Horror is a delicate thing. You can't just set your game in a spooky house, toss in a few monsters with lots of teeth, and expect players to be terrified. Horror—real horror—is more fragile than that. It breaks easily. It requires expert care to grow into something that can touch us on our most primal level. It's not easy to create a piece of fiction that penetrates deeply, that cuts directly to our basic fears of death, abandonment, madness and other things that are a lot scarier than some goofy monster with ten eyeballs. It has to be rooted in our anxieties of the unknown. It has to toy with our perceptions of reality. It has to be cryptic enough to inspire us to invent our own shocking imagery, yet it also has to tread carefully and not reveal too much so that our sense of the terrifying unknown is never undermined. The most potent horror is always about walking this line with precision, about stretching the dissonance between the known and unknown to the highest point of stress but never allowing it to break, lest we lose our connection with the source of all horror: our own imaginations.
Silent Hill, Konami's eccentric 1999 survival horror title for PlayStation, knew this well. It understood the stakes of maintaining horror, and it protected its ambiguity to the bitter end. Silent Hill 2, its 2001 sequel for PlayStation 2, followed its lead nicely. Although it wasn't as tightly-written, it still relied on implication and suggestion rather than telling the player anything directly. This kind of devotion to respecting the intellectual ability of the player is what made these two games some of the best horror stories of the past few years, in any medium. Unfortunately, this trend has ended with Silent Hill 3, the supposed finale to the series that began from such humble origins. No longer content to let players interpret the story for themselves, the makers of Silent Hill 3 have made the mistake of devoting the entire game to "explaining" the events of Silent Hill. And although on a visceral level it is still impressive, it downplays (and often eliminates) the single element that made its predecessors interesting: their refusal to explain things better left unsaid.
Silent Hill 3 begins as the story of Heather Morris, a teenager hanging out at the mall on a normal afternoon. As she prepares to leave for home she is approached by a creepy man who claims he's a private detective who has "important information about her birth." After she escapes from him via a window in the restroom, things begin to get strange. Reality suddenly seems to twist, preventing her from leaving the mall. The building itself becomes dilapidated, filled with rust and decay. Indescribable creatures are roaming its corridors, and an ominous woman shows up telling Heather to accept her "true self." From there it's basically a matter of Heather fighting her way through a gauntlet of nightmarish imagery in an effort to get home, unravel the mystery of her own "special quality," and eventually discover what this all has to do with the quaint little township of Silent Hill.
The problem is it's not much of a mystery. For anyone who's played the original Silent Hill, the entire plot of Silent Hill 3 should already be incredibly obvious based on nothing more than the bare-bones description I just gave. Right from the beginning, Silent Hill 3 tells its story with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The all-important sense of pacing that the first two games had is completely lost. You can forget about the designers taking time to establish any sort of context before the horror begins. Silent Hill 3 just drops the player right into situations that its predecessors typically took several minutes (or hours) to build up to. This creates a sense of monotony that cripples any psychological intrigue they are trying to establish. Why should I be fascinated or horrified by a perversion of normality if I'm never given a sense of what's normal? And never mind that the plot itself is similarly unsubtle. Even players who are not familiar with the series at all should find its storytelling techniques obvious. Characters reiterate expository information at every turn, spouting dialogue like "Gosh, I wonder what's going on. I wonder if it has anything to do with etc., etc., etc." to the point that there's little left for the player to piece together on his or her own. And that is before the designers finally break down and start having characters just stop what they're doing and explain the plot point-blank. Things get even worse when you take into account the content itself, which has a bad case of "sequelitis." Unlike Silent Hill 2 which got away with adding new content by focusing on a story completely unrelated story to the first game, Silent Hill 3 is one of those stories where events seem forced into existence only as an excuse to revisit the characters and situations of the original. Expect long lost relatives showing up out of the blue, sudden deaths of key characters, and other devices designed to inject life into an essentially redundant plotline.
I realize this is a lot of talk about plot and story for a videogame review, but this is part of the dilemma of the survival horror genre. Very seldom do these games stand on their gameplay alone. Taken by itself, the track record of this genre in terms of sheer gameplay is a joke. No one wants to battle with awkward controls, formulaic combat, and confusing camera angles unless the trade-off in terms of atmosphere, storytelling, and intellectual engagement is extremely high. With few exceptions, the best games of the genre have always been the ones where the story and exploration elements simply made the bland gameplay worth it. The previous Silent Hill games were excellent examples of this. Although Silent Hill 3 makes an honest effort to improve its gameplay experience by giving its controls, combat, and extras some added depth, they still don't hold a prayer of making the game a worthwhile experience by themselves. The problem is Silent Hill 3 seems to have been tailored around giving the player as much of the gameplay as possible, and this was not a good idea. They've downplayed the puzzle-solving, exploration, and story to the point that it's become more or less a linear action game, and while there's no doubt that running around bonking monsters on the head with swords and pipes is more fun than it was in Silent Hill 2, it still falls short of being an interesting experience without the aid of an intellectually and emotionally engaging framework to give it a sense of dramatic purpose.
It's a tough thing to really explain fully. The problems with the game, for me, seem very much in the details. I've tried to address them, which hasn't left much room to discuss some of its good points. I've given the game a 6.0, which means it's at least worth a look. As I briefly mentioned earlier, in spite of its many flaws, the game is still impressive on a visceral level, and I'd be lying if I said their weren't flashes of brilliance that recall the best points of the first two games. Although the pacing and exposition ultimately sink the story, the imagery itself still retains the raw, intense quality of its predecessors with absolutely no loss of horrific fidelity. Towards the end of the game, there are some truly inspired environments that express chilling psycho-sexual themes with real power and clarity. Also, the story itself does have a few bright spots. Heather's acting is excellent and her overall character progression is appealing, and there are moments (though few and far between) where the plot does achieve some subtlety and builds upon the original Silent Hill in a satisfying fashion.
It's a shame. I've been a huge fan of Silent Hill since the original was released four years ago. I've long felt it not only represented the best horror videogames had to offer, but an original and contemporary take on the classic horror story. While most horror fiction is still mired in the archaic roots of gothic literature or the fantastic possibilities of science fiction, Silent Hill was a horror story for our modern world. It knew that the things that really scare us are not vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or zombies but the collapse of the family in the face of urban decay, disease, physical disfigurement, and sexual anxiety. To its credit, Silent Hill 3 still seems dedicated to these themes only it isn't able to explore them with even a fraction of the wit, inspiration, or intelligence that made its predecessors so special.Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.