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My horror calibration is broken. So very, very broken. This is a side effect of spending countless hours submerged in the horror genre; whether it be games, movies, books, or campfire stories, I've experienced it all. I've been told that it's a brand of horror hipsterism, but when anybody asks if a certain horror property is scary, my answer will most usually be “no.” That's not me feigning toughness. That's me being jaded, and it takes a lot of the fun out of consuming horror culture.
I sat down and tried to figure out just what moment in horror gaming really got my goat and I found it nearly impossible, but not in the way that you'd think. It was such a struggle to narrow down my experiences to one moment, one scare chord. I made a list, and soon realized a pattern. Most of the moments that stood out for me in horror gaming came from Silent Hill 3.
Make no mistake, I love all of the entries into the Silent Hill franchise (even the misbegotten sequels that clearly hadn't been thought through enough). But Silent Hill 3 was always the game that I most related to. It played on a lot of themes that weighed heavily on my mind, and had a lot of amazing visual and audio cues that had me from the moment I started my first play through.
I loved the themes of love and loss; having come from a family torn apart from divorce and growing up so close with my Dad, the relationship between Harry and Heather was something that I easily identified with. I could easily put myself in Heather's shoes when she ventured into Silent Hill to retrace her roots and avenge her father. In fact, throughout the game, I found myself really identifying with Heather's character. Both the good and bad aspects.
Silent Hill 3 also offered some of the best music and sound design that the series had seen. The lyrical songs brought a certain mix of tender hearted emotion and bad ass rock together, and the ambient sound design really brought the game to life. Akira Yamaoka somehow managed to create a soundtrack that sounded the way I imagined a Hieronymus Bosch painting would sound like. The monster design makes a heavy nod to Bosch's work as well, and after making that connection, I found it impossible to unsee it.
The emotional content of the game, and the continued themes of uncertainty and indecision are what struck home with me, the most. My two favourite moments are scenes wherein the gamer is put in the hot seat and made to question their own morality.
When Heather confronts Father Vincent, a sneaky and otherwise unpleasant priest, about the sick goings on of his fellowship, he turns the blame right back on Heather, and in turn, right back on the gamer. The accusations fly that the player takes enjoyment from killing the monsters that they encounter. When Heather asks him if he's making reference to the monsters, he goes even further, by asking “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” There's a creepy inference there, that perhaps you've been killing people all along. Vincent quickly takes it back with his signature mean spirited laugh, and tells you that he's only joking, but by this point, the damage has been done. If you take too much time to consider what Vincent has just said to you, it turns the mythos of Silent Hill up until that point completely on it's head. It's a wonderfully creepy moment.
The second squirm-worthy moment in the game is much later, towards the end of the game. Heather happens upon a confessional box. It's a truly disquieting experience to stand and listen to a grief stricken mother pray for the soul of her murdered child. It's more than heavily implied that she killed her child herself, something that anybody can agree is a horrible thing. It's awkward enough to be privy to this most intimate and emotionally raw moment, but soon, you're given a decision to make. As Heather, you can either say “I forgive you” and give this woman a moment of peace, or you can simply say nothing and wash your hands clean of the situation. The first time I played this scene, I felt so incredibly uncomfortable. There's the tense feeling that something is going to jump out and attack you at every moment, but there's also a feeling like cement in the pit of your stomach that you're not supposed to be there, overhearing this.
For me, it's not monsters popping out and attacking that make a scary moment in games. It's these small moments of psychological warfare; uncomfortable choices that speak to a deep seated psyche that really get under my skin and keep me feeling tense long after I've shut the game down.