Warning: this is going to be a thorough analysis of Silent Hill 3, so there'll be spoiling aplenty going on here, in case you're going into it fresh. Which is unlikely, given the game is 13 years old, but this is the internet. So don't say we didn't tell you.
Let's state an objective truth here: Silent Hill 2 is the single greatest horror game ever. Before you start typing a comment with, "But what about...?", no. You're wrong. There hasn't been any game released before or in the 15 years since that gets under the skin so brilliantly. It's a Lynchian masterpiece that stands an impossible height above a comparatively stagnating sea of B-movie-level pretenders.
But Silent Hill 2 casts a long shadow over Konami's horror series, which began back in 1999. How can you top a masterpiece, after all? Each following entry in the franchise couldn't escape the inevitable comparisons to survival horror's brightest, boldest and most magically malevolent moment. (Which is ironic, since the main complaint at the time of SH2's 2001 release was that it wasn't a "proper" sequel. Gamers, eh? We've no idea what we want, half the time.) But most criminally, its immediate follow up, 2003's Kazuhide Nakazawa-directed Silent Hill 3, has been widely ignored by all but the series' hardcore fans.
It's easy to see why it hasn't received the acclaim of its older sibling. Silent Hill 3's tale of vengeance and redemption is relatively straightforward, leaving no room for personal interpretation. But it's a mistake to take it at face value. Like the mist-filled town that gives the series its name, Silent Hill 3 has a lot more going on under its surface than you might have anticipated.
Heather meets Douglas in 'Silent Hill 3'
For a start, games are still struggling to produce female characters who are more than sole-purpose ciphers, hollow avatars designed to be a pretty face, or a rescue objective. In Heather Mason, Silent Hill 3 boasted a fully three-dimensional female lead. Neither a coquettish schoolgirl nor a gruff and troubled badass, Heather is a remarkably ordinary character. Her appearance is more like an actual person rather than an idealised fantasy. She's sarcastic and confrontational, but there's a vulnerability to her as well. Credit must go to actress Heather Morris who delivers a wonderfully understated performance.
Equally nuanced and developed is the villainess of the game, Claudia Wolf. A fanatical follower of the Order, the shadowy doomsday cult defeated by Harry Mason in the first game, her ultimate goal is rebirthing God to cleanse the Earth with hellfire. But she acts out of a corrupted sense of compassion, not a narrow desire to watch the world burn. A victim of abuse herself, a diary entry reveals her sadness at human tragedy and injustice. There's a twisted logic behind her plan. She believes only a God born from suffering can learn empathy, because "happy people can be so cruel".
In Silent Hill 3, the male characters take a back seat. Vincent Smith, Heather's would-be manipulator, is a slimy wanksock of a man. A priest and scholar of the Order, he's reluctantly on her side for his own selfish reasons. Taking great pleasure in taunting her over her lack of knowledge, most memorably by asking with mock surprise, "They look like monsters to you?", Douglas Cartland, the detective hired by Claudia to find Heather, is the least interesting character in the entire game. But even then, his attempts to put things right and his own personal tragedy paint him in a moderately sympathetic light. By the end, there's a bond between Heather and himself that suggests they'll be leaning on each other in the future.
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But it's when Heather returns home to discover the body of her father, Harry Mason, that Silent Hill 3 smashes another major stereotype. All too often games treat women as utterly disposable to the white male hero's journey. But that trope gets flipped on its head here. We see Heather's raw grief. She's no longer the cocky and carefree teenager in the first half of the game; her world has been irrevocably changed. It's then revealed she's the reincarnation of Alessa, the young girl sacrificed by the Order to summon their God.
To Silent Hill we go
While the first game has a villainous cult, Silent Hill 3 appears to be a more pointed attack on religion itself. Vincent is happy to exploit other members of the Order via their faith. And Claudia's belief in eternal paradise is so absolute that she's prepared to sacrifice herself and others for a supposed greater good. It's for this reason why she has Harry executed, so Heather's hatred will feed a new God within her. It's then Silent Hill 3 becomes a barely subtle analogy for abortion, as Heather seeks to rid herself of the being within.
As a game, Silent Hill 3 plays almost identically to the previous two, though it's strictly a linear experience whereas they offered a more open world. Not that this is a negative however, as there's a sharp focus on storytelling with the environment here. Upon Heather's return to the South Vale area, where most of Silent Hill 2 took place, the very air is thick with expectation. The town is not only welcoming Heather back, but by extension the player as well. It feels like a more deliberate and playful choice rather than a simple recycling of existing assets.
It must also be said that Silent Hill 3 was a visual triumph for the PlayStation 2, the platform on which most will have first encountered it (it's since been made available as an HD remaster for Xbox 360 and PS3). Characters actually look like they're alive in cutscenes, less like the animated mannequins of prior entries. You can tell how Heather is feeling just by looking at her face. The Otherworld is as grimy and decayed as in previous games, but it literally comes alive later. Blood flows and flesh pulsates along the walls. My first playthrough had me terrified of opening new doors because I had no idea what was behind them.
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A monster encounter in 'Silent Hill 3'
Obviously we can't talk about a Silent Hill game without mentioning its soundtrack. Akira Yamaoka mashed up trip-hop, industrial sounds and Americana to excellent effect. His soundscapes here are more ethereal and cinematic than the droning claustrophobia of preceding Silent Hills. He also pulls off the amazing trick of composing full songs for a game that aren't insipid shit. There's melancholy and cautious optimism in "You're Not Here" and "Letter from the Lost Days", and both perfectly complement the game's themes and atmosphere. "Hometown" is a moody trip-hop vocal take on the original Silent Hill theme, and bookends the story arc beautifully.
Though the plot mirrors the original pretty closely, in my opinion Silent Hill 3 is the last truly great title of the series. The fourth game, The Room, was a more abstract and conceptual prospect but a chore to play. The Sam Barlow-designed Shattered Memories had an intriguing psychoanalysis mechanic, but it was under developed. Homecoming and Origins were both derivative, and Downpour? It had Korn on the soundtrack, for fuck's sake.
It might be 13 years old this month, having come out on May the 23rd 2003, but Silent Hill 3'_s thematically rich narrative and characters remain leagues ahead of most games. Despite the occasional duff line and some inconsistent acting. it's also a good example of the series at its peak when it comes to creeping dread, and features perhaps the most iconic scary moment of everything Silent Hill related. But it's the genuine emotion in _Silent Hill 3 that distinguishes it from the rest. We care about Heather because she acts more like a person than an archetype. The world is being threatened, but this is a more intimate story and all the better for it. It deserves to be remembered as a great video game, one worth playing even for the first time in 2016, and not as the basis for an execrable movie adaptation.
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