Broken Silence: The Case of the Next Silent Hill Developer
Silent Hill Downpour may have just graced us fans three months ago, but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about the future. Silent Hill Book of Memories is the next game to release in the series and while canon, is not a main title. Book of Memories is a canon game in spinoff territory and while I’m looking forward to seeing what Wayforward can contribute to the series in an experimental Silent Hill title, my mind has lately been thinking about Silent Hill Next. Who should we expect to develop the next main entry in the series? Vatra? Climax? Yet another random studio? Well, let’s speculate on a potential list of developers for the next game.
Vatra Games, a relatively new Czech studio, was revealed as the developers behind the latest Silent Hill at E3 2010. Being a new studio, some concerns were had among fans. Vatra released its first game Rush’n Attack: Ex-Patriot in March 2011 which gained quite a few negative reviews by gaming publications. This contributed to my own concerns of whether Vatra could handle a Silent Hill game adequately.
Thankfully, and to my own surprise, Silent Hill Downpour ended up being a very good Silent Hill game. It had its share of technical flaws but that could be contributed to Konami’s own release schedule pushing the title out a bit too soon (as with the Silent Hill HD Collection). Vatra did it. This unknown Czech studio did justice to the series by providing a fun and evolutionary leap in gameplay that Homecoming didn’t achieve.
An open world, side-quests, limited weapons, frantic otherworld segments and a passionate character led to me enjoying Downpour. Now that it’s been some time since that game released, I am already itching for a new one. Call me an addict, but I like my Silent Hill. I would be playing the HD Collection right now to 100% completion, but knowing a significant patch is in the works has put a damper on my desire to do so.
Seeing as how Konami jumps from developer to developer with each Silent Hill release, it might not be a guarantee that Vatra will return to develop the next Silent Hill even if reception from fans seemed to be pretty positive. Critically, Downpour received moderate to low scores. Whether Konami looks at critic reviews to determine a developer change is unknown, but it seems they would likely do so.
It would be great If Vatra are allowed to return, because they created, what I think, is a great template for following Silent Hill games. From the camera to the level design, I feel Vatra did a great job. Another crack at it could lead to a fantastic game due to the initial learning and design curves being understood by the team. But like I said before, this might be an unlikely event due to Konami’s past actions.
If Vatra does not return to the series then who shall take the reins? Another unknown developer? Let’s look at some alternatives.
Climax is the only recent Silent Hill developer to have worked on two entries in the series: Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill Shattered Memories. While Origins was more of an emulation of the series’ staples, Shattered Memories was an experimental take on core principles of the series, such as psychology trumping reality.
Silent Hill Origins was originally started by the American division of Climax. After a few tech demos and leaks were revealed, the game was sent to Climax UK and massively overhauled. The closure of Climax US also followed. The beta version of Origins was not appealing whatsoever, but once the switch to Climax UK was done, the resulting product was much more familiar to past games in the series.
Climax UK’s second Silent Hill game, after Double Helix’s Silent Hill Homecoming, was Shattered Memories. Instead of doing a game in the main series, Shattered Memories attempted to reinvent many aspects of the series into a spinoff on the Nintendo Wii. While some fans did not like the idea of a spinoff treading on the story of Silent Hill 1, Shattered Memories offered up a unique take on the series that I very much liked. It was much more of a mystery game rather than a horror title.
While not being all that supernatural or scary, Shattered Memories was, what I consider, a great experiment in the series that allowed for some new ideas to spill into Downpour, the next title in the series. It was Climax’s Silent Hill games that contributed the new gameplay elements into Downpour—a large range of limited use melee weapons, big otherworld transitions, otherworld chases, a modern over-the-shoulder camera, independent flashlight use, and a need to run rather than fight.
Climax did an alright job if you ask me. Now, what if they were given another shot at the series? The third time is the charm, right? Imagine if Climax were to build off of Downpour‘s mechanics. While it would probably be best for a developer to build off of their own work, Climax would simply be expanding on mechanics and themes they developed for Silent Hill Origins and Shattered Memories.
Perfecting, polishing, and expanding upon what we had in Downpour would lead to less time rebuilding the next game from the ground up and more time focusing on what can be improved upon. I would be more than welcome to see Climax return.
As of late, it seems that indie developers are at the forefront of keeping the survival horror genre alive. With titles like Amnesia, The Penumbra Trilogy, Lone Survivor, and mods like Korsakovia, some of the genre’s best efforts can be found on PC. What is it about being an indie developer that leads to such passion for horror and attention to detail? Let’s ask two horror indie professionals what they think a Silent Hill game would need and what they could offer the series if given the chance to develop a game in it.
Talking with Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra fame, we discussed what Thomas sees in the Silent Hill series and what themes he would put in a title if he had the chance.
Thomas immediately noted what he sees as the first game’s influences: Stephen King’s The Mist for the game’s use of concealing fog; Dean R Koontz’s Phantoms for an abandoned mysterious town; David Lynch’s use of odd characters and a fragmented story to conceal the plot; and lastly, Jacob’s Ladder for its use of different realities and insanity.
Thomas also supplied two lists–one with things he would change from the current games and one with what he would add to the series if given the chance. Here is the former:
So what would be changed from the formula we have seen in previous games:
- Drop cut scenes. I know this is a big thing in all SH games, but I want to see better character interaction instead.
- No map system needed. I always hated going back and forth between the map and game, so that needs to go. Perhaps need something to replace the sense of exploration.
-A lot less monster encounters. Apart from the first game that made this kind of good, monsters have always become repeated way beyond their scariness and become boring cannon fodder. Creatures need to be encountered a lot less often what they have been.
-No linear path. Let the player run around freely in the town and enter what they like and change the game accordingly. Since we are going for Lynchian storytelling we can get away with not beeing [sic] totally consistent, that would actually only add to the atmosphere.
- No abstract puzzles. Instead tie any puzzles to the narrative and make sure they are never in way of the experience.
Thomas calls for the removal of cutscenes, a map system, and the series’ iconic abstract puzzles. I wouldn’t be too phased if cutscenes were removed in favor of more organic in-game events. That could lead to some scares, because the wall between cutscene and gameplay would be removed, thus causing a sense of panic, fear, and uncertainty.
As for the puzzles, I would like to see them continue to be abstract. Odd and symbolic puzzles have been a staple of the series since the very beginning and have been tied to the narrative in some ways. While not directly, many puzzles in the Silent Hill series reference themes in the story and its characters. I like that. I don’t think that should change as long as they remain of high quality.
Losing a map system might be a little difficult with openworld access to the entire town. Perhaps ensuring that each street and building are unique would help the player memorize their environment, but I don’t think this would work all too well if the world is as big or larger than in Downpour. Downpour‘s openworld is something I had been asking for for years; I was very happy to finally have it. Preserving town exploration is an essential feature that must remain.
Coupling exploration with limited but incredibly dangerous monster encounters could be very frightening. Imagine walking around the town without an encounter for up to thirty minutes only to be suddenly approached by an enemy that is too difficult to kill with standard weapons. Downpour somewhat does this but, due to the game’s monster design and encounter rate, enemies don’t induce that level of intense fear.
When specifically asking Thomas what he and his team would bring to the series, he had this to say:
What features do I want to see:
- More character interaction. I would like to see more creepy character encounters than monster encounters. There would need to be some nice dynamic system to this so we get rid of cutscenes (as mentioned above) and does not have boring dialog trees, but I there are ways to do that (for instance by having the character react to what the player is currently doing).[sic]
-Disgusting and creepy monsters. Silent Has had some really good monster design in the early games, and we want more of that. Want to have more foreboding to each monster though, so they get more personality then just some random creature. [sic]
-Third person perspective. I think this would work best for a Silent Hill games, so let’s keep that, and take advantage of it by making the protagonist more aware of the environment.
- Combat should still be in, but generally useless. Monsters should pretty much invulnerable, but you could attack the other human characters if you want to, which of course could have grave consequences, but be necessary at times. The player should of course never know if they made the right choice.
Thomas hits the nail on the head with what he thinks should remain in the series. Going off of what he said about monsters and combat, I think he’s right. I appreciated the melee combat in Downpour, because like past games it was clunky and slow simply to be clunky and slow–a means to strengthen the survival aspect of the genre. Despite trying to retain this survival horror staple within the current generation, the combat was met with mixed results. The developers probably struggled with the idea of survival horror combat and wanted to avoid a game that felt more action focused. It’s definitely a thin line if you think about it.
I didn’t mind the combat all too much in Homecoming, as funny as that sounds. Was the melee really more action oriented or was it just the amount of enemy encounters given to players that gave the game a more action feel? Like I said earlier, the combat system of Downpour was clunky, but aren’t survival horror classics just the same? It might have not been a problem for someone like me who is used to “bad” combat, but I understand why it wasn’t received so well. For the next game, the developers have to make a tighter combat system with a better emphasis on control while keeping enemy encounters dangerous and difficult. Think: focused, polished, approachable, but not very powerful combat.
Downpour suffered immensely from overly humanoid enemies with cliché horror aspects; they just didn’t reach that same level of abstract deformation of the human figure that the previous games are known for. Having scarier monster design with a combat system that more people can appreciate will make the series more appealing.
Out of all of the monsters in Downpour, I like The Doll the most. She seemed a bit more in tune with the series. The other creatures were just not appealing. Screaming ladies, angry prisoners, big bat-men, and a big prison … daddy with he-bitches. To put it simply, the monsters sucked. Give us crazier stuff next time!
A current generation Silent Hill game should remain in third person. I really liked the camera placement in Downpour; something about it just worked and that really boils down to my personal preference of the camera’s position. Classic camera angles as well, but let us run and move normally when we’re in them, please. That was an odd little aspect of Downpour‘s classic camera rooms that took me out of the game a bit.
As for involving Murphy more, Thomas’ comment does make me think that a little bit more of Murphy dialogue would have been nice. Perhaps, the next game can bring back more inner thought examination? I want to look at the environment and observe. I want to stare at a kitchen sink and see a comment about the hygiene level. We need fun and immersive stuff like that back.
Lastly, Thomas’ suggestion to remove cutscenes altogether is something that I’m a bit wary of. While it would be nice for more things to happen in-game so that the player’s sense of comfort never returns, cutscenes do help bring the story along from an outside perspective. I guess it really depends on the style of the game. Some more in-game events would definitely do some good in aiding the horror and tension.
Thomas and Frictional certainly know their horror, I’ll give them that. Amnesia is quite the atmospheric game. It also helped bring survival horror back onto many people’s radars. Could indie developers be the way to go? Let’s check with another studio.
In an interview with Dan Pinchbeck, the creative director of thechineseroom, Dan talked about a concept he had for the Silent Hill series—a quite interesting one to boot. Dan had this to say “Going to a smaller studio and giving them the tools… Not modding, but like the next level of the concept. Or bringing the small studio and saying that: we’re going to commission you to make an hour long DLC or add-on for a game, or going to take a cut of whatever you produce, but we have a quality threshold,” Dan told Dumdoi.com. “You have the concept, you have the software, the engine, the tools… You can say: we have the IP, but we don’t necessarily have to do all of it ourselves.”
Dan’s response was to the interviewer stating his idea around smaller Silent Hill games made by different teams. Dan’s response was particularly interesting because he’s all for a small studio tackling a Silent Hill based project. What if Konami agreed and hired a small studio such as thechineseroom?
Known for Dear Esther and their upcoming Amnesia sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, thechineseroom is a small indie studio based in the UK. Their games have been all about emotion, horror, and making players second guess themselves.
I reached out to Dan for some input and follow up details on his ideas for this classic horror series. Dan is quite the fan of the series and even called it an inspiration for his company’s very own titles. “It was a definite inspiration for Dear Esther, let alone Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, because it was the game series, more than any other which showed how if the images are powerful enough, the world is engaging enough, it didn’t have to make sense.” Dan told me. “Players would follow the blood trail, even if they never really understood why they were doing it. And the layer of messed-up therapy/psychology… that just twists the screwdriver into the skull one turn deeper.”
As creative director at thechineseroom, Dan strives for emotional and psychologically derived themes in his games. Dear Esther, a game based on pure emotional connection with the player, is an example of that. When I asked Dan what he thinks his studio could offer the Silent Hill series, he said “psychology”.
“We get psychology, we understand that fear thrives in a vacuum, and that the monster under the bed is only frightening because it wears your face.” Dan explained.
“If we were taking on a Silent Hill, I’d want to focus on the town as a place, rather than necessarily follow a linear plot. Silent Hill is the central character in the Silent Hill games, and I’d love to see the player almost as a kind of psycho-supernatural archeologist, rather than an antagonist. The drive of Silent Hill is ‘what the hell happened here?”, and I’d want to explore that more than ‘what the hell happened to me?’. I think that’d be really interesting,” Dan said. “Go slightly more open, make it about a network of spaces rather than a descent through one character’s consciousness. And then you can really gear up the loneliness, that horrible void that is so critical to how the series works. It’s much more frightening to know Pyramid Head is out there somewhere, hunting you, waiting for you, if there’s a whole town laid out in front of you, and he could be anywhere. And you have no idea where to go, only that there are occasional individuals, pockets of others trapped in this world. In their own hells, wearing their own faces. But also wearing yours.”
While I do agree that the town is indeed the main character in the series, I’m not too sure about abandoning a personal horror story derived from the protagonist’s mind. A character looking for answers rather than his own troubles is something that I find difficult plotting in my head. To me, there needs to be some personal connection to the horrors a character faces in the town. But what if the story is a little bit of both? A character who knows that the town has powers and while on his or her search for answers, their personal demons are extracted and used to hinder their journey? Harry experienced Alessa’s nightmare, I guess we could get into that territory again (Downpour sorta did but that’s up to debate among fans).
I don’t want to go too far in plotting a story; I’ll do that some other time. Right now we’re looking at talented studios that could possibly work on a Silent Hill game. Dan and thechineseroom are definitely talented but would Konami approach a small studio for the next Silent Hill? That’s hard to say. I could see them doing so for a smaller Silent Hill project. As we know, the Silent Hill series as of late doesn’t stick with one developer for too long. They seem to favor smaller studios (read: cheaper).
Hijinx Studios, a relatively unheard of developer, was given the task of porting Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 to the HD Collection. Many fans blame the issues with the ports on the studio’s experience level. If Konami had employed the highly qualified BluePoint Games for the Silent Hill HD Collection as they did with the Metal Gear Solid games, the Silent Hill HD Collection would have come out fine and possibly even sooner. But we don’t know exactly who’s fault it is for the lackluster HD Collection. It could be the developer or the publisher, maybe even both.
Now what if the Silent Hill series was brought over seas to a Japanese developer? Before anyone cries “just because they’re Japanese developers doesn’t mean they can do a better job”, let me say that I agree with that statement. Basing skill on the fact that they’re Japanese developers and not “western” does not make any sense. Believe me, I have seen that argument come from way too many people. Just look at the Silent Hill Facebook page: a cesspool of arguing and “fans” that don’t know who Robbie the Rabbit is. Or people who thinks he originated in Homecoming.
Grasshopper Manufacture is talented developer and one of the best coming out of Japan. Shadow of the Damned was one of my favorite games last year. The studio has also released some pretty popular games this year such as: Lollipop Chainsaw and Sine Mora. But why take the series to Japan again with Grasshopper? Well, we know that the studio is talented; talent is very important, isn’t it? With Vatra, we didn’t know what to expect because they had only released one game prior to Downpour. With Grasshopper, we know that they’re capable of making quality games.
What Grasshopper can bring to the series would be what Vatra did: cultural infusion. Downpour was developed by an eastern European studio, and while the game didn’t scream that it was made in the Czech Republic, small traces of influence made it into the game. From the level design to the art, one can sense a bit of cultural influence on the game. There’s no doubt that the designers at Vatra would perceive horror differently than say you or I. Everyone views it differently but when it’s cultural, the difference is more distinct. I felt some of this influence in the game’s town. The design of the town and its structures felt inspired by a different culture.
The original Silent Hill games benefited from Japanese horror trying to mimic western horror. That perception difference that the team had reflects on the games just as it did with Vatra and Downpour. Whether you prefer one of the other does not matter. The point here is the effect of a culture that we are not entirely familiar with leaving its subtle mark on the design of the game. With Grasshopper being a very talented developer, couldn’t we expect a good game? I think so.
The Silent Hill series has a new team of sorts, jokingly referred to as Team Silence. These core people: Konami producers Tomm Hulett and Devin Shatsky will work on the next game in the Silent Hill series regardless of developer. So, their influence will continue to construct the game. If Grasshopper were to develop the next game, both Hulett and Shatsky would work with them on the game. Their vision for the next game will remain intact regardless of who develops it, but I bring up Grasshopper because they’re a good developer that can bring back some Japanese cultural infusion to the series as well as developing a quality title.
Lastly–and this is not the reason why I immediately thought of Grasshopper for my Japanese developer choice–Akira Yamaoka, long time series composer for the Silent Hill series, now works at Grasshopper. Akira returning to the series after a much needed vacation and wide variety of projects since Shattered Memories could create some of his best work yet. I wouldn’t be apposed to Dan Licht and Akira Yamaoka working together, either. I doubt Konami would drop Dan’s involvement with the series altogether, so a collaboration would be an awesome possibility.
My main point is that Grasshopper is a good developer that makes good games. That alone is something I could comfortably stand behind with a Silent Hill developer. Secondly, the cultural influence is something that I want to see again in the series whether it’s Japanese or Czech. It adds something to the games that, as an American, makes themes a bit more abstract, for the lack of a better word. Akira Yamaoka’s awesome sound design and music would also be a nice bonus if this developer were to work on the next Silent Hill game. Due to the studio being located in Japan, maybe even Masahiro Ito could come back to work on art and monster design. If only.
Team Silence Expanded?
What if Konami were to put more money into supporting the Silent Hill series by creating an in-house developer with the task of cranking out Silent Hill games? I know this won’t happen but let’s just imagine. With the highly successful Metal Gear Solid series and its creator Hideo Kojima having his own studio and team, wouldn’t it be nice for Silent Hill to have the same? Again, this is an idea that will probably never happen, but a studio dedicated to Silent Hill projects would be nice.
The Silent Hill series would of course have to become a powerhouse in the sales department for this to ever be considered. The idea of a team focusing on everything Silent Hill could produce a good game but these sort of things are short lived and are reserved for highly successful series. It’s a sad fact, but I’d love to see another development team live and breathe Silent Hill.
When speaking to our EIC, the topic of a Mercury Steam developed Silent Hill game came up. The Konami developer has announced that the two upcoming Castlevania games will be their last and would like to move on to other projects, hopefully Contra. But what if Konami asked them to work on the next Silent Hill instead? Going with the hypothetical situation that they did accept a Silent Hill project, what could they offer?
I recently finished Lords of Shadow and left quite pleased. The game was some good fun albeit lacking in the character development department. It had brilliant gothic art design, amazing set pieces, good balancing, interesting puzzles, and a wide variety of enemy types with great designs. Mercury Steam is clearly talented. I like to imagine a game by their hands.
I’ve looked at several possible developers that I would be interested in seeing develop the next Silent Hill game. I went from big, to small and indie in search of a studio that I would feel comfortable with taking the reigns of the next entry in the series. While I have no say in who could possibly work on the next game, it would be nice to see a studio I like be given the series I love.