Interview with Jason Allen (UGO)

Date published: 2008.10.15
Source: UGO

In case you haven't been paying attention, I really enjoyed Silent Hill: Homecoming. It isn't that the game is anything new or different; more that it's simply a superlative example of what survival horror should be. This time, we don't even have Konami's internal Team Silent to thank. Homecoming was passed along to a Western developer from moment one, a conglomeration of Shiny and The Collective which formed under the new moniker Double Helix Games.

Well I finished the game with many questions and, surprisingly for a series known for its obtuse narratives, very few of them relate to the story. Thankfully, Homecoming's lead designer Jason Allen was more than happy to answer them. Be warned that there are some moderate spoilers ahead, so click through to this interview only if you've finished the game or don't mind reading a few comments on the history of Shepherd's Glen.

UGO: Homecoming keeps players in a fairly constant heightened state of tension thanks to the unsettling themes, audio cues and imagery evident in the game’s text. However, I also noticed there was this sort of calculated dispersal of save points and supplies which also served to heighten the tension in a far more direct matter. How does the process of balancing out item and save point placement in SH’s brand of survival horror differ from that of say a more standard action game? What helps you decide where to place things?

Jason Allen: Part of the tension in survival horror games comes from managing limited resources. The player is in an environment where they are unsure of what’s around the next corner; willfully using all your resources is not a sensible strategy for completing this sort of game. Therefore when you balance survival horror levels, you need to be aware that the player may be hoarding their resources ‘just in case’. Secondly, when you consider that part of the enjoyment for horror games is the tension they create, you need to consider what tools you have available to achieve this. One of those tools is the intentional limitation of resources.

We spend time watching testers play the levels; seeing where and when they run out of health or ammunition. With this knowledge we decide just how much of these resources we replenish; stretching them out enough so the player never gets to feel comfortable. This is also the reason why we decided to limit the number of bullets available for each weapon. Shooting poorly will eat up the player’s reserves very quickly; if on the other hand the player is relaxed and has time to aim it becomes easy to conserve ammunition. It becomes necessary therefore from a pacing perspective to see where you want to allow the player that relaxation and where you want them scared, shooting wildly.

UGO: I’d also like to ask where you started with Homecoming’s development? Was it narrative first, then continuity? Atmosphere? How did the building blocks which ultimately came to form the finished game first start coming together?

Jason Allen: Narrative was our starting point, simply because it’s the main component of the series; the spine on which all the gameplay is hung. Without the narrative the game ceases to be Silent Hill.

Atmosphere is constructed from a large number of individual components. As you’d expect we look at the placing of sounds and lighting to generate a suitable mood; however, it’s not simply about what we hear and what you see. Atmosphere comes from what you anticipate is around the next corner – which may or may not be there. We can build this anticipation with how the narrative unfolds; simply by placing props in a room we can tell a story without having to say a word. Joining the dots leads to conclusions that build anticipation; pacing then dictates if we pay-off the conclusion or leave a red-herring. Stitching all these elements together is a complicated process that takes time, and sometimes it works better than others.

I’m actually really happy with the way the story turned out; I would admonish players of the game to spend sometime really thinking about the information they uncover in the game; there are layers to the narrative not visible at a cursory examination, but if you spend time with it, you may begin to see other connections there to be found.

UGO: It’s not until a couple of hours in that Alex gets his first taste of the titular town. During development, was there ever any thought given to treating the physical presence of Silent Hill in the game as spoiler territory for the purposes of previews? Some pre-release misdirection to enhance the shock value when Alex eventually does arrive there. Can there even be a Silent Hill game which doesn’t prominently feature the town?

Jason Allen: It was released fairly early in development that we would be visiting a new space – Shepherds Glen – though details were limited, it was obvious from the questions we received that reviewers and fans alike were concerned that the game was straying from familiar territory. My stock answer at the time was, yes, we are visiting a new space, but the game isn’t called Shepherds Glen. The way we reveal the town of Silent Hill in Homecoming was designed to make the player question where the town was and how we were getting there. If you give a player incontrovertible facts then the mystery goes. For Silent Hill especially, it was important that there was a sense of ambiguity to the truth of any apparent understandings.

I certainly believe there can be a Silent Hill game that doesn’t prominently feature the town. Our mandate was not to reinvent the wheel but to reinforce the core game while improving the mechanics.

UGO: Along those same lines, Homecoming answers some pretty fundamental questions about the town’s history prior to the games. The Order, for example, is revealed to be a far more elaborate organization than past games have let on. Where can you see the series going from here?

Jason Allen: I consider the Silent Hill universe to be similar to Rod Serling’s work on the Twilight Zone. It’s not so much a place but a state of mind. If you considered that to be a framework for the design, then the location isn’t as important as the feelings it evokes. We could quite easily imagine all we’ve currently seen (the previous Silent Hills) to be just a single chapter in a far richer tapestry of tales yet to be told. I personally feel the series is wide open for narrative expression and look forward to seeing where it can go next.

UGO: Now that Silent Hill: Homecoming is finished and released, are there any regrets? Any elements – story, gameplay or otherwise – you would like to have included in the final game? Any mechanics which didn’t quite work out the way you’d hoped? What would you like to see changed or added in the next game?

Jason Allen: Artistic expression and commercial realities rarely meet in the middle; there are always going to be instances where good content becomes a lost opportunity. It is simply the nature of any industry that requires finances for creation.

Personally I would have liked to spend some more time on expanding the environment and making some changes to the puzzles. I’m actually really happy with the way the combat turned out, there is much more depth to it than meets the eye at first glance.

UGO: Can you clear up this whole ‘lack of inverted controls’ issue? Is the fact that turning on “Inverted Aim” only affects firearm aiming a glitch or was that intentional? Either way, can we expect to see an “Invert Camera” option added in a future patch?

Jason Allen: We specifically called the mode invert aim and not invert camera to differentiate its function from the normal invert we see in games. We made a decision during development to support invert aim and not invert camera. Unfortunately none of the team nor any of our test group actually had a preference for playing with an inverted camera, so the issue of its omission never came up. Given the furor on the net it appears this was the incorrect choice to make and one that I will apologize for.

UGO: Did Team Silent have any say in Homecoming’s design, particularly with regards to the story, during development?

Jason Allen: Team Silent didn’t have part in the design of Homecoming, with the notable exception of Akira’s work on the sound design. Whenever he visited the studio we worked through a translator to get a better understanding for how Team Silent presented the feel of Silent Hill – using this information as reference. Team Silent is no longer one group. With their members now spread out on different projects, creating some kind of experiential forum where these ideas could be discussed wasn’t really feasible.

UGO: This is the first console-based Silent Hill in the current generation, so there’s always the question of downloadable content. Is there any possibility for Homecoming DLC, say to play out portions of the same story from another character’s point of view? Perhaps even explore the story’s pre-history by following Adam Shepherd’s breaking away from the Shepherd’s Glen founders.

Jason Allen: There is a whole lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting a game up for downloadable content. This is not a simple feature to implement and must be decided early on the games development. As with most features in game construction, we do explore a lot of options early on; seeing the cost/benefit ratio etc. We did look into releasing some lost episodes for the game; and indeed Adam was our choice as a likely candidate with a strong narrative to explore prior to Alex’s return to Shepherd’s Glen. The way our tools work, you can play as any character in the game we’ve set up animations for. It’s an absolute riot running around as Feral playing through portions of the game – as you can imagine he doesn’t have animations for most of the environment interactions we have, but its still fun.

Unfortunately downloadable content is not something we’ve implemented for Homecoming.

UGO: What’s next for Double Helix? Is anything currently in development that you can talk about or even hint at?

Jason Allen: There is nothing I can talk about for the moment; however there are some exciting things being developed at the newly formed Double Helix Studios. We have a broad wealth of talent here and I’m sure some of the work in progress would surprise a lot of the interested readers…

UGO: Now for the final question, the tough one. It’s been stated in interviews that the Double Helix team are collectively fans of the series. Being honest with yourselves as fans, where would you rate Homecoming in comparison to its predecessors?

Jason Allen: From my perspective, and bear in mind this is a personal opinion. I feel Homecoming falls squarely between SH2 and SH3. Preference for features is an entirely subjective viewpoint and from my perspective, while we haven’t quite hit all the buttons that SH2 did, we’ve gone a long way to making an experience of merit and value; and I believe, presents more than initially meets the eye.