Interview with William Oertel (Shacknews)

Date published: 2006.08.02
Source: Shacknews

During's Konami's pre-E3 conference this year, the company announced a prequel to its popular Silent Hill horror franchise, Silent Hill Origins for PSP. The company has released a trailer and some concept artwork, but has yet to show the game in playable form or release very much information. I recently had the chance to chat with Konami producer William Oertel about the Climax-developed title, to find out a bit about how the game ties into the Silent Hill world, how it will play compared to other series entries, and the challenges of making the game for the PSP platform.

Shack: Can you give us an overview of the game?

William Oertel: So, Silent Hill Origins. It's a prequel to Silent Hill 1. The main character's name is Travis O'Grady. He is a truck driver running his regular route, and eventually he gets trapped in Silent Hill. Because of what he's experienced in his own life–well, Silent Hill is all about character development, and what characters have to go through–so at this time, the town is ready for this guy, or he is ready for the town, so to speak. He finds himself in Silent Hill, and he will have to get out, so the player will explore the town, find different areas, and eventually escape. At the time time, they're also putting events in motion that tie in with Silent Hill 1. There are some characters that cross over: Alessa, Dahlia, Dr. Kaufmann are the primary ones. In that respect it's still pretty much a separate game, separate story, but it does reference the key events in Silent Hill 1, so it'll slot right in there.

Shack: So while this leads up to Silent Hill 1, fans who played all four games going to get more out of it than those who are coming in fresh.

William Oertel: People that have played the first one will definitely get more out of it than somebody who's coming in for the first time. The fact that people played one through four, they know what Silent Hill is, that makes it harder to surprise them. They already know it's a scary town, you already know Alessa, you already know Dahlia, you know these characters, so how do you create a story that's going to surprise them on new levels that they don't expect? So in that sense, I think that people who have played all the games will appreciate it because we're playing with that idea that they already know what it is and they have that built up perception. Playing it for the first time, it's all brand new anyway.

Whenever we get a chance, we always try to infuse some level of paying homage to the past games, or trying to connect some dots. Origins doesn't go through and explain everything in Silent Hill, but we at least try to make connections where we can, or at least suggest. Fans have played prior games can look at it and say, "I wonder if that's what it is, if that's what they intend." Maybe we're a little too subtle sometimes in making those connections, but I'd rather err on the side of subtlety and have people that have people that really know the franchise look at it and say, after they've played through it a couple times, "Oh wait, I didn't notice that the first time around, maybe that's this, or maybe that's from 3, or 2," or whatever. So that's always overall in all our thoughts.

Shack: Why did Konami target PSP for the game? Were there any particular elements about the system that made you gravitate towards it? Obviously all the other games have been home console titles.

William Oertel: Right, right. I think it was desired to basically do something different. From a business decision, the PSP, there aren't any horror games on there. So, there's an opportunity. There's also an opportunity for us to be creative with it; there are some different things we want to do with Silent Hill. The limitations of the controller, the limitations of the screen size, those are all things that kind of point us to reimagine the best way to do this. That's why you see a dynamic camera that's closer to the character, in third person over the shoulder. But it doesn't mean the whole game is like that, we also have a cinematic camera in certain places that really shows the environment.

We also have what you call a "cineractive" system. When the player comes to certain points in the game, high impact moments, the controls will change and they'll have to control the character in a different way, but it'll highlight different actions. So, for example, when you come to a boss, the boss comes at you and you have to press a button that rolls you off to the side, for example. Or it'll attack you, and you have to press some sort of command in order to avoid that. If you don't, you could die, or take a step back, or whatever.

Shack: Sort of a Resident Evil 4, God of War kind of thing?

William Oertel: Yeah, that could be a good analogy.

Shack: Did you find yourself having to explore new methods of environment design, or maybe even puzzle design, with things like the closer camera?

William Oertel: Yeah, especially on the puzzles. With the puzzles, a lot of them are embedded within the environment. With a small screen, you have to see a lot of detail, and we have some ideas as to how to kind of bring the puzzles up into separate screens so you can see them differently, see them up close. Yeah, it does take you a little bit out of the environment, but it does bring the puzzle right there in front of you. And the other part of your question?

Shack: Things like environment design?

William Oertel: Environment design, well it's pretty much expected that as a prequel we're in the town, so we have to emulate a lot of those aspects. But we also created some new areas, so there are some part that are old, that people have seen in previous games, and other parts that are brand new.

Shack: At this point, Konami is putting some pretty aggressive games on the PSP. First there was stuff like Metal Gear Ac!d, which was maybe a bit different than what people expected, but now we see Silent Hill Origins, and Portable Ops for Metal Gear Solid. Is this part of any kind of shifting strategy for the system, trying to bring home console types of experiences to the system? That's common on PSP, but most publishers do it in a port kind of way. Was this a conscious cusiness decision?

William Oertel: Hmm... I'm not aware of any overall strategies to bring original content to the PSP. It's really kind of a case by case basis. You see the possibilities. It's a nice powerful machine that lets you do things differently. In some ways, you can bring a console experience to the handheld, but you have to deal with real hard limitations, so that's the hard balance you have to achieve. But even that, I think there's acknowledgements to business. Is it going to sell enough units? Maybe nobody else is covering it as aggressively as we are, and that's an opportunity for us to exploit, so that's one thing we're trying. Really, one thing I really like about bringing Origins to PSP is that it's a new venue to explore outside of the console. A lot of times, you bring out a console game every couple years, and that's it. Here, now, we have the chance to make a PSP game. If it lives up to expectations or exceeds on that, then that's another avenue for us to tell stories, more stories about Silent Hill.

Shack: How much communication have you had with the Japanese team in terms of story and development?

William Oertel: We've had some casual discussion with the team regarding the plot. Really the original team gave us a lot of flexibility in amny ways, but we've chatted with them at various times. It's being developed by Climax in Los Angeles. Oh, and [series composer] Akira Yamaoka is doing the music for the game.

Shack: Speaking of more stories, was Konami happy with the results of the Silent Hill movie?

William Oertel: Yeah, yeah, certainly opening weekend coming out number one was great. It's tough bringing that kind of idea to film, to the movies, but overall I think we're very pleased with how [director Christophe] Gans' vision of Silent Hill was brought to the screen. Really nice, really good. So overall, Konami is happy with it. Not only how well it did, but also the actual film, what it looked like, the content.

Shack: Any plans to continue that series? Gans has expressed a desire to revisit it with another film.

William Oertel: Konami is open to it. I don't think there are any real roadblocks to it. Konami is not in the movie business, so really, for [production company] Davis Films, it's their call if they want to do it again or not. I certainly wouldn't have any qualms about doing another film, it could be really nice to keep on going with some of the things we saw in the first film and expand on some other areas.

Shack: Silent Hill 4 structurally sort of diverted a bit from the series, and now you're going back and doing a prequel for the first time. Are you looking to, at this point having done several Silent Hill games, keep introducing a different direction with new games?

William Oertel: Keeping within the context of Origins, within the context of the handheld, we had to modify some things, so we are going to see how that works. Certainly if it works out really well, conceivably, in future products, there may be a shift there, but that decision is made by a case by case basis. It's not like you see this and say, "Oh my God, that's the direction they're heading." Not necessarily. It's going to depend on the story, the characters, the action, the design. It's not just taking the idea and saying, "Great, let's slap this on everything else now, that's the way of the future." I wouldn't say it's indicative of any kind of change, it's just you look at all the Silent Hill games and you see what you need to change, and what you need to do to make it work on the platform. That's what we do.

Shack: Is this a full length Silent Hill game in terms of content?

William Oertel: It's big, it's a big game. In terms of how it compares with, say, a Silent Hill 4, the media is already smaller as it is, so there's that aspect of it. But I think people will be surprised at how you really have some walking room around here.

Shack: So the game has high production values and it's a pretty meaty game; have you done anything to play into the portability of the system? That is, do you expect people to always sit down and play a couple hours' worth at one time?

William Oertel: Yeah, this is the tough part to think about. There are probably some areas of the game that are much pick up and play. There are other parts of the game that, you know, ten minutes may not be long enough to get the full experience. We keep in mind that we want to make it so that it works as a pick up and play game, but not to the point where it's going to sacrifice the quality. There are going to be some elements that are drawn out, and you'll have to spend some time. But it doesn't mean the game will crash if you turn it off, we'll have suspend mode, and you can save at various spots, so we're definitely keeping that in mind. We're trying to design as much as we can for pick up and play, but not at the expense of Silent Hill playability.

Shack: I suspect in some senses you're limited not because of hardware but in terms of how portable you'd want to make it, just because you wouldn't want to lose the very engrossing Silent Hill atmosphere.

William Oertel: Yeah, it's hard. Some people play out in the sunlight. It's hard to say how that's going to feel. Over a certain time in certain areas, someone might say, "This worked well, I'm out here in the sunny world, listening to this game that's really scary, this is great," and some may not. That's the risk of this portability.