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Silent Hill and Siren devs on their return to horror

Bokeh's new project slowly comes into focus.

When Keiichiro Toyama, Kazunobu Sato, and Junya Okura announced Bokeh Game Studio last year, heads turned immediately in their direction. Here were three veterans of PlayStation Japan, responsible for developing Silent Hill, Siren, The Last Guardian, and Gravity Rush, to name but a few projects spearheaded by the trio, striding out on their own as newfound independent creators.

Bokeh Game Studio is preceded by its reputation. You don't get the creative director of Silent Hill, producer of The Last Guardian, and game director of Siren founding a new studio without questions and speculation immediately swirling. One obvious question lay outside the studio itself: why had all three experienced developers decided in unison to depart Sony Japan?

"We were conscious about being independent at the beginning of last year, which is actually before COVID," explains Bokeh Game Studio co-founder Junya Okura. There were "organisational changes" within Sony says Okura - PlayStation's Japan Studio was effectively wound down earlier this year - and this coupled with Toyama approaching Sato and Okura with the idea of going independent practically sealed the deal for the trio. However, Toyama is swift to mention it "wasn't just a sudden move," for the group. The Silent Hill creator was thinking about going independent ever since The Last Guardian director Fumito Ueda departed Sony to establish Gen Design in 2014, so Bokeh Game Studio is a move that's been just over six years in the making for Toyama.

Junya Okura, Keiichiro Toyama and Kazunobu Sato

Alongside the announcement of Bokeh Game Studio came the news that Toyama, Sato, and Okura were collaborating on a horror game. The trio proclaimed that they'd be returning to the genre that helped establish their respective careers, as horror is something that Okura feels the group share, and have "deep roots" in from their time working at Sony. Okura also highlights the return to horror as being familiar for players who have experienced the group's past games, hoping they'll see plenty of returning Silent Hill and Siren players among Bokeh's newfound fans. Toyama adds that he was actually thinking about horror while developing Gravity Rush over the last few years, and the "departure" from the horror genre with Gravity Rush allowed himself and Okura to "stock up on ideas."

However, Toyama is mindful of the fact he's returning to a genre that's given rise to new voices since the last time he was in the space. "I think it's a good way for indie developers to come through, and it's a great opportunity for young people to come in and emerge as new talents," he says of the dominance of indie developers in the horror genre. The veteran horror developer adds that he's particularly excited to see what virtual reality brings to the horror genre in future, as the two have a "great chemistry."

As for Bokeh's debut game itself though, it's still a while before we'll actually see anything of the project. Producer Kazunobu Sato tells me that the studio has been working on a prototype of the game since the beginning of 2021, for roughly six months now, but they're taking more time to "solidify" the prototype and get all the core mechanics down. We might have seen motion capture taking place for the game earlier this year in the video below, but Bokeh's new horror venture is still firmly in the prototype phase.

"There are a lot of areas in the prototype that we need to touch up," director Toyama adds, saying that he feels there's a "core experience" in the prototype which he hasn't seen in other games of late. When I asked him about what that core experience actually is, the veteran director only said that you "can't just put it down to describing it as a horror experience," as there are also "action and speedy" elements that the developers want to express through the new game.

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Those familiar with Toyama's body of work will no doubt know his penchant for writing horror narratives. Okura explains to me that this will very much still be the case with Bokeh's new game, and although Toyama is solely in charge of the game's narrative, there's the strong possibility that the development team will collaborate with a storyteller or narrative designer at some point in the future. Right now though, the entire team is geared up for Toyama to take the reins in the narrative department.

"It won't be just a simple story that branches out, as you can see in many games recently," Toyama adds. The creative director says that although it might be a challenge for the development team, they "want to create a new experience with narrative," in terms of how the gameplay and story are directly linked together. This is actually what the development team are working on right now, trying to establish how the narrative and gameplay of Bokeh's debut venture will coalesce.

If the allusion to collaborating with other creatives sounds familiar, that's because Toyama has teased the prospect before. Earlier this year, the director said Bokeh would be collaborating with a "famous creative" on the new game, and when I followed up about this tease, Toyama said he couldn't provide me with a name. What he could say, however, was that this collaboration actually wasn't with one person, but with a whole group of people, none of whom are game designers, level designers, or story writers. Instead, they'll collaborate with Bokeh in the art department, and they're actually all people that Toyama has specifically worked with before in his illustrious career.

It's a while until we see anything concrete on Bokeh's new project, but it's fair to say it's set to be a stark contrast to the sweetness and light of Gravity Rush.

If it's monsters that these creatives could be collaborating with, they've got their work cut out. Toyama tells me that Miki Takahashi, an artist who collaborated with Toyama and Okura previously on Siren (and also worked on Knack, of all things), is in charge of the monster design for Bokeh's new game, a fascinating prospect considering Takahashi's terrifying body of work. "We're working towards a theme which is both horrific yet aesthetically beautiful," Toyama adds, saying that the fusion of these two aspects is really something that Bokeh is striving for.

I couldn't help wondering how Kazunobu Sato's experience as a producer on The Last Guardian, a game which bore a long and tormented development cycle, was being put to use on Bokeh's new game. However, although Sato points out that he was only a producer on The Last Guardian for the final three years of development before the game launched in 2016, he points to changing hardware during the development process being something that the development team of The Last Guardian ultimately had no control over. "In terms of our new project, it's good that we can judge all of that for ourselves," he adds. "So please feel comfortable that our new game is not going to last for that long."

Finally, I had to ask one question that's been on the lips of just about half the industry over the last year: what about that Silent Hill revival? "Strictly speaking, I'm not in a position to answer that," says Toyama, when I asked him if he'd heard whispers about a revival of the series he'd helped create. "But from a personal perspective, seeing how in recent years there was P.T., you can see you don't need to necessarily stick to a specific system or style," the creator adds. "As long as the theme of Silent Hill, of how the inner darkness of people were being embodied, continues, I think anything beyond that is free territory to explore."

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