Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is almost upon us. On March 4 the re-imagining of the classic original game will be hitting stores in the UK so we caught up with the guys at development house Climax to find out how the new game became such a departure from the original and why the Wii was the console of choice. Read on for part one of our in-depth interview with lead designer and writer Sam Barlow and game director Mark Simmons.
Q: I rather feel like I should start out by asking you a bunch of questions to psychologically profile you...
SB:Well, we've already done that! Mark insisted that we go and have a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist when we started the game...
Q: Are you serious?
Q: And how was that?
SB: [to Mark] Well, you didn't come in the next day, did you? You were crying, in fetal position!
It was really freaky, actually. Obviously we went without any reason to go to a psychiatrist, but the guy we went to see was quite adamant that it would be a genuine thing - that we'd go and be properly analysed. So when I went it, it was a like an hour of him basically digging to try and find something to talk about. So I went there in feeling very happy about my life, and I got about four fifths of the way through and he said, "Well, you seem very balanced and there's nothing wrong with you. You seem very happy." I started to feel guilty, like I was wasting his time, so I was really reaching. I was like, "Well, how about this?" and threw some stuff out there. I think his exact phrase was "now the monsters are out of the closet!". Then he looked at his watch and said okay, that's all for today. So I was booted out feeling terrible, like my life sucked. So in the second session we had something to talk about.
Q: I guess that's the thing - he wants repeat business.
SB: I'd have definitely given him repeat business if he didn't cost so much money.
MS: Yeah. He was on the project budget, so we had to be measured about how much of his services we used!
Q: It's interesting, because I'm sure there have been occasions where a project budget was used after the release of game... Congrats on the game. What were your thoughts going into this game? As a remake, it's fairly drastic in its overhauling...
SB: Obviously we'd done Silent Hill Origins for Konami, which in many ways was kind of a remake. We certainly tried to deliver a game that the had same feel, the same gameplay as Silent Hill 1 - even to the point to tweaking the way the enemy encounters worked. I think in the first game the enemies were a bit more ferocious than in later ones. So we really tried with that game to deliver something that felt like Silent Hill 1. Obviously it was a prequel, so a lot of the characters and story elements were very similar, and the locations. There's also been the movie, which was an attempt to kind of iron out the crinkles in the dialogue and to Hollywood it up a little bit. So there had been a lot of going over that original game in a straight way.
We internally had a lot of ideas about what we wanted to do with a horror game. We'd done everything by the rules, very much by the survival horror template with Origins. We felt like we wanted to do something a bit more progressive, and we had lots of ideas about what that would be. And when the Wii came out, that seemed like a great opportunity, a great excuse to talk about addressing a wider audience, about throwing out some of the gamier stuff. Breaking down the barriers to immersion, and what have you. And so a lot of things sort of came together. We were in discussions with Konami about doing something with the first game, and we knew we didn't want to do so something as obvious as just update the graphics, add in pointer controls for shooting, that kind of thing. And the more we talked about it with Konami, the more we talked about story elements and gameplay elements and what we could do with the Wii, and how. Essentially you could streamline the experience: what could you focus on, what was different about Silent Hill?
And the three pillars we came up with were, it's about atmosphere, it's about storytelling, and it's this kind of unique feeling of a Silent Hill game - the psychological elements, and things like that. So we wanted to make a game that was focused on those things, and we started to think about how we could leverage the Wii to focus on those things. What could we do with the storytelling - how could we make that interactive, how could we immerse players in the story and make it personal to the player. And so I think when we submitted our proposals to Konami, which were so radical as a whole - we were changing pretty much everything - they kind of looked at it and realised that there were some great ideas there, that it was a breath of fresh air... and they went with it. I think maybe if we had done something less radical it would have been more contentious, because you'd have just been looking at the things we were changing in isolation. But because the package made sense as a cohesive whole, they kind of just went with it and really liked those ideas.
MS: Nothing gets a developer more excited than the chance to do radical innovations. You speak to everybody in the games industry working in development, and their ideas are what excites them. And you don't always get the opportunity to do that because obviously the industry is very focused on making a profit, and is quite risk averse. If you're suggesting something that's radically different to other games, there's a risk associated with that. I think the team had an opportunity to think about the game before we went to Konami with a firm proposal on how we'd go about it, and by then we'd generated so much internal excitement and enthusiasm about the changes we were going to do that I think we went into the discussions with a lot of passion. Maybe that's what won them over.
SB: Just the idea that we've taken.... It's ostensibly a remake, and we've taken the rough kernel of the story and the ideas and stuff, and then done our own personal take on it. That happens a lot in movies and comics - you have reboots. It really helped that Battlestar Galactica was in everyone's mind, because you could point to that as an example. For me it's things like... I always got told off for this being too old a reference, which makes me feel really old, but Cronenberg's The Fly. That's absolutely a Cronenberg movie, and it's him being inspired by the original idea. So for us, we'd done Origins, and to some extent that was a kind of homage to the Japanese take on Silent Hill. It was very much treading in their footsteps, aping what they do best. What was so great about the early Silent Hills was that they were really personal, interesting games. The team members that contributed to those games created something very personal and interesting. They were games that you came away from and you remembered them. A lot of video games, you get to the end and finish it, and a year later you can't remember what happened in it. Whereas the Silent Hill games leave an indelible impression.
Q: Oh, definitely on me. I remember vividly getting the first game after school one day, and how I could only play in bursts of half an hour or so because it freaked me out so much. In terms of the risks you've taken, one of the biggest you've taken in terms of the genre is the fact that there's no combat here. Was that something you had to really think about? It works brilliantly in the game, but one of the cornerstones of survival horror genre is the fact that you can die.
SB: When you come at it like that it sound like something that we kind of ummed and ahhed about, and had lots of ideas on, but I think it was more a case of us going in and saying, we know the combat doesn't really work. I mean, when we did Origins we replicated that classic survival horror thing of managing your health packs, your bullets and what have you, but there was always this pressure on us to make the combat less clunky, to make it less crap - because that's what everyone complains about. The more you try and do that, the more it broke. There was this weird disconnect where survival horror players knew that you just run past the enemies. If you go on forums and say, oh I hate survival horror, the combat is just clunky, then the horror gamers will go, you're not supposed to fight them, you're supposed to just run past! That's kind of the point. So there was this weird thing where the people who got it were ignoring the combat system, but then everyone else came to it and said, you've given me a whole button on the controller for punch or swing weapon, and you've populated this game with zombies, surely it's a video game? Surely the point is to fight these zombies, but you're making it less fun for me.
So we knew that it was wrong, and then we looked at horror movies, thriller movies and stuff, and we said, well, what's the action element there? And I think the template for Silent Hill horror is very much derived from those original survival horror games that were based on zombies. Alone In The Dark had Lovecraftian influences, so from Lovecraft you get diary pages everywhere; from zombie movies you get the fact that there are many foes, they are slow moving, you have to shoot them lots of times and if you shoot them in the head it'll help. And we said, that's actually kind of ignoring most psychological movies. Generally in those kind of situations you're talking about a protagonist who is fleeing for their life. You're talking about a very structured kind of... light relief, then it gets intense and there's suspense, then there's the adrenaline, then it drops down again. In most slasher films, you've got enough people to kill them off one by one. Obviously in this game you couldn't kill the character off, so he had to escape from the killers at every juncture.
We kind of looked at it and thought, well no one has really, there have been a few attempts to do this kind of gameplay in a horror, but maybe they focused too much on stealth or they've adapted the existing template by not giving you enough bullets to fight back so you're forced to run away. It's a frustration, but an annoying frustration. We said, well, let's think about making the action sequences in this game about fleeing, so let's think about how that works. We don't want it to be linear, because that's just, basically an interactive cutscene or something. It's going to be Dragon's Lair - you're going to fail. So we wanted to make sure that the nightmare sequences had options, so there was lots of routes through. We wanted to make them more interesting, so we made sure that you could interact with the environment, climb over things, under things, pull things down in ways that would make sense. We wanted it to be fast paced, so we actually gave you a character that could run away from enemies.
When we put that stuff in, we said, well, with all this running away from enemies, where's the sense of fear? So we allowed you to look over your should, kind of a rear view mirror thing, so you could see the enemies. We iterated on that and said, well, if it's going to be scary then the enemies need to be a credible opponent. If they're just lumbering zombies, that's not interesting, so we made the enemies faster than you, we made them intelligent so they can communicate with each other, try and cut you off and flank you, and we kind of built it from there and iterated on it. From day one we kind of new that it made sense as an idea, and fairly early on with prototypes we knew that it was going to make sense within the game. There was always a risk that people who play a lot of horror games or have an expectation of what horror games are, will say that you've taken something away from me. I think the risk there is that we are deliberately trying to make it un-enjoyable, scary or tense for the player. You're not supposed to be smiling as you run away from these enemies. It's supposed to be a small portion of a kind of horrible nightmare. So I think some people will go into it and say, you've taken all my fun toys away and you're making me do something that isn't fun, but I think that within the context of the whole game and the fact that it's a horror game and we're trying to push your buttons and create different emotional responses, I think we've pretty much done what we set out to do.
MS: It's also really important for us to make sure that that aspect of the gameplay tied closely in with the narrative. It kind of made even more sense once we started thinking about the story and how this would work with the story. Because it is a game predominantly about the player getting totally immersed in this kind of interactive emotional story, this aspect of the gameplay needed to work with that, and the pacing of that. We wanted very strict control of the pacing of the game and that's why it also helped with that as well.
Q: It's nice as well, as when you're playing it, once you pick up on the fact the nightmare episodes happen at the major plot beats as well, it means that when you're getting closer to discovering something, you know that everything's going to freeze over quite soon. You start anticipating it as well.
SB: It's something we thought about at the start. When we speak to people who have less of a background in playing games, because we wanted to get as wide an audience for this as possible, we knew actually the Silent Hill series did have an audience that was quite different to other games. There was a high proportion of female gamers that enjoyed it. There were more casual gamers that enjoyed it, because of the story and characters resonated with them, but the kind of gameplay meant they'd watch their partner play it or watch YouTube videos rather than actually play it. Something like Resident Evil 4, where the action is non-stop, where there are enemies everywhere, where it's very intense; if you put those players in that situation, it's scary to them and it's tense, but it's too much, and the pressure they feel from having to constantly cope with enemies and do that kind of gameplay kills the experience and removes them from the experience. We knew that we wanted to give the player these intense moments, create these scary sequences, but we wanted to give them a respite in-between these sequences to let the adrenalin drain away, to chill out, to get more immersed in the story. It's kind of the classic structure. In the chase sequences you just want to get away, escape and get out of them. Then when you're out of the chase sequences you are trying to understand what's happening in the story, you're becoming more and more immersed in the story and just as you get to the point where you might learn more about the story, you're making progress, then we throw you back into the nightmare sequences. There's a constant kind of friction and drive from the player to get forward and see the next little bit of the game.
MS: We wanted to put so much detail into the world, into the exploration parts of the world, so we put loads of stuff, like the photographs and graffiti and numbers, written details, discarded things on the floor. All of that detail if the player spends time to zoom in and analyse the content of that, all of that's been carefully thought out and written, and changed depending on your personality as well. We wanted the player to absorb all that and think about the depth of meaning of that stuff and how it relates to the story as well. That's another reason why we wanted the exploration areas of the game to feel genuinely quite safe sometimes, so the player felt they had the time to do that.
SB: I think something that makes the game quite different and made a lot of the choices we made a lot easier and more sensible to us, rather than sort of coming to it from just talking about gamers features, was from the start, we knew what the story was and we always talked about creating an experience, a story experience, so that everyone who played the game would get to the end. We wanted to try and remove as many of the road blocks to people progressing through the game. When you look at stories in games, when you talk about telling a story, the ending is kind of such a key part of the story, it's almost like all the message of that story is contained in the ending traditionally. Whereas we knew most games make the first hour really good, and most people don't finish games, so don't worry about the ending, usually the ending is a real anticlimax, and makes the story seem almost worthless. The number of games where I've really enjoyed it, been hugely immersed, got to the end, and it just deflates the whole thing.
Q: Any in particular that have let you down?
SB: I think most games where you get to the end and there's just a big baddy waiting for you. There's a weird thing where everyone feels that if you get to the end of a game, you have to be rewarded, so usually your game ends with your character being crowned hero of the universe and walking off with a prize. I think a lot of stories in games aren't really stories, they're more like cool settings or cool characters that don't do much.
MS: It's probably fair to say as a writer the story is really important to you in every game, whereas maybe some games don't treat the story as seriously, but in this genre it's critically important.
SB: When we talk about the combat and having these periods where there's exploration and stuff, if you actually come in from the story angle, and go, here's the story we're trying to tell, this isn't a story that makes any sense whatsoever to have zombies walking around interrupting this guy. You meet the characters in the town, talk to them and stuff. There were lines in the first game where Harry was saying, have you seen all these monsters? And not to worry as the SWAT team is coming soon. Some people forget some of those lines. Trying to make it more real and more psychological and just update some of those things, that scenario just doesn't make sense. It's implausible.
MS: We really wanted to focus on, this Harry Mason is not a guy who is constantly under attack from monsters. It's not a story of surviving a zombie apocalypse. It's a story about a guy. There's a mystery around his daughter and he's trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. So it's a psychological thriller, it's that kind of story and so the action sequences, the nightmare sequences are these constant struggles to get to the truth, and these things stop him from getting to the truth. It never felt like this was a game where we needed to have monsters running around decapitating him and stuff. It just never occurred to us to put that in the game.
Check back for part two of our interview soon. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is due for release on Wii on March 4. It will also be released on PlayStation 2 and PSP.