I like to think of Silent Hill as “the game series that keeps on giving”. It actively fucks with you while you’re playing it and, if you have any kind of imagination or sensitivity at all, continues to fuck with you after you’ve turned off the console and it’s time to go to sleep. Some of the creepiest, absolutely wrongest things I’ve ever seen came fresh from some Silent Hill session and directly into my nightmares—still warm, pulsing, and shrieking.
And we like that, don’t we? Isn’t that why the Silent Hill series has earned such a devout following? You bet it is. If you want to wallow in badass gunslinging-action B-movie gore, or the jolt-scares of dogs and zombies crashing through windows at you (or both), you turn to something like Resident Evil. If, on the other hand, you want to be haunted for hours on end by some disturbing on-screen monster or scene that you can’t even easily categorize, then Silent Hill is more your cup of LSD-laced tea.
The fifth Silent Hill game (sixth, if you count Origins, which has been recently ported from its original PSP incarnation) is coming this September, and it has a subtitle that is at the same time suspiciously innocuous-sounding and downright threatening: Homecoming. (Oh, how we automatically distrust the ostensible friendliness of that word—and the designers damn well know it.)
They’re being understandably tight-lipped about the story-particulars, and rightfully so; after all, the soul of any Silent Hill game is in the succession of secrets, revelations, and scares. First, here’s what any casual sweep of the internet will reveal: It’s a Western design team this time around (as with Origins); the new protagonist is a man named Alex Shepherd, returned to his childhood hometown to find that many things have somehow gone horribly wrong; and that Evil Sound Wizard™ Yamaoka Akira is once again bringing his masterful touch to the game audio and soundtrack. Second, there’s Lead Designer Jason Allen, talking a bit more in-depth with me about his work on the much-anticipated Silent Hill: Homecoming.
(We’ve even got some intel straight from Yamaoka Akira, too: Enjoy!).
GR: Can you give us a thumbnail go-to on the main game designers, and what they’re bringing to this new Silent Hill?
Jason Allen: My primary interest in design is simply - what motivates people to make the choices they make? In understanding that process, I can anticipate, provide, and misdirect all those motivations and choices from the same information. I view the game holistically, starting from the top-down, considering the entire experience before branching into the minutiae.
[My script team’s] understanding of the franchise has enabled us to provide, I believe, the most definitive combat elements the game has seen, without turning it into a combat game. We have quite a few members on the team who were big fans even before we started this project and were keen to leave their mark on the series in a positive way.
My level designers come from different studios, with a variety of game genres under their belt. All of them care deeply about the experience we are creating with our own addition to the Silent Hill franchise. Each and every one of the design team and, in fact, the development team as a whole, understands what Silent Hill is. We were acutely aware that as the first Western developers for this well-known franchise, we had to get it right.
GR: What's it like finally being turned loose on the design of a major-console Silent Hill game?
Jason Allen: Even having played the games in the series, I would say that it took almost four months of immersion into the world space before I felt I began to understand this particular style of narrative exposition. I believe the Japanese are a deeply introspective people. Their bonds of family and their unwavering sense of duty, honor, and loyalty largely shapes how they interact with the world. So considering all that, in order to recreate the Silent Hill experience, I have to understand and emulate that style of exposition.
As for the experience of designing a Silent Hill game… well, I’d say though it was not without its headaches, it’s been a truly fantastic journey. I’ve always believed that a lot of games treat characterizations in simple absolutes of black and white. You see games with protagonists who are clearly Good and antagonists who are the epitome of Evil. Where’s the surprise? Literature would not have survived if books were written in that manner. We need to ensure that our characters are believable; we do that by making them flawed.
My task was a delicate one. I had to make a game for a broader audience whilst not losing the essence of the Silent Hill series. It’s a fine line to walk—however, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge.
GR: Can you give us a broad-strokes picture of the more notable new aspects and features of Homecoming?
Jason Allen: The mood and atmosphere in Silent Hill is very much part of the whole experience. Utilizing the benefits that rendering on new consoles brings, we were able to make the world feel much more alive: fog that swirls believably around the player, ebbing and flowing in a realistic manner, simultaneously revealing and hiding sections of the environment; strong high dynamic range lighting; and sound that can now, on both consoles, be placed accurately to accentuate the mood.
It may now be a Western developer telling a Western horror story from a Japanese perspective, but all the elements of the previous Silent Hill games are still there.
GR: Thus far, combat has not been the traditional ‘strong point’ of Silent Hill games. Is there quite a greater emphasis on combat mechanics in Homecoming?
Jason Allen: I wouldn’t say there has been a greater emphasis on combat mechanics for Homecoming. We’ve looked at the past versions in the series to see where we can improve the experience without detracting from the atmosphere. I wanted, from the very beginning, an experience for a wide variety of players that would be equally challenging and rewarding. I believe there is nothing worse than playing a game and be frustrated by a poor interface, control scheme, or game mechanic. It takes the player out of the experience and reminds them they’re playing a game. I wanted to ensure that wouldn’t happen in Homecoming, so the development team made ‘fun’ combat one of our primary goals.
GR: How deeply, if at all, will the Homecoming story and backstory interweave with the existing Silent Hill mythos, both from the games and the movie?
Jason Allen: One of the truly great things about Silent Hill is not so much what is told directly, but that which we discover in it. Some of these insights are merely conjecture, a supposition based on half-glimpsed apparent truths. The Silent Hill world leaves much unanswered. This was one of the strongest elements we wished to include in our own narrative. Tell just enough to offer a hint of a connection, but not enough to be definitive. Leave most of the questions for the player to ask.
We’ve put Travis in one of the earliest opening scenes, but we’ve not referenced his name, or why he’s there. Looking at him, he seems much older than when you saw him last in Origins. His presence begs obvious questions: Where is this in the timeline? What has he been doing since we saw him last? Has he not escaped his apparent purgatory? Those are the questions we leave for the player. There are many more throughout the game that we’ll leave the player to notice.
GR: Does working on this project give you any real-world side-effects, particularly?
Jason Allen: There is a school of acting that suggests in order to portray a particular person in a movie or play, you must become that person – “Method Acting’. Designing a game can sometimes require the same level of commitment, if you want the experience to be genuine. Silent Hill has a particular deep storyline with many facets to the narrative. To capture the essence of that in a way that allows you to make the right decisions - when asked which elements to place or remove in a game - can sometimes require you to step into a head-space that isn’t very pleasant.
GR: What’s it like working (perhaps, sporadically) with Yamaoka Akira?
Jason Allen: It’s always hard trying to work creatively when working through an interpreter. It’s a very stilted process and does not flow well. However, Yamaoka-san has been involved with Silent Hill from the beginning. The particular musical style he chose for the series is as much a part of what makes it memorable as the horrific character designs.
I remember giving my first presentation to Akira before we had any characters or environments to show. Having nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation, I talked through our ideas for the game. He sat and listened intently, anxiously waiting for the translator to finish the next sentence. Afterwards we talked at lunch briefly, but I could tell he was impressed with our approach.
[READER NOTE: While we’re on the subject of Yamaoka-san, there’s a brief chat with him below!]
GR: Up until Origins, the Silent Hill experience was always about horror dreamed up by Japanese designers, displaced into an American setting, with American characters. Do you now find yourselves trying to maintain that sense of ‘displaced sensibility’?
Jason Allen: I feel that displaced sensibility is what makes Silent Hill so unique. When Western film studios tell a Western horror, we say here’s the bad guy, he’s going to kill you in novel ways, and we’re going to show you how he does it. It's a rollercoaster ride - you can see the drop, but you can’t stop it. So you better hang on until it’s over.
As I mentioned previously, I believe, the Japanese have a particular way of looking at things, shaped by their cultural heritage. Silent Hill is very often about disturbing things, about what people do to one another—unpalatable issues that most people don’t want to know about, but read avidly in the newspaper.
Culturally, the West has a habit of ‘airing its dirty laundry in public’. For example, someone commits adultery, has a child with a mistress, and we all tune into daytime chat shows to see the downtrodden wife accuse her husband of philandering. This is the western way of dealing with these issues. Older generations of Japanese, with their long standing observance of duty and honor, I believe, would never be so forthright. These issues would bring great shame to the family if known and so they’d remain hidden. The younger generations with their exposure to Western ideals, stand with one foot in the past and one in the future.
This, I feel, is how Silent Hill was created. There is a need to talk about and resolve an issue, but at the same time, it can’t be spoken about directly. So it’s alluded to, hinted at, but never fully described. Were we in Silent Hill, the wife of the fictitious adulterer may have all her family photographs of her children facing East (sun rising), but her husband would be facing west (sun setting) - indicating perhaps that her children are still her future, but her husband is her past. It’s this degree of subtlety that makes Silent Hill so interesting to explore. Just how deep does the exposition go? How many layers have the development team inserted into the world for the player to uncover?
If we lost this aspect of the world, then, I believe, the game would cease to be Silent Hill.
GR: Think fast. You, yourself, sitting right there, right now, suddenly find yourself in Silent Hill, for real: What are you 'in for' (i.e., what did you do, to deserve getting there)? What's your first gut reaction to this unpleasant state of affairs?
Jason Allen: Well, if I knew what I did in order to find myself in Silent Hill, then I wouldn't have much of a journey of discovery, now would I...?
I believe part of the purpose of Silent Hill is to discover something about your past that's unresolved, or to face some unpleasant truths that you've so far avoided dealing with in your day-to-day life. The journey and the characters you meet are all there to first highlight and then provide meaning to the issue you're trying to resolve. Only once you’ve understood the issue will you then face your punishment.
The situations can appear at first glance to be simple abstractions that seem to have no meaning; however, the language the Silent Hill universe uses to teach is not an ordinary Greek-based language. It's the language of metaphor, the language the unconscious would use to tell a story, pictures and words that make no sense on the surface because we read them in the usual way... Treat them as an acrostic and the meaning suddenly becomes clear.
My gut reaction is one of shock and horror. I'm in a world where the rules are unknown to me. The map I've been using for my familiar home territory no longer applies. I need to create a new map and quickly, for this world is unforgiving—and the price of failure is eternal.
My survival depends on my ability to observe and use that perception to my advantage. Silent Hill, however, does not tolerate passive observers; I will be involved and not simply watching. This universe teaches through action. That inability to separate myself from activities would be my undoing I fear. I would be unable to adopt the mantle of the dispassionate scientist, gathering data and hypothesizing.
I would be faced with choices that I may not have had time to truly understand. I fear I would make the wrong choice... suffering the consequences of my hubris.
Chat with Yamaoka (Note: Partially translated from Japanese. GR has the original Japanese on file for accuracy.)
GR: Konnichiwa! It's been a long time since we last talked (two Tokyo Game Shows, now!); I hope you're doing well, and I'm excited about hearing your new music and audio for Silent Hill: Homecoming!
Yamaoka: It's been a really long time! I'm doing well. How about you?
GR: I'd be grateful if we could ask you a few questions regarding the upcoming game. Will there be a stand-alone soundtrack album for Silent Hill: Homecoming (like there were for past SH games?) How many songs/tracks are currently intended for the new game?
Yamaoka: Although I haven't got the final number of tracks yet, there should be more than 30 tracks. This time I used 5.1ch surround for audio. I think you will enjoy a variety of tracks.
GR: When you released the soundtrack CD for Silent Hill 4: The Room, it was paired with an additional disk of spoken-word (Japanese) ghost stories. Any plans for something similar this time around?
Yamaoka: We haven't finalized the plans yet. But I would like to try something new that no one else has ever done. Personally, I want to include a "Tribute of AKIRA YAMAOKA" kind of album. :)
GR: Because the new game is being done by a Western design team, it will likely have a somewhat different pyschological 'tone' than the Japan-developed games. Does this influence your contribution in terms of music and audio?
Yamaoka: It may have a somewhat different psychological "tone". I think it's a good change. I used to make Silent Hill only with Japanese members, but now I work with people from different countries. The experience might have influenced my work unconsciously.
GR: When gamers play Silent Hill, they can plainly see evidence of certain influences (such as the movie Jacob's Ladder). What are some of your major musical influences for your songs/tracks?
Yamaoka: Well, I was greatly influenced by Potishead who is releasing a new album after a long time. Massive Attack and PJ Harvey are my musical influences, too. This might surprise you, but Metallica also made a big impact on me.
GR: Thank you very much for your time. We're all looking forward to your work on Silent Hill: Homecoming!
Yamaoka: Thank you so much! I look forward to seeing you again soon.
GR: Domo arigato gozaimasu.