Interview with Jason Allen (Game Informer)
Date published: 2008.06
Can’t wait to learn more about Silent Hill: Homcoming? We’ve got you covered. Check out our extended interview with Lead Designer Jason Allen. We get answers about the new camera system, the new combat mechanics, and how developers scare themselves at work.
Game Informer: Can you give us a brief rundown of Homecoming’s story?
Jason Allen: Our main protagonist, Alex, is returning home after being discharged from the military on the hunch that something has happened to his younger brother. Upon arriving in his hometown of Shepherd’s Glen, he discovers things have changed and any events surrounding his brother may be overshadowed by the larger issues in the town.
GI: What new features are you most excited about?
Allen: I’m excited about moving away from a rail-based camera system to a more modern freeform third-person camera and all the challenges/freedoms that comes with it. It’s going to present a different perspective for traditional Silent Hill fans, and I hope, help counter some of the earlier complaints regarding an inability to fully explore the environment easily. There are many other features in the game, but I’d rather let the player discover them on their own.
GI: Silent Hill originated in Japan with a very Japanese take on horror? Have you found it difficult to stay true to that style?
Allen: It has probably been one of the most difficult aspects of creating this game. For the original games in the series you, have a Japanese developer telling a Western horror from a Japanese perspective. For Homecoming, we now have a Western developer telling a Western horror from a Japanese perspective. It’s enough to give you a migraine… Seriously though, the Japanese style of narrative exposition is very different from the Western style. They have a totally different focus on what’s important. A Western developer telling a purely western-style horror would focus on the gore and brutality of the scene. A Japanese developer looks at the reasoning behind the attacks and presents those facets of the killer to the audience in subtle ways – it’s about reading between the lines. Once you understand how the narrative has been told in the previous games, it’s simply a matter of applying that to the new story.
GI: Obviously people want to know that you guys are staying true to the original series, but what are you doing to innovate and make the game better?
Allen: For arguments sake, let’s just say we’re the original developers of the game. The fans then expect you to evolve gameplay over time; listening to feedback and gradually creating an experience that everyone loves. Now when you’re in that position, change is often welcomed and understood. However, as a new developer for an existing franchise the rules are very different. Though it’s expected that you’re going to change aspects of the game, there’s a sense that you’re messing with someone else’s ‘baby’ and very often the fans are much more nervous of a new developer making changes than an existing one. From that perspective we’ve been very careful with where we apply innovation to preserve the same feel of previous games.
In terms of innovation, whilst we’re doing everything in our power to retain the same feel and atmosphere of the series, we wanted to bring a few elements up-to-date. The camera system has changed from a rail-based to a more traditional third-person free-look system. We believe that being able to fully examine each and every environment rather than seeing only a small portion of the room helps ground the player better in the game world. It also has the added benefit that you no longer have instances in Combat where you’re being attacked and yet unable to see the enemy on screen.
GI: A lot of people have complained about the combat in past SH games, and I know that is something that you guys are working to improve. How’s that coming along?
Allen: I believe the combat changes we’ve introduced for this latest outing are going to make those people who complain about the combat in previous games, very happy. This development team has a long history of making games with strong combat elements (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Indiana Jones and Star Wars Episode 3). While Silent Hill isn’t a combat game per se, it does have combat elements. It’s those elements that we wanted to make just as much fun to play as the exploration and puzzle solving.
GI: Have you done anything to streamline the interface?
Allen: There are certain thematic elements within the Silent Hill franchise that we’ve kept so that the existing fans of the series should feel right at home. However, we have introduced a quick inventory system for weapons and items, allowing rapid selection. We’ve also included a first-person look system tied into head tracking. When Alex head tracks to an object, the player can choose to press a button, going into first person and clearly seeing the point of interest.
GI: Silent Hill has always had some very grainy visuals. Has it been a challenge to make the game look good on next gen systems while sticking to that grungy look?
Allen: Making the game look good on next-generation systems was not too difficult with so many great technical features to work from. However, making sure we stuck to the traditional look and feel of the Silent Hill world was definitely challenging and we went through a great many iterations. Eventually we were able to establish a classic Silent Hill look with a simple screen effect aptly named “grain.” With the addition of UV scrolling to give it motion, it created the desired effect, giving it an old TV style look. We kept it fairly subtle for the “B” state world but we went with a stronger, harsher, film grain effect for the “C” state world giving the two worlds contrast. We tried to work as much noise and contrast into the environment textures and lighting situations to achieve the grungy, grimy, and dirty world that is Silent Hill.
GI: Have you ever gotten freaked out while working on the game?
Allen: Yes, I have. I remember very clearly one instance during the early stages of development when I was doing some testing work in the first mission of the game. I was in a bathroom testing out some items placed in a bathroom stall. Now outside of the bathroom is a long corridor. In this early stage of development, we’d placed two nurse characters at the far end of the corridor. Their AI had only just been implemented and they were triggering off both sound and the player’s flashlight. We still had some bugs in the system at this stage – where the AI would detect the flashlight being used in a room, even though the door was closed. So these two nurses ‘saw’ me in the bathroom and came down the corridor to attack. I was completely oblivious, still checking on items in the stall when I heard the bathroom door open. I incorrectly assumed it was the adjacent bathroom stall door - which I’d just been in – closing. However it wasn’t. I turned around and was confronted by two nurses, just about to attack… Let me just say, it nearly scared me half to death!
GI: We know that a lot of the game takes place in a new town called Shepard’s Glen. What was the reason for this change?
Allen: We always knew we were going into Silent Hill, I mean the game’s not called Shepherd’s Glen right? So it served a two-fold purpose. It allowed us to draw the player in, knowing they wanted to go to Silent Hill. It also allowed greater freedom with the narrative. There is no existing history in the other games regarding Shepherd’s Glen, so we could introduce whatever thematic elements we felt we needed and not worry about the consequences.
GI: What’s your favorite new enemy in the game?
Allen: It’s going to sound perhaps a little ordinary but I really like how the nurse turned out. She has some wonderful detection behaviors, and her staccato movement style is very distinctive. All the characters in the game have their unique styles or behaviors that are appealing and it’s hard to play favorites, but if you pushed me, I’d say the nurse.
GI: Silent Hill fans have been through a lot by this point. Do you find it challenging to come up with scary situations for an audience with such a thick skin?
Allen: It’s particularly hard for the development team to see a situation and still believe it’s scary after the 90th time you’ve watched it. There is a real danger that you second-guess your choices after becoming desensitized to them and change them once more believing it’s not enough. However, with focus testing we’re able to distance ourselves from those choices and see fresh reactions on new people. There are always going to be situations that scare people in games, even those who’re somewhat jaded by continual exposure to this type of genre. There are just too many good techniques you can use for scaring people.
GI: What’s your favorite scary moment from the Silent Hill franchise?
Allen: Anytime I see the mannequins… There’s just something about an inanimate object that looks vaguely human and not supposed to move, but does. I can’t really describe why, but it just feels…wrong. So whenever I see one I just want to run away. You see, that’s the thing about Silent Hill, every time you play it, your whole body is just screaming “Run away!”, but you don’t; some perverse fascination keeps you exploring deeper, into the madness.