Interview: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories producer Tomm Hulett

When it was first revealed, we gave Silent Hill: Shattered Memories a bit of a cold shoulder. Gone was the established story that had first introduced us to the world's creepiest town, reinterpreted with altered characters and a new otherworld that ditched darkness and rust in favor of jutting glaciers and vaguely menacing snowflakes. Thankfully, our experience with the game at E3 revived our expectations, even if it was at the expense of whole memories.

We later had the opportunity to speak to producer Tomm Hulett, who elaborated on why we should call Shattered Memories a re-imagining -- and not a remake:

You're making Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and you're tying it to the first game. Harry Mason is back, but you're calling it a re-imagining, you're not saying "remake." Is that a bad word?

Right, that's a curse word. [laughs] By re-imagining, like you said, we've got the premise of the first game: you're Harry Mason, you're looking for your daughter Cheryl. Beyond that we've changed and updated it, so it's an entirely new experience. If you've played the PlayStation game to death, you still have no idea what to expect for Shattered Memories.

We did that because, on the Wii, maybe there's a lot of people who haven't played any Silent Hill games, so it wasn't really fair to say, "Here's the sequel to Homecoming, enjoy yourself." But then, returning fans, they've played the first game, they've played Origins, they've seen the movie, and they've played Silent Hill 3 and it all kind of revolves around the events of the first game. So they wouldn't really want to play a remake and so, by re-imagining it, there's new content -- if you've never played it before, of course, it's new to you -- but then, there's also this extra layer of new content if you're returning, because you get to experience all these things that are different from what you're expecting. And that really fits the theme of Silent Hill, which is this place where your reality is subjective and you don't know what to expect. We've built that into the game if you're a returning fan.

Do you feel that by tying it to a story that everyone is already familiar with, you're opening yourself up to people who are going to complain about the differences? "How could you make Dahlia a young woman?!"

Well, like I said, Silent Hill is this place where, you know ... In Silent Hill 2, James thinks his wife's been dead for three years and she sends him this letter, and he goes to Silent Hill to look for her, and what he finds is something entirely different. And the endings of the Silent Hill games, each game has multiple endings that are vastly different and there are arguments to be made that all of them are the true ending. Well, if this was a new game, we wouldn't have that effect on people. We'd have to re-explain it. Now fans know that's what Silent Hill's about, so how do you make an interesting Silent Hill game for them? By re-imagining it -- they're coming in with expectations and they think they know what's going on -- we can play with that as well. So, things like, now Dahlia's a young woman. You thought you knew Dahlia, you thought you knew everything about her, you wanted to see how they updated her in the graphics, and then you're ready to go home. You didn't have to play the game. But now, you have no idea and now you're going to play the game just to find out, I hope. The game's full of details like that.

Where do you draw the line between messing around with people's expectations and completely jumping the shark? You could make Dahlia a robot ...

[laughs] We could put Pyramid Head in every cutscene! No, well, we are all fans of the first game. We love the story, but again, we've seen it too, seen the movie, played Silent Hill 3. Some of us have made Silent Hill: Origins, so we know how people feel about it. By changing things, we're not just doing it to piss people off, we're telling them an interesting story with that element to it. And so, since we're fans, we can look at it and say, "Does this really work?" That said, they're not safe choices -- we did make Dahlia this young woman. There are certain elements we told Akira [Yamaoka], when we were explaining the plot to him. I had this huge phone call planned with him and I had to cut it short because he couldn't get over some of the things that we were saying. "So, here's the deal with so-and-so." "Wait, are we talking about the same game?" There's a lot of differences, but I wouldn't say we jumped the shark, because they're all very calculated, they all serve the story and they're all surprising.

"... the second something stops being scary is when it becomes predictable."

It sounds like Akira's more involved, beyond just the soundtrack. Is he doing more in this game?

Well, Akira's a cool guy, I just like talking to him, so any excuse to talk to him ... His main role is to create the soundtrack, and he is creating an all-new soundtrack, he's not just recycling old music. But early on, we went to the original staff of Silent Hill 1 after we came up with this concept of re-imagining and we said, "Hey guys, when you were making the first game, what was your goal? What were you trying to accomplish? What are things that maybe you couldn't do, you would do better or differently?" Using that information of what their goal was, we took the same goal and we made this new Silent Hill 1 to be the modern day interpretation of what they were trying to accomplish with the real Silent Hill 1. So, Akira was involved in that a little bit and beyond that, he is just mainly doing sound. Something I should mention is, in the trailer, you may have heard the new song that he's created, which is "Always On My Mind." He made a cover of it. That really sends home the message of re-imagining, because if you've only heard the Pet Shop Boys version of "Always On My Mind," Akira's is quite a bit creepier.

Creepier than the Pet Shop Boys?

I'm afraid so. [laughs] That kind of illustrates, musically, what we've done with the game.
He's the guy that's always there for Silent Hill. Every single Silent Hill game, no matter whether it's The Room, or Homecoming, Akira's always there. Could you make a Silent Hill game without him?

I wouldn't like to, because I am a fan of the series and I do love his music. I think it adds a special element, it's kind of the atmosphere of the town. If Akira's music isn't there, it just doesn't sound quite right. And I'm sure that there are people out there who could emulate the sound and try to get it close, but there would be something missing. Having Akira here, giving feedback and creating this music, is a great mark of authenticity, I think.

I think that was the correct answer.

I hope so, it's the honest answer!

If this game finds success on the Wii, could the system become the new home base for Silent Hill?

Silent Hill's an important franchise to Konami, it's our premier survival horror franchise, so I'm not sure it needs a "home." I think a lot of fans have gotten used to it being on the PS2 and we are creating a PS2 version of Shattered Memories for them, but it's been on Microsoft consoles and everyone likes to be scared, so why should we only allow a certain group of people to be scared? I think the Wii allows us to do different things with Silent Hill and the second something stops being scary is when it becomes predictable. I think we need to experiment with Silent Hill, we need to put it on all these different platforms, we need to try new things with the story. Otherwise, it's just that game where you go through a level once and then it get creepy, and you go through the level again and half the doors are locked. That's not scary anymore.

Is it more difficult to make something feel really scary on the Wii -- just because I think survival horror games are very dependent on the production value and graphics and sound. Like Dead Space, for instance.

Well, it's a funny thing. It turns out that if you put effort into creating graphics on the Wii, you can actually make some pretty good graphics on the Wii.

"It turns out that if you put effort into creating graphics on the Wii, you can actually make some pretty good graphics on the Wii."

That's an amazing idea. You should send this out to other people doing Wii games.

I thought I would make a game about it and see if it catches on. [laughs] Joking aside, we've done some amazing things graphically here. Every object self-shadows with the flashlight that you're moving around in real time, even the snow flakes. If you were bored one day, you could stand in front of a wall in the game and watch the snow fall and look at all the shadows. But beyond the graphics, the Wii allows us to, well, we've done this on all the platforms, really, but the Wii sparked the idea of removing the game elements that remind you, "Hey, you're playing a video game." In most survival-horror games, I see a creature and he's barreling down the hall at me and I'm so scared I hit pause and then he's not barreling down on me anymore. Or, I go to my map and I'm safe there.

What we've done with the Wii version is you're interacting with the Wii remote. With puzzles, you're not coming to a separate puzzle menu where you select options with the cursor, you're reaching into the game so you're immersed at all times. We've also taken the menu function, put it on Harry's cellphone, which is just like pulling out a cellphone in real life. The rest of the world is still around you, you're still walking around, but using that, you never see a menu pop up. When you're exploring the environment you're actually looking at it instead of clicking a button to have text pop up and tell you what you're looking at. So, if Harry has a clever comment about something, he just makes it out loud. You'll never say, "Oh look, there's text I'm reading, there's a menu." It's all happening to you as long as you have the game turned on.

You're using the Wiimote as your flashlight, you're pointing at stuff. And you're also getting calls through the Wiimote's speaker. Considering that this is a flashlight which receives calls, is Silent Hill officially a sci-fi game?

[laughs] Well, once you pull out the cellphone, Harry puts his flashlight down and he's holding the cellphone in that hand. So really, the Wii remote transforms itself into a cellphone and you control it with the D-pad, you make selections with the A-button, and it really feels like you're holding a phone in your hand. So it's natural to put it up to your ear and hear sounds coming out of the Wii remote's speaker.

The interface is pretty intuitive on the Wii, but I'm wondering how exactly that translates to the PSP version.

The PSP Go is pretty small, so it can still feel like you're holding a cellphone in your hand ...

Uh-huh, but in terms of aiming and pointing the flashlight?

Well, we do have teams working on the Sony SKUs to optimize them for the platform, so you're not going to feel like, "Oh, I'm playing this lame version of the Wii game." It's going to be an authentic Shattered Memories experience. The PS2 version obviously has two analog sticks so you can move the flashlight around. On the PSP, you can zoom in and move it around with the analog stick as well.

I noticed that the chase scenes were Mirror's Edge-esque in the sense that your route is marked with a visual indicator, but are you mainly going to be escaping from enemies? Is there any point where it changes and you start fighting back?

If you look at most survival-horror games nowadays, a creature jumps out and you go, "Ah! Crap! A creature!" and you're scared for a second and then you pull out your shotgun and you kill the creature. Now you're not in danger anymore. They really are focusing on action and making you empowered and making you feel like this big, strong man, but with the way that we wanted to scare you and keep you scared throughout the game and really go back to the concept of the original Silent Hill is, you're Harry Mason, you're a regular guy, you don't have super powers, you've never shot a gun before. And why would there be guns lying around?

We've taken away all these elements that empower you and stuck you in this hostile environment with this relentless creature, who's not just lumbering forward, waiting for you to hit it with a pipe. He's trying to grab you and smother you and pull you down to the ground. And so all you have is that cellphone we talked about, you've got a map on it, the trademark static is going to come through your Wii remote speaker when they're nearby and then you have your wits, your strategy. You know where you need to get to, there are multiple routes to get there. These creatures are somewhere in the environment and if they spot you, they're going to chase you. You can hide from them in hiding places, but if you stay there too long they're going to sniff you out and yank you out of the hiding place. You can pull down elements of the environment to create barricades, which will slow them down and you can grab emergency flares, and when you strike one the heat from it will deter them, since this is an icy world. But they'll still follow you at a distance, so once that heat is gone, they're on you again. We really wanted to say, "Here are these tools you can strategically use to be safe." But it's temporary safety -- as soon as that's done, you're still back in the fire, you're running for your life.

Hot people live longer in Silent Hill.

[laughs] What?

"I've had my mom try it out and she only plays Animal Crossing, but she can walk around as Harry Mason and she can run from creatures."

You're going into a market that isn't the most, uh, amicable to hardcore games. At the very least, there's a different sales curve compared to the other systems.

I think there's a lot of gamers on Wii waiting for a real hardcore game and I think a lot of companies try to make a kind of hardcore game or maybe a franchise that will appeal to the hardcore gamer. And this is a true Silent Hill title. It has everything you want from a Silent Hill game. Again, we're fans, it has everything WE would want in a Silent Hill game and so, hopefully, we'll appeal to those people who play Silent Hill, who want Silent Hill, who want a scary game, who want survival horror. If they own a Wii, this is a new experience for them, or they can play it on the other platforms as well. If they don't want to buy a Wii just for one game, for example.

But on the Wii, there are also lapsed gamers. They used to be hardcore gamers, but now nothing's interesting and new to them, so they got a Wii because it's different. Well, this is a different take on survival horror. It's more immersive that what you've played before and we're trying new things to scare them. For the casual gamer, we say this like it's strange, but casual gamers go to horror movies. There's a reason we all started playing survival horror -- it was new and different and, "Oh, it's like a scary movie that I play." And so, we created this intuitive control scheme. I've had my mom try it out and she only plays Animal Crossing, but she can walk around as Harry Mason and she can run from creatures. It's really easy to pick up and play. If there's a casual gamer who enjoys going to the movies and seeing The Ring, they can go to the store afterward and buy Silent Hill and have a horror experience at home.

You've noted a difference between "unreasonable" Silent Hill fans and reasonable Silent Hill fans. If you had to pitch this game to the unreasonable fans, how would you do it?

I would say ... leave your expectations by the door. Watch the trailer which we've put out, watch the gameplay impressions. Try not to think of this as the Silent Hill games you've already played. We weren't trying to fit into that box. Climax worked on Silent Hill: Origins, that was them saying, "Here's what Silent Hill's always been. We can do this too. Here's your red, rusty otherworld, here's your set locations where they're kind of like dungeons, you go in there and don't come out until they're done." This is a new thing. We looked at what Silent Hill was, the goal of the original developers and we looked at it as fans, and said, "How would we make this plot interesting and new again?" And that's the game we've created. Try to put some jadedness aside just for a couple months until the game comes out and give it a fair shot.

That being said, I'm going to MURDER you if Dahlia's a robot.

I promise you that Dahlia is not a robot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.