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“I was weak…that’s why I needed you…”
Regarded as one of the greatest survival horror games of all time, Silent Hill 2 left a unique and twisted mark on the world when it debuted on the Playstation 2 in the Fall of 2001. While the original was initially disregarded as a rip-off to Capcoms Resident Evil, it made space for itself by delving much more into the psychological side of horror and told grimmer and scarier tales than Capcom’s effort did.
The unexpected commercial and critical success of the original Silent Hill made the question become when a sequel would be released, not if. Thankfully, Konami did not disappoint and instead took gamers on a disturbing and haunting journey of one man’s mission to seek closure after receiving a letter from his dead wife.
Silent Hill as a franchise is no stranger to exploring the dark side of the mind. Each game revolves around themes of relationships, psychology, guilt, and secrets. Silent Hill 2 is no exception and boldly enforces this rule to a level few video games have ever explored.
Silent Hill 2, as we know it, wouldn’t exist without starring James Sunderland. Everything we experience in the game, from the enemy designs to interactions with other characters, is based entirely on his persona and psyche. While most Silent Hill games explore the occult, this one instead stars the city of Silent Hill as the main character. It is a dark place that attracts tortured souls and forces them to confront what truly haunts them.
To better understand the protagonist of the star of this James Sunderland guide is to understand the entire mission statement and thesis of the game itself. This guide will be very spoiler heavy, so if you have yet to play Silent Hill 2 I recommend doing so before reading any further.
Life Before Silent Hill 2
Not much is known about James Sunderland’s early life. A novelization of the game mentions that he was invested in track and field in his youth, and it’s arguably confirmed that he met his ex-wife Mary at a party when they were young. Before the game’s events, James worked as a clerk for a small company.
Silent Hill 4 later reveals that James’s father was a property manager for an apartment complex not too far from Silent Hill, so we can assume he had a decent enough middle-class upbringing. At one point during his and Mary’s relationship, he took her to Silent Hill for a vacation and Mary fell in love with the city. Calling it a “sacred place” and asking him to take her back. James filmed this moment on video but his response was unfortunately unfilmed.
When Denial Becomes Defense: Relationship to Self
James Sunderland is mild-mannered and tepid, like many Silent Hill protagonists. James is often socially awkward and avoids direct eye contact with people when speaking to them. Silent Hill 2 begins with him looking at himself in the bathroom mirror at a rest stop outside of Silent Hill. He struggles immensely with his perception of himself and the things around him. He carries deep wounds and lacks strong coping mechanisms to work through them.
However, he is also stubborn. Despite the monsters and twisted people he meets during his adventure in Silent Hill, he doesn’t give up on his goal. He’s dedicated to seeking closure after receiving a letter from Mary long after her death and won’t stop until he does just that. His duality between being aloof and having a strong sense of resolution manifests itself in various ways in his relationships with other characters players come across in Silent Hill 2.
A few years before the events of the game, his wife Mary becomes diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the cracks in James’s foundation begin to show. He begins to feel detached from Mary and distances himself from her due to her erratic mood swings. He turns to alcohol to quell his sexual frustration, and his dreams of starting a family are dashed in one fell swoop.
He’s told that Mary only has three years left to live and the sight of his dying wife becomes harder and harder to bear. Eventually, he kills her, stores her body in the back of his car, and blocks the entire thing from memory. He creates a reality in which she died under medical care, and he was left widowed before receiving a mysterious letter from her three years after her death.
Mixed Signals: Relationships to Other Characters
The town of Silent Hill attracts people who are losing the battle against their demons. It creates a custom version of itself that’s unique to the individual. James is drawn to Silent Hill because he’s living in denial.
He tries to use every social encounter he has to better position himself as a “good guy” while in reality, the situation is much more nuanced than that. Every character in Silent Hill 2 operates as a contrast to James and his coping skills. He’s challenged by all of them to do better.
James and Mary
James and Mary harbor the most volatile relationship of all. Mary had often described James as “surly” which contrasts sharply with other characters’ viewpoints on him. Shortly after they met, the two of them fell into a passionate relationship that eventually cooled off into a stable marriage. James showed Mary a lot of loyalty. Mary was fond of playing the piano but wasn’t particularly great at it, but he loved listening to her play and seeing her show passion for something.
His loyalty remained as Mary fell into the throws of a terminal illness. He never cheated on her and invested much of his time doing his homework on Mary’s disease, refusing to believe that her life had a time limit due to her diagnosis. As Mary became increasingly ill, the two of them started to break at the seams. James would visit her less and less, finding her temperament and mood swings challenging to be around.
This ultimately culminates in James snapping. Eventually, he takes a pillow and smothers her, making the executive decision to put her out of her misery. He then takes her body and puts it in the backseat of his car. It’s unknown just how much time passed between him murdering Mary and the events of Silent Hill 2, but we do know that James’s entire reason for going was to commit suicide. It’s theorized that the “letter” he received from Mary may not even exist and instead is a figment of his imagination.
James and Maria
Maria, in and of herself, is a uniquely twisted entity. She essentially was born from James’s wish to have the perfect partner, and she operates as being everything Mary wasn’t. She’s sexual and walks around in a skintight and revealing outfit. Her demeanor is much more flirtatious than Mary’s ever was, and she constantly sees the best in him. Describing him as “nice” directly contrasts to Mary’s “surly” assessment earlier.
She often tempts James and yearns for his attention, even at times behaving just as erratically as Mary did. She is a manufactured test of James’s resolve and desires leading up to the game’s events. She often tries to manipulate him into being in a relationship with her.
Throughout the game, her condition begins to deteriorate, and she mimics symptoms of an illness similar to Mary’s. While James is initially drawn to Maria due to her striking similarities to his late wife, she ultimately serves as the final level of his punishment once James realizes the truth and why exactly he’s in Silent Hill.
In some endings, she becomes the final boss, but in most of them, it’s Mary. If the player receives the ending where James leaves Silent Hill with Maria, she’ll begin to cough as they head to the car. This is done as a dark omen and shows that James hasn’t changed. He’ll repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
James and Angela
While Angela doesn’t take up much screen time, she is arguably one of the most memorable characters in the game. James initially stumbles upon her in a cemetery right outside of Silent Hill, and the two have an awkward encounter. Angela is caught off guard by him but apologizes for her reaction and gives him guidance to the town while advising that he stay away from it.
Every character in Silent Hill 2 is guided to the city based on guilt and trauma. Angela holds one of the darkest and least explored tales in the entire game. She spent her life being abused by her father and eventually murdered him in self-defense. She brings herself to Silent Hill in pursuit of her mother. Doing so left her broken and suicidal, much like James. She even tells him, “You’re the same as me…it’s easier to run…besides, it’s what we deserve.”
Nonetheless, James is never hostile to her. When he stumbles upon her in an empty apartment building holding a knife and lying on the ground, he doesn’t try to order her around. He engages with her as politely as he can, all things considered. Later in the game, James encounters her in the corner of a room as a monster she refers to as her “daddy” appears. He defeats the monster for her before Angela kicks and throws a TV at its body. She then snaps at him, telling James that he only wants “one thing” and asks if he’s going to “beat her like he used to.”
Eventually, James encounters her one last time, and Angela is completely gone at this point. She sees him initially as her long-lost mother as she looks at a painting while being stuck in a burning building. Angela walks into the burning flames and isn’t seen again.
While James is more or less polite but awkward around Angela on a superficial level, their dynamic is much deeper than that. Angela operates to show him that not everyone can be saved and serves as a direct reflection of how he feels on the inside. Lonely, broken, eager to give up.
James and Laura
James and Laura have a fascinating dynamic. Laura, like most children, is mischievous. She knows James and doesn’t seem that interested in being around him. At one point early in the game, James moves his hand through a grated fence to grab a key, only to have Laura step on it and kick it further away.
What’s most interesting is James’s motivation for keeping track of her: She knows Mary. While Maria seems genuinely interested in protecting her, James appears to view her as a means to an end: If he can ask Laura the right questions, he can get answers about Mary. However, Laura also serves as a final signal for James’s potential redemption arc, depending on the ending the player receives.
In what is considered the best ending for the game: James leaves Silent Hill with her and fulfills Mary’s goal of adopting her. Laura and Mary met while Mary was in the hospital, and Laura was placed under the care of the nuns. Her family life prior remains unknown.
She and James are a direct contrast to one another. Laura is brought to Silent Hill to find Mary, and she doesn’t see the monsters that James and every other character does. She often only appears when James is alone and, minus a small interaction with Eddie earlier in the game, isn’t seen around any other characters.
Laura and Maria are essentially a yin and yang, and James is caught in the middle. Both are potentially nothing more than manifestations of the town, and one can lead James to a more righteous path while the other would cause him to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
James and Eddie
James meets Eddie early in the game and is the cause of one of the greatest moments of dialogue in video game history.
Yet despite James’s initially lectured tone towards him, he remains kind to Eddie. Everyone in Silent Hill holds a secret, and Eddie’s is far darker than he initially lets on. At the same time, it’s easy to view him as nothing more than an embodiment of the biblical sin of gluttony that does him a disservice. Instead, his entire existence is to contrast James and to force him to reckon.
While James tries to act like everything is fine on the outside, Eddie clarifies from the beginning that something is amiss. When players meet him initially, he’s seen puking over a toilet, and in our final encounter, he’s snapped and has confessed to the murders he’s committed and how a lifetime of bullying has damaged him.
James doesn’t have his reckoning until the end of the game, and even then, Laura is partly responsible for it. For better and for worse, Eddie comes to his all on his own and puts the gears in motion by forcing James to fight him in self-defense.
James and Pyramid Head
The most interesting dynamic is between James and Pyramid Head. Pyramid Head has a highly humanoid and muscular body and is a manifestation of James’s desire to be an “alpha” male. When players initially meet Pyramid Head, he is seen engaging in a sex act with two other monsters before tossing them aside as he starts to hunt James. While James felt cuckolded by Mary’s illness, Pyramid Head goes for it.
Pyramid Head appears sporadically, but when he’s on-screen, his only focus is hunting down James. No other characters see him, as when James asks Eddie if he’s seen “that red pyramid thing,” he only replies with, “I don’t know what you’re talking about…but I did see some monsters”.
There’s heavy symbolism on display regarding James and Pyramid Heads’ relationship. Towards the end of the game, James finally defeats Pyramid Head and acknowledges the elephant in the room. In a moment of clarity, he reveals that he is weak and needs Pyramid Head to punish him. Pyramid Head takes the form of executioners from ages past to torment James and allow him to reach his reckoning.
Throughout the game, Pyramid Head often leads James to his next destination. After the first encounter, he opens a path that allows James to sink lower into the depths of Silent Hill, and towards the middle of the game, he knocks James off the roof of a hospital, forcing him to enter a lower rung of the building.
While James’s only canonical appearance is in Silent Hill 2, like many characters from the franchise, he has appeared in other games. In Silent Hill 3 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, he makes cameos in the game’s non-canonical and comedic UFO endings. He and Mary also make cameos in non-canonical endings for Silent Hill: Homecoming and Silent Hill: Book of Memories.
The two also have a one-page cameo in a comic series called Hunger, in which a panel reveals that Silent Hill is often a place for honeymoons and shows the image of a young James and Mary looking into one other outside. His most recent appearance was a part of the Silent Hill and Dead By Daylight crossover event in which he is an unlockable cosmetic skin.
Question: Why would I want to play a game with such a twisted protagonist?
Answer: Silent Hill, as a whole, is no stranger to the darker side of life. Konami wanted to contrast the more wholesome endeavors of the protagonist of the previous game, Harry Mason, with someone who had a lot more baggage. They wanted to tell a story more compelling and, in turn, more relatable. Everyone struggles with guilt, the death of a loved one is something that most of us will experience in our lifetimes, and James Sunderland is a way to explore that through the medium of video games. He doesn’t have to be liked. He merely has to be experienced.
Question: Why does this game have nothing to do with the original Silent Hill?
Answer: Oh, but it does. While the original places more of the blame for the strange things that happen in the town due to cult worship, this game explores its residual side effects from it. Moreover, it answers the question: Why Silent Hill? In the real world, some places feel different. Areas that feel touched or elevated by some mystery or higher power. It can be dark. It can be light. It could be neither.
The developers wanted to make a story that complements the original game’s vision but also expands it in a way that can open up the universe as a whole. Silent Hill is not an innocent town that attracts bad people who do bad things. It is a place unlike any other on this planet. It is a place that attracts people and forces them to face themselves in the mirror. It makes the player wonder why the cult was drawn to the town in the first place or if the town attracted the cult to it instead?
Question: Will we ever see James Sunderland again in a canonical appearance?
Answer: I doubt it. Konami prefers Silent Hill games to have a more open-and-closed approach. Sure the third entry is a direct sequel to the original, but otherwise, the series has never been known for continuations. If they neatly wrapped up every story with a bow, it would diminish the impact and mystique of the town in the first place. These games tell stories that want people to keep asking questions.
They want people to think deeply about what they just experienced, and they want players to wonder what it would be like to be in the main character’s shoes. If they kept recycling previous protagonists, it would make the town less effective in its overall goal: To make people face the worst sides of themselves and help them overcome it.
Silent Hill 2 is a once-in-a-generation experience. Harnessing the power of the Playstation 2 and a higher development budget, Konami and Team Silent pulled no stops in delivering a complex tour-de-force that leaves people wanting more. Through the delicate construction of a complicated and unconventional protagonist in James Sunderland, Konami uses him as a direct commentary on the manifestations of guilt that live in the dark corners of our minds.
To fully grasp James’s complexity, motives, and desires is to better understand your own and the game’s mission statement. It is an interactive piece of psychological horror designed to make you question yourself. Deep down, we all have something in us that could make us a target for the town of Silent Hill. By exploring one man’s journey, we can be thankful that it is one we do not have to take and instead can make better choices to avoid such an outcome.