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Interview: Silent Hill creator Keiichiro Toyama on returning to horror with ‘Slitterhead’
The Bokeh Game Studio head discusses his new project, the horror genre and Silent Hill’s reported return
One year ago this month, a band of Sony Japan Studio veterans announced they were going indie with their new company, Bokeh Game Studio.
The news was much anticipated by fan groups, as Bokeh sees Keiichiro Toyama, director of Silent Hill and the Siren and Gravity Rush series, back in the director’s chair and returning to the horror genre that kickstarted his career.
Announced at The Game Awards last week, ‘Slitterhead’ is Bokeh’s debut game. Little has been shared about the title, although Toyama has previously said that Slitterhead will have a theme of “everyday life being shaken”, and both horror and action elements.
野狗子: Slitterhead - Teaser Trailer - TGA 2021
Slitterhead is being worked on by a whole team of veterans – many who joined following the closure of Sony Japan Studio – including Gravity Rush designer Junya Okura, Puppeteer lead Kazunobu Sato, and Devil May Cry character artist Tatsuya Yoshikawa.
Toyama hopes the game’s early announcement will help his new company attract younger creators to supplement his team of all-stars.
Following Slitterhead’s announcement, VGC spoke to Toyama about the news, Bokeh’s progress, and reports that Silent Hill – the series he created – could be set to return.
It’s now been one year since Bokeh was announced to the world. How is your first project progressing?
We just revealed a teaser trailer for our first title “Slitterhead” at The Game Awards! As for the project, we have completed our prototyping phase. We will be using our knowledge gained from the feedback to enter full production. Though it’s too early to reveal any details about the game, and it will take some time prior to release, we hope you look forward to it!
It seems you’ve assembled an experienced team already. It seems there must have been a lot of interest to join such a project, and has this helped you progress faster in terms of development?
I have worked with most of the members in past projects, which I am thankful for. I am able to work in the same mentality as I did with Sony Interactive Entertainment. We are also gradually hiring younger staff which gives the team more morale boost.
How have you found your first year working at your own company compared with the Japan Studio culture? Has it been a very different experience for you?
I am definitely working in a very free environment. Although I do mainly focus on the creative side of things there are many veterans in the team, which gives us solidarity in various aspects such as action. This allows me to focus solely on the story and concept elements of the game.
We were surprised to see such a historic developer as Japan Studio disappear. Given the choice between joining another publisher or starting your own venture, what made you decide to strike out on your own with Bokeh?
I had been thinking about independence for some time before Japan Studio was dispanded. However, I felt it would be difficult to apply myself to a new job at a different company, due to my age. I think the only path for me would have been to literally go solo and collaborate with different companies. However, due to circumstances, I was able to act with individuals who shared my thoughts, so I naturally opted to create a new studio.
Slitterhead sees you return to the horror genre you’re best known for. Of your modern horror game genre peers, are there any that you really like, or that you feel stand above the rest, and why?
P.T [from Hideo Kojima] needless to say was fantastic. It established a new standard which VR horror games later followed, and I think it’s a legendary game.
For more recent games I thought “Devotion” was very good. The exoticism of the different cultures made me feel nostalgic, while also feeling fear for the unknown.
Based on what you established in the first Silent Hill game, how do you feel about how the series continued to develop with Silent Hill 2 and 3 and beyond?
For 2 and 3 [Masahiro] Ito-san perfected his art direction style and completed his vision for it. I think there was a lot of consistency to it, which completed his vision, which I thought was very good. My only concern was that as an action game, how do these character designs move in the game, and that might have been something they struggled with, in how to make his designs come to life in a game.
And Ito-san as a person in developing a game is uncontrollable [laughs], so it’s hard for him to follow directions or to tell him to do things a certain way. Even within himself, it’s hard for him to control himself or follow a given path so he needs a lot of creative freedom.
But when given that freedom he comes up with very good ideas and concepts, and as a director, you want to make it work, to figure out what he’s designed and make it work in a game. Ultimately these are creatures from nightmares, so anything goes and I think it works within the narrative.
The quality of Silent Hill’s Takayoshi Sato CG scenes — which also distinguishes it from Biohazard — were part of what makes the game so memorable. Do you think these scenes contributed to the game’s overall legacy?
I agree that Sato’s CG was and is amazing, and internally at Konami there was a lot of high praise for it and there was interest in pulling that out of him and using that as a strength in the game. But personally, as this was my directorial debut, I worried that I wasn’t able to bring out their strengths in the game, be it Sato-san or Ito-san. So that was one of the struggles I had in directing Silent Hill.
On Silent Hill it is said you were given the director role even though you had never directed a game before. Is this true? And, having survived that experience, what common thread do you try to bring to projects that you’ve since directed, be it Silent Hill, Siren, Gravity Daze, or future games?
At the time the idea for Konami was to release a lot of games and if we had a hit, great, that was the mentality of it, it was a numbers game. They were trying to bring a lot of fresh blood into directorial roles, but even then it was only my third year, so I was still very young, and I was one of the early ones when they started this trend, so I was surprised when they chose me as director.
The only reason I can think of as the reason why they’d do that is because I joined the company in 1994 which was the release date of PlayStation, and the transition to polygons, because it was a year of transition they were looking to bring in new blood, the inexperienced developers, and kind of gamble and take their chances.
If you hadn’t been assigned the director’s seat, your life might be very different right now.
I’m just grateful, I think I’ve been very lucky timing-wise with opportunities.
32-bit style of graphics seems to be coming back in vogue. How do you feel about this? Do you have any fond memories of this era or was it mostly frustrating to deal with PlayStation’s limitations?
The early PlayStation definitely had that style, and I remember that one of the most difficult parts was that textures would morph and bend and straight lines wouldn’t stay straight; they’d bend as they moved.
And I really didn’t like that, so we tried to fix it in the system. We would come up with different ways of displaying them, and we’d find shortcuts or ways to fix that so it didn’t look as bad as it would otherwise. But that in turn has become a style that people want to emulate and that’s interesting to me.
Capcom has done a lot of total remakes of the original Biohazard games, and these will probably continue going forward until they’re all caught up. Do you think it would be interesting if Konami did a complete remake of the original Silent Hill in a similar way?
I think it would be harder to remake than Biohazard, because the gameplay as a concept is a little older. It’s not an action game where you can just refine the action as in Biohazard, to bring Silent Hill up to current standards or to polish up the graphics, the fans wouldn’t be satisfied. That’s not what it was about — how beautiful it was. I think you’d have to rethink the concept to make it interesting to fans.
How do you feel about the recent trend of remakes in general? Is it good to see classics brought to a new audience or do you see them as more cynical ventures, lacking in originality?
Unlike movies, games are difficult to enjoy as in the original state – obviously because of the platform, but as time goes by game mechanics especially in usability lack rationality and sophistication. Visually speaking it’s clearly not made for modern equipment, so I absolutely don’t have any objection to modifying an original essence to fit the modern era which we live in today.
That said, as one of the people responsible for Silent Hill’s creation do you have any emotional investment in it, and does its potential comeback as a series interest you?
I can’t say anything about myself, however, if there was to be a new entry in the future I would obviously be very interested in it as one user. I know there are many games that followed in the footsteps of Silent Hill today, so I would particularly like to know what a new entry would leave and change from the original.
Why is David Lynch such an influence on Japanese game creators?
Twin Peaks was very popular in Japan, as it was in the States, so it is very well-known in pop culture with Japanese people in general. But that mood where seemingly normal people have a dark side—I think people could really relate to that—especially out in the rural areas where people have two faces, so I felt a symmetry to what was portrayed in Twin Peaks.
Can you point to anything in your games that’s a direct influence from David Lynch?
The siren [when you shift to the other world] that’s used in Silent Hill is a direct homage to David Lynch and Twin Peaks, in that it sets the tone and eeriness. In Eraserhead that human curiosity, especially things that you’re not supposed to do that, it’s that tendency in human nature you can’t fight, that urge to do things you’re not supposed to definitely influenced the game.
The main character is looking for his missing daughter, but the main character actively enjoys the hunt and the act of killing. On the surface he’s doing it because he has to for his daughter, but then maybe he’s also enjoying the process. That conflict in human nature was inspired by David Lynch’s work.