After watching the terrible movie, I needed to go back and revisit the game on which it was based: Silent Hill 3. And it didn’t take me very long to fall deeply in love with the experience again. Whilst many argue Silent Hill 2 is the best game in the series, I find deeper solace and meaning in Heather and her torment…
Silent Hill 3 is, in truth, Silent Hill 2.
By this I mean that for all the love aimed at Silent Hill 2, of James Sunderland and the guilt and desire that is at the very core of his being, the game wasn’t really a direct sequel to the first game; more a kind of interesting spin-off aimed at reinventing the town as the villain of the piece. In Silent Hill 2, the oppression and loneliness that is at the very heart of the experience is as a result of a dark, possessed town. A place which seeks to punish and redeem those who find themselves trapped within its confines. Maria is a direct consequence of this; a shadow, a figment of James’ imagination drawn together from who his late wife was, who he wanted her to be and who he needs in that moment – someone strong, independent, challenging his notions and beliefs. Silent Hill 2 is a game that plays from this idea of turning a persons own desires and wants against them, forcing them to confront buried truths and deep philosophical arguments.
Silent Hill 3, on the other hand, is the direct sequel from Silent Hill 1. The game takes many cues from Silent Hill 2, indeed the symbolism is far greater than it is in Silent Hill 2 but ultimately the truth is that Heather and her tale is remarkably more straight-forward and less open to debate and interpretation; Heather is the adopted daughter of Harry Mason, the protagonist from the first Silent Hill on the Playstation. Those who had played or done some basic research would immediately be aware of who Heather is, and why at this moment her world is falling apart; as forces draw in to use her and her body for their own nefarious purposes, Heather is drawn into the madness of The Otherworld, and begins to unravel who she is and why she is so important to these people.
That isn’t to say the story of Silent Hill 3 isn’t without its own twists and turns, as Team Silent were always fantastic at a narrative that comes together the more you examine it. It’s a tale of a teenager maturing into adulthood, of mistakes catching up to them, of religion and the choice of who and how to believe in at any given moment. Do the ends justify the means? Does a second chance at life mean that you should still pay for the mistakes of those who came before you? Can redemption and forgiveness be found at the bottom of a wellspring of hate and loathing? And does perception dictate reality or does reality dictate perception? We’ll come back to this latter point in a bit.
Silent Hill 3 is a far more steady, predictable game than Silent Hill 2 but this was not a terrible concept. Silent Hill 2 was open and designed for a player to wander around, lost and confused and lonely. Silent Hill 3 in comparison is a far more claustrophobic, more direct affair; there is a very set path but this was acceptable when you consider the whole point of the narrative was to conclude an open story arc. And it works in the context of the narrative too; a case of design meeting the needs of the story, rather than forming the story around the bones of an already-made game. The oppressive, tightly-knit corridors and rooms enclosed by fences and strange padded walls lends an inescapable dread to proceedings, a looming threat and one that is ever present in the presentation. It also lends the game its darkest, most gory setting to date; the atmosphere is less foggy because of its cramped corridor-like nature and yet darker, more depressing and definitely one where things are clearly not right. As Heather continues on her journey, even through a small segment of Silent Hill which does give a brief reminder of the games that came before it, she is changing and developing. As her anger and hate intensifies as the game goes on, so too does the Otherworld change; from a caged, enclosed area into one which bleeds, cries and reflects the pain inside her.
Silent Hill 3 then is another example of a game that deep down reflects the character rather than trying to somehow be more than it is. And it is why even though the game is cramped, more enclosed and more focused on getting a conclusion to a story that it allows for some truly stunning moments of reflection on the series; a reflection on Heather, Alessa and the events of the past. Reminding us and even showing us the effects of Harry’s intervention, including the fulfilment of a prophecy that was shown in the first game. And then there is that question of perception vs. reality, as one character Vincent drops a line that shatters not just this game, but the series wide open. “They look like monsters to you?”
It’s the way he says it as well. And Heather’s reaction. It’s the moment that blows your mind, and arguably may have been a keystone in why the series has never managed to get back on the same course it once had. You realise that Harry, having been on the run, may not have been running from the Cult alone; his insistence that his daughter use a different name perhaps another indicator to the background behind it. You cannot look at Silent Hill or its protagonists in the same way because you question whether they are sane or perhaps not sane. Who or what are they actually seeing?
Part of the fall of later entrants into Silent Hill have found themselves reusing assets from the first three games without context and that is perhaps quite sad as each game brings with it a different cast of characters and indeed, a different cast of villains. The Nurses have been a long-standing tradition in the series and the jump from the first game, where the nurses are possessed by huge growths on their backs, to the second game – where the nurses were almost over-sexualised with in-your-face cleavage and terribly short skirts, Heather’s view of the nurses is more troubling; they still shamble, but they have a more human appearance. They are less exposed – the tops are more tastefully done-up and the skirts scoop down to just above the knee – but they scream, they come with far more deadly weapons. Whilst not possessed in the most obvious form from Silent Hill 1, they are more terrifying because of this lack of obvious connection. With their heads bowed and their movements inhuman, Heather sees medical intervention as something to be feared, rather than welcomed. Dangerous even. It all feeds back inwards, with Closers and Pendulums representing force and time in equal measure, enemies that seek her downfall. Every enemy in Silent Hill 3 is crafted to be a reflection of Heather and her tale, rather than wheeled out for the sake of it. They come with meaning. Purpose.
Sadly, there are some flaws and the first would be the supporting cast is far less interesting than it had been in previous games. Vincent, for all his kooky oddness, is not exactly an inspirational villainous sort. Claudia is a better attempt but her shallow, one-dimensional religious nonsense sadly means there is very little depth to her as the ultimate antagonist in the piece; she neither invokes hate not does she invoke pity. She doesn’t really invoke anything. Douglas should be a good companion; he has just the right sad backstory that would make him quite interesting but he is vastly underutilised and this means he never quite gets to be the major role that such an interesting character should be given. They feel throwaway, almost neglected as the focus is more on Heather. It is quite a sad sensation.
The second would be that for all its foibles, it’s not especially hard. Atmospheric, sure, and wonderful but once you’ve gone through the game a couple times and unlocked certain things – or even just burned through some of the passwords from old magazines and the Internet – achieving the better ratings on the harder settings isn’t really all that difficult to do. Once you have become used to it, getting ammo and just using the handgun and shotgun to barely see a scratch becomes somehow the norm and it is a little disconcerting that even when you do get that magical 10-star rating, if your next completion isn’t, you lose the perks that come with it. It does seem genuinely cack-handed in its approach.
Finally, its main problem comes from the fact that it was the end. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go and hence why The Room (which wasn’t originally meant to be a Silent Hill game) deviated so wildly from the formula. We remember Silent Hill 3 but it is replaying it – be it the PS2 original or the recent HD re-release – that reminds you that this really was supposed to be the end. Silent Hill 2 could be argued as an interim point between the two games as the town struggles being torn in two; Heather’s return and the conclusion of her tale should theoretically be the end of it. Recent Silent Hill games haven’t come close to the understanding either of these games, and all have cast a poor shadow over the series, unable to match the prior tales or their understanding of the subject matter in question.
However, it is a great game. Slow, building and moody, it takes time for such a game to get into your mind. Silent Hill was never really about action, or fighting, or excessive gore. It was about getting a story across, having a point to the madness. This is why the recent games and the latest film have done the series such a disservice, because they are trying to appeal to a different demographic of person and not those who originally fell in love with the series. Silent Hill isn’t brainless, it isn’t cheap and tacky. It’s not about the violence, nor the horror, but about that inescapable truth about a character. They are the centre of this world. Everything revolves around them. Everyone else needs to understand they are only a supporting cast; the minute they overpower the lead, they are breaking the experience.
Silent Hill 3 is definitely not Silent Hill 2 – they are both completely different approaches to the series. One is more about the loneliness and the journey. The other more about the destination and the conclusion. But both are solid examples of an era of horror that many have forgotten how to implement; one of intelligent, conscious design choices and deep, meaningful moral messages. You learn something by playing the game, entertainment they may be but the ulterior motive is still to impress upon you a lesson which can be taken away and chewed over for days, weeks and months afterwards.
They are two incredible examples of how to do things right.
What a pity, then, no-one has taken any of those lessons to heart…