My 2020 was defined by isolation. I got divorced in late 2019, so I’ve spent the entirety of lockdown living on my own. As March bled into April bled into suddenly somehow July and then October, I remained alone, despite frequently seeing my friends and coworkers with the distance of a screen between us, at least in the early days. As Zoom burnout took hold of us all, I’d go several summer days at a time without speaking a single word. I’m still afraid I’ve lost my eloquence from neglect.
Playing Silent Hill was a quest that began in 2018, when a friend wanted to share the series, his favorite, with me. We collaboratively beat 1 and 2 and then I beat 3 on my own, in between playing other things. It was purely coincidental timing that it was time to beat Silent Hill 4: The Room during 2020. If you’re unfamiliar, the central conceit of SH4 is that the protagonist is trapped by supernatural forces inside his own apartment and is unable to escape. The door of the apartment is covered in chains and padlocks to which we do not have the key, with a single message in blood-red inscribed by the peephole: Don’t Go Out!
The parallels here are likely obvious and a little heavy-handed, but I didn’t think about it that much when I started playing, because I naively assumed it would all be over in a few months anyway, if everyone who could just did what I was doing and stayed inside. But for lots of reasons, that didn’t happen, and looking back at it now in 2021, Silent Hill 4 was a harbinger of the year I didn’t know I was going to have.
You don’t spend the entire game in your apartment, of course. You can’t use the front door, but you can travel to a series of hellscapes through holes that appear in your walls, and as you play, you realize that these hellscapes are the Silent Hill-ified versions of real locations in your world: the subway station down the street, a shopping center in your city, and eventually, the rest of your apartment building. These places are tainted and awful: the evil pervading your world has turned them into grotesque circuses of death, filled with creatures unconcerned with the harm they wreak because they have been so damaged by this world, as well as scared innocents trying to find their way home, only to meet their untimely demise instead. Later, the people you were unable to save come back as powerful enemies themselves, demonstrating that even death is not a victimless action in Silent Hill.
As summer became fall, the college campus in my city reopened. The inevitable photographs of the hundred-person maskless house parties began to drift to the surface of my social media, and I wondered where the innocent victims stopped and the indifferent monsters started. Was there even a difference? I thought often of my parents, small-business owners in their sixties with preexisting conditions, unable to close because of a lack of government assistance. Would they, too, become ghosts? In Silent Hill 4, I could fight these monsters and find my way back from hell into my own apartment, which, though it became dirtier as the game progressed, remained a safe haven. In my real life, however, I was trapped, the only similarity between the two apartments I inhabited being the dishes piling in the sink.
Then Silent Hill 4 pulls the rug out from under you, and you lose your one piece of safety. Now, every time you return from the hellscape outside to your apartment, it decreases your limited health. You can neither stay nor go safely: every option has the potential to hurt you. This final parallel became particularly true in the last months of 2020, as I celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas in my own apartment instead of at my parents’ for the first time in my life. My solitude, something I prized first a teenager and then again in early 2020 as someone newly free from an abusive marriage, was no longer a boon but a burden. I felt the beginnings of indifferent monstrosity tugging at the corners of my brain.
I haven’t broken, now in the early days of 2021, with many more months ahead of me. But with every day, I feel a little more sympathy for the ghosts in Silent Hill 4. They were just trapped people who made choices to survive. Who takes the blame for becoming a cog of death? The person pulling the lever, or the machine that promises happiness if you just tug a tiny bit?