Mass Effect 3 does an exceptional job of making players feel like they are really nose-diving into a helpless situation. Making rounds to Shepard’s squad to say possible farewells is heartbreaking. There’s something to be said, in life and in video games, about the ability to cease plan-making at some point. What happens when you can’t be sure you’ll survive to the following day?

If you’re me, you cry, apparently.


Images from Konami and BioWare.


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