Interview with Sam Barlow, Mark Simmons and Tomm Hulett - Scream Team (Nintendo Power)

Date published: 2009.04.01
Source: Nintendo Power #241, May 2009 (p. 43-45)

Our greatest fear? Leaving any stone unturned when it comes to this promising new vision for survival-horror. Fortunately, lead designer Sam Barlow and game director Mark Simmons from Climax, along with producer Tomm Hulett from Konami were kind enough to answer our questions.

Nintendo Power: What do you feel are the defining characteristics of the Silent Hill Series, and how are those reflected in Shattered Memories?

Mark Simmons: Silent Hill has a distinct atmosphere that makes you feel really alone. And an art style you can place an image from the game in front of someone and they’ll say straight away, “that’s from a Silent Hill game.” You could do the same with the music, too. Akira’s style is instantly recognizable in every game in the series. Above all, you can’t call it a Silent Hill game unless its story delivers an emotional feeling that you just don’t get in other games.

Sam Barlow: It’s a series that stand’s apart as being artistically ambitious in a way that most video games aren’t. Silent Hill games want to leave players changed after playing them; it’s not just about short-term thrills. Thanks to this, the series has always appealed to an audience outside of just core gamers because it told emotionally engaging stories about characters struggling with the scary stuff if human life rather than alien invasions or fantasy kingdoms.

For Shattered Memories we wanted to reenergize the template, focusing on these aspects. How to use the Wii controls to enhance that atmosphere? How could we be more ambitious with the storytelling? How could we pull in a wider audience, an audience who would love to vacation in Silent Hill but might have been put off by some of the niches aspects of the survival-horror genre?

Nintendo Power: What was the motivation for a reimagining of the original game?

Barlow: We had some pretty big ideas about how to shake up the idea of a horror game. Wii seemed like the ideal place to do this—there’s a large percentage of the audience there who don’t have preconceptions of what a horror game should be, so they’re not bogged down in genre expectations. And the Wii controls give us a great way to push the immersions and rework a lot of core mechanics.

Tomm Hulett: The series has never had a major release on a Nintendo platform, so even though Wii is a perfect fit, a lot of it’s audience has never experienced Silent Hill before. At the same time, returning fans have seen the original storyline a number of times: the third game is heavily influenced by the first, the movie sort of retold the original story, and Climax most recently developed Origins—a prequel to the original game. So we had a conundrum: how do we make the game friendly to newcomers but interesting to longtime Silent Hill natives?

Barlow: The more we thought about it, the more it made sense to take the opportunity to start again, to reimagine the first game—hang our new ideas, on the core story of Harry and his emotional quest for his daughter. For fans of the original, we could push a whole extra layer atop the game—playing off of their memories of the game. So this idea of a remake ended up being a great way of going back to first principles and rethinking the core tenets of a horror game. If someone were making Silent Hill 1 for the first time now, and if they didn’t know what was expected of a horror game, what would they make?

Simmons: The obvious thing was to use the Wii Remote in a way that put a flashlight in your hand, but other discussions about combat, the puzzles, the character control, and the storytelling devices led Sam and the design team to come up with some extremely innovative and braves ideas for the series. In fact, they were so brave we had to step back and ask ourselves, “Do we have enough courage to push the series this far? The more we thought about it, the more we were convinced that the ideas had the potential to reposition Silent Hill at the top of the genre.

Nintendo Power: What can video games bring to the horror genre that no other medium can, and how are you trying to tap into that with this game?

Barlow: Game have more time to build atmosphere, to draw the player in before they s tart to play their tricks. We let the player drive, so the suspense becomes calibrated to that specific person. Horror movies really draw on a huge amount of emotional empathy and projection from the audience, an gamers let use take that to the next step. You don’t have to empathize because it’s really you on screen. The terror is directly felt because it’s you having to run for you life, it’s you peeking through the doorway into darkness. A movie is like a roller coaster—you can close your eyes and it will be over sooner or latter. You can’t do that in a game. You have to move the game on; you have to push forward into the dark.

Than there’s the thing that games can do, but which very few do: personalize the experience. This game will do that in a unique way. It doesn’t ask you to make choices, it doesn’t let you define your route through the game. It makes those choices—many choices— and it makes them in order to freak you out. It is trying to unsettle you—specifically your. A movie has to address a single, broad audience, be we can be dynamic and change in response to the player. We really want to get inside your head, then break it.

Nintendo Power: What lessons did the team learn from the development of Silent Hill: Origins, and hose are those being applied to Shattered Memories?

Barlow: I think that game confirmed our love of the horror genre. We relished the opportunity to tall that kind of a story, despite the limitations of it being an origin title and our coming in on the project after development had started under a different team. It’s a genre we all have a great passion for. We proved you can deliver atmosphere and that psychological tone on a platform nobody believed could do it. People said handhelds couldn’t do horror, but Origins was scary. Technically we did things people had never seen before, or since, on a handheld.

Simmons: Silent Hill fans find out that you’re making a game for the series and worry that you’re going to do it wrong if you’re not “Team Silent.” With Origins, we had to earn our wings, so to speak, and show we wouldn’t screw it up—and now it’s widely accepted as a true addition to the series.

Barlow: Then I think having done a faithful, straight Silent Hill game gave use the confidence to push things as far as we’re doing in Shattered Memories. You’ve got to learn to paint properly before you do a Picasso, and making Origins let us grapple with the genre staples so that we could come away confident about which bits could be rethought and which ought to stay.

Nintendo Power: Can you talk a little bit about why you choose the ice aesthetic for the nightmare version of the town in this game?

Hulett: One aspect of Silent Hill, revealed in the second game, is that everyone sees a different “other world” based on their psychology. Alessa’s nightmare in the first game was a rusted, hellish world, in the sequel, Angela’s nightmare is engulfed in flames. James’s is a bit more about decay, and so on. I think later games forgot or ignored this detail, but it’s an important one. Silent Hill ceases to be scary or interesting as soon as players know what to expect. When Silent Hill transitions to the nightmare, we want people to think, “What the heck is going on?!” every time—not “Here comes the rust again.” I knew that if I worked on a Silent Hill game, I wanted to further develop this concept from Silent Hill 2.

Barlow: It all came together when we recalled one of Dr. Kaufmann’s lines in the original, something like, “and it’s snowing at this time of year.” We loved the strangeness of this, of the weather being out of whack in the town. Soon after, it became a key part of our story and imagery. it was a natural progression to push from this weird blizzard to something more severe—a town fossilized in ice, a desolate world in stasis. Rusty brown corridors were a perfect fit for the Playstation back in 1999, be we wanted to push the visuals much further.

Simmons: A funny part of the story here is a conversation I had with James, our lead render programmer. We were looking at the original game and admiring how this Playstation game from 10 years ago had snowflakes that fell and landed realistically on the environment. James is the sort of person who, if he hears someone say, “That effect looks cool,” will respond, “I bet I could do a better one.” So I challenged him. Sure enough, he came back with an amazing snow effect with thousands and thousands of flakes falling realistically from the sky with each individual flake illuminated by the flashlight and every flake casting an individual shadow onto the environment. The first time you see the world freeze over into the nightmare, you will be amazed at what else he accomplished.

Nintendo Power: What were the key elements from the original game that you wanted to retain for Shattered Memories?

Simmons: SH1’s atmosphere was one of the strongest in the series. Even on the Playstation, Konami’s team executed an amazing feeling of loneliness and desolation, the fog, the dark, the flashlight, those amazing postindustrial tones from Yamaoka-san, and those long periods of the game where you where constantly on edge, never sure what horror was going to meet you round the next corner. That anticipation of what could happen was what made it a truly scary experience. We’re putting a lot of effort into re-creating that sense of desperate loneliness and constant anticipation of what might happen next. In early focus tests, some players have got a little way into the game and there have been occasions where they just didn’t want to go any further for fear of what might be round the next corner.

Barlow: We really wanted to recreate the “wow” factor that flashlight had in 1999. I believe we’ve given Shattered Memories the best in-game flashlight ever.

Hulett: The Silent Hill games are filled with a lot of horrific themes, but one very touching element is that this guy, Harry Mason, loves his daughter so much that he’s willing to plunge repeatedly into this nightmare world to reach her and make sure she’s safe. Obviously the gameplay is about escaping these nightmare world segments, but it’s also about a man repeatedly subjecting himself to hell in order to protect a loved one. That’s one key theme of the original we definitely want to realize in Shattered Memories.

Nintendo Power: Can you give us an example of something from the original game that fans will recognize, bu that has been altered or twisted in some new, unexpected way (a character, a particular event, etc)?

Simmons: Cybil

Hulett: The Balkan

Barlow: I think some fans are going to flip out, but people [who] love Silent Hill because it’s different and surprising are going to really enjoy the head-trip.

Nintendo Power: What was the inspiration for eschewing combat entirely in favor of the escape and evasion sequences?

Simmons: When you look back at the survival-horror genre, it’s pretty clear that the monster scares were built upon awkward controls, clumsy combat, and constantly being kept in a state of low health. Other genres had moves on [by] leaps and bounds, but the survival-horror genre continued to fall back on these unrefined element of the gameplay because they “added to the fear.” Recent attempts fix the controls, but only to focus entirely on action.

Barlow: We don’t try to fix it; we pretend those “rules” never existed. If there were no horror games; if you sat down , watched a ton of horror movies, and then asked, “What is the action mechanic here?” you’d come up with what we did—the “action” is the chase. It’s the classic nightmare. As a child you don’t dream about beating on zombies with pipes. You dream of being chased, of being unable to escape. We wanted to make our nightmare sequences just that—nightmares. You are chased. You run, you try to put distance between you and the creatures, try to find your way out of the labyrinth.

Simmons: We wanted to retain the sense that the protagonist is not super powerful. He’s a guy like you or me, and he’s in a real horrifying situation. What would you do in that situation? Well, you’d run for your life.

Nintendo Power: We love the psychological profile and how you’re using that to really draw the player into Silent Hill. Where did that idea come from, and can you give a couple of examples of just how deeply it might affect each player’s experience?

Simmons: The original idea for the psychological profiling was Sam’s, but it’s taken an enormous organizational effort to bring it from its conception to get it working within the game. I’ve pulled in academics from universities, including professors and students of cyberpsychology to help use with the science. I’ve even sent some of the team for therapy to be analyzed themselves by professional psychologists.

Barlow: It’s about trying to change the narrative in a way that isn’t causal, isn’t so pedestrian as being about a few isolated choices the play has consciously made. It’s not about coming to a fork in the road and choosing the “good path” or the “evil path.” The psychology stuff affects everything. Every pieces of voice in the game changes. Every location changes in small or large ways. Story events pan out differently. The player gets their own tailored monster. Everyone will see a different game. And a lot of these differences are interesting differences. It’s not “I got the ice planet instead of the fire planet.” It’s, “That character was a real jerk” or “What was she so nice to me?” or “Was she coming on to me?.”

Simmons: First-times players will likely go through completely unaware of the hundreds of changes being made all around them. They may jest be more immersed in the story than they normally are and have an uncanny feeling that the game somehow seems to be in tune with them. As the story twists and turns, and when it concludes, they should get some real ”wow” moments when they look back and think about the details. The characters they met, their personalities, their appearance, the places they visited, the atmosphere, the narrative, the many tiny details…all somehow in tune with what type of person they are.

Nintendo Power: Akira Yamaoka is composing the soundtrack for the game, but have you consulted with him or other member of the original development team on any other aspects of Shattered Memories?

Simmons: Yes, we’ve been in consultation with Yamaoka-san and some of the members of the original team on the bold plans for the game and our retelling of their original story.

Barlow: In return, they shared a lot of exclusive information, like stuff that wasn’t in the game—what their original intentions were.

Hulett: When I told Akira about some of the twists to our story, he was genuinely surprised. I think it took a moment for him to wrap his head around it.

Barlow: He’s been a good litmus test. If we’re freaking him out, then we’re on to something!

Simmons: We’ve also been working closely with him on the development of a new superdynamic music system that seamlessly introduces melodies, beats, atmosphere and instruments in and out to dynamically control the ebb and flow of the atmosphere with the music, feeding off your actions within the game to help create the desired level of tension within the user.

Nintendo Power: As fans of the series, we’re hugely excited about Shattered Memories. If we ask really nicely though, would you be willing to tease us with one additional tidbit that might whet our appetites even more?

Simmons: We’ve thrown in a little something for fans of the dog from the basketball court in the original.

Hulett: If anyone thinks they know what to expect, they’re wrong.”

Barlow: Silent Hill fans love puzzles, right? Here’s one to think about: What do Elvis, Willie Nelson, the Pet Shop Boys, Sheryl Crow, and Brenda Lee have in common?