Konami took several risks with Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. They revisited hallowed ground and reimagined the original Silent Hill. It was built from the ground up for Wii. The twisted, Hell-like version of the town was covered in ice. It removed combat entirely. The game was watching every movement you made and changed the setting, characters and events accordingly. It wasn't successful at everything, but Shattered Memories left enough of an impact -- especially the Shyamalan-like ending -- that we had to talk to Konami about the game's development. Konami producer Tomm Hulett spent some time with me on the phone to explain how Shattered Memories came to be -- and what's next for Silent Hill.
G4: Have you been involved in any of the Silent Hill games prior to Shattered Memories?
G4: So you've been there since the series was handed off to developers outside of Japan, out of Team Silent. What's it been like seeing that transition?
Hulett: Originally, Origins was being developed in America by Climax America, and then there was a big shuffle and it went to Climax UK and that's actually the exact week I was hired at Konami. So, I guess I was with it as soon as it took a...good direction? [laughs]
It's been interesting because I'm a huge fan of Silent Hill, I've played all the games since they came out. Coming here and then getting to work on it was kind of a crazy mind trip, but at the same time, I've been trying really hard to make sure that all the core elements that the fans expect stay on the series. Anything that's been around for a decade or more you need to start changing a little bit to keep it fresh, but obviously we can't lose the crucial elements of Silent Hill. So whatever role I have on them, I'm always trying to keep those and make sure that fans are, at least, seeing what they expect from Silent Hill.
G4: What do you identify as those key elements for a Silent Hill game?
Hulett: Oh, you've gotta ask hard questions! [laughs] Certainly, that sense of...I guess it would be ambiguity or...when you're playing a Silent Hill game, you always feel like there's answers there under the surface but the game never tells you what the answers are. So even if you spend weeks on the Internet talking to people and trying to figure out your theory of what's going on, you're never really 100 percent sure that's actually what's going on. And that's kind of a brave [thing] to do that -- most game series spell anything out, which works if you're telling a detailed narrative. But Silent Hill is sort of based on human psychology and things that are harder to pin down -- emotions and stuff like that.
So as long as you have that core of the story, where it has to do with someone's psychology, you're kind of figuring out somebody from inside their own head and you don't have any hard answers. That's a pretty good place to start with a Silent Hill game.
G4: What was the impetus for Shattered Memories? Why Wii? What was the pitch meeting?
Hulett: The Wii had just come out and a lot of interesting games were on the horizon, so it was [try to] think of interesting games we could make on the Wii. Plus, we were gonna have to start thinking of what Silent Hill would come after Homecoming, so those two ideas kind of came together. What could we do with Silent Hill on the Wii? Oh, hey, the controller looks like a flashlight. Oh, it has a speaker in it for a radio. This kind of has to happen now. And from there it was just a bunch of different ideas about what it could be and which ones stuck and which ones seem to fit the best.
"If we made it Silent Hill 7, people might be a little confused if they hadn't played previous games in the series"
G4: Was Climax involved from the start?
Hulett: No, at first it was just Silent Hill on Wii and once we had a rough idea and some possible themes -- like we thought maybe it could be snowy and icy -- then we looked at which developers would be best for the idea. Climax was finishing up Origins and we felt they'd done a good job of proving they could make a Silent Hill game and we gave it to them and said, "What ideas do you have on top of this?" And it turns out they had a lot of good ones. From there on, it was a pretty good fit all around.
G4: Is that traditionally the approach for Konami -- you guys come up with the core idea and take it around to someone else to see how they riff on that?
Hulett: Yeah. What we're really looking for is someone...if we have a cool idea that we think is really awesome and we find a developer who also think it's awesome -- that's the first step. When they give us their ideas and that improves on the idea and makes it even better, that's really what we look for when we're shopping a game around.
G4: Was the intention for it always to be a remake or reimagining of the original Silent Hill?
Hulett: That came early. Not right at the beginning, but early on. People really realized that the Wii was a new audience, which was great, but if we made it Silent Hill 7, people might be a little bit confused if they hadn't played previous games in the series, so they might feel alienated and not buy the game. Can we remake the original game so that they start off at the beginning, but then we came back with, "Well, we've done that a couple of times and people might be tired of that storyline, the movie just came out [and] it was about that storyline."
So the minds deep inside Konami and Climax decided "what if it was like a remake, but a remake through the lens of Silent Hill?" Since Silent Hill twists reality, this would be sort of a twisted remake, so instead of being the exact same thing you've already seen, it would be what ended up as Shattered Memories, which was similar characters and themes and locations -- but all mixed up. So returning fans are really getting a brand-new experience.
G4: How did you pick which elements to take from Silent Hill? To be honest, I played and loved the original Silent Hill but it's been a long, long time, and while I recognized some elements, it never made me feel lost just because I'd forgotten what happened.
Hulett: Well, it was tricky. A lot of it was from Climax. They put together their story outline of "Okay, we're reimagining the original, here's where we can go with it." The general path of the story from the beginning to the ending was set as far as where we took the player but the details weren't fleshed out. That was an overall look that we all liked, which was vaguely similar. But then I'd share my favorite parts of the original game that I'd liked included somehow and Climax would mix it up.
And at that point I was still finishing up Homecoming, so I didn't have 100 percent of my focus on Shattered Memories, so Climax started planning all these little ideas and then I'd come back into it and they'd show me all their different plans and I'd say "that's cool, that's cool" and then I finally got to replay the original game again -- it'd been a couple years before then -- and then I started seeing all these tiny things and I'm like "whoa, that's awesome."
The whole process I was being surprised by just how the minute the details from the original were, just because if you're not a scholar of Silent Hill 1, you kind of miss them the first time. It's just layers and layers and layers that you can see are actually borrowed from the original game.
G4: What is one of those details you might not notice that you really appreciated?
Hulett: Well, my favorite one, which I actually picked up on, was one of the puzzles from the original game that everyone cites as one of their favorite puzzles, even though it was really maddening. It's the piano/bird puzzle, where there's some poorly localized poem about black and white birds and then there's a piano and then you have to hit the right keys to unlock a door. And then in Shattered Memories, you come across a child's toy piano which makes bird sounds, which is kind of the same puzzle but totally different.
G4: I remember when I came across that one it was simultaneously really fun and really frustrating. I actually took out the same audio recorder I'm using to record this interview and recorded the loop I needed to play back so I could play it back and get the tone right.
Hulett: [laughs] And then one of the ones that I didn't realize until later...in the school location, you can go into a classroom and you can discover the teacher for that classroom's name is Mr. Gordon. In the original Silent Hill, you might even find out in Silent Hill 3, but Alessa's teacher's name was K. Gordon and it was actually Mrs. Gordon rather than Mr. -- but it's just like, Climax didn't really make anything up out of thin air. [They said] "We need a teacher for this classroom. What's a teacher from Silent Hill 1?" So all those tiny details that people are going to miss, they're probably in the game.
G4: The game felt very fan-driven. A detail like that you wouldn't expect, given the amount of layers you'd need to go through to even understand what the reference means. And one of the things I've noticed with the critical reception is that while it hasn't done as well in the press, but the fan reaction I've seen is really strong.
Hulett: Everyone says this, but I really think that's because I'm a huge fan and everyone at Climax is a huge Silent Hill fan. So when the game's first announced, everyone goes to the message boards and they theorize what the game will be and it degenerates everybody talking about their favorite Silent Hill moments from before and that's kind of how meetings from Climax went, too. "This would be cool, this would be cool -- hey, remember that one part? Oh, yeah, I love it" and then we'd kind of fangasm over everything. Hopefully that comes through that we made the game that way and so everyone seems to be enjoying the game that way, too.
"Everyone goes to the message boards, talking abou their favorite SIlent Hill moments ... that's kind of how meetings from Climax went, too"
G4: You talked about how fans can quickly devolve into getting obsessed with the smaller details they liked about each individual game. I thought Homecoming was a more traditional Silent Hill, while Shattered Memories seemed to take a few more risks. Homecoming had a lot more of the obscure puzzles that were pretty difficult, but Shattered Memories seems like it took a risk in not feeling the need to be so obtuse.
Hulett: Yeah. Part of that was trying to use the Wii remote in cool ways so you'd feel like you're actually interacting with the environment. And the other benefit of doing that approach is the best Silent Hill puzzles, I think, are the ones where you feel like you're doing something real. You're not finding the chest-shaped key and putting it in a chest door or whatever. You're hacking a computer or something. So, since our approach to puzzles was make it realistic, make it something people can just understand without needing prompts or instructions, it lent itself to us thinking of puzzles along that line. So I think we have some of the best puzzles in the series.
There's a puzzle where you're hacking a computer, which is personally my favorite puzzle just because you go in there and you kind of understand the character wants to hack this computer. In a normal game you'd then have to figure out what you really had to do to make that character hack the computer, but in Shattered Memories, you just click on the computer and hit "forgot your password" and it's like you're actually doing it in real-life.
G4: One of the things that I appreciated about the puzzles in the game was that even though they weren't obtuse and I think a bit simpler, a lot of them seemed to take advantage of the Wiimote in some interesting fashion. Yeah, it could be as simple as just waving the flashlight around to find something on the wall, but that in itself was kind of cool.
Hulett: That's kind of funny because early tests of the game, you finally get it running, you get Harry walking around and you get the flashlight working and you've been wondering for X amount of time, "is this flashlight thing going to feel right?" And then people would find themselves just looking at the snow with the flashlight on. That was entertaining for several minutes. That's when we knew we had a good game on our hands.
G4: It seemed like Climax was really able to tap into the Wii hardware, despite the WIi having the perception that it's the lesser hardware. The game looked really impressive.
Hulett: That's another reason we went with Climax after Origins. They did some amazing things on PSP that people probably didn't think were possible and so we figured they could do the same for the Wii. Recently, they actually told me they surpassed even what they thought they could do at the beginning of the project.
G4: You mentioned the essence of Silent Hill being about working through someone's head and in previous games, it always felt like you were exploring a metaphor of someone's psychological problems. Whereas in Shattered Memories, it was less of a metaphor -- you were literally going into psych sessions.
Hulett: It was part of the process from the beginning. Once we thought of the psych profile idea -- or Climax thought of the psych profile idea -- it was a matter of "this is probably gonna be so subtle that players aren't going to realize it's happening and then they can't really appreciate it." One of the first ideas was the psychology sessions where you go through an element, a section of gameplay, and then you have a psych session and then you can remember if you've forgotten "oh, yeah, that's right, I'm being profiled." And then you have a little psychology test to take, that's based off an actual test, and we go from there. And the game is watching you during the gameplay portions, too, but the psych sessions are cool reminders that "that's right, we're inside your head," and, of course, they factor into the plot, as well.
G4: I can see how the fear would be that unless you made the changes too drastic you'd wonder what the hell was going on, but if it was too subtle, you wouldn't even notice the game was even changing.
G4: How different can the game get? I know it influences the ending, obviously...
Hulett: There's a lot of really subtle things. If you meet a character and we want you to like that character, if you're sort of outgoing, then we can make that character outgoing, as well. If you're more introverted and that character was outgoing, you might not like them as much, so we can make them introverted instead. There's that aspect of it. And then if we want a phone message to creep you out, we can do the same sort of thing. Most of the phone numbers that you see in the game that you can call will have different answers based on your psych profile.
Some subtle environment differences [too]. You might go somewhere and a store might be one kind of store and if then you'll go by it with a different profile [and] it'll be a totally different kind of store with different props in the windows and different phone number to call with a different result. Depending on the specific area, it can be really different.
People think they play it once and they think they've figured out the plot and what everything means and then they play it through with another profile and there'll be a subtle dialogue difference which implies something the opposite of which the previous playthrough implied, and I've had a couple of friends IM and they're like "this doesn't really fit because they used to say this and now they say this, but it does fit my ending now" and they work it out in their head that it was two totally different results based on their playthrough.
G4: It was one of the first games that I played and realized this would totally make sense for Nintendo's Vitality Sensor, since the game is already monitoring what I'm doing.
Hulett: [laughs] Yeah, it's too bad the Vitality Sensor wasn't out before we started Shattered Memories.
"I was scared the entire that people would guess the ending right away and if they wouldn't like it"
G4: I also noticed the story wasn't simpler, but it seemed to get away from the tendency of Silent Hill to get a little convoluted in terms of the cults and the deep mythology of the town. It seemed like it was there, but it wasn't as much on the surface.
Hulett: Every fan has their favorite Silent Hill for their own reasons and some people really like 1 and the cult and 3 continued the cult and they really liked that and Homecoming dealt with the cult and Origins dealt with the cult. But a lot of us like Silent Hill 2, like me personally, and that didn't really deal with the cult at all, that dealt with just the character of James and his own internal world and one of our visions of reimagining the original was instead of making it all about this cult, what if we made it more similar to Silent Hill 2, where it's about the character. And obviously that worked with the psych profile because the character was partially you and that could shape what happened in the game. Our direction in the beginning was to get away from the cult aspect, which a lot of the games have dealt with and visit the other, less-trotted areas of Silent Hill.
G4: It strikes me as funny that it was a bunch of Silent Hill 2 fans making a new Silent Hill using the elements of Silent Hill 1. There's a lot of things going on there.
G4: I wanted to touch on the actual ending of the game. I didn't see that one coming.
Hulett: Um, I was scared the entire development period that people would guess the ending right away and then if they did, they wouldn't like it. It's just one of those things you don't really know until the game comes out and people play it. I know that we put in some subtle misdirections in there. I spent a lot of time tweaking the therapist's dialogue to make sure he didn't give away the ending. But, really, I don't know, I've been really pleased. The first reaction, even to some of the early players who agreed with some of the negative reviews, they'd say "well, this review was right and I didn't like the game, but that ending was amazing," and so that was really cool for us to see that even if people didn't really like the game, they loved the ending.
G4: That was in some ways part of my reaction to the game, with some disagreements with how the combat was handled, etc. But everyone I've talked to, I've recommended playing the game, if only because the story is so interesting and the ending is out of nowhere, and I think that's driven a lot of the word-of-mouth on the game amongst fans.
Hulett: It was actually interesting because those early negative reviews from people once they said they loved the ending, they'd usually go back and play it again and they'd usually like it a lot more the second time because they'd realize that we were actually going somewhere and could see how we were going there instead of trying to second guess us at every step.
One of the big reasons everyone remembers Silent Hill 2 is the ending and the emotional impact it had. Then, when you go through the game again, you remember how that ending got there and how surprised you were when you saw it. And so the fact that we achieved something similar is something I'm really proud of.
G4: I also have to admit that even though it's something I watched on YouTube because I didn't have the time, putting the UFO Ending in did really make me happy, especially because the UFO Ending has a nod to Silent Hill 2.
Hulett: I have a cameo in that ending. I do. You should go watch it again. I actually had to fight really hard for that ending because we were up against the end of development and crunched for time and I fought for that ending.
G4: That's just one of those things you expect to find in a new Silent Hill. Good Silent Hill or bad Silent Hill, you expect the UFO Ending -- the really random one has to be there.
Hulett: Yeah, and I tried to make it really good.
G4: One thing that came up when I asked fans what they really wanted to know was whether they should consider this cannon within the rest of the Silent Hill series. Does Silent Hill even have an established canon that you work from or is it just a set of ideas?
Hulett: I'm gonna say it is canon in that Silent Hill doesn't really have a canon. Since each game is based on a character and it's ambiguous what actually happened -- each game has multiple endings and some fans have theories on which ending's which but we never know which ending actually happened. People who've played this game can tell it's probably just as canon as any of the other ones.
G4: So as long as it fits within the themes of what Silent Hill is, then that's more or less accomplished what's within the Silent Hill "canon."
G4: Having worked on several western-developed Silent Hill games, what's been your biggest takeaway in trying to find a way to revamp the series? What are you taking away to what's next?
Hulett: The biggest thing was if the series could handle all the changes in Shattered Memories. Kind of like what I said at the beginning, if a series is around this long it has to change. With previous games, I think we were stuck trying to make the same Silent Hill games we had made before, so with Shattered Memories, it was "here's a bunch of ideas but they're totally different but they still fit the themes, so if we go to these places, will players still follow us there?"
And I think that even though we've done an icy otherwold and a game without combat per se and all these different things, it still feels like a Silent Hill game and [players] can accept it as Silent Hill.
So now it opens up the possibilities to the future of, you know, we can revisit old ideas with some new philosophies behind them or change it even further or experiment a lot more. That'll mean each game is unpredictable and if something's unpredictable, it's a lot easier to scare you than if you know what to expect already.
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Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is available now in Wii, PlayStation 2 and PSP.