“The lock is broken. I cannot open the door.”
Too much of your time playing Silent Hill 3 will be spent reading this message. Hallways that promise numerous possibilities for exploration are inevitably reduced to exercises in futility as you find you can only open one or two doors out of the available ten or so. With so many games embracing exhaustive environments and non-linear gameplay, being repeatedly forced down certain paths for such a ridiculous reason as a broken lock (especially once your character is armed with a shotgun) is unforgivable. After encountering such corridors, one is left with two of the three feelings that Silent Hill 3 constantly generates: frustration (at the game’s limitations) and wishful thinking (for what the game could have been).
The other emotion elicited by Silent Hill 3—and possibly the only one that matters for many gamers—is fear. The opening play sequence through a foggy, abandoned amusement park, littered with what appear to be corpses dressed in pink bunny costumes, sets the gruesome tone of the game. Whereas the Resident Evil series relies on more traditional creatures like zombies and spiders to scare the bejesus out of you, the Silent Hill games have always featured uniquely disturbing abominations that will leave you questioning their designers’ sanity.
The rest of the design is incredible. The cacophony of music and sound effects are brilliant for evoking pure dread. The background environments are rendered in intimate detail, painted lavishly in gore and grime. Creating a potent atmosphere is vital for a horror game and Silent Hill 3 does it nearly flawlessly.
The Konami designers might have put all of their eggs in one basket, however. While visually and aurally brilliant, the rest of the game is muddled and full of plot holes that would make Ed Wood proud. You play as 17-year-old Heather, the child found at the end of the original Silent Hill game. After being tracked down by a private detective, Heather begins to encounter strange creatures and is transported back and forth to a nightmare dimension that will be recognizable to players of the other Silent Hill games. Her path leads through an abandoned shopping mall, subway station, and office building before finally bringing her to the town of Silent Hill itself. There, in tired sequel fashion, the narrative begins to look disappointingly similar to the original game, itself an often incoherent mess plotwise.
Silent Hill 3 is a good example of how the video game medium teeters on the brink of fulfilling its artistic potential. Its successes and failures illustrate the video game’s awkward transition from purely escapist spectacle to exploratory art form, a growth that film, drama, and literature have all experienced in the past. Silent Hill 3‘s villains are a religious cult, one member of which tries to bring a god to life and create a perfect world, free from all suffering. In its attempt to delve into themes of religion and fanaticism, Silent Hill 3 shows a willingness to transcend its medium’s usual boundaries. There is a genuine effort to make this game mean something that should be heartily applauded.
One of the creators of the infamous and influential computer game Doom has said that plot is no more important for video games than it is for pornographic movies. Story exists, he believes, solely to justify the spectacle—to set up the money shot. In this way of thinking, what actually happens between the money shots is totally insignificant so long as it entertains. The details are unimportant and thus, completely arbitrary. Art can be said to occur when the arbitrariness of what is included in a work—be they plot elements or brush strokes—is replaced by a unified structure deliberately created by the artist. Unlike Doom or Debbie Does Dallas, art is not random.
While clearly dismissing Doom‘s philosophy of game first and story dead last, Silent Hill 3 still lacks this kind of total artistic coherence. Plot threads are often picked up and dropped haphazardly. The ghost of a suicide haunts the subway station Heather explores, and while this provides for a money shot scare scene, it’s totally unrelated to the overall story and never mentioned again. Similarly, a haunted mansion that Heather walks through in the amusement park provides some of the best chills in the game, but has little relation to the plot. This arbitrariness makes for an unrewarding gaming experience. Terrifying maybe, but in a superficial way that resembles a roller coaster ride more than watching, say, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The Silent Hill series has always been on the verge of something revolutionary in video games. Through its complex plots and characters, the designers have tried to add nuance and thematic relevance to the medium. The visual style of the games is breathtakingly unique in a business that largely rewards the generic. The way a Salvador Dali, David Cronenberg, or H.P. Lovecraft stand out from the crowd is how the Silent Hill games look and sound in a world of interchangeable 3D-fighters, first-person shooters, and RPGs. Ultimately, though, Silent Hill 3‘s designers fall back on empty spectacle too much to have really upped the ante. While story was evidently important for the designers, it is plainly made secondary to creating a visceral gaming experience that terrifies players.
Like its hallways full of doors that won’t open, Silent Hill 3 ends up providing only a small portion of what it hints could be possible for a video game. Though fun to play, it ultimately leaves the gamer wishing for something more than what is delivered.