September 19, 2005

Silent Hill 3

by peterb

Here's another entry in the "I play games that are 3 years old because I'm a cheapskate" series.

I've tried to describe my experiences playing Silent Hill 3 a few times now. Each time, I sort of trail off and fail. This is, interestingly, not unlike my experiences trying to get into the game. Somehow, it fails to grab me in the way the first two games in the series did. Why is this?

It's tempting to say that the main reason is because it's just a simple rehash of the first two games. There's certainly a kernel of truth to that: when you sit down to a Silent Hill game, you know you'll experience a few things:

  • A creepy, deserted world populated by chimerae and monstrosities.
  • A radio that plays static when monsters are nearby.
  • Atmospheric and creepy lighting.
  • A world whose inhabitants, locale, and even architecture is disgusting, both fecal and fetal, deriving from the most unpleasant aspects of the flesh.
  • And, lastly, you know that you will be transported to a world inside the world, where the most profane and obscene elements of the game world will be transformed, industrialized, mechanized, and magnified.

Silent Hill 3 does indeed hew close to this pattern. But, really, that's what I was looking for when I bought the game. After thinking about it, I've identified some specific things about the game that made it fail to resonate with me. The reasons have less to do with how it followed the pattern, and more to do with some fundamental design decisions.

The first problem is the pacing. Both of the first two Silent Hill games — but particularly the second — were brutally slow in getting things going. Silent Hill 3 starts throwing dogs with split heads at you from practically the first moments of the game. And, almost without exception, it is the monsters that determine the pace and creepiness of the game. Compare this to Silent Hill 2, whose sense of the uncanny was driven largely by plot and character revelations. The sheer brilliance of Silent Hill 2 was that by the latter parts of the game, the zombies were the relaxing part. Some four-legged mannequin sex monster would appear and try to murder me, and I would breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank god!" I'd say to myself. "I now have a few minutes where I can just whack monsters with a baseball bat, instead of finding out about how the protagonist once drowned his dog after it saw him having sex with his cousin." (I fabricated that "plot revelation", but you get the idea.)

The monsters that eat us from the inside are scarier than the monsters that eat us from the outside. Silent Hill 3 has forgotten this.

Another aspect of design that differs in Silent Hill 3 is that the game is on rails, but the rails are visible. The ideal game design is one that channels you down a pathway, while convincing you that you have an infinite amount of choice. In the first two games of the series, you are wandering around a fog-filled town, making frequent forays into large creepy buildings. The games do channel you, but the aspect of running around the streets makes you feel like you have more choices than you actually do. In Silent Hill 3 you begin the game in a shopping mall. Then you go into a subway. Then you go into a sewer. Then in to another building. From a flowchart perspective, this isn't actually different from the previous games, but the psychological effect of spending the entire game in interior spaces is limiting. It does not work in the game's favor.

Most, though not all, of the creatures in the game feel uninspired. The first Boss monster in the game is a giant penis. There's no two ways about it. You walk your female avatar in to the center of a large room, and a giant penis pokes out of various holes and tries to eat you. Using visual and auditory clues, you try to determine which hole the giant penis is going to poke out of, so you can shoot the giant penis with your gun until it goes limp. I mean, give me a break. This is the first dramatic climax — pardon the expression — in the game. I saw this, and I knew what the rest of the game would be like. I said to myself "OK. They're just dialing it in now." The problem, again, isn't that they chose to make the reference. The problem is that they made the connection so obvious that it comes from outside rather than inside. And that, in my opinion, deadens the impact.

In some sense, one has to feel sorry for teams that are building sequels. If they create a product that is too close to the previous version, they're accused of "not innovating." If they create a product that diverges too far, they're accused of "not being true to the spirit" of the game. I'm trying to avoid either of those criticisms. I think that Silent Hill 3 is very much true to the spirit of the series. I simply think that they made some decisions that had a negative impact on the narrative of the game. And I wonder if they realized the import of those decisions when they made them.

I recently picked up Silent Hill 4. From just a few minutes playing it, I have a sense that they remembered that exploring the darkness within is more frightening then exploring the monster-filled city without.

There's never a map for the darkness inside you.

Posted by peterb at September 19, 2005 11:14 PM | Bookmark This

Like you, I am usually some time behind the bow wave of the games industry's output... Why pay 40 for a game I can get for 15 if I wait a year? (And these are pounds I'm talking about, which is twice as much as dollars right now). I only buy at full price the games which I know will repay my trust. The Zelda franchise is about the only one right now.

My wife and I played Silent Hill 3 last year. She enjoyed it - but unlike the previous game, she made me operate it almost all the way through. I did not have such a good time playing this as the previous two.

The first remains my favourite - simply because the game design is quite masterful. The second, however, I have respect for because they recognised the audience they were hitting, made the game much, much easier and focused on the story and atmosphere. It's possible this might have been the right direction for this franchise, but clearly sales were not where they wanted.

You can see the logic... we need to connect with the Hardcore gamer. So, they made 3 have a pathfinding structure, in which you run through corridors of monsters (like an FPS) to connect between set pieces and cut scenes. Trouble is, this portion of the Hardcore audience is already getting their play needs met in other genres - yes, they made SH3 appeal to this audience better, but at the cost of the play needs of the audience they had been building.

However, I do think the set pieces in 3 make it worth playing, although it is for me the weakest of the three thus far.

Silent Hill 4 sits on the edge of the of our play pile. My wife and I will probably start it soon - after all, Halloween isn't that far away. :)

Silent Hill is, as far as I can gather, a very delicately balanced franchise. It sells sufficient numbers, but the sales are never exceptional. The question is, how long will Konami be satisfied with its borderline sales?

Posted by Chris at September 20, 2005 04:35 AM

The series gets a lot of review cred, so I expect it sells
steadily in the long term. Even in the hit-crazed game
industry, that's known to be a good thing.

And it has imitators.

I was pleased that with SH4, they made some effort to break
out of the rut and rethink the game structure. Not just
the pacing, but the way game elements (save system, chapter
divisions, real/surreal division) fit into the storyline.
Those elements were all *innovations* in SH1, but retreads
in 2 and 3. They didn't change the franchise a *lot* for SH4;
but they were clearly paying attention to the problem.

Posted by Andrew Plotkin at September 20, 2005 01:47 PM

It does seem to me that that the series has lost something over time, but despite it's undeniable failings I really enjoyed Silent Hill 3, particularly all the facinating inner monolog you could read when you examined the envirnment. I thought it added a great layer of characterization to know what Heather thought about things, and it helped to shed light on what exactly the developers meant thing to be. Its something I wish more survival horror games would do (to my knoledge only Parasite Eve 2 and Haunting Ground have had that feature to any appreciable degree).

Posted by TrueTallus at September 20, 2005 08:50 PM

Silent Hill 3 was one of Grandma's favorites- but she could never get into the 4th of the series, too redundant. Like you, we waited until the price was down, because gaming can be quite expensive when you play hard, and do it often.

Someone mentioned Parasite Eve 2- YES; this is exactly what I thought when playing SH3. Beautiful game.

Posted by CtrlAltDelete at September 20, 2005 09:41 PM

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