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Surprises In Store: Akira Yamaoka's New Direction

In this interview, famed composer and producer Akira Yamaoka discusses what his Silent Hill legacy means to him, what he's been up to since he joined Grasshopper Manufacture, and his vision for what the developer must become.

[In this interview, famed composer and producer Akira Yamaoka discusses what his Silent Hill legacy means to him, what he's been up to since he joined Grasshopper Manufacture, and his vision for what the developer must become.]

Since Akira Yamaoka accepted the role of chief sound officer at Grasshopper Manufacture, the only project the company has announced that features a significant contribution from the storied Silent Hill producer and composer is the EA-published Shadows of the Damned, for which he has handled soundtrack duties. That game is due out in June.

It turns out that Yamaoka has moved into a more undefined role at the company -- one where he can touch many different aspects of production rather than lead one aspect of a specific project, he reveals to Gamasutra in this interview.

Given the evolution of the industry, he says, "there's a need for someone like myself -- who has more experience than just one department, overseeing a single component of a game -- to at least make my contribution, and try to look at [a game] from a different perspective."

In this interview, Yamaoka also explains what it might mean for him to create a project again -- so don't count him out of a direct creative role on a project just yet.

So can you speak in a larger sense about what you have been up to at Grasshopper since we last spoke? I know that you had hoped to both contribute to sound and production.

Akira Yamaoka: So yeah, I've gotten used to commuting to Grasshopper, I have my place there, I'm completely in sync with what's going on at Grasshopper.

So since the last time we've talked -- you're right. I've probably been working a little bit more and spending a little bit more time on the overall product development area. And that's the bulk of the company, yes.

But more specifically, trying to bring my experiences into not just the sound department -- but the overall producing department, and even into game design, and concepts, and whatnot. So my responsibilities are not just limited to the sound department, and my role as a sound person, but I have a better view of what's going on in its entirety at Grasshopper.

And what probably is making me want to do more, or contribute in that way, is because our industry -- the video game business and video gaming -- has evolved into something with so many dimensions to it, now, with mobile, and social, and all the great things that everyone in this tech field is talking about.

And it's very hard to just say that, "Okay, we make video games, and here is our content." There are so many directions, dimensions, angles to look at in this business that I think there's a need for someone like myself -- who has more experience than just one department, overseeing a single component of a game -- to at least make my contribution, and try to look at it from a different perspective. So that's something that I'm really trying to channel my energy and my time into at Grasshopper.

In the past there's been a very compartmentalized structure within Japanese companies, so I understand what you mean. However, I think people care about what you work on, and I think they would like to know what titles you've touched in what ways, where are you contributing your own design and direction for games.

AY: So, there are few things that have come from me. Whether they're ideas born out of just myself, or it's a result of some other conversations we were having internally, or we reached a point where my ideas or suggestions were better than the others, it isn't game-specific at this point.

But if I can talk more as a big picture, overall direction that we think we should be taking or ought to be taking as a Japanese developer, it's that we do need to look at it not just from, "Okay, let's create this content, and hope that it fits the audience in this area, this region." It's for the global audience.

No matter how small we are, even as a boutique Japanese developer, we need to take a step back and look at the global marketplace and see what it is that, let's say, we're missing, or we've already reached our expectations. How can we enhance this? How can we grow this? How can we channel our content to an audience -- to the rest of the world?

So there's a more taking a step back and looking at it from a very different standpoint, and seeing where it is that I can provide my skills, my experiences. How can I fill some of those holes, and in what way can I do it? That's where a lot of my energy, a lot of my thinking has been happening these days.


Although at the same time, I feel like there are a lot of people that would appreciate a game that originated from your aesthetic. You mentioned that such a thing may be possible within Grasshopper in the future. I'm wondering when we might see something like that -- a project that originates from your brain.

AY: I appreciate the fact that you said a lot of people care about what Akira Yamaoka does. And there's this association of Akira Yamaoka and Silent Hill and the mood there -- there's a specific sort of flavor, and twisted color, and a personality that's followed me around where I've created, thanks to the work that I've done and my accomplishments.

And that's great and everything, and I get it, and there's really no part of me who's going to turn around and say "That's not Akira Yamaoka." I know, thanks to all the work that I've done, and thanks to people who've appreciated my work, here I am today.

However, currently my approach -- and maybe this is a new dimension like I said earlier -- is that with so much going on in this world -- mixed media, transmedia, collaboration, crossover genres, markets and all this -- I find it quite challenging to keep in mind that my "profile" of Akira Yamaoka is who's going to deliver this kind of content.

So in essence, I'm almost starting to do a complete 180, where I want to create content that maybe by the time you finish you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is from Akira Yamaoka?! Wow, this is completely new to me! It isn't a side of Akira Yamaoka that I knew. Well, he's evolved, or he's changed, or something has happened."

And so in the end, it doesn't really matter if they actually connect the dots to me. But if they do, then that means that they've known me from my past. If they don't, then they see a brand new side of Akira Yamaoka, and that's new to them. So that's something that I'm, in my head, it's really kind of brewing and it's sitting in my head right now, a lot. And so hopefully if all goes well, maybe by the end of this year we might be able to deliver content that fits that profile that I just talked about.

How do you plan to go about that?

AY: To a certain extent, I've produced and delivered content I either favor or appreciate as the creator. Up until now, that was my approach. It's not that I was going at it alone, but rather that was what defined my creation, my work.

However, in today's entertainment, the key is to be able to quickly provide content that is enjoyable, fun, and entertaining to the user. Whether it be online games or social networking-related, the user is in control and in the driver's seat.

We're even able to make adjustments to the game features and specs swiftly through updates. Seeing this shift, I feel and realize we must look at content creation from the user's point of view and not from a creator's point of view.

This is not to say that I'm completely giving in, as I will continue to produce my own work -- one that defines who I am. However, at the same time, I would like to produce content that will reach an audience who isn't familiar with my work and me.

Rather than introducing a piece with my name or face on it and that being the first thing people recognize, my desire is to take an approach where I think about the who (is it for) and what (will they enjoy) first. In sum, I'm headed to a direction beyond the play style we see in today's social networking environment, or at least looking at an extension of that.


Has your style been at all influenced by the culture at Grasshopper? If so, how?

AY: I've been influenced in a very positive way. The team at Grasshopper values and cherishes the creative spirit. The importance of that and belief itself is positive influence for me.

How do you keep from stagnating and just making the same kinds of music? There must be some pressure to keep doing the kinds of things that have made you popular.

AY: You know me so well! (laughs)

Actually, I don't make any efforts to keep making the same kind of music. I'd be lying if I said I don't feel any pressure, but I just put a mental block on it and make music based on emotions, experiences and feelings.

Producing and sticking to my music and style is one thing, but what's occupying my mind lately is this entertainment world I belong to: what is my role and existence in this space? My short answer to that is to seek and nurture the next generation of content creators, to figure out where we're headed next and where we ought to be.

When you are making music, do you find that certain notes or tones fit certain emotions that you're trying to target? Can you talk a bit about how you establish emotional resonance in general?

AY: Yes, but it's obviously not as easy as saying "this note", or a set of notes.

Ultimately, it's a subconscious feeling that we, as humans, sense naturally.

For example, no matter how somberly you play the C-D-G chord to someone, they're going to feel happy or upbeat. However, by taking D to D flat and playing C-D flat-G, you'll instantly change the mood to an unhappy, sad tone.

This has to do with the wavelength of the emitted sound and how that translates in one's brain to trigger an emotion. It's not as complicated as it may sound though -- in fact, it's pretty straightforward, and maybe I'll write a book someday to offer some techniques!

Does performing live change your perspective on the creation of music? Would you recommend that other game composers try to use performance as an outlet?

AY: I'm not quite sure where the act of performing live sits in my heart...

When looking at music and sound in relation to a video game, its existence is only validated because it's a component of the entire game. The element of music and sound can't act or perform on its own (and move the game forward).

Hypothetically speaking, if a video game were a successful band in the music world, the role of music in a game would be the same as the vocalist, a single but important component that makes up the band. If that vocalist were to go solo and perform on [her] own, I feel a sense of disrespect and disdain towards the band (in other words, the game).

Having said that, it's exciting to perform live! But rather than doing so and taking the route as a "musician (or performer) in the music industry", I want to continue to push myself in ways where I can still perform live and simultaneously create an experience that is unique to our industry. Whether it's syncing live performance and visual presentation, or some form of interactive live performance, I'd want it to be something only the video game industry can achieve.

How did the Play for Japan project come together? Who is funding it, and how will it be distributed?

AY: I started out by reaching out to my close composer friends... from there, the word spread and everyone has been very supportive. It's 100 percent charity work (pro bono, no funding) and we're aiming to release soon via iTunes.

Did the earthquake affect the development of current games? Rolling blackouts can stall development.

AY: Fortunately, our offices weren't greatly affected by the earthquake but mentally we were all in a slightly different place... you just can't prepare for something of that magnitude. Through our love and passion for our work of making video games, we've been able to help and support each other through these difficult times. I am very grateful for the care and compassion we received from friends, colleagues and supporters.

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