James Sunderland is boring.
Seriously, those of you that played the game — describe the physical appearance of James Sunderland to me right now. If the first thing you went to is “generic white guy,” congratulations. With his plain face, plain hair, and flat demeanor, James is so generic that he could smother his wife with a pillow and never get caught. You know, like he actually did.
Video games are full of “strong” male archetypes: God of War’s hypermasculine Kratos, Metal Gear Solid’s gruff Solid Snake, The Last of Us’s grizzled and distant Joel. They’re the fantasy of being stronger and more powerful. And because the characters are fantasy, we feel comfortable with their preternatural ability for violence. It makes more sense that Master Chief can survive an endless horde of aliens running towards him. It makes less sense that I, Mike, a large adult boy-child, would survive in the same scenario.
Yet Silent Hill 2 doesn’t revel in power fantasies; it reverses them. James Sunderland is a brilliant character because he, well, lacks character. While he may not be a muscled soldier, he’s the sort of generic straight white male protagonist that video games have asked us to identify with for decades. When the game subverts those tropes, it’s a surprise.
As Kirkland writes in “Masculinity in Video Games,” “if spatial progression within video games satisfies traditionally male fascinations with expansion and conquest, Silent Hill repeatedly frustrates such pleasures.” It is, after all, an actual horror game and not an action game with horror elements. If James were a grizzled space marine like the Doom series’s Doomguy, we wouldn’t feel as afraid of Pyramid Head. It’s a little less nerve-racking to open the door to a creepy hotel building if you’ve got body armor and a plasma cannon. You can’t have a power fantasy if you lack power.
There’s an intentional flatness to James, even in his personality (voiced by Guy Cihi). James reveals very few details about himself and his personal life — most of which come in pieces throughout the game and relate to his marriage. We don’t know what James did for a job, what he likes and dislikes, or even how he feels about his life. Outside of his mission to find Mary, James seems to barely exist.
If you had taken a long road trip after receiving a letter from your dead wife and you made a pit stop in a bathroom, and said bathroom was filled with rust and feces, would you really spend that much time looking in a mirror? It’s as if the player is supposed to feel more horror than James himself.
James is so singularly focused that we immediately wonder if something is wrong with him. At the very least, he’s so disconnected from the utter strangeness of the town that he ironically fits right in. James shouldn’t belong in Silent Hill, but he does. In fact, corpses scattered throughout some areas in Silent Hill 2 use the same design as James; he’s literally part of the landscape of the town.
As soon as James leaves the bathroom (our only gameplay option up to that point), the game jumps to another cutscene outside said bathroom, a wide shot showing James’s car parked askew, door still open. It’s worth noting the role this cutscene plays in distancing the player from James. As games scholar Andrei Nae writes in the article “Immersion at the Intersection of Technology, Subjectivity and Culture: An Analysis of Silent Hill 2,” “In Silent Hill 2, we see James Sunderland from a third person perspective, sometimes from an angle in which we, as humans, could never position ourselves.” In other words, at times we appear to be literally seeing James from the town’s perspective, not his.
This is also the first time we receive in-game information about why James came to Silent Hill in the form of a letter from his late wife Mary that is read aloud for the player. Yet it’s information James already had — he came to Silent Hill because of the letter. We’re only hearing about it after his decision is made. The choice to come to Silent Hill isn’t ours to make. It’s the first hint that we may be controlling James, but we don’t really know him.
At the start of the game, there’s no indication James killed his wife. We don’t even know much about his wife other than the fact that she died and sent him a letter. The opening feels sympathetic to James — we’re led to believe that he really believes he could find his wife. As far as we know, he’s a mourning widower, not a murderer. While it’s easy to fill in those blanks in retrospect, it should be remembered that the original Silent Hill featured a generic protagonist similar to James who was searching for a child he didn’t murder beforehand.
So right away, James is unreliable and arguably imbalanced. He says that “Mary died of the damn disease three years ago. So then why am I looking for her?” Oh James, James, James, you know Mary didn’t die from a disease! You killed her yourself, you sappy, depressed murderer! Replaying the game now brings out two strong possibilities: James has had a complete dissociative break; or he’s in denial—and we, as the observers of his actions, are part of the denial. The player is present, the player has agency over James, yet the player cannot understand James.
This is the fun of Silent Hill 2’s psychological horror. Whereas Harry immediately knew he wanted to save his daughter in Silent Hill, it’s less clear what James’s ultimate goal is. Does he want to save Mary or finish the job? He’s certainly curious as to why his formerly-alive spouse sent him a note, but everything from James’s parking to his voice hints at confusion and fear. He’s in a figurative and literal fog.
While I’m not prone to use secondary materials, such as game guides, the American manual for Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams (an expanded version of the game that includes the “Born from a Wish” extra scenario) indicates that James fears he may be the victim of a hoax. I don’t know if this was the developers’ intention, but we can at least infer from James’s slow, melancholic character introduction that he won’t be an action star running into town to blast away the baddies and throw his wife over his shoulder. If he’s facing a hoax, he’s confronting it slowly.
Gameplay at this point is simple running and exploration. A short walk down the street, James finds a fenced-off wall that reads “Welcome!” in giant letters. Whereas the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno famously read, “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,” the gates of Silent Hill’s Hell celebrate James’s arrival, as if the horrors inside were made for him.
Soon we meet our first gross flesh monster. While walking down yet another creepy street, James telegraphs an upcoming encounter with comments such as, “Are these marks … blood?” and, seeing a monster walk into the distance, “That shadow just now …”
We’re also introduced to the series’s famous radio static. As Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 relied on fog to help ease graphical processing, monsters were relatively hard to see. Static — ostensibly coming from a little radio James picks up — alerts the player to a nearby foe, even if they can’t see them. When I first played Silent Hill, the static scared the shit out of me far more than the monsters did; what I couldn’t see was scarier than what I could.
Which is ironic, because even as we finally meet monsters, James keeps the same basic muted emotional range he has at the start of the game. James’s reactions to the horrors of Silent Hill should be, well, horror. Instead, he’s flat, as if himself in fog. Or what he’s seeing isn’t completely unexpected.
In fact, we routinely find James hinting that he knows more than he’s letting on, long before we discover he murdered his wife. Usually the cutscenes go something like this: James confronts a situation or character. The character hints at James having a darker past than he’s admitting. James ultimately ends the conversation mentioning Mary and letting the sentence trail off at the end. James is petulant and avoidant — yet simultaneously is trying to be a “hero” in his search for Mary.
TechRaptor writer Roberto Grosso attributes much of this to James suffering from PTSD:
The PTSD that James suffers from is never really mentioned directly in the game but heavily implied. The guilt of his wife’s death, coupled with his involvement in her assisted suicide, has disturbed James heavily. […] It is through this the true horror of Silent Hill 2 manifests; it can happen to any of us. Those feelings of despair, loss, grief or anger are all emotions we control at all times, but lose control when the hinges are replaced.
James is a man who’s always at the edge of understanding, always in denial, and always afraid to step over the line and admit to what he did. Just as Grosso and I disagree on whether or not Mary’s death was an “assisted suicide” (it feels murder-y to me), James himself seems unsure of the intentions behind both his quest and his actions. As players, we don’t have much control over moment to moment story choices, limiting ourselves to dive deeper into James’s trauma as we dive deeper into the horrors of the town.
The longer James spends in Silent Hill, the worse it gets and the more we learn about him. At one point, we find ourselves in the Silent Hill Historical Society, a museum seemingly dedicated to teaching visitors how much that town sucks. We’re forced to go deeper and deeper down beneath this museum into increasingly decrepit rooms and halls, learning more about the town’s terrible past as we go. The same applies to James. The deeper we get into this adventure, the less we like what we find.
James’s interactions with Laura, the orphan, put this problem into focus. Laura is a child who taunts James throughout the game, often sprinkling in hints that she knows James hurt his wife. James becomes increasingly anxious around Laura. Even as he attempts to “save” Laura by chasing her around town, she becomes the conduit of his rage. In the hospital, James screams “Liar!” at her when Laura says she had seen Mary recently.
James’s anger here isn’t righteous, it’s pathetic: He’s shouting at an eight-year-old girl. It’s also out of the players’ control — as if James’s emotional outburst was outside his own. While fighting monsters and exploring buildings for clues, the player has complete control. As soon as those clues turn into a narrative cutscene, we lose that control and James again becomes confused and erratic.
Here, it’s again important to distinguish James from a regular antihero like Kratos. In 2018’s God of War, Kratos is portrayed as a self-rehabilitating god-killer. He’s completely capable of tearing apart divine beings with the chains attached to his arms — but he’d much rather be a parent. Antiheroes may be dangerous, but they’re safely couched in familiar heroic “might makes right” tropes.
James is the inverse. He hides a dark secret beneath layers of weakness and normality. It’s fitting that he looks like he’d appear as a suspect in an episode of Dateline, a show famous for its “he seemed like such a nice guy” true crime stories. James doesn’t hold back his power, he hides his past. He’s not trying to be redeemed; he’s trying to deny.
We need this mystery, this driving force in the story. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have a conventional villain. Sure, it’s got unpleasant characters and monsters — and even memorable big baddies like Pyramid Head. But none of the enemies actually seem to have any clear internal needs apart from wanting to kill James.
This is what makes James such a perfect villain for the game. James is just like Silent Hill: unassuming, a little boring, and entirely rotting from the inside. The further James goes, the worse Silent Hill becomes, and the more those around him suffer. Like James, we as players see it through for selfish reasons — the dopamine rush of completing a game or solving a mystery to “find out what happened.” We know it won’t end well, but we don’t care.
As we drive James’s narrative, we as players give him the space to act out his shame and guilt and anger. By playing out his violence, and that violence being acted out on manifestations of his own guilt, James pushes himself further and further into his own personal Hell. In hiding information from us — whether intentional or not — James makes us complicit in his actions.
James isn’t an antihero.
He’s the villain.