The PC port of horror classic Silent Hill 2 was considered average at best, until a team of intrepid fan-developers turned it into the best way to play the game.
In every respect, Silent Hill 2 stands alone: in its crowded genre, in its long-dormant series, even in the medium of video games in general. Widely considered one of the greatest horror games of all time, critics have championed James Sunderland's descent into madness as one of the high-water marks for video games as an artform.
Armchair enthusiasts and YouTube analysts have scrutinized every inch of Silent Hill 2's dismal lakeside town for clues and symbols, and subsequent generations of horror games have imitated (and ) its twists and tiny touches in equal measure. But while the classic series isn't getting much in the way of love from Konami these days, a team of more than a dozen die-hard Silent Hill fans have developed an alternate version of Silent Hill 2 that is one of the most impressive fan restoration projects we've yet seen. This unofficial patch grants the buggy, broken PC port of the game the superior sound, control, and visual effects of the original PS2 version while also allowing the game to be played at modern resolutions.
"Silent Hill 2 is loved by many and considered the example of a horror game done right," says one of the project's key contributors, who goes by the online handle Ratiocinator. "For most who play it for the first time, they quickly realize what makes it so special: The visuals and art direction, the atmosphere, otherworldly audio, character stories, and more. This is what makes the game so special to me and important to revisit to allow others to experience it on modern displays/hardware."
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For those new to the series, Silent Hill can be tough to get into, and I'm not talking about those pesky tank controls. In an era where many classic games are getting remastered, remade, or at least ported to current-day consoles, the Silent Hill series is an unfortunate anomaly. (You can blame publisher Konami for this one; fans certainly do.)
Unless you're willing to lug your old PlayStation 2 or original Xbox out of the closet, your only real option to play Silent Hill 2 is the PC port of the game, which isn't available for legal purchase anywhere--save for second-hand copies of the original physical release. There's also the Silent Hill HD Collection for PS3 and Xbox 360, but fans consider it broken in a variety of ways. Cajoling the original PC port to run on a modern PC without assistance is a Herculean labor; however, thanks to a team of fans behind the decidedly unofficial "Enhanced Edition" of Silent Hill 2, playing the game on PC now is simply a matter of overwriting a few files and editing a text document or two.
As Ratiocinator and project contributor Andrew Bondarenko attest, even at the time of its release, the original PC port of Silent Hill 2 was considered technically inferior--especially in terms of visual effects and audio bugs--when compared to the console versions, though not egregiously so. Such deficiencies were relatively common for PC ports of popular console titles at the time, and Japanese games were some of the worst offenders.
There are quite a few reasons why the PC port didn't live up to its console counterparts. According to Dean Calver, who worked as the lead programmer at Creature Labs, the tiny UK studio that handled the PC version of Silent Hill 2, the porting effort was brutally short on both time and resources.
Though Calver notes that Konami gave Creature Labs "what [it] needed" in the form of source code and art assets, the team struggled to export many of the assets due to technical problems, and they ended up reverse-engineering much of the art from the game's PS2 and Xbox versions. The source code came with its own set of complications: though the code was in English, its comments were in Japanese, meaning that the studio had to rely on primitive machine translation to explain how various aspects of the game worked. "It was not uncommon to hear one of us randomly laughing as we read some bizarrely translated comment," Calver says.
The studio only had a scant five months to spend on the project, meaning that some bugs inevitably slipped through the cracks. (Some of these unintended technical shortcomings have made the PC version the preferred platform of speedrunners. For example, loading a quicksave restores James' stamina, meaning that you can sprint endlessly with little effort.) Because computers of the era had yet to fully embrace the DVD drive--unlike the PS2 or Xbox--Creature and Konami decided to ship the game on multiple CDs instead, which meant that certain parts of the game had to be compressed, especially the audio. Calver also notes that the port targeted lower-end computers that simply couldn't achieve everything the console versions of the game did.
"Our minimum spec was probably two to three times slower than the consoles, and we didn't have the low-level tricks that the console versions could do," he says. "That's why the lighting and shadows are slightly different."
The fan-made Enhanced Edition that picked up the baton that Calver and co. were forced to put down has come a long way since the project's inception in 2016. The patch comes in at several times larger than the original game, which is only a couple of gigabytes. As the team tells it, the endeavor started when the project's producer, Ratiocinator, began to investigate how to play Silent Hill 2 on modern machines, having found that trying to play PS2 or Xbox games on a LCD television produces a muddy, blurry image compared to the intended CRT experience.
What Ratiocinator found was a constellation of different fan-developers working on competing fixes to the game, including one to adapt the game for widescreen monitors by two modders going by the names ThirteenAG and Aero_. Pooling their collective knowledge of the game, Ratiocinator began to submit development tickets on the project's page, when it was then known as the "Widescreen Fixes Pack." Over time, as the breadth of these fixes began to sprawl, other developers who were interested in fixing the PC port found the project and began to share their fixes to other aspects of the game, such as its compressed sound. At that point, the project began to resemble a total overhaul of the game from top to bottom, from DirectX integration to controller support.
In order to achieve their goal of restoring the PC port of Silent Hill 2 to console quality, the fan-developer team had to dump more than 1,500 audio files from the "definitive" PS2 version of the game and transcribe them into the PC version. This required lead developer Elisa Riedlinger to construct custom tools to convert the files into a compatible format, as well as delving into the game's code to increase its memory buffer to allow it to work with larger audio files.
As a horror game that relies heavily on its atmosphere, the default PC version of Silent Hill 2 has many bugs and visual shortcomings that can tarnish the experience. For example, Riedlinger just recently figured out a way to remove the annoying click sound that plays when the game ends a sound effect prematurely. This involved installing a new DirectSound wrapper into the game to detect when an audio file gets cut off, and then forcing it to fade out and stop without the noticeable click.
Some of the changes required the team to fix issues caused by the forward march of technology. Some modern Nvidia GPUs cause black shaders to appear as white at certain points in the game, for instance. That fix required the team to make their own custom black texture and implant it into the game as it runs. Project contributor "Silent" has focused on upgrading the port's controller support, allowing the right-stick to be used for limited camera control, which is a must-have in a game where skittering horrors are constantly sneaking up on James. (Interestingly, Silent says they aren't even a Silent Hill fan--they just enjoy the camaraderie of working on the team.)
Like the above texture fix, many of the tweaks are so subtle that a first-time player might not even notice them, but together they add much to the atmosphere of the game. In the famous opening sequence of the game, which sees James composing himself in a dingy bathroom, the shot that pans from up from a urinal to reveal James uses a cinematic depth-of-field effect that was considered cutting-edge at the time. Such unsettling special effects that were entirely missing from the original PC port were reverse-engineered and implemented by Ratiocinator, Aero_, and Bondarenko.
Some of the improvements have proven to be more elusive than others. For example, Ratiocinator only recently uncovered the memory address that controls Silent Hill 2's iconic fog, which allowed him to adjust its movement speed to a more natural flow reminiscent of the PS2 version. Project contributor "FrozenFish24" spearheaded an effort to soften the hard-edged shadows of the PC version into something more sophisticated, which eventually resulted in console-accurate shadow behavior after months of playtesting.
Though the project has massively increased the quality of the port of every level, it's still not quite complete. Ratiocinator is currently investigating how to implement proper shine effects--also known as "specularity"--to some of the game's scenes and assets. The team is also working on high-resolution versions of all of SH2's static images, including maps, riddles, and memos, which would essentially make the game entirely high-definition.
For the team working on Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition, it really doesn't matter what Konami does, short of sending them a cease-and-desist letter: They're going to keep maintaining it.
While the Enhanced Edition remains undoubtedly the best way to experience Silent Hill 2 today outside of the PS2 version on a CRT television, it still comes with a major caveat: Most who play it will have obtained their copy of the game under legally dubious circumstances. The latest release of Silent Hill 2 came in 2012's misleadingly named Silent Hill HD Collection, which brought Silent Hill 2 and 3 to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Unfortunately, Konami , meaning that developer Hijinx Studios had to use a beta build of SH2 as the starting point for the new version, which introduced a raft of complications.
"The HD collection is incomprehensibly broken in the visual/audio department," Bondarenko says. "It's not possible to confirm any of the theories [of how it ended up that way], but the Silent Hill 2 in the HD Collection can't even compare to the default, vanilla PC port."
Though most of the team members I spoke to say they wish that Silent Hill 2 were easier to obtain in a legal fashion, they also doubt that the situation will change anytime soon. However, it doesn't affect their desire to work on the project, though Ratiocinator says that wide availability of a legitimate version would make it easier for the team to troubleshoot bugs. Ratiocinator notes that fans often request that Konami release Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4 on the retro gaming storefront GOG. For his part, Calver says that Konami should license the Enhanced Edition from the modding team and re-release the original port on Steam for some easy revenue, especially considering the recent interest in the legendary horror series.
Given the addition of Silent Hill 3's Heather and Silent Hill 2's own famously symbolic antagonist Pyramid Head to the anthology horror game Dead By Daylight--and recurrent rumors of a new Silent Hill entry, perhaps even with staff from the original Team Silent--it's possible that Konami might make it easier for fans to experience what is arguably the definitive horror video game. But for the team working on Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition, it really doesn't matter what the publisher does, short of sending them a cease-and-desist letter: They're going to keep maintaining it, despite each having their own full-time jobs and responsibilities. They're currently hard at work on a new version of the patch that will implement all of their latest fixes.
"The thing I enjoy most is the team and how we have all come together over the past couple of years to work on this project," says Riedlinger. "Secondly, knowing that I am helping to preserve one of the old classic games. Without work like this on older games, these games would be lost in time."