Interview with Masashi Tsuboyama and Akira Yamaoka (Boomtown)
Date published: 2004.08.31
Doom 3 may have re-opened the question on which is the scariest video game of all time, but on the consoles at least there’s an easy winner in the form of Silent Hill. Konami’s brown trouser inducing survival horror is about to make it’s fourth entry into the world and ahead of our full review tomorrow we’ve been talking to Masashi Tsuboyama, the series’ chief designer, and Akira Yamaoka, producer/sound creator.
As ever in these situations both questions and answers had to go through a translator, and it wasn’t always obvious who exactly was answering what, but the results of our little discussion where pleasingly enlightening nevertheless.
Boomtown: Why did you decide to use the first person viewpoint for the apartment sections of the game? And why did you choose not to use it for the other parts of the game?
We wanted to create something new in the horror genre, so that the way you look at it is somewhat different. We wanted to bring another kind of atmosphere to the game, as if you really were in the room. We could have used it throughout the whole game but we adapted the usual third person view form the previous games, as it was more suitable for an action style.
Boomtown: Generally, why do you think the first person perspective is so unpopular with Japanese developers? Have you played horror-based Western titles such as Doom 3 and what do you think of them?
Actually, the first person shoot ‘em-up style of game is getting more popular in Japan now. That type of game is popular on the PC and Japanese gamers are becoming interested in this more reality based style of gameplay.
Boomtown: Why did you choose to decrease the number of puzzles in Silent Hill 4 while at the same time increasing the action?
It is just a consequence of how we designed the game system. Now all the elements of the game are combined into a single difficulty level, so that if you increase the level both the action and the puzzles become more difficult – rather than changing each separately.
Boomtown: Why do you think Japan has come to dominate the survival horror genre so completely? Also, why have its horror films become so prominent over the last few years?
The Japanese style of horror move has always been as you see it now. Films like The Ring and Ju-on: The Grudge are based on an a traditional style of Japanese horror. These films are underpinned by a spiritual depth, which is quite different from the Hollywood style of splatter films. So although in the West you may only just be seeing these types of film for the first time in Japan they have a long tradition.
In terms of games Japanese developers are usually very good at details, at creating a specific mood and atmosphere. Perhaps this makes it possible for us to create horror films more easily. The popularity of RPGs also means we are more use to having complex stories and characters, which a psychological horror story needs.
Boomtown: Henry, the new player character in Silent Hill 4, does not seem as integral to the plot as pervious characters, will he be back and why does he take such a back seat to the main storyline?
It is true that Henry does not change much as a character, but rather things change around him. Henry is supposed to be the player so we wanted it to be possible for you to impose your own feelings of the game onto him, without him contradicting you. Also if the character is too heroic, this might be unrealistic. We wanted him to react to everything just as an ordinary person would.
Boomtown: Is it true that The Room was not originally going to be part of the Silent Hill series and that this was only changed part way through development.
In a sense this is true because the game began life as simply Room 302. However, it was always at least a spin-off of Silent Hill and the most important thing was simply that it be different to the previous games. Certainly if Silent Hill had not existed we would not have gotten the idea for The Room, so in that sense they have always been together.
Boomtown: Even ardent fans of the Silent Hill series complain about some of the technical problems of the game – the control system, the voice acting, the repetition of backdrops like the hospital – and yet they still enjoy the games. What do you think this says about the series, that people are willing to ignore so much they don’t like just to play it?
First, I would like to say we are aware of these problems and we are trying to resolve them, but working on these games we set our priority on the atmosphere and the overall experience for the player. The atmosphere and storyline is what distinguishes Silent Hill from other games and so we feel we should work on these elements the most to ensure that they are as good as they can be.
Boomtown: Why is this new game not set in Silent Hill itself? [The game is set in the nearby city of South Ashfield.] Also, why are the levels repeated from half way through the game?
When creating a new game we always try to create something new every time. The idea for The Room is that we wanted to show somewhere that should be the safest place in the world. But turning this assumption on its head we hope to generate the fear you feel in the game.
In regards revisiting the different worlds in the game, we wanted to introduce the various characters in the first half of the game, then show them again later to see how they had changed. To us it was more important to see the psychological horror of the characters.
Boomtown: The environments in Silent Hill 4 do not seem quite so daunting or scary as previous games, do you think the decision to make the game more of an action title has lost some of the tension?
It is hard to say. The brightness of the game, the lack of fog and darkness, is to ensure that combat is fair but it could affect the atmosphere negatively. We didn’t want it that way. This time we wanted to do more obvious horror – to make the question for the player what to do about a monster rather than wondering what or where it is.
Boomtown: Do you worry that the game is too action packed now? By the end of the game I had killed nearly 500 monsters, which seems a lot compared to earlier games.
We did want to make the game more action packed so in one way to hear this comment is a positive thing. However if we find that many people do not like this new style of gameplay we will have to think about this in the future.
Boomtown: The back story to Silent Hill is extremely complex, how much of it do you map out before starting a new game and do you have plans for how it will continue?
We create each game as a separate project, but we do also keep our eye on the bigger picture. We do not really plan the gameplay in advance of each game, but we do have an idea of overall what is happening in Silent Hill and how the situation will evolve.
Boomtown: Generally what does the future hold for the Silent Hill series? Will there be another title this generation and what of rumours of a movie?
A fifth game is being planned but it will not be for this generation, although we do not know for what formats exactly. We have seen the rumours that the next game will be called Silent Hill 5: Shadows, but we can say that this is not true, we have no idea where this rumour came from!
As for a film, it is moving. It would be nice to collaborate with the film makers [who are rumoured to include Quentin Tarantino collaborator Roger Avary] but obviously Hollywood is much bigger than the games industry so we will have to wait and see.