Is there a more freaked out series in gaming than Silent Hill? It's the game where you've lost before you've even begun, sending you on mostly hopeless quests to find the muddled truth of your deranged state of mind. Nothing is ever the way it seems, but as confusing as that might be, most of the compulsion to carry on is trying to work out what on earth it all means. With the fourth in the series having already been released in Japan (complete with English language version included as standard), we were in the unusual position of having completed the game before we got to chat with chief designer Masashi Tsuboyama and producer Akira Yamaoka. But given that The Room hasn't been as well received in Europe as the previous three titles in the series, we were curious to get to the bottom of the dramatic change of direction.
For the first time, Silent Hill uses a first-person perspective. Finding himself trapped in 'Room 302' Henry Townshend explores the four-room confines of his apartment through his own eyes, with the game switching to the traditional third-person view once you're in what the team calls 'another world'. Just why did they choose to make this switch? "Basically we wanted to create something new for our game," asserts Masashi Tsuboyama. "The way it looks should be somewhat different from the past games in the series, and also the theme of this title is, as the title says, a room, so we wanted to bring some atmosphere that is the fear of being in a room playing the game." We know that feeling already, having played the others, but we were still curious why the team chose to only use these first-person segments in what is a relatively small 'hub' of the game. "We could have implemented the first-person view in what we call 'another world'," Tsuboyama admits, "but we adopted a third-person view based on what we think is suitable for our action-style game. That way we could express what we wanted to express."
Day of the undead
It's this talk of The Room being an 'action-style' game that irked us. Silent Hill's action segments have traditionally been more puzzle, narrative and atmosphere-based, where number four has largely shied away from giving the player much in the way of riddles to solve, replacing it instead with an onslaught of sometimes-invincible enemies. By the end of the game, we'd killed nearly 500 enemies, which to us seemed excessive and made the game much more about slaying slimy otherworldly mutants than becoming immersed in a rich sinister atmosphere. Did they go too far into the realms of being an action game, we asked? "If we hear that kind of comment then we take it as a positive," argues Yamaoka, kind of missing the point entirely. "On a concept level we wanted to put more of an action style on the game, so we don't take that as a negative." Hmm. Sadly it seems that most of those that have played it so far don't agree.
But fair enough, then, if the intention was to make an action game - but just be prepared to alienate your core audience. To those who've played The Room, it doesn't even feel like a traditional Silent Hill game in many ways; with so little puzzle solving; tasks are reduced in the main to simple key/lock chores. In fact, the genius of being able to vary the puzzle and action difficulty independently has been stripped out altogether. Why do that? "It's just a matter of how we designed the game system," says Yamaoka. "Although we got rid of the difficulty level for the puzzles, actually it is kind of mixed with the difficulty settings for the action as well. If you select 'action': hard, it means riddles get hard as well at the same time." All well and good, of course, if you want even harder combat. But for those who've played it extensively, only a complete masochist would want to face an even more relentless onslaught. While the story remains as gripping as ever, to find the excellent riddle system removed is a questionable decision that may leave long-term fans of the series more than a little upset.
Another component that lets the game down is the decision to recycle the first half locations in the second half of the game. "It's based on a scenario... We introduce the characters for the first half of the game, and then we wanted to show how these characters change on the second half of it," argues Tsuboyama. "So, we needed to use the same locations to show how they changed - before and after." Hmm, indeed. We wish we could agree, but in truth half the fun of survival horror games is the discovery of new locations. Not trudging through the exact same ones with different monsters in them. It cheapens what - up to that point - is a fine game. Not to the point of making it boring, but just less interesting, if that makes sense.
Meanwhile, pedants will rightfully point out that the game isn't even set in Silent Hill. It's bizarrely glossed over that the game takes place in the town of South Ashfield, apparently 'nearby'. What? Apparently it was "the destiny for the creator," according to Tsuboyama, cryptically. "If you create the series and have to come up with something new every time, and we wanted to have a dramatic change this time The Room should be the safest part of your world. What if that changes to nightmares?"
It's certainly a dramatic change alright, but rumour has it that the game didn't even start life as a Silent Hill project. "That's actually the right information you have," Tsuboyama admits. "Originally this development was started from what we named Room 302, rather than Silent Hill, so the original concept wasn't from Silent Hill." Presumably that was to give the game a better chance commercially? He nods. "We started off with the title Room 302, but if the Silent Hill didn't exist then we still had the idea of Room 302. Without Silent Hill we didn't have this title, but because we did have Silent Hill we wanted to have something different, but it's kind of a mixture of ideas."
But what of the loss of the beloved flashlight? Surely that was a series staple? Was this to accommodate their action game style? "It's hard to say," Yamaoka says. "That brightness could affect the gaming style, but we didn't intend it to be that way. In the past games in the series it was more like a dark horror, like a dark terror where you need to put your flashlight on to search out a part. But this time we wanted to have more ambience so you could see what's there in front of you. There you start thinking of what to do next. That's kind of an obvious horror that we wanted to implement this time, that's a kind of major change."
Looking back, how is it that the Japanese managed to highjack a genre that originated in France (Alone In The Dark) and totally dominate the scene? "Well, game wise, Japanese animation is always detailed and specifically expressed, so that's something we are good at," says Tsuboyama. "If you make a horror title, you need to make it as realistic as possible or as specific as possible to express your philosophy or fear, otherwise it appears rubbish so in that sense that was well accepted here [in Europe]. Combined to these two categories [of film and games] right now it's maybe a conjunction of detail... some new idea which is appealing to [the West] from the film and the games industry I guess. But this is not new to us," he shrugs, talking of their influence from a rich vein of Japanese horror, with names neither they nor us can translate.
Talking of movies, what about the mooted Silent Hill flick? "Well, it's moving; the film company is working on it," states Yamaoka, vaguely. "We wish to do some collaboration on it. Obviously the movie industry is a lot bigger than the games industry so if there's a Silent Hill movie it has quite an impact into the market, so we wish to help with it." Beyond that they remain tight-lipped, but the signs are, at least, that the creators may have a hand in it, however small.
Presumably work has already begun on fifth game already, given their current work-rate. "One of the websites said we are creating a fifth [Silent Hill] called Shadows - I don't know where they get their information but obviously it's not Shadows that we are creating," Tsuboyama says, "but we are creating the next one. We're not sure which hardware we'll put it out on, but we will play it on the best one, be it PS3, be it Xbox 2..." But not on the current generation of consoles, the PS2 or Xbox? "No not on these consoles."
Back to their roots?
We hope by then the team will have learned what it was that made Silent Hill such a beloved series in the first place and reverse the peculiar decision to turn it into some sort of action hackandslash freak show. In the meantime, fans of the series won't be entirely put off by The Room, but the chances are it's not the game you wanted it to be. That's not to say that it's a bad game by any means, but be prepared for something that's very different, and just close enough to the terror of the previous three to still be somewhat essential for those needing their fix.
Silent Hill 4: The Room is released in Europe on September 17th on PS2 and Xbox, with a PC version to follow later in the autumn. You can read our review of the Japanese PS2 version here.