Interview with Tomm Hulett (Gameshark)
Date published: 2009.09.04
Nearly all Silent Hill fans agree that the series peaked with the second installment. Later entries expanded upon the mythos of the town and tampered with new concepts (e.g. the tunnels of The Room and mirrors of Origins), but the tinge of mimicry was always there to remind us that the best days were behind us. Shattered Memories will be a reimagining of the original Silent Hill, starring Harry Mason, but Climax Group is setting aside the fog, the rust, and the labored combat to create a new experience that is already shaping up to be the most unnerving entry to date.
The Psych Profile is at the root of this new approach. It begins with a questionnaire with Harry’s therapist. Do you make friends easily? Do you role-play during sex? From there, it watches every movement, deciphering your intentions behind every action. Unlike the good/evil dichotomies of games like Mass Effect or Fable, the Psych Profile isn’t meant to reward you for pursuing one path of morality. It lurks unseen in the background, maliciously tailoring the people, places, and creatures of Silent Hill to prod at your insecurities.
We recently had the opportunity to probe the mind of Producer, Tomm Hulett, to uncover the secrets behind the Psych Profile and examine the features that will make Shattered Memories unlike any Silent Hill you’ve visited before.
Gameshark: Hi, Tomm. You've been very vocal against the "remake" moniker. As I understand it, Shattered Memories technically takes place after Silent Hill, with players existing in Harry's memories. What drew you back to the original Silent Hill?
Tomm: Heh, I think you’re making a leap of logic there that isn’t necessarily true. Shattered Memories is a new game with new events, based on the premise of the original Silent Hill. It’s what we call a re-imagining. We did this mainly because it made sense. Moving Silent Hill to the Wii meant a new audience that hadn’t necessarily played any of the SH games before. So it wouldn’t be fair to expect they know six game’s worth of history just to play this one. So going back to the start seemed like a good idea – but longtime fans have already played SH1, SH3, and seen the movie, so that story doesn’t necessarily have legs for them.
By re-imagining the game, we have something new for newcomers – but also something new that is specifically aimed at returning fans. Silent Hill is all about twisting reality, and those returning fans have a certain reality they expect. So we twist it.
Gameshark: The Psych Profile is a focal point of fan/media interest, but a mystery in equal parts. Are the changes it enacts mainly aesthetic, or do the changes affect the flow and experiences of the game?
Tomm: The psych profile is woven into all aspects of the game. It determines everything.
Gameshark: The therapy sessions occur throughout the game. What kind of 'tests' do you have in store, and are they based on real practices?
Tomm: Dr. K is a renowned psychologist, so of course the tests he’s developed are based on existing practices and principles. Each test focuses on different subject matter: family life, guilt, etc.
Gameshark: You previously said that the Psych Profile is constantly working in the background, analyzing every action. How deeply woven is this system, and can you offer a concrete example of a seemingly insignificant decision having a greater impact?
Tomm: You shouldn’t think of it like one decision affecting something else. This isn’t about helping a young prince in the past and then inheriting his kingdom when you come of age or anything like that. The game watches everything you do, and learns what kind of person you are. Past games taught us that Silent Hill reflects the inner mind of each person – so that’s what the psych profile does. This time Silent Hill is looking back at you, rather than James Sunderland, Walter Sullivan, etc.
In demos you’ve seen that hallway with a sign at one end pointing toward the exit (left) and the restrooms (right). Well Silent Hill knows which way you turn, and if you go right, which restroom you go into.
Gameshark: Shattered Memories has no traditional means of combat. Why and how will we defend ourselves?
Tomm: Traditional combat (re: guns and stuff) is there to empower the player. In Contra, you’re supposed to be a badass Contra guy, so the game gives you spread shot so that you feel like a badass Contra guy. In Metal Gear you get sweet gadgets. The game is saying “you’re a capable guy – so go be capable.” Harry Mason’s a capable guy when it comes to picking up some eggs from the store, but less so when reality melts away and he’s thrust into a nightmarish hellscape. Giving him a gun would make you feel like a capable guy, though.
In action games you have to feel empowered. That’s what the game is all about – action. But horror movies (the scary ones anyway) aren’t about army guys mowing down creatures with cutting-edge hardware. They’re about normal people who are probably going to die getting thrust into horrifying situations. You can’t simulate that with a combat system.
So, when there are creatures chasing Harry, you have to run. You can knock stuff down to impede them, and you can hide, and you can grab flares to ward them off temporarily – but the keyword is temporarily. They’re always crawling out of the woodwork to run you down. You have to use your mind and outsmart them. If they grab onto Harry he can throw them off, but that takes its toll and he’ll eventually collapse.
Gameshark: The series is renowned as an unsettling grotesquerie of twisted flesh, but everyone is staying tight-lipped on the specifics of the monsters. Can you tell me who is working on character designs and what types of themes are being explored?
Tomm: The monsters were created in-house at Climax. How they appear will be determined by your psych profile, so that the horrors you face are decided by your subconscious.
Gameshark: Shattered Memories is the most visually distinctive of the series. Was the fog and boiler-room color-scheme played out, or is there a deeper significance behind the ice and blue hues?
Tomm: It is kind of interesting that the “rust world” is thought to be a defining characteristic of Silent Hill, since it wasn’t present in SH2 or SH4. That imagery is tied to Alessa, the crux of Origins, SH1, and SH3. In the second game, it’s actually revealed that the Nightmare World appears different for each person. For Angela, in that game, it was a world engulfed in flames. We felt that we needed to explore this theme, since things that are “known” aren’t scary. We already “know” the rust world pretty intimately.
In the original game, there were two different weather elements – fog and snow. Since this is a reimagining, we chose to go in the snow direction.
Gameshark: With so many departures from the series, I'm curious as to how the project took root. Did you revisit previous installments to examine their strengths and weaknesses?
Tomm: Being a fan of Silent Hill from the very beginning, I’ve played the games periodically and I already have well-established views on their strengths and weaknesses. Climax has been working on the series for some time now, and they have their fair share of opinions too. So we know it pretty well inside and out.
This project came more from realizing that within the “Survival Horror Framework” there isn’t anywhere to go. The reason a lot of titles are now focusing on action rather than psychological horror is because that formula stopped being scary. You can’t scare someone with the same thing four times. This genre more than a lot of others has “set rules” that the games seem to think they have to follow. For Shattered Memories we stepped back and thought, if we didn’t know we had to do all these things... what would we do instead? What would a “horror game” look like today if the genre never existed? That game is Shattered Memories.
Gameshark: I feel as though the horror genre and its conventions underwent a distinct metamorphosis of the past three years. What are you impressions of the genre from past to present, and where does Shattered Memories fit in the spectrum?
Tomm: When horror games were feeling things out, there was a wide range of “feelings,” just like in horror films. You had your dumb zombie flicks, your slower burn horror, your slasher flicks, etc. Well, as I said, I think the focus now is on action. The games stopped being scary (because of their conventions) and so they changed from scary games into gorefests modeled after zombie movies (marines with big guns shoot slow, ugly monsters). There are some exceptions, of course, but there aren’t many horror games that let the atmosphere work on you and cause that unease that was a big part of the first Silent Hill games.
Shattered Memories definitely goes back to the “psychological” end of the spectrum. It’s not about shooting an ugly monster in the face with your shotgun. It’s about being uncertain. I equate it to Hitchcock a lot – I think that’s about where it’s at.
Gameshark: There is no right or wrong answer, but this may or may not be a trick question. Other than Shattered Memories, what is your favorite Silent Hill game?
Tomm: Well there’s only ONE answer of course. Silent Hill 2 would be my favorite if we discount Shattered Memories. It’s probably not the scariest entry in the series (Pyramid Head notwithstanding), but its story is the most personal, I think. It’s also the game that “explains” Silent Hill, and what is happening there. A lot of people don’t realize that and focus on the events of 1... but SH2 is the game that really gets to the heart of the town, and what it all means.