[Disclaimer: I wrote this days ago, so I apologize in advance for the timeliness on this. This is my first blog ever, and I misunderstood the posting schedule at the beginning, so it ended up not becoming public when I originally had scheduled it. Enjoy!]
WARNING: Possible Spoilers for Silent Hill 3
While Halloween is on the rise, and everyone continues to celebrate or are already in the midst of gearing up for the spooktacular(yes I went there) festivities, I thought I'd share my most frightening experience I've had with a videogame. To this day, no other horror game has ever been able to parallel this simple moment which emitted such high levels of anxiety.
A videogame that succeeds on being scary doesn't need to put the player in a suspenseful or threatening position. One of the most important elements in horror design is to make the player feel vulnerable. A horror game succeeds when making the perfect combination of helplessness and dread, which can occur in a multitude of ways, as seen over the years in multitude of ways.
Giving the player a plethora of weapons readily available to dispose of a monster, demon or paranormal entity can take away from the tension-building experience. Sure Doom 3 did have its moments, but mowing down waves of the same demons repeatedly can lose its spark after awhile. In order to remedy this games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast strip the player of all combat abilities, ensuring survival is bent on outrunning what horrors they'll face. Other games like Fatal Frame and Alone in the Dark rely on a tough controls, which impedes easy aiming, further rendering the player helpless.
Sure every Resident Evil player who experienced it on the PS1 can recall the iconic jump scare with the first encounter of the zombie dogs, but very rarely do I find a moment within a game that presents such a bait-and-switch mindfuckery as one of the early sequences of Silent Hill 3.
The scene in question didn't involve a threatening monstrosity like the slew of Necromorphs found lurking around a corridor in Dead Space, or a well-timed jump scare, similar to the encounter with Alma Wade during the ladder sequence of the first F.E.A.R game. Not even a tension-building scenario where the anticipatory feeling on what lies beyond the narrow passageway; or the moment where a monstrous beast may be howling within earshot, but it's coordinates are hard to pinpoint.
What was responsible for my biggest fear-inducing skyrocketed levels of anxiety in a horror game was, indeed, a toilet. Yes a simple receptacle people use to relieve themselves.
In the beginning area of Silent Hill 3 the player explores the Central Square Shopping Center, a mall seen through the lens of the "Otherworld", a dimensional change the protagonist embraces as the environment manifests into a hellish landscape through a "nightmare-like" vision.
As the games protagonist, Heather, advances throughout the area, the surroundings begin shifting into a more grotesque overlay, covered in grimy textures, deprived of human activity, monster-filled and slowing decaying. This all sounds like the bread and butter of a solid horror game, which to every fan of Silent Hill would agree is done extremely well.
In one such sequence on the first floor of the mall there is a bathroom where the player can enter optionally. Aside from a container of bleach(which is used to solve a puzzle on the second floor, if the player opted in for a more challenging puzzle level) there isn't anything of interest until the player examines the stall furthest from the entrance. This stall is the only one which draws attention to, being the only one with a door whose hinges are still intact.
When a button prompt is initiated Heather will examine it with 3 knocks, to which a "mysterious entity" returns 2 of its own from the other end. Heather will then respond with, "Is someone actually in there...?". The door will not budge with any kind of interaction.
Why would the Team Silent draw attention to a scenario in which the player can easily bypass? Was this to build tension? Add to the atmosphere? With multiple melee hits, and wasted ammunition, no effort could make that door give the slightest budge. As the player turns to leave, Heather will abruptly stop, ceasing all control of, and slowly but surly the door will begin to open with an eerily creaking sound. At this moment, it is entirely optional to continue onwards or investigate what lies beyond that stall. When given into the temptation, Heather is met with nothing else than a bloody toilet, to which this scene will ensue.
The end result turned out to be a light-hearted gag aimed at referencing a scene from the previous Silent Hill, where protagonist James Sunderland is seen placing his hand inside a toilet. Regardless of the Team Silent's intention, I still feel moments like these in horror games go underappreciated, and I wish a similar approach would be used in future titles of the genre. Not every moment aimed at scaring the player needs to be met with a sudden change of pace, or eerily looking monstrosities taking place. There lies a multitude of untapped potential developers can use when providing their audience with a gratifying experience.