Konami’s Silent Hill 2 (2001), a stand-alone title in the Silent Hill series, may be considered one of the seminal “texts” of the horror video game genre. Telling the tale of mild-mannered James Sunderland on a search for his late wife, Mary, Silent Hill 2’s approach to horror storytelling indicates far more nuance and thought than is typical for the genre. In its heavy use of metaphor and symbolism, the scares present in the game occupy a space perfect for theory and criticism. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the game is the tension that lies in its multi-interpretive approach: whose psyche is represented in the nightmarish landscape, what message is inherent in the design of the monster that crawl the street of the titular Silent Hill? Functioning through a mesh of unique and contradictory interpretations, Silent Hill 2 may indeed be seen as a sort of realization of Jacques Derrida’s différance – a hellish world of interpretive differences made real.
To begin to understand how Silent Hill 2 employs différance, one must first understand the basic plot structure of the game. In essence, the narrative of Silent Hill 2 exists on two levels; there is the “real world” in which the town of Silent Hill is a quiet mountain town populated by its unassuming citizens, and there is the “Otherworld,” a supernatural hellscape (formed by pagan cult activity in the town’s history) that creates a space for an affected person’s private guilts, fears, and desires to be made real. This Otherworld acts as a sort pf purgatory by drawing in people consumed with guilt and then interpreting that guilt in the form of distorted monsters and decaying landscapes. It is in this Otherworld that we first meet the game’s protagonist, James Sunderland.
Within the level of the “real world,” James’ story is one of violence and guilt. At the onset of the game, James has just smothered his terminally ill wife, Mary (leaving a hanging question about James’ guilt) and come to their favorite vacation spot, Silent Hill, in order to end his own life. In light of this act, however, James’ psyche is broken, and he is unable to face the reality of the situation. Constructing a story in which Mary died naturally from her illness three years ago, James’ guilt and sorrow is placed within a simmering background, manifesting in the appearance of a mysterious letter, an urging from Mary from beyond the grave for James to come to Silent Hill and find her.
It is here that the concept of différance manifests within the twinned figures of Mary and Maria. On his search for Mary, James meets Maria, an exotic dancer who holds an uncanny resemblance to Mary, both in body and in voice (indeed, the two characters are modeled on and voiced by the same actress). In fact, Maria is yet another construction of the town, an expression of James’ hidden guilt over the death of his wife. In essence, Maria acts as a sort of signifier for the late Mary, a presence to stand in her absence. Maria is quite literally a “simulacrum of [Mary’s] presence” (Derrida 297). However, throughout the course of the game, Maria’s similarities and differences to Mary become fuzzy to James, blurring lines between the two characters as he examines his feelings towards Maria and his memories of Mary. The nature of the relationship between Mary and Maria, a binary which will be expressed in this article in an unspeakable Derridean sense as Mary/a, highlights the fundamental concept of différance. By examining Mary/a as a sign, composed of signifier Maria and signified Mary, we will reveal how the two characters are deconstructed into nothing but a series of endless differences.
The Primordial Mary
The full extent of Mary’s story, and her interactions with James, are not revealed until late in the game’s plot, but it’s useful to consider her character first as the signified absence in the Mary/a sign. James spends a significant portion of the game remembering Mary as a sweet, caring person with whom he had a quiet, though deeply passionate marriage. This memory is thrown in limbo, however, when late in the game we see glimpses of Mary, suffering from her unnamed illness, depicted in writings and video tapes. This version of Mary, sick and heavily medicated, is herself a body of contradictions, alternately lashing out angrily at James and sweetly calling him back. Indeed, at times we see her wish for death to end her suffering, then immediately express her desire to hold on just a bit longer. In one of these video tapes, it is revealed that James, either granting a mercy or selfishly relieving personal burden depending on interpretation, smothers Mary with her pillow. In the act, James’ psyche is broken, weaving a story in which Mary died naturally of her illness and setting up the sin and guilt that the supernatural elements of Silent Hill will act upon.
Within the context of the game, Mary is acting as what Derrida would call “the thing itself” for which a sign is substituted. We will examine Maria’s character shortly, but it can be inferred that James, mentally disturbed, is using her to “signify…through the detour of signs” Mary, “the being-present” who is absent in the game’s events. Derrida is quick to point out that this system of classic semiotics is not useful, that “[d]différance can no longer be understood according to the concept of ‘sign.’” Mary is signified by Maria, but it is revealed the “primordial” thing, Mary herself, is never more than a construction of James. Mary, of course, existed once as a person, but the thing James calls “Mary” is already “historically constituted.” That is, she is always something other than how James signifies her (Derrida 284-286).
Maria: a being without Being
Naturally, the concept of différance extends beyond the signified and even beyond the sign as a whole, so that we may examine Maria, the signifier, as a being herself, one constructed of a wide degree of contradictions. Ostensibly, Maria is a Silent Hill local, a dancer at the Heaven’s Night club. She is warm and cheerful, frequently flirtatious with James, and in good spirits despite the hideous creatures that roam the streets of the city. Still, something about her personhood seems incomplete, and indeed nearly every aspect of her character is mutable, or more appropriately, arbitrary according to James’ whims and fears. Physically, she resembles Mary with a seductive bent, wearing more makeup and revealing clothes than Mary ever did. She is perhaps more vibrant than the Mary the player is shown, but at times Maria herself seems to look pallid, tired, and ill. “It’s just a hangover,” she tells James, but her persistent cough brings to mind Mary’s terminal illness. In a sense, her body begins to more closely resemble that of Mary, perhaps as a means of creating a more appropriate sign.
Maria’s personality, too, is mutable. She begins by being cheerful and flirtatious, perhaps playing off James’ sexual frustrations, but by the end of the game she is often angry and withdrawn. More frequently, her personal memories begin to overlap with James’, and by proxy Mary’s, and James expresses confusion over whether he’s dealing with Mary or Maria. Ever more erratic, Maria swings from tenderness, referring to James as “honey” as Mary once did, to acerbic accusations, reminding James that he in fact killed his wife. In this manner, Maria paradoxically becomes both a more perfect signifier for Mary and a more unstable signifier as a whole. To understand Maria, James’ frame of reference lies “outside the text” of Silent Hill, to his memories of his life with Mary, and increasingly he finds that the outside does not exist (Derrida 299).
A Question of Knowing
As we have already seen, the “historical” or “primordial” Mary contradicts the image James has of her: a complex being of alternate pain and joy where James only indicates her “sweetness.” Maria, too, frequently shirks her image of a seducer and trickster by being sweet and good-natured. This différance is only exacerbated by the nature of the video game itself. Silent Hill 2’s story actually has multiple endings to its plot, endings which are decided by the game’s logic as players make different decisions, obtain various items or don’t, and treat characters within the game differently. In these different endings, Mary’s character is interpreted differently. In one, Mary is reconstituted by the town as a malevolent ghost; she is angry with James for what she interprets as murder, and seeing his companionship with Maria as infidelity. In another, Maria is the malevolent figure, one who accuses James of being unable to let go.
What is the consumer of this text to do then? The question of the “master name,” the objective reality of the Mary/a figure is left unsaid (Derrida 300). The reader’s only entrance to the text, through the eyes of James Sunderland, is unreliable to a high degree. That is not to say that Silent Hill 2 is a lost cause to the would-be interpreter, however. Rather, the game quite neatly embodies that mystery of playfulness of différance. Silent Hill 2 is “still readable, and remains to be read,” only, “the trace” that is Mary/a (and indeed many other elements of the game) is “simultaneously traced and effaced, simultaneously alive and dead” (Derrida 298). There is no answer then, no grand revelation of the ‘meaning’ behind the blurry relationship between Mary and Maria. There is only an acknowledgement that Mary and Maria become Mary and Maria, a binary which both exists and doesn’t. Like James Sunderland, the player is left lost and confused but also, like Derrida, struck by the “laughter and dance” of the text (Derrida 300).
Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Bulletin de la Sociétéfrançaise de philosophie, LXII, No. 3 (July-September, 1968), 278-301. Print.
Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo. Silent Hill 2. Konami, 2001. PlayStation 2.