Posted on January 9, 2012 AT 11:50am
Given that the original Silent Hill and its sequel, Silent Hill 2, stand as two of my all-time favorite games, it’s hard for me not to be emotionally invested every time a new game is announced for the series. Will it be good? Will it disappoint? In what ways will it push the series forward, or will it instead do things to diminish progress made in previous chapters?
In sitting down with Silent Hill: Downpour producer Devin Shatsky, I not only wanted to know about the game, but also the man himself. How did he feel stepping into a series with such a rabid fan base, and could he understand why those fans are so passionate about the franchise? And, of course, there was a biggest question looming—even if he understands those fans, does he truly understand what should go into the game that he’s making for them?
EGM: So what is your history with the Silent Hill series?
Devin Shatsky: I came on at the tail end of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, so I worked on finalizing that. Then, I’ve worked on Silent Hill: Downpour from pre-production onward.
EGM: What about your personal history with the series? I mean, in terms of outside of working on it in some fashion?
DS: I was a fan of the games, though I wouldn’t say a super-fan. I played Silent Hill 1 through Silent Hill 3 from beginning to end, and Silent Hill: Homecoming as well. Then, obviously, Shattered Memories and Downpour. I’ve been a survival horror fan from the early 90’s, and when Silent Hill came out, I was immediately enthusiastic about it—I thought it brought a whole new element to the idea of psychological horror that no other games at the time had done. I thought that was something that set the game apart from the rest, and I found it to be very intriguing.
EGM: Silent Hill is, of course, a series which has some infamously hardcore fans—of which I am one. If those fans ask who you are and why you’re qualified to work on the series and Downpour itself, and they ask you what the key to Silent Hill is, how would you answer them?
DS: For the first part of your question, one of the reasons that they brought me on was that with Silent Hill—after Homecoming—Konami was really trying to bring it back to… I don’t want to say a more mainstream feel, but find the recipe of what was successful in the earlier installments, and why those were so appealing to fans. Find what happened over the years to cause that sort of, you know, slow degradation I guess you could say in its appeal to the audience. So, what could we do to bring it back to its roots and its glory?
Part of that was my job. Not being too attached to the original Silent Hill games—and not feeling like Downpour had to follow this recipe of whatever Homecoming did or whatever Silent Hill: Origins did, or feeling that it has to follow along those same lines with the canon. So, part of it was evaluating these earlier games, and trying to find what elements were in those and bringing those out in Downpour as well.
Being a fan of Silent Hill 2, I kind of clung to the notion that being its own stand-alone narrative was something that was really unique about the game. It didn’t tie into the past storyline of the original Silent Hill, and didn’t have to be a sequel to that as Silent Hill 3 did. So, bringing Downpour back to that sort of origination was one of my goals.
That was part of the reason that Konami brought me on. I had worked in the past on The Suffering for Midway, and Area 51 as well, so I had some experience in other horror-genre games, and what we could do to find the mainstream appeal but still make sure we were staying true to the Silent Hill fans as well.
EGM: I still remember the situation surrounding the release of Silent Hill: Homecoming. It was to be the first “next gen” Silent Hill release, the first HD release for the series, and also was positioned as taking the series in a direction it hadn’t been going in. Silent Hill 4 had been released to mixed reactions, so Homecoming was positioned as getting “back on track”. But then, it too received a mixed reaction. In a way, Downpour feels like another attempt at that idea—not in doing what Homecoming did, but in say to a degree, “this is the real launch of Silent Hill on HD consoles.”
DS: Right. I think one of the reasons why Homecoming received mixed reactions was that the team really attempted to tie the storyline back to the original roots, so they were trying to answer questions. Not only that, but also trying to hamstring elements of the movie back into the game, and I think the producer of that game had this grand visions of like, “I’m going to explain everything and tie in all of the movie lore and the previous games into one and explain it all.”
It was almost an impossible undertaking to do that. It seems as if the movie almost violated certain areas of canon, and any of the core fans know that. I think trying to explain it all in a game was sort of a mistake, and for me that was one of the things that I wanted to get away from. Let’s not try to explain everything and make one big happy story out of it all. The original motivation behind Silent Hill—from everything that I’ve read, in terms of the past developers—for the Japanese Team Silent group was the focus was on the town. The town is the main character, and that idea kind of got lost over the years. That was the big focus that we wanted to do with Downpour—bringing that concept back. It’s not all about the main protagonist, and it’s not all about the Order, it’s about the town and how it brings out the darkness in whoever is there, and sort of forces them to face their own inner demons. It could be a completely different story depending on who is there and what has troubled them in the past.
EGM: One of the things I’ve always said in this discussion is that Silent Hill sort of reminds me of Lost; the island was a character, not just an island or a location, and it was the main catalyst for what happened to the characters.
DS: Yeah, exactly.
EGM: Also, in terms of that whole idea, it’s hard not to feel like the series has been stuck in a rut for a while now. You had the original game, and then Silent Hill 2, which understood that it could exist as its own story. But then Silent Hill 3 tied back to the original, Homecoming felt like it had to explain more about the history of the town, Origins layered even more back story upon all of that, and even Shattered Memories—in its own way—was about going back to the beginnings of the series. For so long now, it’s felt like there has been this obsession with over-explaining how the town became what it is, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it feels like the franchise has lost its way.
DS: It’s felt like the series sort of placed more importance on the Order and the cult following more than the actual town itself. In playing Silent Hill 1, I was kind of under that impressions—that everything revolves around the Order, and that’s the reason why all of these crazy things are happening in the town. But then in Silent Hill 2, you kind of realize that that’s not what’s going on, it’s the town itself bringing out these things.
EGM: Yeah, that’s kind of the point. I know what I need to know, and that’s it. You didn’t need to know more about why Silent Hill was screwed.
DS: Right—it just is. So trying to explain all of that, and providing answers for all of that, to me, felt like that was a bad direction to go in. With Downpour, we wanted to step back from all of that again, and let the town be the town and whatever it does to Murphy and Anne Marie throughout their experience there is going to be cool and interesting, but we’re not going to try to explain the inception of why it’s there. Granted, that could be a really cool premise for a game—and who knows, at some point maybe that’ll be done—but for Downpour we weren’t trying to answer all of these deep-rooted questions.
EGM: Also on the topic of getting stuck, there’s things like Pyramid Head. His original design was one that specifically related to James, but then fans liked him, and suddenly we saw him returning outside of his original intended uses. In other ways, too, there’s always been this urge to go back and re-use elements that worked in previous chapters of the series, even if they didn’t fully make sense at that point.
I didn’t play Homecoming until a decent while after it’s release, in part due to all of the negative reaction I had seen others having to it. When I did, I actually enjoyed the game, but at the same time it really felt like a Silent Hill game that had been crafted by-the-book—like somebody had a “This is Silent Hill” guide, and they’d followed it to the letter. When you came into all of this, with the familiar-but-not-fanatical connection that you have to the series, how do you decide which points to connect back to from previous Silent Hill chapters, versus what to avoid doing just for nostalgia’s sake?
DS: For the most part, I had the mentality of the former that you just mentioned—let’s not do anything just for nostalgia’s sake. If we could find a way to pay homage to those games in subtle ways, then I’m all for that—but trying to force characters in from the previous installments just to pay fan service would be a huge mistake. The primary focus for me was to not do that.
With the help of Tomm [Hulett]—he’s our resident Silent Hill expert—I would always kind of refer to him in any areas that I was unsure of. However, more or less, the thought was to completely step away from what we knew of Silent Hill, and keep some of the core fundamentals—like the town itself is the beacon for all of this madness—but other than that avoid implementing things like Pyramid Head, or bubblehead nurses, or any of the former characters. Granted, we did realize that when we went with ideas like side quests and having the town be more open-ended, we had a lot of room to play with. We felt like there was elements of the previous games that we could still mention or pay homage to in the town itself, without going overboard with it. For the savvy player that does a lot of exploration, you’re going to see nods back to every single game, whether it’s just a mention of a name or something else—I don’t want to give away too much. There’s lots of little lore elements that tie into previous games that you’ll find when exploring.
EGM: For the games you mentioned that you’ve worked on previously, those were new titles with no real fan base to worry about. Here, you’re stepping into this minefield. I mean, for Konami, I’d say Silent Hill is only second to the Metal Gear series in terms of the craziness of fans and how hardcore they are about canon. Did that freak you out at all?
DS: Oh yeah, absolutely. Not as much freak me out as it did frustrate me. It wasn’t until I had stepped back and eliminated any sort of feelings of it being personal attacks or whatnot, and realized that the fans just genuinely care about the franchise. They love it. I think a lot of them feel this sense of ownership over it, right? It’s like, I grew up playing these games, I’ve played seven or eight Silent Hills since 1999 and onward, I’ve invested a lot of my own time and money into these games—and I feel like Konami is screwing me to a certain extent. They’re going in a direction I wouldn’t have gone with the games.
The more I sort of put myself in their shoes and see where they’re coming from, the more I understood that it’s something that they grew up on and feel this nostalgia to. They care about the franchise, and I think that’s really cool. Granted, there’s a lot of very vocal fans too that I think are doing an injustice to the franchise as well by constantly berating whatever story they didn’t agree with—like with Homecoming or whatnot, and the certain elements that they didn’t like. It’s like, they get so vocal in bashing a particular game that it’s detrimental to the future of the franchise.
The internet is a very scary place, and it can start swaying other people’s opinions—like you even mentioned, before you played Homecoming you had this bad view of what it was and you didn’t even really want to give it a chance at first because you had read so many negative opinions of it. Whether or not that actually swayed your view of it once you played it, I don’t know, but it’s very likely that a lot of people pick up and play Homecoming after reading negative reviews of it and just have this mindset that they’re not going to like it no matter what. You can’t change that after a certain point. So, it’d be nice if people could just play the games without reading what other people think of them, and just judge for themselves a lot of the time, but I think that people get so caught up in the negativity. It’s fun to bash things; it’s fun to be a hater sometimes and go on forums and badmouth the people that are creating the games and whatnot. I think it’s sort of doing an injustice to the franchise over time.
EGM: I’ll ask you the same question I asked Tomm: would you rather people—in relation to the game you’ve made or your personal decisions on a particular title—be saying bad things on the internet, or would you rather them be saying nothing at all?
DS: I’d rather they were saying nothing at all.
EGM: Oh really? Tomm was the opposite.
DS: Yeah, and there’s different schools of thought on it. For me, like I said, I would rather people go into the game with a completely clear slate, and just judge it on their own merits without reading somebody else’s opinions beforehand. It’s easy to get caught up in that negativity, and be like, “Ah man, this game’s going to suck” before even playing it. If you go into it with that impression, it’s obviously going to sway your opinion.
EGM: When the original Silent Hill was released, at the time I was a big fan of the Resident Evil series. When I saw what Konami was doing with this new game called “Silent Hill”, I just expected it to be a total knock-off of what Capcom was doing. But then it came out, it was something completely different, and I fell in love with it.
In Resident Evil, progression was very linear—yet in Silent Hill, I felt like I was in an actual town. In a way, at times it almost felt like an early Grand Theft Auto or other sandbox game to me. There were streets, and shops, and all of these places that I didn’t need to go to complete the game, but exploring those locations helped to create the atmosphere of being in the town. And yet, that feeling kind of got lost as the series progressed, even to a point as early as Silent Hill 2. One thing I’m excited by seeing in Downpour—in what’s been shown so far—is that it seems like you’re getting back to that idea. That creation of a city that infuses exploration, and which makes you want to know more about what’s around you. That desire to know things like, what’s that store called? Or what is that poster in the window of this building? Or what’s down this totally random side street? Am I correct in feeling like this is something you’re going after?
DS: Yes, absolutely. For me, I felt the same thing with Silent Hill 1—having this town I could walk around, and being able to wander down an alley wondering what I’d find and whatnot. I felt like it was a great idea that they didn’t really maximize. But, you know, it was on the original PlayStation, and there was a lot less capability at that time in terms of the amount of design they could have done. I felt like that was just scratching the surface of what we could do. For Downpour, that was one of the things that we focused on: Let’s encourage the player to look around and explore things instead of just coming to that alley and thinking, “Oh, that’s a cool texture and it looks really atmospheric and everything is really neat, but there’s nothing to do at the end of the alley.” With Downpour, we wanted to add rooms that players could explore, or trigger a sidequest here and there when exploring the town to encourage that more and more, instead of how eventually you’re just going to give up when you face a locked door each time you head down an alley. So that was definitely a big motivation for us—making the town explorable.
EGM: This may sound silly, but going back to that question of understanding the fan base, and how the series has grown and progressed—originally Silent Hill was this small resort town, then Silent Hill 2 brings in this whole new area south of Toluca Lake, and now Downpour is announced and all of a sudden we hear that Silent Hill has subways. How in the world does this sleepy little town of Silent Hill have subways? [laughs]
DS: Right? [laughs]
EGM: Is there a point where you just say, this is what we have to do?
DS: Sort of. We definitely—when we proposed the idea—we knew that some fans were just going to be like, “What the hell are you doing? This is outrageous.” But ultimately, it was a mechanism for us to allow the player to teleport to different areas of the town without forcing them to walk miles and miles to get to these various sections. Because, really, it’s a very big town in Downpour. The section is large. So, how you justify that is up to you really. People have their own schools of thought really as to what Silent Hill is. Was it a tiny little resort town, or was it growing over time, right? Some people think it’s a town that’s been quarantined, and nobody lives there. But the way we perceive it is that it’s a living, breathing town, and what Murphy sees, or what James sees isn’t what everybody else is seeing. It’s sort of the parallel reality thing, right? There could be a normal living town of Silent Hill going on right now, and the fact that Murphy is wandering through it and not seeing anybody is because that’s what Murphy is experiencing; that’s what the town is bringing out of him. So having a subway there, and having these mechanisms for transportation seems perfectly normal if it’s a town that’s still growing over time.
EGM: It’s really interesting to hear you mention that, because—and I don’t know if anybody else picked up on this—but one of the things that stuck with me from the segments of the game that you showed us was Murphy’s conversation with Howard, the mailman. And Howard—very casually—is just like, “Oh, I’m here doing my job.”
DS: Yeah, Murphy’s like, “What are you doing?” And he’s like, “Delivering the mail. What’s it look like?”
EGM: Right. So among the Silent Hill community, there’s this long-running discussion and list of theories on what the town really is. There’s the idea that maybe it’s a series of layers, where the “normal” town does still exist as a living, breathing town, but then maybe it’s also a quarantined town, but then maybe it’s also all of these other things. You had Silent Hill 2, where Angela sees the town as this place that’s on fire, for example. Obviously you won’t spoil anything here, but in whatever way you can tell me, do you get into any of those ideas in Downpour?
DS: Absolutely. We want to leave it up to player’s own interpretations to a certain extent, but from everything we’ve read, and from the development team that still exists in Japan that we’ve talked to, the original intent for Silent Hill was that it’s a living, breathing, normal town. What James is experiencing in the time he’s there, for example, is just within his own mind, and his own inner demons coming out. It’s the whole parallel reality scenario, where there could be people going back and forth and walking down the street while he’s there and he’s not noticing them or seeing them because he’s in his own personal Silent Hill.
EGM: One of the freakiest parts for me of the Silent Hill series was in Silent Hill 3, when Heather is talking to Vincent about the monsters she’s been fighting, and he’s like, “They look like monsters to you?”
DS: Right? See?
EGM: That part just kind of sends a chill down your spine, so I liked seeing something similar in that clip of Downpour. It kind of brought that feeling back.
DS: Yeah. That question of, “Wait, what’s really going on?” Howard’s not seeing it—or maybe he is. So it’s really unique to Murphy’s own story, or whoever’s story it is.
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