Interview with Jason Allen (Shacknews)

Date published: 2008.05.20
Source: Shacknews

Silent Hill: Homecoming lead designer Jason Allen had just finished talking about the virtues of Alien. Eloquent in his presentation at a recent Konami press event, he noted the strengths of Ridley Scott's classic horror film, pointing out that we only fully see the monster at the very end of the movie, a major influence on his approach to tension in Silent Hill.

Despite his clear appreciation of horror, I have to admit, I'm still skeptical about Allen's Silent Hill--the first American-designed entry to the series. It does look great on the outside, a combination of logical improvements and strict adherence to series code. But as a long-time fan, change is more scary than any monster. And like the fog-dowsed town of its namesake, a brief glance wasn't enough to reveal anything significant.

Hoping to calm my fears, I pulled the developer aside at the end of the night. We briefly went over the approach he and his team have had to facing this daunting project, with topics including visual style, Eastern horror, composer Akira Yamaoka, and other filmic influences.

Shack: Playing the game, I was struck by how visually similar it is to the previous titles, right down to the font of the text.

Jason Allen: Absolutely. I'm really conscious of the fact that we are Western developers of something that has been [started] somewhere else, and I wanted to maintain some common threads.

The level of detail on the monsters was quite high, and when we saw them in the world, when the fog hadn't been put in yet, it was very, very clean. Particularly when you start seeing things in 720p, and you can see all the detail, it didn't feel like Silent Hill. It just looked wrong. So the fog had to come in, but it still didn't look right. So this is why we added this grain filter.

Aesthetically it may seem like, "Why would you dumb down something to make it look like last generation?" But I think it's really important that that particular style and look repeat, because I think that's part of the experience.

Shack: You mentioned the difference between Western and Eastern horror in your presentation, and how you've approached it..

Jason Allen: I think the thing about Silent Hill is, I've played all the previous games, but even when I started development, I would say it took me a good three, three and half months to get what Silent Hill is, properly. To understand maybe the.. the ingredients, that make up the experience.

And I was using the example earlier: let's say you have a Westerner that commits adultery. In the West, his wife would put him on Jerry Springer, we'd all point the finger at him and say, "You're a terrible, terrible man." The kids would disown him. That's how it is.

You go back to traditional Japanese culture, through all the generations, and family is everything. Shame is something that is to be avoided at all cost. If you have the same situation, it'd never be spoken about. The family unit would stay together, but they wouldn't deal with it. There would be this oppressive silence in the house, but they wouldn't deal with it. On the surface outside to people they would present basically the same family.

Now if you deal with their children, they've got their foot kind of in the West, kind of still in the East. So they've got some of their older heritage, but also some of the ideals from the West. In that sense, they're like, "We want to talk about what's going on, but we don't want to do it directly." So they do it subtly.

So the example I give is this: If you went into that house, you'd see pictures on a table, pictures of their children, facing to the east. Which is where the family started--the sun rising and all that. But the father would be facing west, because he's the past. So it's displayed, it's there, but you have to be subtle to notice it.

I think that's why Silent Hill is so distinctive, because it has that degree of subtlety to it. And it takes a while to understand the things that you need to place within the world for people to go, "Wait a minute, is that..? Could that be there?"

I like to raise questions in gaming, but not answer them, because I prefer the fans to discuss on the forums. You throw them a bone, and the next thing you have tens of thousands of posts, "Is it this, is it that?" They want to know the answer, but I'm not going to tell them. Because I think it's more interesting for them to try and discover what they think it could be.

Shack: The controls are obviously much tighter than in the past.

Jason Allen: It was one of the things that I first addressed when I went on the project. They were asking me, "Do you want to stick with a rail-based camera, or do you want to go for more of a free-form?" And I said one of the frustrations for me, as I say, at its heart [Silent Hill] is a mystery game, right? And you're trying to solve that, so a lot of it is exploration.

I don't want it to feel like, "Hey, it's just a run and gun, I can go through it and just shoot."
You go into a new space and you go, "What's in here that tells me a bit more about my journey?" And if you have a rail-based camera, you're not seeing the entire room, so there's always a degree of frustration. "Oh, I want to know what's in this corner over here, and I can't see that." So putting that [free-form] camera system in allows us to be able to see the room, so you get a feeling more that you're immersed in the space in a way that perhaps you wouldn't have been before.

Shack: How have you gone about balancing the combat with the faster controls?

Jason Allen: It's a lot of play-testing..

Shack: Faster enemies?

Jason Allen: There is that. We have some enemies--the one you saw with the ribcage, it's called Smog. It wasn't clear from the capture, but we use him as a kind of blocking character. So that you put him in really tight spaces, because he has this area of influence cloud within the--he was designed around glowing embers, wood and charcoal. So he has that coloring on him, he has these blisters on him that pop and change color. So what you're seeing is kind of a smoke effect around him. If you get too close, you get in that cloud, and you have almost like a struggle mechanic.

So the area of attack is one thing. The way they surprise you. They obviously fight in numbers as well, we're not dealing with singles. It was very important that we could have a fluid way to switch [between targets]. And obviously, we do have ranged weapons in the game, and I'm limiting the amount of ammunition that you're getting. I'm still balancing that stuff today--the game's not out til September, but I'm still tweaking.

But that's one of the things, I don't want it to feel like, "Hey, it's just a run and gun, I can go through it and just shoot." We have neat little tricks with the weapons, certainly with the ranged weapons, that you can do to force monsters into stun earlier than you would normally. But you have to know where they are, you have to find those.

I always felt at its heart it was a melee-based game, so the lion's share of the combat is really melee-based. We do have ranged weaponry, but I think the visceral nature of contact with melee makes it feel more tense. Once you step away from a creature, the tension drops down a lot. Unless they're charging at you.

Shack: You also mentioned earlier that Ridley Scott's Alien was an influence. How about the film Jacob's Ladder?

Jason Allen: Oh sure.

Shack: It's been cited as an influence on past games in the series, but I mostly bring it up because of the military element in Homecoming.

Jason Allen: Absolutely. It's very much--it is actually one of the things we talked about earlier. For example, character introduction--sometimes when you play games, a new character comes in, boom the spotlight goes on, the creature comes out, you see them in all their glory. As humans, we categorize and we label, and that's how we store and understand what it is. We go, "Okay, I'm seeing the Gecko in Metal Gear. I can see how it walks, how it runs, and I can potentially see how it might have limitations, because I can view it and think that way analytically."

But if I don't see a creature, if I only see glimpses of it, I don't know what he can do. And my fear is maybe greater than its skills. And I think we can play off of that fear in the game, so if you don't see him, you see glimpses of something, and you go, "Okay, I really don't want to go out there. I really don't want to face him. I don't know if this pipe that I'm used to using is going to be effective against that creature. What's he gonna do?" So, I think that's again one of the things we're looking at.

But going back to your point about Jacob's Ladder, yes, most certainly, because we have strong parallels in the military theme, we don't know if he's dead and it's his death throes--

Shack: And as you said, Silent Hill can be a metaphor for purgatory..

Jason Allen: Absolutely. You don't know. I don't want to answer that. I don't even know if I have the answer to that. It's just a point of view. My perspective may be wrong, but I think it's like: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and mystery is also. You go through, you experience it, and you form your own conclusions--and because we don't answer them, you might be right. You don't know.

Shack: What has it been like working with [Silent Hill 1-4 composer] Akira Yamaoka?

Jason Allen: It's been great. Obviously there's a language barrier, and they do bring translators over, but his English is very good, he's getting better all the time. I can see that just through the duration of the project, how much more comfortable he is using English than he was.

He's been over probably 12 times. Obviously it's not a short flight for him, and you can imagine the jet lag. But he's fantastic. He'll give us 20 tracks, and we'll say, "This is what we're kind of thinking for this particular piece," and we'll go through it and I'll say, "You know, maybe change this," and he's more than open to changing anything, so it's really a painless process. It's been great. And it's nice to have that continuity toward previous games as well.

Shack: Multiple endings?

Jason Allen: Yes. Yes.

Shack: And I noticed Pyramid Head in the presentation--

Jason Allen: Really? Are you sure? [laughs]

Shack: Just out of the corner of my eye. [laughs] Any comment on his role in the game?

Jason Allen: I leave it up to you to play and find out.

Shack: Thanks Jason.