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Silent Hill: Past, present & future

by on September 3, 2011
 

Back during GDC Europe 2011, there were literally tens of sessions one could attend at any given moment. Sometimes picking the right one was hard for multiple reasons, but in the end I think I managed quite fine. One of the more interesting and accessible sessions was about one of my favorite franchises of all time, Silent Hill -its past, present and future. As a fan of the series I couldn’t resist and curiously attended. I don’t regret it one bit!

Brian Gomez, Design Director at Vatra Games, took stage and briefly immersed us into the world of Silent Hill and different aspects of its universe. ‘Briefly’ is a valid term, since he was supposed to squeeze 3 hours of content into roughly 50 minutes (standard length of each session). Now that’s what I call a challenge! But Brian is a skilled veteran with over 15 years of dev experience (Alchemic Productions, Pandemic, VIS, Paradox) and divided the entire presentation into several key segments to make it simpler for listeners to follow.

To start with, he introduced himself and the studio he’s currently working at. Now, it’s possible that some of you may have not heard about Vatra before so here’s a small recap. Vatra Games was formed in Brno, Czech Republic in 2008 and has on board some people from former Illusion Softworks and 2K Czech. Ring any bells?

Currently they are focused on development of titles for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, with a staff of approximately fifty people. What do they have in common with Silent Hill? One – they’re working on the newest iteration titled Downpour, and two – Czech Republic has some interesting locations for inspiration.

Now that we are done with formalities, let’s continue with the presentation itself. We’re watching the new Silent Hill: Downpour trailer from E3, which is pretty impressive and gives you a good glimpse of various parts of the game, with Brian commenting on what we’re seeing only to afterwards speak about the evolution of the horror genre in general, which enabled developers and directors to get all the way to where we’re at today; Creating complex and psychological experiences that are beyond anything we’ve ever imagined.

Some of the iconic characters, such as Frankenstein and Nosferatu, come to mind as influential inspirations that started it all. Horror films have slowly, step by step, penetrated to the mainstream and are now part of our everyday lives.

Anytime you visit the cinema you can bet there’s going to be a movie that will scare the living hell out of people en mass. Since the 80’s and 90’s there have been many successful titles that have managed this quite well. From Blair Witch to Japanese films like Ringu that spurred off numerous US remakes like the infamous Ring or The Grudge.

But what is horror? That’s the ultimate question! Brian to his best knowledge explains…

“It’s manipulation of the players behaviour. Good horror games violate our comfort zone. They explore our fears. CD-ROM technology enabled us to add full motion videos to the gameplay experience. There’s alot you can do with that.”

We then took a look at the original Silent Hill game – at first you would think it’s just a game about a man running through a city that is covered in a huge blanket of fog – which was partially implemented also due to limitations of the hardware to cover up more space on the map. Ultimately though, as most players have found out, there was more to it than that and it became a known classic. Throughout the years there have been dozens of games that included various horror elements, from System Shock, Eternal Darnkess, Jericho, Resident Evil, Bioshock, to Dead Space, Alan Wake and even Heavy Rain. Each game implemented them differently. What’s important to realize from this is the fact that this genre is full of contradictions and experiments.

Early survivor horror games had to deal with loads of problems and overcome many obstacles. They had a poor camera system, which was clumsy most of the times, and even the controls were slightly problematic as developers didn’t exactly know which actions to map to which buttons – now-a-days you can basically configure a custom control layout of your own.

A poor interface, compared to today’s standards, comes to mind as well. Especially when you had to go through numerous menu screens to finally find a certain object you’ve gathered,  combine items, or perform some special action. Today you have clever inventory systems, streamlined, with minimalist HUDs to add a cinematic experience to the gameplay.

Let’s talk more about Silent Hill: Downpour though – the newest installment in the series. Much has been said, but here are some of the key points you should know about:

 

  • Downpour will be roughly five times larger than previous Silent Hill games
  • You will be able to shift and tilt the camera – with a pov camera as well
  • There aren’t any loading times since the game streams everything in the background
  • Every location of the game tells a part of the story
  • What you don’t see is sometimes scarier than what you do see
  • The radio is back
  • Murphy will randomly talk to himself to provide clues or hints and feel more natural
  • You’ll be able to use a flashlight, uv light and even a lighter (in various situations for different reasons)
  • There will be both fog and rain (perhaps even a storm or two)
  • The more it rains, the more intense The Otherworld will become (same goes for enemies/creatures)
  • Monsters will be scary even psychologically, not just physically.
  • Original concept had minor problems (story didn’t mesh with mythology, levels didn’t capture atmosphere, Otherworld needed a theme)
  • Water is highly symbolic and has become the catalyst and central theme of The Otherworld
  • There will be side quests, which may open up new possibilities for the storyline to evolve or for DLC
  • There will be multiple endings, with multiple interpretations

 

That’s just a sample of what you can expect and as you can see, Downpour will be fairly rich in features – hopefully pleasing both fans of the series and newcomers alike. This won’t be a copy of Alan Wake, eventhough I can understand why to some it may seem that way.

What will happen with the series after Downpour comes out? How will the horror genre in videogames evolve? What direction will it take? The future might be in co-op (Left 4 Dead style) or using controllers to tell players what is happening in a much more advanced form than just vibration. Along with the evolution of software, hardware will be gaining some horsepower as well – offering stronger performances (facial animation quality like in L.A.Noire), the use of Kinect and Move, etc…

Imagine a scenario in which the game you’re playing knows its surroundings. Imagine getting off your couch, needing to come closer to the screen in order to hear properly what a certain character is saying. It would whisper to you on purpose. It would be smart enough to monitor the room you are playingin and adapt. Once the AI becomes that smart, it could shake things up…

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