Interview with Tomm Hulett (Siliconera)
Date published: 2009.10.30
Happy (almost) Halloween! Want to know more about Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and its ambitious psych system that “watches” players? We asked Tomm Hulett, Producer at Konami, how it works and why they took combat out of Shattered Memories.
Siliconera: What goals did you set for your re-imagining of Silent Hill?
Tomm Hulett, Producer: We wanted to re-imagine not just Silent Hill, but the survival horror genre. We threw out all the rules and started fresh, asking "if we’d never played a survival horror game, and someone asked us to make one – what would THAT game be like?" We wanted to have innovative mechanics, controls, and interesting gameplay.
On the Silent Hill-specific front, we wanted to provide an entirely different experience from the first game. We also wanted to have an extra layer of "mind trip" for returning fans.
Siliconera: How did the ice theme come into play?
Hulett: The ice theme came from several places. Early on I championed different Nightmare worlds. In Silent Hill 2 we learn that each individual has their own unique otherworld. …Then almost every game since has used the same rusty world from Silent Hill 1. That’s frustrating and limits the growth of the series–it makes things predictable, and predictable is synonymous with "not scary."
Also, Silent Hill is in the midwest/northeast, and it snows up there. It was snowing in the first game but not any of the others. So we thought it would be interesting to set the game during a snowy period. Climax took the "frozen" theme and really ran with it, designing a freakish frozen Nightmare and really developing our snow idea.
Siliconera: One of the big changes in Shattered Memories is the combat system. Why did you emphasize evasion and how can Harry stand up against the nurses now?
Hulett: Most survival horror games lately have focused on fighting and combat. Of course, this means the genre as a whole is moving closer to "action" than it is to "survival horror." This is in large part because the old games had really poor combat and wrote that off because it "added to the fear." Well, not being able to control your character isn’t fun. And it doesn’t matter how atmospheric or moody or purposeful you tell gamers a mechanic is – if it’s not fun on some level then it won’t survive for very long. So slowly the industry replaced "poor fight mechanics" with "better fight mechanics" at the expense of some of the fear.
But "poor control" is not the only way to create fear and tension. So we looked at WHY poor controls might have been scary. In a good action game you have badass moves and weapons at your disposal. This makes you empowered, and being able to use them easily and intuitively keeps up that feeling of empowerment. So in action games you are "empowered." The poor controls and gameplay of old survival horror games negated this. You can’t feel empowered when it’s hard to hit an enemy, or when you’re too slow to fight, etc. So how do you keep a player vulnerable, but also allow good, responsive controls?
Easy, you don’t give them empowering weapons. Now we have Harry Mason, who is a capable, semi-athletic guy. But he doesn’t have a shotgun or a crowbar. And there are monsters chasing him. Without a weapon he can’t kill them, which means direct confrontation will equal a quick end for our friend Harry. Escaping, avoiding, and hiding are the only ways to survive. That word–survive–used to be a pillar of the genre. So we’re trying to bring that back.
Siliconera: Can you elaborate on how the psych profiling system works? When I played the demo with Jay we checked yes to all of the test questions in one game and no on the other. Some of the things we noticed were Harry entered a bar instead of a coffee shop and the billboards changing.
Hulett: As you play, the game is watching you. Literally everything you do factors into your profile. This isn’t a clever lie to sell the feature – I’m being serious. It has almost nothing to do with that survey you took at the start of the game. The psych profile is constantly being compiled by Silent Hill, and it’s evolving and changing along with you. People really latch onto that survey, but that isn’t it. That isn’t the core of the feature. That’s like taking an RPG and saying the battle against the final boss is decided by how you roll your stats at the beginning.
Anyway, as you play Silent Hill is keeping track of who you are, and deciding what you see and encounter based on that information. Everything in the game is decided by your profile.
Siliconera: What was the biggest challenge of designing the psych profiling system?
Hulett: I can’t speak for the developers as to what was most challenging, but I know they had fun determining which aspects changed, how, why, and what that said about the player. I’m constantly surprised at how well things all tie in together. I would guess keeping track of it all was a big challenge for Climax throughout development. Also proving it out early on so people would believe in the feature was tricky for all of us. You can’t just show how things change – you have to explain why it’s cool and why it matters.
QA Testing it all was a big challenge too. For my money, though, the most challenging part was capturing all the footage for our ESRB submission. Silent Hill is pretty tricky to rate as it is… let alone locating and keeping track of hundreds of little changes.
Siliconera: Do players get stuck on paths — good, bad or maybe a UFO track depending on their decisions?
Hulett: I want to stress that the psych profile doesn’t involve paths or "tracks" like games with morality features. The game doesn’t decide "Oh, that guy’s a _____ so he gets ending path B" which gives me a cohesive story straight through to a specific ending. I can’t then replay it and choose NOT to rescue the princess, and then get a new "evil" story with ending D.
Like I said earlier, Shattered Memories is constantly evolving and changing. There aren’t exact sequences we’ve set in order, where you get 1 of 5 branching quests. Instead, you’ll get an experience hopefully tailored to you specifically. How similar that is to mine should depend on how similar we are as people.
Siliconera: Can you tell us more about Dahila’s role and will we see any other familiar faces?
Hulett: Dahlia is as weirded out by Harry as he is by her. There will be some other characters that fans recognize, certainly. And a few new ones as well.
Siliconera: Where is Silent Hill going as a series? What are the chances of "Silent Hill 2: Fragmented Dreams" with an enhanced psych system, Silent Hill: The Arcade on the Wii, or Silent Hill 6?
Hulett: I think Silent Hill is moving to a much better place. I think it was hard for the Western studios to take over and get their bearings before. 1 and 3 told a cohesive, finished story. 2 and 4 each had standalone tales, with 2 specifically really getting to the heart of the town. However when new talent took over I guess it wasn’t clear where to start.
They looked to the previous games to decide what Silent Hill was about – and concrete things were brought over. Silent Hill must be about rust, fog, Pyramid Head, nurses, and creepy little kids. But Silent Hill isn’t about any of those things. That’s why Shattered Memories is important – it breaks those chains. Rust? Gone. Pyramid Head? Shattered.
Hopefully we’ve taken the series back to the ephemeral, hard-to-grasp qualities that were really always at the heart of Silent Hill but nobody could quite describe them. That was probably our real goal – to show people Silent Hill isn’t about nurses.
Hopefully from here on, we can be free from those constraints. So whatever it is that Silent Hill becomes, it’s not "predictable."