Interview with Akira Yamaoka (Music 4 Games)

Date published: 2009.01.26
Source: Music 4 Games

Akira Yamaoka is one of the video game industry’s few bona fide rockstar composers, renowned for his edgy and intensely atmospheric soundtracks for the hugely popular Silent Hill video game series. His potent mix of dark ambient, industrial and trip hop music featured in Silent Hill provides an immersive and unique melancholic experience.

Yamaoka-san is one of the few game composers to successfully craft original songs for a game soundtrack (“Theme of Laura”) that truly enhance and represent the melancholic aesthetics of Silent Hill’s story and gaming experience. He was the first composer to have his original music from a game featured in the Hollywood movie adaptation, arguably making “Silent Hill” the most authentic game-to-movie production to date. Additionally, his music from Silent Hill has been performed live at the “GC” Symphonic Game Music concert in Leipzig, Germany and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony and this year Video Games Live will also add Silent Hill to their set list.

In addition to his role as the Silent Hill series music composer and sound designer, Yamaoka-san has overseen the development of the franchise as Producer since Silent Hill 3 and recently contributed an all-new original soundtrack for Silent Hill: Homecoming. Following the release of the game M4G caught up with the veteran composer for an in-depth interview about the reception to the latest installment in the series, his ambitions for the future and the challenges ahead for the Silent Hill franchise.

M4G: What was the soundtrack brief for Silent Hill Homecoming? Was there motivation to deliver something new and fresh for 'Next Gen' Silent Hill?

Akira Yamaoka: I didn’t apply new approaches this time. I was asked to create music that’s along the style of the series. So I did not try to do something different.

M4G: For the benefit of those who did not experience Homecoming how would you describe the musical styles featured in your latest score? Did you take a thematic approach at all?

Akira Yamaoka: I say the musical style is “Silent Hill style.” People who have played the past Silent Hill games will feel the music is very Silent Hill like. When I create music for a game, I always try to create music that will help tell the story. Based on the scenario, I create music that will help depict the situation/story and make the story even better.

M4G: What were some of the challenges writing the music for Silent Hill Homecoming? Do you feel you’ve pushed the game’s musical spectrum to its limits within the Silent Hill universe?

Akira Yamaoka: As a creator, I usually look for changes. I am not satisfied using the same approaches and style all the time. But this time, I had to create the sound without making too many changes. I think this was the real challenge for me.

I was tempted to make changes and create new sound, but I resisted that and stuck with the original taste of the series. This was a big challenge.

I didn’t expect this series to last for over a decade. I have always been giving my all to each title and pushing myself to the limit, but I think I have to go beyond my limit for the next title.

M4G: How did the collaboration with the US development team affect your approach to scoring and designing the audio for Silent Hill Homecoming?

Akira Yamaoka: There were many talented people in the development team. They were using different technologies including new technologies and dramatically improved existing technologies. In particular, they perfectly implemented the sound that I created for 5.1 channel in the game. I was able to support 5.1 surround thanks to their abilities.

We were able to make this title because the members not only used the technologies but they mastered them. The talented members and their abilities greatly motivated and inspired me.

M4G: Did they request any music changes or did you have complete freedom and autonomy over all the music decisions?

Akira Yamaoka: I was requested to recreate the feel of Silent Hill, which is the style that I have been creating since the beginning of the franchise. They wanted the music to be lyrical, sentimental and have sadness in the sound for this title. This approach is something that comes to my mind very easily because it’s what I have been doing already for a very long time. I also had much freedom in creating this sound, but of course I did have some restrictions like making Heavy Metal or Techno music. Not that I wanted to create such a sound for Silent Hill. (Laughs)

M4G: Has new technology improved the implementation process in any discerning ways?

Akira Yamaoka: Not really. I just had to compile the music data for 5.1 surround and then separate the data by sound.

M4G: How did the overall process differ from working with the Silent Hill development teams in Japan?

Akira Yamaoka: The process was pretty much the same. For Silent Hill, I usually have much freedom to create music. But because of that freedom, I have to consider many different ideas, and a lot of it of trial and error. I took the process with the Silent Hill team in Japan before and the process for this title was not different.

M4G: How many times did you visit the US development team during the game’s design and creation?

Akira Yamaoka: I’m not quite sure… (Laughs) I didn’t count the number of visits. But one day I noticed that my friends in Japan hadn’t been inviting me to go drinking in a while. When I asked them why they didn’t even call me, they said, “You’re not in Japan most of the time!” Then I thought, “Wow, I must have traveled a lot.” (Laughs)

M4G: How did you divide your time between producing the game and writing the score?

Akira Yamaoka: About fifty-fifty.

M4G: How much music did you write for Silent Hill Homecoming and how long did the writing process take?

Akira Yamaoka: I think I wrote between 70-80 songs and about half of them were used in the game. It took about 2-3 months to write them.

M4G: Did you record live? (if so, what, when, where and with whom?)

Akira Yamaoka: No, I did not do live recording. I have done live DJ outside of work, though. (laughs)

M4G: What do you think is the most unique aspect of the score for Silent Hill Homecoming?

Akira Yamaoka: I think I was able to create a pretty interesting sound using 5.1 channel surround. I’d like everyone to listen to and enjoy the sound while playing the game.

M4G: What are your favorite tracks from the score and why? What are your favorite moments from the game and why?

Akira Yamaoka: I have a special feeling for the theme song, “One More Soul To The Call.” I always have a special place in my heart for the scores I wrote as theme songs. Because I usually write a theme song first, that is where a lot of trial and error takes place. That’s why I like the theme song the most and feel so much for it.

My favorite moment is the scene where the main character is surrounded by Pyramid Head (pictured below). I’m not saying that I like the part of the scenario, but I just love the graphic image of the scene where he is surrounded by the big menace.

M4G: The Soundtrack is available in the US as a limited edition CD release via GameStop and 3 Bonus Tracks from Amazon. Will there be a commercial CD or iTunes release?

Akira Yamaoka: This is still under consideration.

M4G: Compared to previous Silent Hill games, Homecoming was not as well received. Why do you think this is?

Akira Yamaoka: I think it lacked the feel of the Silent Hill series or the elements that were required for Silent Hill. The theme of the series is a sort of a silent / unspoken fear (it’s hard to describe…). Homecoming might have lacked the identity of Silent Hill such as psychological fear. Silent Hill in the past depicted things that Japanese people fear using the foreign town environment and it had been well received. It might sound kind of ironic, though.

In the Silent Hill series, the feeling and sense of Japanese people are combined with the foreign cultures and environment, so people sometimes feel uncomfortable or strange. But it actually created the unique horror and universe. I think Homecoming lacked such feel. We need to provide the unique feel and horror of the series. If we provide normal horror and gameplay that users can experience with any games, we can’t expect user support. I think this will be a challenge for us.

M4G: How do you feel about the game and soundtrack now? What would you change/improve, if anything?

Akira Yamaoka: I like to try a completely different approach. But it does not mean that I can create music that strays from the style of the series. I would like to take a different approach while keeping the style. When Silent Hill was started, I wanted to destruct “game music.” In other words, I wanted to challenge myself to create music with a new approach that’s different from the existing approaches for game music. But over time, I think the Silent Hill music has become “traditional game music.” I was able to establish the Silent Hill style as one of game music's most recognisable styles. Next time, I would like to create game music that’s not categorized as any of the existing styles.

M4G: Do you think there will be another Silent Hill game developed in Japan or is the future of the franchise now firmly in the creative hands of the US developer?

Akira Yamaoka: This is a difficult question. I think that Silent Hill has to have Japanese blood or a sense which only Japanese people have and can depict. Even if it is hard for people from different cultures to understand, it has been well accepted and has become the originality of Silent Hill. So I think there may be another Silent Hill game developed in Japan someday. But I also think we will still have more Silent Hill games by the developers outside Japan.

M4G: What do you think of the current state of audio in horror video games? Have you played Dead Space or BioShock? What do you think of their soundtracks?

Akira Yamaoka: I played them. I did not feel like the music style was especially new, but I thought it was good that the music supported the feel of the game. Games have to come first. The role of the sound is to help create the universe and make it even better.

M4G: What other music styles are you interested in writing that you’ve not had the opportunity to compose for Silent Hill or other games?

Akira Yamaoka: I would like to try experimental composition. If I’m free to make anything, I think I will make a lot of nonsensical music like sampling buzzing of cicadas and looping it endlessly. I will probably make music that does not make sense to anybody but me. I am very lucky that I can create music that helps create the feel and universe of movies and games. But if I wasn’t making music for movies and games, I would have probably been making music that nobody would ever listen to!

M4G: Which game soundtracks have impressed you the most in 2008?

Akira Yamaoka: Braid definitely. It is an Xbox Live Arcade title. It used unique sound and technical approaches and I thought it was a very fun piece.

M4G: Are there any artists/vocalists you would like to collaborate with in the future? Would you ever consider recording a live orchestra in your scores?

Akira Yamaoka: I’d love to work with Mr. Tommy Tallarico. He is actually one of my best friends. It would mean so much to me if I could collaborate and create music with him. I hope this will come true one day.

I’d love to record with a live orchestra. I have played with an orchestra and learned how fun and interesting orchestras and the composition of the musical instruments are. I want to play my original songs with an orchestra one day. When I do that, I want to change the traditional way of using an orchestra. I remember how Steve Vai played with an orchestra. It was very innovative.

M4G: What game(s) and/or album projects are you working on that you can mention?

Akira Yamaoka: I’d love to talk about it, but at this point I can only say that I’m currently working on a new game. I am the producer of the game. I’m hoping that I can announce it this year. It will be a completely different, all-new concept. I am confident that everyone will be pleasantly surprised when it comes out.

M4G: What artists/albums are you currently listening to?

Akira Yamaoka: I like “Black Roses” by Rasmus now. I love North European artists, so I listen to them a lot. I also like the latest Guns’N Roses album, “Chinese Democracy.” I realized again how wonderful Axl Rose’s voice is. I often listen to the old and new albums by Mogwai, too.