Interview with Akihiro Imamura (IGN)

Date published: 2001.03.28
Source: IGN

The original Silent Hill is known by gamers as possibly the spookiest experience to ever hit the PlayStation. Where Resident Evil blasted players with shock moments and bouts of extreme tension, Silent Hill is considered as The Exorcist of video games ¿ an experience in pervading creepiness and classic horror imagery. And while fans of Resident Evil enjoyed half a dozen upgrades and sequels in the series since the original, the voices on Silent Hill were, appropriately, a bit silent.

Enter producer Akihiro Imamura and his hugely powered up team at Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (KCET). For nearly two years the sick and talented minds of the original Silent Hill team have been beavering away on the sequel to Silent Hill, coming later this year to both PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Imamura-san granted IGN the first interview at KCET studios in advance of next week's Tokyo Game Show unveiling, in addition to revealing world exclusive first shots of actual game in motion.

IGN: First of all, thanks for taking the time out from your busy schedule to talk to us. I know you're busy getting Silent Hill 2 ready for the Tokyo Game Show next week.

Imamura: Thank you.

IGN: Can you start by telling us a little about your background in the games industry?

Imamura: The first title I worked on was International Track and Field. My first job was at Konami here, and I've had no reason to move! I worked mainly as a programmer, working my way up to lead programmer on the Silent Hill project. For the sequel, I was initially the game's director, but as the game sort of expanded on a monthly basis I started decided to act more as overall producer of the project, as that was required.

IGN: How many producers and directors are there? How big is the team for the sequel?

Imamura: I'm the only producer, I suppose I'm in charge of the project overall. The full team is about 50 people for Silent Hill 2.

IGN: Silent Hill was obviously a big success for KCET. Was it a natural decision to make a sequel, or did the team have other plans?

Imamura: Well making games is a business. It's natural of course to make a sequel to a hit title!

IGN: Then would you say a sequel was more a business decision than a creative decision?

Imamura: Well games really are a business, so in that sense it did made sense. However there were also creative issues. We made the original fairly late in PlayStation's life, and there were issues we were frustrated with in terms of being able to realise the creative potential of the Silent Hill. So honestly speaking, the team were looking forward to making a Silent Hill game without compromises. It wasn't just a business decision.

IGN: How are the two games linked? What story elements carry on from the first game into the second?

Imamura: The stories aren't really linked. Silent Hill 2 is the story of another man that takes place the town called Silent Hill. Basically the setting itself ¿ that is the town of Silent Hill ¿ is the same. But it's a different area of the town.

[Imamura-san takes out some paper and draws a rough sketch of Silent Hill, marking out two different regions within the town as the settings for Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2.]

Imamura: So it's the same setting, but a different part of the town. It'll have that "familiar but different" feel to it. To further this, the structure of the game, the way you play it, and the system is the same as the first.

IGN: What's the basic story premise for Silent Hill 2?

Imamura: The premise itself is simple, as it's the start of the story and Silent Hill is a story driven game. At the start you have the main character, a man called James, who receives a letter from his wife. The surprise is that his wife died three years ago, so naturally he's a bit stumped.

IGN: A letter or an email?

Imamura: No it's a letter. And the letter says: "I await you at our favourite place. Silent Hill." Naturally he's sceptical, but he also has a glimmer of hope and wants to find out the truth behind the letter. So his curiosity gets the better of him and he sets off for Silent Hill to find her.

IGN: Will there be a 'dark side' to the town like there was with Silent Hill?

Imamura: Yes there will.

IGN: And multiple endings? How linear will the game be?

Imamura: There'll be multiple endings. There'll be quite a few forks and decisions to make as you progress through the game, which will affect the ending.

IGN: Is Silent Hill 2 aimed at the same mature demographic as the first game?

Imamura: It's probably aimed at an even more mature demographic!

IGN: How so?

Imamura: There's more to the story. It's a more complex and deeper experience, and it's just more immersive and disturbing. In the first game you're fighting an evil, but in Silent Hill 2 the character will reflect that evil. It's hard to explain without spoiling the story. But there's a hint. These are hard questions!

IGN: So James' wife is dead. Does he have any kids? Who's the little blonde girl you showed in the game's promotional art?

Imamura: James doesn't have any kids. The little girl is called Laura. Too much detail about her would be a story spoiler, but basically her purpose is to act as a sort of navigator in Silent Hill 2. She'll turn up at odd points and say things, a bit cryptic but possibly containing elements of truth. Her identity is a secret for now; but she was a good friend of James' dead wife. She used to visit her often. So she'll also act as a storyteller for the player and James. How Laura acts and appears also depends somewhat on how you play the game.

IGN: Interesting. So you're planning to keep the pervading creepiness of the first game, or will there be emphasis more on Resident Evil style shocks?

Imamura: Silent Hill 2 will definitely have the same kind of atmosphere as the first game. We're not going for what we call "direct" shocks.

IGN: Is there anything specific about PS2 or Xbox hardware that lets you create that atmosphere in new ways?

Imamura: Obviously the graphics are improved and the world is much more effectively realised. It's a tough question to answer in words, but it's something you'll understand later today when you see it for yourself.

IGN: Can you talk specifically about advances in graphics and sound?

Imamura: Apart from the obvious improvements in graphics that PS2 lets us incorporate, Sony recently developed a new 3D sound tool on PS2. It simulates 3D sound from two speakers, even a TV ¿ I'd have to check with the sound department exactly how it works but it's probably using some kind of echo delay. Either way, we'll be incorporating that technology into Silent Hill 2 and it lets us create very interesting ambient and atmospheric sound.

IGN: Is it an emulated effect, or will home cinema owners be able to hear these ambient effects in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound?

Imamura: It's just two channels ¿ stereo. But it's very effective.

IGN: Now shifting topics a bit. One of the memorable features of the original was the imagination put into the enemies. Skinned babies and such. Tell us about the enemies in Silent Hill 2.

Imamura: [long pause]. It's really hard to give you precise examples. The enemies will largely be based on something that's not quite of this earth. Sort of an illusion.

IGN: How about an example.

Imamura: One example is this character who basically looks human. You see this character, and you perceive a human being. And you might let down your guard. But when you come closer you might notice something else, something not quite right with that person. The player has to make this judgement. But that person is far from human, and very dangerous. You might be surprised or feel pity destroying it. I tried to give the enemies an element of humanity.

IGN: You guys released a video trailer of Silent Hill 2 in motion last year. Was any of this real time footage?

Imamura: This was just a pre-rendered video. It was the quality we anticipated based on our projections of the hardware.

IGN: Then has the hardware met those expectations? A lot of developers have had problems with PS2.

Imamura: We're getting about the quality that we anticipated in the video. In terms of technical issues, these are only problems so far as the programmers see it that way. We have about 15 programmers and thanks to the hard work and talent of them, we've had no problems achieving our anticipated quality.

IGN: Are you going to take any steps to combat the so-called jaggies in the PS2's video output?

Imamura: We have a few things in place to deal with that. Technically it's not really possible to completely combat that problem, but it's also not a big issue for us. The main step we've taken is to double the vertical resolution for Silent Hill 2, which has improved the picture considerably.

IGN: Shadow of Memories, which was another KCET game, features English language options in the Japanese release. How about Silent Hill 2?

Imamura: The sound in the Japanese version of Silent Hill 2 is all in English. There'll be Japanese subtitles though.

IGN: Is there a lot of speaking? Or mainly text narration?

Imamura: A fair bit of English speaking narration, as you'll see in the demo.

IGN: How much of the original team is working on the sequel?

Imamura: The core team is the same. But the sequel is a much bigger project, so we've had to supplement that with about thirty more staff from within Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, Inc.

IGN: Are you still on target for a release this year? CD or DVD?

Imamura: Yes, we're targeting a release this fall. That's a simultaneous release with the US version ¿ hopefully. It'll be on a DVD.

IGN: Are you planning to release a playable demo to the public before then? Like with ZOE and MGS2?

Imamura: There'll be a playable demo on the show floor at TGS. We'll be releasing a magazine demo for the public before the fall release though, so fans of the original can look forward to that to tide them over.

IGN: Are you taking specific advantage of the analogue buttons on the Dual Shock 2?

Imamura: Not specially, the control will be similar to the original. The camera will be more user friendly, it'll be behind the player and pressing the pad in the direction you see will move you in that direction, rather than the direction the character is facing. Similar to Mario 64.

IGN: Now talking specifically about the Xbox version, will it be based on Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, or neither?

Imamura: Silent Hill for Xbox will be based on Silent Hill 2, though with some new expanded features.

IGN: Will you be able to port the PS2 version over and add elements, or are you creating a brand new game for the Xbox ground up?

Imamura: It's technically difficult to emulate the PS2 version on Xbox. I should think that goes for all games. Art and concepts etc will obviously be the same, but we're working on the Xbox version independently, and it will have its own graphics engine.

IGN: The Xbox version is already in development?

Imamura: Mostly we're focussing on the PS2 version right now, but as that gets closer to completion there'll be a watershed where people start moving over to the Xbox version. Currently we're developing both versions simultaneously though yes.

IGN: How's your team finding work on Xbox?

Imamura: It's basically a streamlined PC, quite simple. But PS2 is radically different so porting to other systems isn't really an option. We certainly couldn't do it with Silent Hill 2. Perhaps that's a strategy of Sony!

IGN: Are you planning to make use of Xbox's specific features to enhance the game in any way over the PS2 version?

Imamura: We'll be using the Xbox HD for quicker game play, that means pre-loading the game into the HD. The game will certainly load faster than the PS2 version. But in terms of other features, you know, no matter how the hardware improves, creators still need to think about how to fit their imaginations into these systems. These are still problems, even with Xbox. The network isn't really ready for it. In terms of broadband, the infrastructure here in Japan is still so slow.

IGN: Tell me about it. It's taken four months just to get signed up with DSL here.

Imamura: [laughs] I know!

IGN: What are your thoughts on GameCube? Will we see a version of Silent Hill for that platform?

Imamura: Not likely. The machine will probably be good, but the demographic will be largely younger gamers initially. That doesn't really fit in with our market for the Silent Hill series.

IGN: How about making a G-rated, GameCube friendly version?

Imamura: I wouldn't like to sanitise the game at all in that respect. We'd rather make a new game better suited to the specific abilities and market of the machine. We'd consider that.

IGN: Speaking generally, how do you think Xbox will do against PS2?

Imamura: Well PS2 came to market a lot sooner, and it's a market developers can rely on because the user base is already so high. PlayStation has become such a strong brand, not only with consumers but also with us, the developers. It's an assurance for us, so we can't help but see that as an advantage. Seeing as Xbox it's similar to the PC architecture, I expect we'll see a lot of PC style games. Those kinds games alone will make it very hard for the machine to succeed, certainly in Japan. Microsoft needs to continue making strong partnerships with developers in Japan.

IGN: Have they supported you well?

Imamura: We haven't had any problem with them. They've been consistent with others here. We've aiming for Silent Hill 2 to be a launch title for Xbox in Japan.

IGN: Have any films or filmmakers inspired the creepy atmosphere you're hoping to achieve with Silent Hill 2?

Imamura: Certainly David Lynch. His style has influenced the series, especially Silent Hill 2. Twin Peaks is one of my personal favourites.

IGN: Now obviously Silent Hill is a game with some fairly horrific imagery. Do you think violence in games can be associated with people's behaviour in real life?

Imamura: Of course we don't have any wish to stimulate violence at all with out games. Our aim is to provide mature entertainment for mature people. Personally, I don't think violence in games has any real effect on the behaviour of players. If people are pre-disposed to violence for whatever reason, anything can trigger that.

IGN: To sum up, what are you hoping to achieve with the release of Silent Hill 2?

Imamura: You know, in our daily lives we don't really feel much fear. It's not a common emotional state in day-to-day life. Our aim is to stimulate that emotion with Silent Hill 2, so we hope you enjoy that!

Our sincere thanks to Akihiro Imamura and Kaz Nirasawa at KCET for their hospitality and time.