Thematic Analysis of Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is a game at the forefront of the debate as to whether video games are truly an art form, due to the experience, themes, and overall feel of the game. In the guise of an action-puzzle-adventure-RPG, Shadow of the Colossus creates much food for thought in this debate. The main argument for this is that the game itself includes a wide array of themes, and depends itself upon a large amount of audience speculation – many questions are left unanswered, deliberately, to provoke thought, much like art itself. Created by Team Ico as the spiritual successor to another of their games, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus is a truly beautiful game.

Of the many themes featured within the game, all are open to speculation and impossible to fully answer – the themes of rebirth, death, love and futility are all touched upon, even to the point where the audience themselves are drawn into the game’s events. This, of course, deepens the emotional impact of the storyline, although the lines between the interactivity of the game and the futility of certain scenes are frequently blurred. The player must act upon the selfish wishes of the avatar, Wanda, despite their better judgment – and, even, begin to justify just what he commits.

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Shadow of the Colossus poses as a traditional fairytale – the stoic hero must rescue the beautiful maiden, and the maiden herself, Mono, is the epitome of innocence. Killed for something she cannot control, clad in a white dress, surrounded by doves and soft white light, she is the literal embodiment of innocence within the game, directly juxtaposed to a cruel, injust world around her. The cruelty of the world- where she is killed in cold blood, where Wanda himself kills in cold blood, and eventually dies, is softened by her presence. Wanda, the hero, rarely speaks, and though he is presented as the hero even he eventually becomes corrupt (throughout the game his appearance becomes slowly more monstrous as his humanity is eroded) and acts in increasingly selfish ways. Mono is the only one to stay pure and innocent throughout the entire game. Wanda’s eventual demise is his fault and it is here the theme of love comes into play, along with the theme of futility as a narrative device. The futility becomes apparent for the player, who will inevitably notice Wanda’s degrading physical state, which is used as foreshadowing for the tragic culmination of events.

Wanda’s love for Mono leads him on an epic quest, but also leads him to break several of the laws of mortals, a fact re-iterated by the God Dormin, and in doing so, by the end of the game he is merely being punished for his sins. Wanda had the choice to walk away, but he instead chooses to cling on to his love, refusing to let her die – if he had let go, he could have walked away with his pride, his life, and much more besides. Here the theme of undying love comes into play, another traditional fairytale archetype. However, much more like the darker, older fairytales, Shadow of the Colossus, though seemingly innocent, is in fact quite a dark, cynical tale. The hero of the tale could have chosen to let go and move on, but instead he sacrifices his freedom and his life in order to protect, and cherish, the one he loves. There is no stereotypical “happy ending” for them, for the end; although in a sense, the ending is bittersweet. Although Wanda is reincarnated as a horned baby, Mono brings him up, and thus they can never truly be together. In trying to save her and rekindle their romance, he forsakes their own relationship. His refusal to let go sacrifices not only his life, but the romance he was trying to save – instead of preserving his memories and moving on, he goes out and presumably upon his reincarnation, has forgotten entirely about their romance.  The events of the game are also needlessly cruel, and suggest, perhaps, that revenge never pays – in a sense Wanda is avenging the death of his love, as well as trying to bring her back.

We start the game with Wanda entering the temple, and engaging the God Dormin, who awakens and offers Wanda an immense task in a trade-off for the life of his lover. The price for his wish?  He must kill 16 Colossi (that’s giants to you and me), dotted throughout the land, in order to bring her back. The majority of these colossi are gentle, lumbering (and sometimes slumbering) throughout the land, until they are roused by Wanda, and thoughtlessly slaughtered. Some act in self-defence, but others simply walk around whilst the player scales, then kills them. Their deaths are not kind. The player is compliant in this, ultimately the one who causes Wanda to act as he does, as the player controls him.

In many ways, Wanda is the villain of this game, and this is not realised till the penultimate scenes, in which the Shaman divulges several facts. Dormin, the God who Wanda answers to during the events of this game, is an evil being, manipulating Wanda for his own gain (each Colossi is a segment of his soul) – namely his own resurrection. Wanda himself flaunted the rules of his tribe, stealing their sacred sword, and breaching the seal to this “cursed land” he finds himself in. Adding to this the fact that he slaughters these individual colossi, essentially bringing extinction upon a unique species, and he isn’t as innocent as initially considered. Furthermore, he breaks one of the most sacred rules of Mortals: he brings back the dead. Clearly, though you as a player sympathise with him, he is not the hero of our story, but rather an antihero. This subverts many of the themes present within many popular fairytale stories, and furthermore, presents an interesting moral dilemma for the audience.

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It is we who control him throughout, we who kill the Colossi, essentially setting into motion the events of the game and the ending. Yet we had no choice – there is no alternative, we are manipulated by the events of the story and in doing so, the story draws its audience in and creates an engaging, and emotional, narrative. The killings of the Colossi themselves are not pleasant – they roar in pain, shake their bodies and huge plumes of blood gush out of the wounds. We feel sorry for the Colossi as we are killing them, in a way, perhaps, that we do not feel sorry for Wanda. This, in itself, is another form of emotional manipulation for the audience, and shirks the trend of many RPGs, wherein the player character slaughters creatures without much thought. We, instead, are put in an uncomfortable position, feeling empathy for the very creatures we are killing, as opposed to the player character, whose plight we are serving. This adds weight to their deaths, their sacrifices and adds to the realism and narration of the entire game. The Colossi are brought to life, just as the land Wanda finds himself in is brought to life by weather, animals, and a realistic topography.

Wanda himself suffers from very little characterisation – he is never shown emotive. Even when his horse, his sole companion for the entire game, dies (well not really, but we don’t know this at the time), he does not shed a tear. As a protagonist, he is relatively unemotional, and you feel distant and disconnected from him as a result, which, again, creates more empathy for the Colossi. However, this could be turned on its head. Of the noises that Wanda does emit throughout the events of the game, they are all pained grunts – he trips and stumbles when walking, gasps when he climbs, and cries out when struck. This brings the immense task that he is subjecting himself to, to the forefront of the player’s mind, and indeed, the suffering he must have gone through to act upon these wishes.

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The land of Shadow of the Colossus is as varied as one would come to expect, comprised of deserts, lakes, and small pockets of greenery. This not only brings the world to life, presenting it as realistic, but encourages exploration and increases the isolation felt by the player. The land eclipses Wanda, and his steed Agro, and often the player will find themselves lost. This as a device is implemented not only to increase the isolation, and the desolate appeal of the land, but also to shirk the trend of traditional linear RPGs wherein the destination is immediately apparent. Alongside this, it brings to mind the idea that Wanda isn’t seeking out these Colossi, but hunting them – they are tucked away, hidden, in lost civilisations and caves, atop mountains and at the bottom of dried up lakes. Wanda is not seeking them out; he does not encounter them unless he searches high and low. He is the predator, not these immense beasts. The size of the beasts is juxtaposed by their gentile demeanour, whereas Wanda is small, and violent. The land itself is also breathtakingly beautiful, and painstakingly realistic – a small beach, found only after traversing a cliff, has wind that blows the water and sand about. A forest has pockets where the sun breaks through the canopy, and water is murky, and mysterious. The landscapes themselves are presented as a part of the game – the Colossi are often hidden by the landscape, or even comprise of the landscape itself. Everything in the game eclipses Wanda, evoking the thought of just how against-the-odds his quest really is, and just how futile everything could indeed be. Everything is against Wanda – his tribe, the land, the Colossi, even, eventually, the creature he thought was his ally.

It is here the theme of futility comes into play, and there are several aspects of this present within the game:

  • The player is futile to resist Wanda’s quest as there is no alternative. This is presented in various ways – the clear setting of the scenario, of which there is no escape; the way in which Wanda dies every time he defeats a Colossi and several “interactive” cutscenes, present later within the game.
  • Wanda’s futility in his quest. Faced with invincible odds, he is destined to fail, and in many respects he does.

The story is set into motion quickly, and Dormin wastes no words telling Wanda just what he wants, and the immensity of the task at hand. The player simply listens to his wishes, and obeys, seeking out and killing their first Colossi within the first ten minutes of gameplay. After killing the Colossi, Wanda can run about for a short amount of time, but inevitably, he is killed. Wanda cannot escape this, the tentacle-like appendages that emerge from the Colossi upon defeat hunt down and mercilessly kill Wanda, just as he hunts down and kills the Colossi. It is futile to escape, as the player will inevitably try to do the first few times this occurs – midway through the game, the player may well give up, allowing the tentacles to pierce Wanda without running away. This brings into play the futility of Wanda’s quest, the sheer size of his sacrifice. This, as a device, also allows for the player to be brought back to the Temple where he begins his quest each time, without more needless exploration of the landscape. The player is also a partner in crime to this futility – they control Wanda, it is they who slaughter the beast, yet they have no choice. This draws them into the narrative, and upon their viewing of the deaths of countless creatures, they observe the reactions from a first-hand view. This interactivity is backed up by how the player must hold down R1 (a shoulder button) to cling on for dear life each time Wanda stabs a beast – they shake the corresponding body part, and to avoid falling off, Wanda must hold on, through the player’s interaction.

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Of the many interactive cutscenes in the game one of the most poignant occurs at the end of the game. Wanda is dead, after having killed the final Colossi, and Dormin possesses his body to bring themself back to life (their identity is obscure- they speak with both female and male voices). Dormin then acts out revenge on the tribe that trapped him there, chasing them slowly, and smashing down. There is no tutorial for the controls, the player is left to themselves to discover how to move, and buttons that once did one thing may do another, or not respond in the slightest. Furthermore, this subversion of the games events; namely that Wanda, who spent an entire game killing the Colossi, is now the physical embodiment of all of them, is an example of dramatic irony. When controlling the Colossi, the player becomes aware of just how heavy, slow, and difficult it is to control them – whilst they may assume they will have power, they do not. Dormin is slow, each step takes controlled effort – in excess of 15 seconds for each – and his movements are painfully emphasised. This acts to put the player in the position of the Colossi, and again, creates empathy for them rather than Wanda, who slaughters these cumbersome beasts.

The following cutscene grants the player control of Wanda once more, for the final, interactive cutscene in which Wanda, now alive again, struggles in vain to run towards Mono, who has now awoken. She is brought back to life, but Wanda, now the physical embodiment of the beasts he slaughtered – pale-skinned, with horns – is unable to get to her. The player can attempt to get to her, running against the gale that blows Wanda towards his fate: a portal in a pool created by the very sword he killed the Colossi with, again, dramatic irony. But, the gale is too strong, and Wanda will never reach her. He stumbles, catches himself on bits of stone and uneven pathway, and hurls himself against the force, but never reaches her. This scene is much more emotional than a simple scene where one sits back and watches, because the player is brought into the scene and truly feels the pain, the need, of the character. This interactivity, this futility, makes the cutscene one of the most powerful, and for once the character feels sorry for Wanda, as he sacrifices himself for the love of his life.

Of course, Wanda does not die, but is reborn- just as Dormin was reborn in the Colossi, he is reborn in the guise of a child with horns. And Mono takes him up, through to a small Eden where they can live in peace, Agro is revealed to have survived and joins them there. In a sense, the events of the game end on a happy note. But, they are still alone, they are still unable to be together, and in that sense, nothing has changed, and Wanda’s sacrifice was for nothing. This is the final example of dramatic irony, the last futile blow in the entire game. Despite everything, nothing has changed, Wanda still finds himself in the same position as he did at the start of the game.

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Silent Hill 2 Thematic Analysis

The Silent Hill games are notorious for their broad range of psychological themes, present mostly in the presentation of the monsters, which changes from game to game. In the original, the monsters are indicative of a little girl’s fears; in 2, they present the sexual frustrations of the main character; and in 3, they again, represent fears, albeit in a different form entirely. The latter is, of course, linked with the original Silent Hill. In addition to this, the concept of the Fog and Otherworld present interesting thematic material – and how an entire town can be haunted, the literal embodiment of evil. Another question posed in the series is that of the following: is Silent Hill even real or are the monsters you are killing real people, the events within all part of some delusion? The theories surrounding the games themselves are based largely on audience interpretation, and multiple themes come into play in several of the games. Silent Hill practically established the survival horror genre as we know it today, and though the vastly more popular Resident Evil may have paved the way, none is so imitated as Silent Hill.

The lore and mythology of Silent Hill itself is long and convoluted, and a strange mix of Western and Eastern mythology, the child of a Global society where cultures blend into one another. Though the setting of the games is the titular Silent Hill, a stereotypical American town akin to those you may view in films, the lore is much different. Much like the similar franchise, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill features strange monsters inspired by Eastern lore and myths – specifically those of the Yurei, a vengeful spirit that remains in situe long after its death. Whilst Fatal Frame features ghosts, the entire town of Silent Hill has been tainted by Alessa Gillespie, who draws characters into the town, and indeed the entire town itself is often viewed as the embodiment of evil. Alessa Gillespie’s portrayal in the video games – that of a gaunt, long-haired young woman, is the embodiment of the Japanese Yurei, as seen in The Grudge, The Ring, and many other J-Horrors. This mixture of American culture and Japanese horror creates a hybridised horror genre and draws from plot devices, and archetypes, from both. And although many of the themes covered in Silent Hill, those of loss and love, are universal motifs, they are done in a distinctly different manner to the archetypes of American horror. The consequence of this is that it brings further fear into the game, as audiences are lulled to a false sense of security by the familiarity of the setting, which is then turned on its head by the strangeness of the horror and the ambiguity of the scenarios. The fact that there is no one answer to the questions Silent Hill evokes brings further unease to an audience used to straight-cut endings and explanations at every turn.

Perhaps the most obscure of the games is Silent Hill 2, which features many obtuse and strange characters and monsters, as well as a meandering plot and as such, the entire game may well be viewed differently by different audiences. Many theories abound as to the meanings behind monsters, the actions of characters, and this openness to interpretation is what hooked audiences in the first place.  Of the many characters, monsters, and settings present within the series, 2 does not continue the storyline of the original, bringing an entirely different set of characters to the table. Indeed, several aspects of Silent Hill 2 go entirely against the canon present in the original instalment. Whilst the original instalment suggested that the entire reason Silent Hill was tainted was because of the actions of a cult, and their abuse of a particular child, the child herself is not present in Silent Hill 2 in any form, and whilst evidence of the cult is present, the plot distances itself from the original. This puts doubt upon the entire narrative, which twinned with the fact that the player character is the embodiment of unreliable narrator, in turn puts doubt upon the entire story.

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The presence of evil in the original is justified, and explained, through the presence of Alessa, but she is nowhere to be seen in 2. This creates doubt for the player character, especially considering how James is later presented – is the entire game a hallucination on his part, a delusion? This, twinned with multiple ambiguous endings, makes Silent Hill 2 one of the best instalments in the series, to date.

The protagonist of the game – James Sunderland – and his development as a character throughout the narrative presents much food for thought. We first encounter James in a dingy bathroom, surveying his reflection and contemplating the situation he finds himself in, lost, and very alone; he is even somewhat faceless, obscured in shadow. This as an initial presentation is interesting, as he is at this point, intimidating to look at – glowering at himself, he is presented as damaged, alone, an everyman. The themes of self-reflection, and discovering one’s true self are recurrent in this game, and the series as a whole as every character has ventured to Silent Hill and eventually uncovers something about themselves that they had previously hidden, some repressed memory. The mirror itself could be an apt metaphor for self-reflection, as James looks at himself, yet still hides away from the truth; the James in the mirror is very different from the James we come to discover throughout the game.

James himself is not portrayed as an unreliable narrator right from the very beginning, but there are vague allusions to this present right at the very start. A letter from his dead wife, which eventually fades as the game goes on, is first read here – James even doubts himself, asking himself why he is in Silent Hill, calling himself crazy. The presence of mystery pills, and his insistence that he must go to Silent Hill despite the road being blocked off further allude to his rapidly eroding sanity. He is desperate.  The subsequent fading of the letter throughout the narrative further puts into doubt his real intentions, as does the eventual revelation that his wife died three days ago, not three years ago as is stated by him, and at James’ very hand. Could the three years James means really be the three years of Mary’s illness, and she was really dead to him long ago, the statement a justification of a murderer?

Although his actions at the start of the game may not be narrated by someone completely unreliable at this stage, his actions, the actions of us, the players, can be put into question as the game progresses. He slowly becomes more unreliable, and other characters within the game become more aware of this as the time goes by. Other characters are present both to add to the ambiguity, and to contribute to the narrative devices, making things clearly evident for the audience.  James is of course a murderer, but that is not something Eddie, who accuses James of being “just as bad”, knows at this point. Neither does the audience, for that matter, so this cutscene is also a narrative device. The ambiguity of the statement puts doubt in the audiences’ mind as to the real status of the “monsters”, especially considering that there are dead human bodies littered throughout Silent Hill. Is James killing monsters, or people? The human cries the monsters emit upon being slaughtered further puts this doubt into the audiences’ mind – and this point is raised by a character in a later instalment. Vincent later says, in Silent Hill 3, in response to Heather’s inquiries about the monsters she has seen, “they look like monsters to you?” This in turn puts doubt upon the sanity of every character within the Silent Hill series.

James becomes steadily more unreliable as the game progresses – Mary’s letter disappears, as does his photograph of her. This further emphasises that the monsters he encounters may be the start of an elaborate break down, or worse, real people he has killed. This status as an unreliable narrator further hits home the point that James is not as innocent as he appears, nor as sane. In turn, this puts the events of the game into question as the time goes by – they become less believable, more strange, more ambiguous, and the game becomes less real, more delusion, as time goes by. Of course, this is only a possible reading.

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The idea that the monsters of the game are a hallucination are further emphasised by the presence of dead bodies, all clad in James’ own clothing. James is viewing himself dead, or perhaps, wishing himself dead – this links in with the perceived canon ending, wherein he throws himself into the lake after discovering the truth. A different reading to this could be that one of those bodies is James himself, and he is indeed in a form of purgatory – the presence of religious paraphernalia, in the form of cult objects, backs this up. Several characters exist to antagonise James – Laura frequently teases him and Maria the physical double of Mary also taunts him. Silent Hill, as an entire town, and with the presence of an alternate reality, is a form of punishment for evil sinners – calling them in to punish them.

The alternate reality in question, the ambiguously named “Otherworld”, is full of grotesque imagery, of walls made from skin, bodies strung up in torment, and lots of violent, harsh imagery – such as barbed wire and death is a constant in this world. The presence of the Otherworld is often thought to present the warped dimension that the original residents of Silent Hill are trapped in, as punishment for their treatment of Alessa. This is revealed in the first game, and this idea carries through into subsequent sequels. The idea that the Otherworld is now open, tormenting sinners regardless of their connection to Silent Hill, appears in several sequels. The fact that the Otherworld is full of hellish imagery, and symbolism, backs up the allusion that James is undergoing a form of divine punishment, albeit punishment from the Gods of Silent Hill.

Several other characters in the narrative are also portrayed as insane as the game progresses, so there is the alternate reading that Silent Hill itself turns people mad – the only person saved from this is Laura. Laura is a little girl, the very embodiment of innocence: blonde, blue-eyed, tricked into thinking Mary is still alive, and seemingly unable to see the monsters. Only she escapes by the end of the game (in the canon ending). Indeed, the monsters are different to each character; whilst James sees nurses in low-cut tops that emit womanly cries as he hits them, Angela sees burning fires [also a form of hellish iconography] and embodiments of her father’s sexual abuse. Eddie doesn’t like to talk about what he sees. This further emphasises the point that maybe Silent Hill is a type of purgatory for the characters, their punishment for the evil deeds they committed, before they are all eventually killed. They are all, after all, murderers.  The presence of Pyramid Head, a strange and cruel monster who antagonises James throughout, is again testament to this. It would appear that none of the characters within Silent Hill 2 are mentally stable, and all of them equally unreliable. There is no reliable narrator present within the narrative, the entire game is a construct based around unreliable narration and no character can really be trusted, so the events of the entire game are questionable.

The monsters within the game are equally horrific, represent different things to different character and often have something to say about their mental state. The monsters present within Silent Hill 2 are all based around the mindset of the main character, but only because we as the audience see things from their perspective. James sees many monsters that could be construed as sexual [from mannequins made of legs, to nurses in low-cut tops], to represent his sexual frustration and lack of satisfaction during the months leading up to his wife’s death. Later on, when he is sucked into Angela’s delusion, he witnesses her fears – the monster represents her father’s rape of her. There is no one clear-cut form of Silent Hill; it gives different versions of monsters for each character. We can only elaborate upon what other character see.

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Perhaps the most interesting monster within the narrative is Pyramid Head, who never directly harms James, only monsters around him. He is portrayed as a large, hulking, angular monster, the very embodiment of violence. One of his first appearances within the game is during a scene in the apartment block – he stands at the end of the corridor, just out of reach, observing James, and from here on, represents James’ judgment. Perhaps James himself incurs Pyramid Head’s wrath, through his relentless guilt regarding Mary’s death. Pyramid Head is thought by many to represent an executioner; clad in a blood-stained apron, wielding a great knife, sent to punish James for his crimes. Indeed, the monsters do not stop harassing James till he accepts that he killed his wife.

The first interaction with Pyramid Head is shown through a grotesque cut scene in which he kills and possibly sexually assaults two “female” monsters, whilst James, a voyeur to this scene, watches. Just as the audience watches the scenario of the game unfold, at this point, James too becomes a voyeur. From here, he attacks James several times, but never kills him, choosing only to kill Maria several times, Maria who is the physical double of Mary, but also the exact opposite. Her death is violent, he pierces her through the heart with his large sword (which could be construed by some as a metaphor for sexual assault), whereas Mary’s death was relatively peaceful; she is smothered with a pillow. Maria acts as the exact juxtaposition to Mary’s constant presence throughout – sexually available to James, healthy, forthcoming, and physically present, and her death too, serves as juxtaposition.  The fact that Mary is resurrected, only to be killed again, several times throughout the narrative further intensifies the helplessness James feels, and his inability to protect those he cares about from things that harm them. Mary’s presence could itself be indicative of the punishment James feels he deserves, as in a way he is seeing his wife (or a lookalike, anyway) being murdered over and over.

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There are various themes present within Silent Hill 2; one of the most prominent of these is the loneliness present throughout the entire narrative. Although Silent Hill was once a tourist resort, it is now closed down, desolate, and lonely. James, once so full of life and love for his wife, is now alone- he ventures into Silent Hill alone, and though he meets characters along the way, remains alone for the majority of the game. Of the companionship he receives, it is very brief, and culminates in history “repeating itself” in a sense, as he is forced to witness the murder of his wife’s body-double time and time again. The other characters in Silent Hill are also alone. Angela’s parents are dead, Eddie has no friends, and Laura only serves to torment James. One of the first truly engulfing, and lonely, moments of Silent Hill is right at the start, where James runs through the forest, which overshadows and eclipses him. He runs for what seems like hours, right through to the town of Silent Hill; shops boarded up, a place of happiness reduced to a ghost-town. Silent Hill is a literal ghost town – filled with ghosts, and isolated in solitude. This loneliness is prominent throughout the entire game, and often James finds himself in the dark, the literal representation of his madness and solitude. The fog also alludes to the feeling, evoking a sense of claustrophobia, and isolation. It is clear that James will not receive help nor support in the town, and several of the characters work against him, fearful of him.

The theme of rebirth, whilst recurrent throughout the series, is relatively untouched during this instalment. Although in a sense, Mary is reborn through Maria, there is very little else of this theme present in the entire narration – the closest we come to this theme is during the penultimate scenes, where James battles either Mary or Maria, in the form of an angry, vengeful spirit. However, the theme of grief is touched upon more in Silent Hill 2, as it is grief that drives James to Silent Hill initially, grief that eventually drives him to suicide. Grief is also what drove the other characters to Silent Hill. Guilt is also further touched upon, as guilt is prominent throughout as another key motivation for the actions of the characters. Guilt is the reason James is so intent upon uncovering the truth, the reason Pyramid Head relentlessly pursues him, and again, a reason as to why he kills himself.

The canonical ending, in which James kills himself after learning of his murderous side, comes as a shock to the audience. It seems no character within the narrative is safe from the wrath of Silent Hill, which eventually drives all to death. This adds to the sombre tone of the game, and as the full content of the letter is revealed to the audience only as James dies, heightens the emotional impact of the scene. James is revealed to have hidden the truth from himself, and in a heartfelt apology, his wife wrote him one last letter before she died. The emotional connection with James, his questionable motives for killing his wife, and the subsequent emotional “big reveal” only emphasises the grief, as we the audience have bonded with the character we controlled. That he has killed himself (in a possible ending), is made all the more horrific due to the emotional connection we bore with him.