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."

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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
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.
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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