Silent Hill: Downpour design director dissects horror

GDC Europe 2011: Vatra Games' Brian Gomez discusses Konami's survival horror series, challenges of moving latest installment beyond "rough start."

Who was there: At this GDC Europe 2011 panel, Brian Gomez, design director for Silent Hill: Downpour developer Vatra Games, talked about the history of the horror genre and what the development team has learned from previous Silent Hill games. Gomez is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. His projects include the unreleased horror-themed brawler Thrill Kill and 2008's remake of Alone in the Dark.

Gomez felt Downpour was off to a "rough start" when he joined the team in 2010.

What he talked about: Gomez began his talk by defining horror as an intense feeling of shock, fear, and disgust. Horror themes have been around for as long as humans have been telling stories, from Beowulf's Grendel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In movies, the horror genre has grown from classic monster films, such as Nosferatu, to the "raw" cult films of the '70s like The Shining, to modern-day hits such as Paranormal Activity.

What all this means for game development, he explained, is that horror is about immersing players in an atmosphere of dread and violating their comfort zones. It's a genre filled with contradictions. While most games are designed to be empowering, escapist experiences, survival horror games do just the opposite. They instill dread by removing power from the player and dragging them through a stressful, nightmarish world. Gomez noted that the classic Resident Evil games were great at this, as well as System Shock 2, the Fatal Frame series, and BioShock--to name a few.

On the topic of the first Silent Hill, Gomez explained it was all about a religious cult attempting to awaken a god that would, basically, kill everyone. It was also a game that used the limitations of its hardware very well. The fog, for instance, was there to mask how little of the environment could be shown at a time.

And while the English version of the game had some very unnatural dialogue and character performances, those aspects gave it a David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) sort of vibe. Whether this was intentional or not, he admitted, "I don't know."

After briefly discussing the other entries in the Silent Hill series, Gomez shifted to the development of Silent Hill: Downpour. He was quick to admit that when he joined the team back in 2010, the game was off to a "rough start." Downpour lacked a single, cohesive vision, which manifested in an uninteresting protagonist, a story that didn't mesh with established canon, and monster designers that were purely about aesthetics. Faced with these issues, the team decided to take a step back and identify the pillars of the Silent Hill brand. Once they had a concrete base to build on, they started tackling these individual challenges.

The game's protagonist, Murphy Pendleton, went through a lot of revisions. Early in development he was a tragic hero--a prisoner falsely incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. However, after the team reevaluated what Silent Hill was, they decided that the location of Silent Hill was alive and that it could make your fears and sins manifest. Therefore, Murphy needed to be a little less innocent and was changed to a flawed but sympathetic protagonist. He's now a man on the run from his captors, his past, and himself--and that path has led him to Silent Hill.

The team also spent a lot of time working on Murphy's body language. In the beginning, Gomez said, it didn't seem like he was in the world at all. His animations were stilted and limited, and he wouldn't react to anything in the environment. To help draw the player in, the game needed a protagonist to approach scenes of gore with caution and jump when something startled him. "The animators killed themselves doing this," Gomez added, but he feels it made all the difference in the end.

Downpour's story also needed work. Early in development, it lacked a consistent inner logic and got lost trying to tie in plot threads established in Silent Hill 1 and 2. Since then, the story has been revised so that it focuses more on the dark, psychological horror of Silent Hill 2 and less on the town's supernatural cult. "We're trying to put some of that Alyssa and The Order stuff to rest," admitted Gomez. Instead of obsessing over obscure deities, Downpour's revised story draws inspiration directly from the lives of its creators. "We asked ourselves to evaluate the most traumatic moments in our own lives," Gomez said, "and put those moments straight into the game."

He also noted that the game will have multiple endings with multiple interpretations. There won't be a nice, clean conclusion for what happens in Downpour.

Combat and camera control were the next two areas of improvement. With the combat, Vatra didn't want either of the extremes seen in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or Silent Hill Homecoming. Instead, they developed a system built around improvised, destructible weapons. It's a system where safety is elusive, because a weapon's durability is always in question. And Downpour's enemies will be some of the strongest in Silent Hill history, Gomez added, so running might be the smartest thing to do.

Don't expect to have all of your questions answered when Silent Hill: Downpour concludes.

Fixed and railed camera perspectives will be more prominent in this entry in the Silent Hill series. Gomez explained that the team studied a lot of great horror movies and how they elicit an emotional response by limiting what the audience can see. He also noted that the environment in Downpour will be five times larger than in previous Silent Hill games and will feature no loading screens past the initial one. The team also wants every location in the game to tell a story through its scenery so that the player is always wondering, "What happened here?"

To discover those answers, players will have to use three different layers of perception. As Gomez explained it, these three layers are tied to Murphy's three different light sources: a flashlight, a lighter, and an ultraviolet light.

Gomez's final points were about the Otherworld and the game's monsters. While past Silent Hill games have used rust, blood, and even ice as the central style of the Otherworld, Downpour is using rain. The rain will be highly symbolic of Murphy's deteriorating sanity, said Gomez. As the water comes tumbling down, so too will his grip on reality.

To help with the design of the monsters, Gomez detailed the three degrees of violation a monster can inflict, as put forth by horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser). The first, infliction, is the most basic. It's all about bodily harm at the hands of something that wants to kill and eat its victim. The second, infestation, is about something living and growing inside someone's body--"the invasion of your sacred temple." The third, possession, is by far the worst. It's the loss of a person's mind and body to another being that cannot be escaped from.

The team studied how to use these lessons in building monsters that encourage certain reactions from the player--and then use those reactions against him. For example, having several enemies that crawl along the ceiling and then attacking them from ground level. The monsters' physical descriptions came last, with the focus being on how they can help reveal the darker side of a hero.

Quote: "Resident Evil was scary because it was so damn hard to move your character around the screen."--Brian Gomez, on horror in games (before adding that Silent Hill had the same problem).

"Startling the player is not the same as making the player feel dread."--Brian Gomez, on horror in games.

Takeaway: The Silent Hill series has never been afraid to take chances. But no matter its focus, be it fight or flight, each game has maintained a few key themes that have come to define this venerable series. Brian Gomez and the team at developer Vatra Games have spent a lot of time analyzing exactly what these themes are to help make Downpour worthy of the Silent Hill name. The result, they hope, is one that successfully marries the iconic tropes of the horror genre with modern-day game-making techniques.

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Discussion

64 comments
ticklemonster1
ticklemonster1

i hope they keep it visceral, like how s.h.3 had you roam a ordinary mall to unexpetadly run into a mutilated whatever

THE_DRUGGIE
THE_DRUGGIE

"Gomez began his talk by defining horror as an intense feeling of shock, fear, and disgust." Welp, that killed any chance of it being as good as 1-4.

Kevin75
Kevin75

I must say I love the ideas they are working with until they got to the central story. Since I am a Silent Hill Fan when you say "We're trying to put some of that Alyssa and The Order stuff to rest" that sends a vibe of worry down my back and raises an eyebrow that begs the question: Are they going to mess this one up? Homecoming failed because its plot litterally undoes its mechanics. You can't be a expert in combat is you (spoiler alert) were in an insane asylum for the duration of your past. On a simular note i hope they get the good good ending right because they haven't gotten it right for the last two games (I don't recognize Shattered Memory as an official Silent Hill Game). Here is hoping they get things right this time while keeping the great moments of Silent Hill past.

CLOCKWORKIAN
CLOCKWORKIAN

Thrill Kill and 2008's remake of Alone in the Dark? I hope, for the sake of this game, that Gomez has learned a LOT of what NOT to do in video games from working on those titles.

Infinity_Gauntl
Infinity_Gauntl

I never cared much for this series but since Resident Evil turned into an action game I think Ill give this a try,

LaurieLillian
LaurieLillian

Good to hear running away from monsters might be a better option than fighting them. I barely fought any monsters in the earlier games, except in Homecoming when I was forced to fight, which I hated.

MJ12-Conspiracy
MJ12-Conspiracy

If they can recapture some of the feeling of the first two Silent Hill games this SH could be pretty good.

Blueresident87
Blueresident87

Really excited for this game. Silent Hill is one of my favorite video game franchises and I think this will be a good entry into the series. I am ready for the next chapter in Silent Hill.

bostadskontrakt
bostadskontrakt

I like it. It might not be epic but it sure seems to improve on the hopeless Homecoming. Let's just put Silent Hill 1-3 to rest. They were awsome and the core, and the rest of the games are just other games.

Sh8amer
Sh8amer

it looks like they will awken silent hill again!! hope they do..

Novemberfreeze
Novemberfreeze

i like their ideas. they all sound promising but the tricky part is putting that into the game in a manner that fulfills what they want entirely. sounds like they're working hard on these things though. hopefully, they pull through.

Black_Id_Jenova
Black_Id_Jenova

Ok so far the demos is good, and the interview also good, let's hope they answer our expectation (the developer). And please do so very so please put it on pc, since number of PC game so lacking this times and day.., or not.. crap..

chang_1910
chang_1910

@psycho75: agree soooo much with you.. I`m with psycho.. here, PLEASE let it be a good horror game, I can only think of some minor horror game, and NONE survival horror... lets hope this one give us the fix so far.. I LIKE the combat description so far, at least it sounds that is not gonna be a action game full of bullets... FOCUS on atmosphere. PS. of course is linear, don`t do SH a RPG open world :S imho

AC2TheTruth
AC2TheTruth

having a teddybear? NO WAY!! THOSE THINGS ARE SCARY MAN!!

AC2TheTruth
AC2TheTruth

there hasnt really been so many REAL scary games.(if we exlude amnesia. ALMOST none.) so i really hope this game will give me a good scare. please......

psycho75
psycho75

there is a huge gap in the horror genre in this gen,so please people lets just give a vote of confidence on this one...

DARKNESSxEAGLE
DARKNESSxEAGLE

I know it sounds odd, but for the environment to give off a mystery essence to the story they should take a look at Super Mario 64, especially the Boo Mansion. Although it's not particularly a horror game, that mansion held so much of a mystery within it, as you played through the stages the mansion evolved giving you access to more areas that beckoned more wonderment. However, SM64 didn't explain any of them, Silent Hill needs to. Another game that has this effect added to it is Bioshock, however I don't think that it was done subtly enough, so you didn't have to think about it in order to realise it held a mystery.

leeko_link
leeko_link

Sounds like they know what to be aware of when developing this, just hope it doesn't flop like Homecoming. Origins and Shatter Memories were good though.

SpookyJack
SpookyJack

Doesn't matter what they try to sell it as. I consider each and every entry in the series after 4 a spin-off, unworthy of the Silent Hill title.

Kuraime
Kuraime

Finally it seems that someone has taken a notice of the actual psycological aspect of silent hill. Homecoming seemed to mimic the movie way too much and Shattered Memories was just frustrating. I now have renewed hope that Downpour will be next worthy sequel in the series. Maybe even an evolution of the franchise.

Coolpix56
Coolpix56

I'm glad he identified the key issues that would ruin this game, it shows they're really trying to do well. I just hope that they push to implement all that was said. This interview really bolstered my confidence in this game though, I'd love to see the Silent Hill series revived, so here's to hoping this game is the game that does it.

BUNTARG
BUNTARG

I love games that make me S**t my pants! and i know i'll probably get some stick for this but ive never played any of the Silent Hill series. I probably give this one a try, then if i like what i see i might get some of the HD remakes of the older ones.

igorphoenix
igorphoenix

Well, maybe it`s not so bad after all, yet I`m still skeptical about it, looks to much like Homecoming. And it`s hard to imagine Silent Hill without Akira Yamaoka. I guess I`ll get this game but for now I`m more excited about HD editions of SH2, SH3 and still hope for Shattered Memories remake (which is IMO best in series right after SH2).

TeabagChampion
TeabagChampion

Silent Hill always captured us in a moment one way or another. Even the cheesy voice acting built a fear factor.

brain20035
brain20035

Oh I can't wait for this. I think it's gonna be epic. The points they have considered here are clearly going to be awesome, I'm just hoping for a good execution of those points in the game. My most favorite Silent Hill game so far has been Silent Hill 2. I'm so happy that he mentioned going back to that kinda atmosphere rather than focusing on the Cult thing! that stuff is lame.

1Gigabyteofram
1Gigabyteofram

I love the Silent Hill series, but i feel as though the games have been "drifting" away since the release of the movie. It seems that after the movie released, they made the games based on the movie. I think that Silent Hill: Homecoming gave the player too much power in how to kill their enemies (CQC, almost limitless ammo), and that managed to take away the scare-factor that SH2 or 3 had.

singhellotaku
singhellotaku

That said this is a very insightful read and gives me some hope for the series, I was one of the few that quite liked homecoming but I did feel it leaned to heavily on the movie and drastically departed from what made the series so powerful.

singhellotaku
singhellotaku

Thrill Kill and Alone in the dark huh? I seem to recall both of those games sucking, granted I played a leaked beta of thrill kill but still.

prismtech
prismtech

somehow the stage demo reminds me of alan wake! i think it's a good thing :p keep the good news coming ;)

ein123
ein123

@zaiwen YES YES YES!!! my sisters old boyfriend had that game but it was only a test game to see if people liked it. I don't think it got released in Australia but I freaking loved it!!!!!!!!!!

Dook_Pukem
Dook_Pukem

I actually liked Homecoming. My only gripe was the inablilty to switch x-axis controls. I'll definitely buy Downpour, but the absense of Yamaoka may detract from the familiar atmosphere.

zaiwen
zaiwen

i remember playing that game Thrill Kill, i loved it.. bring it back even if its just on Vita

wwlettsome
wwlettsome

Looking forward to this game but I'm really tired of the weapon breaking mechanic...almost as tired of that as I am of the blurry/obscured screen gimmick to show when the player is taking damage.

theJBlounge
theJBlounge

Graphics definitely look nice. Big jump from when I played Silent Hill 1. I'm just hoping they can put together a good game. I never played it but I heard SH: Homecoming was mediocre and also dev'ed by an American studio.

Quezakolt
Quezakolt

sounds great but i always found "destructable" weapons to be so silly because your axe always break so fast. i mean stuff doesn't break like that in real life.

godzillavskong
godzillavskong

Wow. 5 times the size of that in previous Silent Hill titles and no loading screens, except the initial one? Sounds like its off to a good start. I enjoyed the last installment on the 360, just that it was a bit hard for me. Maybe I should go back through it and play it on baby settings.lol

HaloPimp978
HaloPimp978

At least they are being honesty and make it the best SH possible.

OrwellJames
OrwellJames

This reflects everything I have been saying about Silent Hill for years now - may this guy can work on the Final Fantasy series next.

shkar
shkar

This just might be the real successor to SILENT HILL 1 and 2 ..............

vader501st
vader501st

Looks very promising. The only series that managed to have some solid horror this gen was Dead Space. Here's hoping that Silent Hill Downpour brings back the psychological thrills that made the first ones deep, unique games.

Killing_Free
Killing_Free

If you won't release this to PC, hear me KONAMI! I WILL BURN YOUR HOUSE DOWN! WITH LEMONS.

newhighscore
newhighscore

excellent article. love the approach to the monster deisgn. and no loading screens ftw!

redskinStu
redskinStu

If I want to spend my spare time "running," I'll buy a track and field game. I'll take a pass on this one.

DiscGuru101
DiscGuru101

The honesty is refreshing. I hope they would only let on how weak it was in 2010 because they know how terrifyingly awesome it is now?

Jimbowesker
Jimbowesker

Well if they can back up the talk I think it will be a hit

Jimbowesker
Jimbowesker

Well if they can back up the talk I think it will be a hit.