Bringing one of the darkest, most sinister game franchises ever to the jolly, shiny world of handheld PSP gaming might not seem the most immediately obvious idea, but since when was anything connected with Silent Hill supposed to make any sense?
In fact, making sense of Silent Hill has become something of a sport for devoted followers of the series - a pursuit that seems somewhat futile once you realise that it's not actually supposed to make sense. Even so, that doesn't stop determined Hillphiles (Hillbillies?) from poring over the details of this fascinating survival horror series, and they'll be salivating at the prospect of the winter release of Silent Hill Origins.
Given the slightly botched release of a Silent Hill collection that was missing the first in the series, most of us suspected Konami would simply go down the route of remaking the PSone original. It makes perfect sense, particularly in the context of the movie, but we're pleasantly surprised to report that this is an all-new episode that takes players right back to events before the first in the series. Yes, we're firmly in prequel territory, although Konami resisted the old cliché of calling it Silent Hill Zero.
"Lot of fans said they wanted a remake, and I can understand why," the title's producer William Oertel told us. "If you look at the PSone game, it's pretty clear it could really use better graphics .I see the value in that, but we thought 'let's build this world up a bit'. We decided to give [players] new information and provide a new experience. We recognised that Silent Hill 2 was great in going into the psychological aspects, and we really want to imbue that in Origins too."
But it's important to note that the "we" Oertel speaks of isn't the Tokyo team behind previous Silent Hill games. As with a lot of handheld projects, the game has been outsourced to another developer - in this case Climax, which is using teams in Los Angeles and the UK to put the project together. But don't worry: the game's "incredibly convoluted" storyline was written by the Japanese team, and the soundtrack is still being provided by series composer Akira Yamaoka.
"The storyline is convoluted to say the least," Oertel chuckles. "The team in Japan has woven this really complicated story that when you try to figure out and isolate it shifts between different realities. This makes it difficult to pin down time and date and work out what is real and what's imagination. Throw in the multiple endings, and, well...."
But despite admitting that Origins "continues this [Silent Hill] tradition of vagueness" he promises that the game will address "the true history of the town and what is in the minds of some of the characters you know from later in the series.
"You'll see characters you're familiar with, but you're seeing them before you've reached that capacity [in later games], and therefore fill in the blanks and some of the unknowns." He later acknowledged that "most people don't want an explanation", the rascals. We do, really.
"Some things we do have an answer for," Oertel promises "and some we reveal later on. Real hardcore fans will pick up on [these clues] and if they don’t see it in this one they'll see it in the next [Silent Hill games]. I know how important this is to a lot of people," he says, pointing to the obsessive fan sites as proof positive. "It connects on a very emotional and psychological level."
But enough tantalising clues, these are the facts we’ve managed to glean so far: The lead character is a burly trucker by the name of Travis O' Grady ("there's a specific reason we chose that character") who - like everyone else who gets caught up with the sleepy lakeside town - finds himself stranded in the Silent Hill while running an ordinary route. The official blurb tells us that he's "confronted by perversions of his imagination that mirror his troubled past, [and] he must escape from the town as it falls into ruin and also uncover the truth behind the hallucinations that have haunted him for so long."
More specifically, Oertel confides that at the start of Origins O' Grady "sees a mysterious figure and fog enshrines him." Bloody fog.
"He wakes up in hospital [ah, the good old Silent Hill hospital... - Ed] and sees a female apparition in the mirror, and she draws something on inside of it. Now, he's not a guy to be scared. If anything he's almost numbed to life; it's why has he chosen to become this person.
"But he's not a superhero. He's an average person. He has problems. That trauma that damages you is internal. As a truck driver he's already a physical force, and we use that bulk in the gameplay. He sees these creatures and he doesn’t need an explanation to what's going on," Oertel says cryptically. "After you play the game and know what he does, it will make sense," he assures.
In a departure for the series, Origins favours a more Resident Evil 4-style over-the-shoulder camera viewpoint and a heavier focus on action, though he's quick to clarify that "we're not going FPS".
"By its nature this will be a bit more action oriented Silent Hill. Sure, the camera placement will remind you of another survival horror game, but because it's a handheld game you can't have the cam pushed back because you don't see any detail that way. We needed to maximise tension."
Block the bloody door
Apparently. Origins will introduce "several gameplay mechanics" that intensify the sense of isolation, such as the new barricade system. Players will be able to use whatever junk that comes to hand to build mini sanctuaries to block out the approaching evil, and well as as-yet-unspecified "updated control system for improved combat"
Meanwhile, regarding audio Oertel acknowledges the PSP presents interesting challenges: "We know how important sound is [in Silent Hill titles], but things need to be visually oriented in case they don't have the sound on during their journeys or have good headphones etc. As a result there's a couple of mechanics we're putting in to make that happen," he adds without offering further detail. He went on to say that despite this, with headphones Origins has the potential to really immerse players. "I'm like 'Hey, why don't I just hop in my car and drive to the woods and play it when it's dark and cold!' People will find ways to enhance it. There's no magic pill," he admits.
In terms of where the game takes place, Oertel reveals that one third will be spent roaming around Silent Hill itself, and the other two thirds in four all-new areas including an asylum and a butchers shop. The project's producers says it's "too early to give estimates" on the gameplay length, but we live in hope that it won't be a brief affair.
Origin of the species
Regarding the infamous malformed creatures that we all know and love, Oertel had this to say: "One thing to keep in mind is that Origins is set before Silent Hill 1. The approach we wanted to take is that you've known the creatures - but where did they originate from? Take the straightjacket monster. Whether that's real or psychological is for the player to decide. One of the charms of SH is that it doesn't go out of its way to explain the storyline."
Does the world need another Silent Hill title that merely prompts more questions than answers? Frankly, yes. As Oertel notes, part of its enduring charm is its ability to make the player question what's really going on, and as long as Climax can stay true to the original vision and not make it too combat heavy for its own good, this looks set to be one of the most interesting releases coming to the PSP.
Silent Hill Origins is due for release this Christmas from Konami. In the meantime, be sure to check out the trailer on EGTV