Interview with Jason Allen (The Silent Hill Forum)

Date published: 2008.09.03
Source: The Silent Hill Forum

1- Team Silent's work on the franchise is what set the series up and made it stand out as unique against other games of a similar genre. Has it felt like a daunting task trying to fill the shoes of Team Silent and continue the series?

Jason Allen: Silent Hill has had tremendous success as a video game series. To pitch and then gain the opportunity to continue this franchise was, collectively, one of the highlights of the team’s career. Never before had we felt the weight of so many concerned people wondering what we’d do to their pride and joy. As with any complex task you undertake in life; the seemingly impossible can be achieved by breaking it into more manageable segments. Recreating or even evolving that experience comes from an understanding of what those components are, and how they interrelate.
We all had a deep appreciation for the series before we started work upon this next instalment; some of the team (myself included) were fans already.
How would your readers feel if given this opportunity? I’d wager they’d feel both daunted and tremendously excited; a chance to tell their story; to add to the legacy. In a nutshell, that’s a fairly accurate representation of how the team felt. It’s been a challenging but ultimately tremendously rewarding experience for us all.

2- Early on in Homecoming's development Akira Yamaoka mentioned working on creating a unique idea of "fear in daylight". Is this something which was worked into Homecoming?

Jason Allen: This is not something we specifically dealt with; it may have been something Yamaoka-san was working on separately to our development.

3- What would you say were the major inspirations in the design of Homecoming? Were there any external influences outside of the existing games?

Jason Allen: The influences of the team - as always – stem from numerous sources. We look at films and literature for narrative progression. There are always layers to any Silent Hill game; the surface encounters; the meaning that drives those events and finally their context within the overall narrative. It’s been mentioned in other interviews, but we looked at films like Jacob’s ladder, the Ring, Dark Water, Hellraiser etc. Each of these offers elements the team can then use as guidance. That’s not to say we take the film in its entirety. We do look at themes, costume designs, narrative exposition, setting, lighting etc. There are so many elements that go into the creation of game; we end up drawing upon many sources.
However I would like the readers to consider this, all our life experiences are shaped by our exposure to the world at large and though these events shape us, they do not dictate who we are. Game creation is no different, we look at games within the genre, films and literature for narrative, but that doesn’t mean we copy what we see. Our experience shapes our thought processes so we can create a journey that is unique, yet grounded in rules; rules we can intuit through exposure to a defined worldspace.

4- Now that Team Silent is apparently no longer involved, how does a Western developer such as Double Helix make sure that the series' unique Japanese sensibilities are preserved in order to prevent Silent Hill from becoming just another horror franchise? Aside from Mr. Yamaoka, did you maintain any communication with the other members of Team Silent?

Jason Allen: We did not have any direct contact with other members of Team Silent; though it is my understanding that Yamaoka-san shared with his previous colleagues our work in progress to garner feedback, which he subsequently brought to the development team.

5- What are your opinions of the previous Silent Hill games are and what do you think their strong points/weak points were? How have you built on this with Silent Hill: Homecoming?

Jason Allen: I believe the previous Silent Hill games are landmark titles. They may have appealed to only a smaller sub-set of the game playing audience at large, but they were visionary in their representation of an adult narrative. When I say adult I mean we have flawed characters dealing with complex issues with no easy resolution. The depth of narrative was unlike any other game I’d played.
From my own perspective I believe the flaws to the series included, the combat mechanics, world interaction and interface interaction. These aspects were ‘clunky’ in execution – I’m aware that some of this was conscious choice, however, anytime a game chooses a particular implementation of a mechanic that draws me out of the experience and reminds me I’m playing a game, I believe, it’s a bad choice.
We focussed on maintaining the essence of why the player was hampered but have implemented a different solution that gains fluidity.

6- With this being the first Silent Hill game published on a next gen console you have been challenged with preserving aspects of the series which make it unique with simultaneous expectations to deliver a "next gen experience". Can you comment on any hurdles you've had to overcome keeping the game true to its roots while evolving it onto next gen?

Jason Allen: For the team, this particular game generated a great many challenges. We were creating this game on a new engine and were therefore unaware of its full capability. For a fair amount of time we would be putting new content in and seeing how that affected framerate. There were a great many unknowns. To achieve the level of quality expected for a next generation game required a lot of new methods for working, particularly on character creation. Different skin shaders were tried and tested. It takes a lot of trial and error before we get the result we need.
We changed the way the camera works in this instalment. I looked at the previous games and asked why those choices had been made; what we gain from them, and what we lose from them. I felt that given the nature of exploration, it was more important to feel grounded in the space. The fixed camera positions of previous games prevented a full exploration of the worldspace. I frequently found it frustrating, and it always reminded me I was in an artifice; creating a barrier to immersion. This is why we changed to a free-look system.
If I’m reminded that I’m playing a game, the fear and experience is lessened. We should strive for a perfect connection between ourselves and our avatar. I believe, when the boundaries are blurred our senses are heightened.
So we had our technological challenges. We also had our philosophical challenges. How do you portray a Japanese take on a Western horror from Western perspective? Capturing the essence of a particular mindset that’s foreign to your own way of thinking is not an easy task to achieve. However, I feel our experience on the team and our knowledge of the franchise helped create what we believe will be another successful instalment in the series.

7- From what we have seen so far there seems to have been heavy visual influence taken from the Silent Hill movie. This has caused concern in many fans since the movie and games are two very different entities. Will the story or universe in Homecoming be tied to the movie in any way, and can you comment on the heavy use of movie style visuals?

Jason Allen: The aspects of the game that have been released to the public are only a small portion of the entire game. It is very difficult to form a truly objective opinion when you do not have access to all the information. If I blindfolded you and only gave you access to its mouth, what opinion would you form of a duck-billed platypus if I asked you to hypothesise how the rest of the creature was formed?
I also believe that because we are a western developer and not the original team, it is easy to let fear decide that the game cannot possibly be made by anyone else. There are talented games developers all over the world, all of whom, given the time and opportunity could do a very good Silent Hill game that would compliment the series. I know I mentioned this earlier, but I believe it’s very important to understand our thought processes are shaped by our experience, that doesn’t mean we copy. The film – if it provided anything – gave us visual references, not story, not characters, but stylistic cues on where to take our own character designs and that’s all. There is a motto I like to live by Take what is useful, discard what is useless, add that which is specifically your own. We haven’t tied the new game to the film. They are their own entities, equally valid but different stories in the same universe.

8- What processes do you go through when designing new monsters? How do you go about thinking of new ways to make the monsters meaningful and frightening?

Jason Allen: We look at the psychological resonance created by the appearance of a character at a particular juncture in the game. What underlying psychosis is the character trying to represent? From this starting point we generate themes formed from that understanding. Some themes are workable, some are not. Those workable themes are massaged into very basic designs. Those designs then have to possess useful mechanical attributes that we can use and animate into a form that’s functional in the gameworld.
Then there are a number of qualities that create fear in the beholder. How was that (creature) created and would it be painful to go through were I the recipient? Do I stand a chance of defeating it? How would I suffer if it attacked me? If I lose will I suffer the same fate?
For those instances where I haven’t yet seen the creature in its entirety, fear of what it might look like, move, attack etc., those components are exacerbated in the mind of the beholder. If I can’t see it, then I can’t label it, if I can’t label it, I can’t understand it. When I don’t understand something threatening, I fear it, much more than when I do understand. It is in the nature of self preservation for all creatures to act this way.

9- Will Silent Hill: Homecoming have any strong ties to others in the series or will it be a new story completely? Can you comment on why you decided to make it that way?

Jason Allen: This was part of the delicate balance we needed to maintain, and also part of the requirements Konami requested during the development of the game. Silent Hill: Homecoming had to be its own entity. It had to be playable as a discrete experience without having to buy the previous games. At the same time, there needed to be a sense of continuity from past games; portraying a world familiar to previous players. It is important for the series that we feel as though we are in the same world. Not necessarily the same time or even the same place, but familiar nonetheless.
Now that might seem a little vague and indeed the story is completely new, however, there are elements, threads that ‘may’ suggest a more direct connection to the past. For now I’d like to leave it there and allow the player to discover them. Suffice to say, we do know how important the past games are, and where appropriate and in a way that enhances the experience, a connection has been made.

10- When we explore areas, will the traditional Silent Hill approach be taken to advance (for example solving riddles, collecting items for puzzles etc), or will this instalment be more linear in its progression?

Jason Allen: It most definitely uses the traditional approach to advancement. Large portions of the game operate under hub-based gameplay. There are some linear sections, but by and large it’s a very traditional approach so Silent Hill

11- Can you comment on the impact your responses during dialog sequences make on subsequent gameplay?

Jason Allen: When faced with traditional gaming and a cutscene ensues, we are usually ‘spoon-fed’ information pertaining to our current plight. That information may raise questions in the mind of the player, that they have no way of answering – save waiting for the next cutscene. A dialogue tree offers the opportunity to anticipate those questions and provide answers; again, where appropriate. So we use it to further the player’s understanding. There are also specific instances where the player’s choice has a direct effect on the game. These instances will be reasonably obvious to the player when they occur. It is one of our methods for introducing replayability into the game. We want you to play it again and explore all the options available. You won’t get the full experience if you don’t. :)

12- Will we be revisiting any areas from past games and/or the movie or is every location brand new in this game? If all-new, which part of Silent Hill will this take place in?

Jason Allen: There are mainly new areas - obviously Shepherds Glen is new. There are also new areas in Silent Hill and old areas too. It’s really a combination of new and old. I hesitate to say where we’re going in the game because I want you to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

13- From recent gameplay videos we have seen that Pyramid Head will be playing some kind of role in Homecoming. As an icon of the series in general this has caused quite a stir among fans with many mixed opinions. Can you comment on his appearance in the game at all?

Jason Allen: I know his appearance has caused some consternation with the fans, saying he’s James’s demon and should not appear in any other version. As with everything else we do in the game his presence (or lack of) has a very real purpose. We do not stick characters in the game simply because they look ‘cool’. Any creature you find will have a very real purpose and meaning supported by discoverable evidence. From our perspective his presence is integral to the Silent Hill lore and he performs a specific function that is neither arbitrary nor trite.

14- How much impact has the fanbase responses to released footage had on development? Can you describe any changes or decisions which have been made because of fan reactions/comments/suggestions?

Jason Allen: We do our own testing for the game using contracted specialists. It is their feedback we incorporate or change as appropriate. However, I would like to point out, that at a game’s inception we do take into consideration the concerns and requests of our target market. We use those wishes as guidelines for where we take the franchise and what aspects (if any) need changing in the next version. It is not practical for any game development studio to peruse forums and implement reactive changes based upon single or multiple threads posted.
The issue is that any game by its very nature is a creative process, as such whilst there are wrong answers; there are no definitive right ones. One person’s opinion is as equally valid as someone else’s. Since it is our studio that Konami have employed to create the experience, it is also our responsibility to get it right. We are mature and experienced developers, many of the team have been creating games for over 10 years.
Any developer goes through a process of due diligence before working with a publisher and then once work commences we have regular milestones (every 4 or 6 weeks usually) where work is checked and checked again, so there are many opportunities for them to exert content control if things are not progressing as planned. Obviously the publisher can request changes based upon their own investigations that are outside of our remit.

15- Now that the game is near release, has it turned out how you envisioned it being at the beginning of production or has it changed/evolved significantly from your initial vision?

Jason Allen: All games go through an evolution during the product life-cycle. There are simply too many variables to be able to accurately predict their interplay at the start of the project so that it remains identical to the finished version. Though this may not be true for an in-house sequel; for a new project there are a great many lessons to learn. We use iteration to improve and polish the gameplay and like anything else; the more time you have, the better the end result.
Asking me if I’d change anything is like asking a painter when a painting is finished… To an outsider, you might say, when all the colouring is complete; but to an artist, he or she may see relationships in a partially finished or finished creation that alters the message they were originally trying to capture. They may have outside encounters that alter how they feel about their creation, causing a radical overhaul of their work. Game creation is no different. We see things differently as the game evolves from a paper specification to an interactive experience. As with all games I’ve made, I would have liked more time to finesse a few of the finer details of the game, but I’m sure that’s just the perfectionist in me :)

16- What do you think the future holds for the Silent Hill series?

Jason Allen: The series is important to Konami; it is one of their premier franchises. There is much yet to be told; many characters’ must explore their personal issues through the lens of Silent Hill. Through this exploration and the facets of life it exposes, perhaps we can begin to understand yet the purpose of Silent Hill.
I have absolutely no doubt there will be another chapter in the ongoing saga of Silent Hill. It scares us, it fascinates us in equal measures. By rights no sane person would want to go through those kinds of experiences, but at the same time it touches on the need for catharsis we all have. Perhaps therefore, through a vicarious examination of someone else’s problems, we can shed light on our own. The need for that, I doubt, will ever change.

SHF would like to thank Jason Allen for taking the time to respond to these questions and give the fans an insight into the development process. He's a pretty awesome dude :)