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Producing Silent Hill: A Chat With Konami's William Oertel

Gamasutra talks to Konami's William Oertel, the producer for PSP title Silent Hill Origins and the PSP Silent Hill digital novel, on the state of the seminal horror game franchise, and the hardships of making portable games scary.

William Oertel is a producer at Konami Digital Entertainment's, and is responsible for the recent U.S.-sourced game entries in the Silent Hill franchise; namely, the visual novel, art, and music hybrid Silent Hill Experience and the upcoming Climax-developed series prequel, Silent Hill Origins which revisits many of the elements from the original Silent Hill on the Sony PlayStation. Both of these titles were conceived for Sony's PSP platform, to take advantage of its portability.

Gamasutra caught Oertel at Konami's 2006 Comic-Con International booth to talk about Silent Hill, how the movie adaptation has affected the game series' direction, and the hardships of making portable games scary.

Gamasutra: Silent Hill Origins, as a visual novel, is a type of product that hasn't been done successfully in the United States before, as opposed to Japan, where the genre is popular. Do you see this turning around?

William Oertel: I think there's opportunity. Konami saw, especially with the PSP, that you can use the hardware in so many different ways, so why not mix mediums together? You see a lot of properties integrating the comic medium's mechanics, Sin City was a very direct approach as an example. I think there's an opportunity to kind of make comics and, with my experience on this one, and seeing Metal Gear Solid: DGN, that there is a lot of room to kind of create something different by taking comics and animating them. I think there are still a lot of ways for us to exploit that, or explore that. I don't think we've hit the pinnacle yet of where that could be, and this is one step in that direction.


William Oertel

GS: So the sales have been good on these experiments?

WO: They did okay! It's a hard concept to communicate to people, retailers in particular. They pick it up and they expect a game, and it's not a game. So they say well, is it a movie? And it's not a movie, it's a combination of many different things. With Silent Hill Experience, in that particular case, Silent Hill is more than a game. You have comic books, you have soundtracks, you the videos, and of course you have the movie. All these elements make for something that allows you to create something unique out of all that. A lot of games don't have that level of depth to what they make. And so in Experience's case, we tap into all that. We take the comics and video games and the soundtrack and the stills and wrap it all into this very game-like setting. Based on things I've read and people who have purchased it, they really like it.

GS: Who is this product marketed towards, specifically?

WO: There are two groups. First of all, the Silent Hill demographic, males, both teens and adults. Of course, the Silent Hill fan. I'm thinking of them, and making sure there's value in there for them. But additionally, with the movie coming out, we knew that a lot of people weren't going to be familiar with Silent Hill. They would watch the movie and they would think, 'I wonder what else there is?' So let's give them a slice into what Silent Hill is all about, and that's what Experience is.


A comic scene from Silent Hill Experience

GS: So it does kind of double as sort of an entry-level introduction to the franchise?

WO: Yeah! It's one of those tough products that you have to appeal to both. And I think with anything Silent Hill-related, you want to expand the fanbase, you want to get more users, but at the same time you've got this core that really loves what you've done, and you want to make sure they're happy as well.


GS: With the inability of the UMD movie format to really penetrate any kind of market, are non-game products like Silent Hill Experience risky?

WO: There's been a lot of news on the UMD movie format's weakness. They're a media company, I'm sure they've got plans and solutions in place to try and take care of that. The device is still very capable, you can do a lot of stuff with it. Of course there's a concern, we're going to have to wait and see a) how well my product does, and b) how do users end up using the PSP? Are they treating it as a game machine and that's it, or are they going to be using it for other things?

GS: Why was Origins outsourced? Why wasn't it done in Japan?

WO: Well, the Japan teams work on many different products, and this was one particular one where the bandwidth was available here to work on it, so that's what we're doing. That's the primary reason.

GS: Is there a concern about playing scary games on the PSP? Like, if I'm playing in direct sunlight on the bus, I'm probably not going to be all that freaked out. Is there a concern that making Silent Hill portable detracts from the fear factor?

WO: Oh, yeah. Big time! It's one of the things that you look at and say, is this going to be able to be everything for everyone? And it might not be able to work everywhere, because of the nature of the product. First and foremost we want to make it a Silent Hill game. If we find a way to do that encompassing all kinds of environments, both lighting in sunlight and lighting indoors, great. But if we can't, ultimately it has to be a worthy successor to Silent Hill. So in terms of making it scary, I think there's ways to do it, because you have music players and you listen to your MP3s with your headphones and you're totally cut off from reality. It's the same thing here, plus visuals. So the tools are there, now it's a question of whether we can execute on creating a compelling story and compelling environment that people can lose themselves in. If we can, then we've done our job, and I think that's independent of the platform. If they don't get lost in it, if we somehow fail to recreate that suspension of disbelief, then people will know right away, and it will have an effect.


Preview artwork from Silent Hill Origins

GS: What about in terms of pure brightness. I mean, this is a dark game, visibly. Are you having to adjust the original looks of it?

WO: We're looking at different lighting schemes, and it's hard, because we take into account flashlight. If you want to keep scenes dark, the flashlight serves as a nice contrast if you have to use your flashlight to see. But that makes everything else dark. And during sunlight, even the flashlight could be very dark. So the solution would be to light up everything, kind of like in the movie. Make everything look like it's nighttime but still visible. But then you see everything around you. You go into a dark room, and then what's the point of having a flashlight? So it's going to be a hard balance, and personally my thought right now would be to err on the side of keeping it dark.



Above: A scene from Silent Hill Experience in its native light.
Below: That same scene, with its brightness and contrast enhanced. Is it still scary?

GS: For this project in particular, or maybe even PSP games in general, do you feel like you have to sell as many copies of this product as you would a console Silent Hill game?

WO: I think it's all relative to the installed base. This is an ambitious PSP game. It's a large game, and Konami has put a lot of resources behind it to try and make it succeed the best way possible. In terms of actual breaking even with units; financially it's like, 'okay, here's your budget, here's what you can play with,' good. And now I just have to play with that amount and do my best. I actually was just reading an article, I can't remember where it was, but it was about the top selling PSP games, and they had mentioned Hot Shots Golf, GTA, and I can't remember the third that had sold over a million units. So I think if we can achieve somewhere close to that level, then we hit one out of the park, and that would hopefully indicate that we succeeded in bringing it over to PSP, and hopefully we can do a sequel.

GS: So you do have to bring it to that level to do a sequel.

WO: That's my personal goal. I aim for the top on this one. If it's less than that, actual numbers…I don't know. My bosses tell me whether it succeeds or not. The best way to achieve sales is a high quality, Silent Hill experience. If I can do that, no one can fault me for not doing my job.


Concept art from Silent Hill Origins

GS: Is anyone from the original Silent Hill team working on this remake?

WO: There are a few people, mainly Akira [Yamaoko], the series composer. I talked to him about the story, and he just recently finished the entire soundtrack that we're making for this game. There's another example of the resources that we're putting on this. We're not creating the amount of music we need for this game, we actually created a whole soundtrack for it. And that's consistent with past Silent Hill games. So he's been the primary contributor to the product.


The original Silent Hill, on Sony's PlayStation

GS: Why would anyone who played the original care about Origins?

WO: Well, people that played Silent Hill 1, there's probably some questions they want answered. They want to know what started it all. And based on people have been clamoring for a Silent Hill 1 remake, there's a lot of passion still left for that game. We're taking it back a few years, we're introducing a new character, but we're still keeping it within the context of Silent Hill; the town, some of the old parts that you played in Silent Hill 1, so naturally you're going to see graphics that are better than Silent Hill 1. But at the same time we've also added new parts to the town.

Coming in with the knowledge of where they were at 1, it's going to be interesting to see how their characters were a few years beforehand. I think people also will be curious to see how do you get more onto a PSP. I think they're going to want to see how the game feels with the new camera. We've also included some other elements, like a system that puts custom animations and controls and movements at certain times. It's the next step in the series. We're taking some risks with it, and that's one thing we're going to see how people react to that. Some are necessary because of the platform, other things, we're going to see how it works. Everyone here are huge Silent Hill fans, and they all want to make sure that it's the best possible game. So there's a lot of stress on that.


More concept art from Silent Hill Origins

GS: I would imagine with both of these products, a lot of the reason for their existence is because of the success of the movie. Was any of the movie's mythos put into the game, as a result of that success?

WO: We're not going to disturb the storyline set by the previous games. We're not changing direction in that respect. It has a storyline and we're going to follow that, that's canon. But there are certain things that were in the film that are just great, visually. It's like you look at it and say, wow, that feels like Silent Hill, and that's a great idea. So some monster and stuff like that, visually there were a lot of compelling ideas presented in the movie that really worked well, and it's given us ideas for things to incorporate now and in the future.


Silent Hill Experience

GS: So this inspiration is the feel, more than a direct change.

WO: There are some things that will be more direct. There were some aspects in the film that hadn't been touched on in previous games that are very subtle. Only in the case where it doesn't break historical rules set.

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