Devin Shatsky on the Silent Hill franchise and HD remakes in the changing landscape of the Horror genre

When debates flare up again about whether games are art, one title that often gets brought to the table is Silent Hill 2. Like the lovechild of Polanski and Cronenberg, it’s a psychosexual thriller that worms its way into the player’s psyche. The critical and fan responses to subsequent entries have been all over the map, few capturing the sense of horror and pace that the second game achieved. March sees three new Silent Hill releases, an HD remake of the 2nd and 3rd installment, Downpour, a new entry, and Book of Memories, for the PS Vita. Devin Shatsky, a producer involved with the series, sat down with us to talk about the series, shifting attitudes in horror, and Eastern European. 

There’s been a lot of interest in the remake and the new releases. Why are people so invested in the Silent Hill series? 

When these titles first came out they were sort of pioneers in the survival horror genre and they set their own niche in that genre. They weren’t so much combat oriented as they were psychological horror. The thing that sets apart from Resident Evil and the rest of the genre was that we weren’t inundating the player with zombies and combat. It’s a lot of mind-messing with them and sound, ambient horror and atmosphere. It’s challenging as a developer to come up with moments like that without just throwing a ton of monsters at the player.

The recent games have tried to evoke elements from the first two games. Have later entries strayed from that?

The franchise has been alive since ’99. It’s definitely had some divergence from where it’s started to where it’s progressed to. Part of it is a natural evolution. Part of it is that the game isn’t handled by one team. It started off with an internal team in Japan, and, with Silent Hill: Downpour, we’ve got a brand new developer in Eastern Europe. We all have different interpretations of what Silent Hill is.

So you have games being made by Japanese developers, and Eastern European developers, and I believe there were also games being made by an American studio?

Yeah, Homecoming was done by an American developer. Silent Hill: Memories was done by an English developer.

Japanese horror is different than American horror which is different from Eastern European horror. Do the developers make these games reflections of the horror tradition where they’re from?

They all have their own subtle differences. There are still following the same canon. There are some rules that they all still have to follow when developing a Silent Hill game. 

Like any piece of art, you take a ball of clay and you hand it to an artist and tell them to make an elephant, they hand it off to another artist and it’s going to look completely different because of their different interpretations and style.

What’s an example of a rule?

One of the main foundations of Silent Hill is that whoever is there, whoever the protagonist maybe, the town itself is still the star. What happens in the town to that protagonist may be different from one from one person to the next, the town is the main entity here bring out the darkness within them. The elements that make Silent Hill the town that it is have to be retained.

Remakes are treated very differently in regards to games. In films, remakes usually mean changing elements of the film. Shot for shot remakes are derided as pointless, but in videogames fidelity to the original is key. With this remake, was there the temptation to change elements? Was there the urge to interpret the game differently? 

There were improvements we wanted to make, specifically with the voice acting. The level of voice acting talent was quite different than it was now. The pool of actors that they had access to at the time wasn’t as deep as it is now. Being as these games were developed in Japan and they were getting American actors in japan, directed by Japanese directors, there was definitely a bit of a disconnect on the voice acting side. Those were definitely things that were well received by the fans at the time, but nowadays I think there was a lot of room to make improvements there. It’s a tricky line to walk: you want to keep the nostalgia factor there for the core fans who really remember the games for they were, they don’t want a wholesale change, but for the HD collection we recaptured all of the voices and give the player the option to hear the game in a different light. There’s an option the player can play Silent Hill 2 and 3 with new voice acting or play with the original.

With a game that puts so much emphasis on visual design, how do you work around it and stay faithful? Is there a problem with making the game too good looking and clean? Say, the fog in the first Silent Hill: it was created because of a technical limitation, but it also contributes to much to the game. 

Not so much with Silent Hill 2 and 3. That’s the reason we choose these two titles. The natural train of thought would be be “Why aren’t you remaking 1 and 2?” because they’re the first two, right? 

Silent Hill was a Playstation 1 game. Taking that and trying to remaster and bring it to the next gen consoles would be an exercise in futility, it’s just not possible without just remaking the game. Silent Hill 2 and 3 since they were on the Playstation 2, the technology was far superior than the Playstation 1 and that allowed us to remaster it in HD and remaster the audio in 5.1

There is a certain threshold that you have to stay at that you can’t cross. There are a lot of things we would’ve liked to do

Going to Downpour for a second. The series started in ’99 and even within that time the horror genre, on film, has changed so much.  Has there been a temptation to explore that? The series has always been influenced by early Polanski, Rosemary’s Baby.

Jacob’s Ladder.

Yeah, yeah. But now you have, for example, a film like Saw. Has there been a temptation to explore different types of horror?

One of the really nice things about working with an Eastern European developer was that were able to get a fresh view of the horror genre. With Downpour, there’s a lot of really cool stuff, especially on the art style of things.

What’s an example of this sensibility?

It’s funny: Vatra Games itself is one tram stop away from a crematorium. There are a lot of dark landscapes there. There’s an old crypt less than a mile away from the studio where there’s hundreds of monks still mummified in the crypt that’s open to the public. You can see these monks and all the different freaky ways they were left to die. It’s hard to encapsulate all the different things you can see and experiences in that area of Europe. I guess you have to live there and grow up there to really have it integrate itself into your mindset. We had a lot of artists and designers who were able to bring these elements to the game. A lot of our environment, not the exact bit, but they’re modelled after real areas in the Czech Republic.