Sunday, March 13, 2005

TWO very insightful articles
GDC Session: The dark spirit of Silent Hill
Series producer Akira Yamaoka dissects the craft of interactive horror.

Without warning, the lights fade down inside Moscone West Convention Center, Room 2006. In the ensuing darkness, audience members are treated to a video montage from Silent Hill 4. Rendered in overexposed, grainy black and white, and set to alternately sad and creepy piano ambience, the video flashes a slew of barely intelligible, yet disturbing images.

When it comes to mood and ambience, Silent Hill series producer and sound director Akira Yamaoka clearly knows what he's doing.

In this week's GDC lecture "The Day and Night of Silent Hill" Yamaoka methodically explored a variety of topics, including the core components of horror, the relationship between sound and music, and the psychology of fear.

"I have written horror, Japanese style," Yamaoka reflected. And though he readily admits emulating American works by artists such as David Lynch and Stephen King, Yamaoka explained that the Silent Hill series is still "very rooted in the [Japanese] culture."

"Hollywood-style" horror, Yamaoka argued, tends to focus on shocking visuals and evil spirits, whereas Japanese-style horror relies on un-seeable enemies, a sense of vengeance, and--perhaps most uniquely--a sad storyline. "It's not just a question of surprising someone, or showing shocking images," he remarked. In Japanese-style horror, Yamaoka explained, there is always a pervading sense of sadness, as if the story were "wet with tears."

Yamaoka did agree that "Silent Hill focuses very much on storyline," but pointed out that Silent Hill has an "unclear" story that tends not to be "user-friendly." Yamaoka stressed the importance of this lack of narrative clarity, which not only forces players to "start developing a story themselves," but also "provokes a sense of fear." For instance, in Silent Hill 2, it turns out that the protagonist murdered his wife, though he pretends not to know. Consequently, there is a "destruction of identity" and a resulting unclearness that is deeply unsettling.

In a similar vein, Yamaoka identifies the feeling of uneasiness as a second core component of horror. Experiences that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar, he argued, leads to anxiety and fear. Yamaoka touted the use of fragmented information, commenting that "the creator doesn't need to explain everything." This attitude not only accounts for his heavy use of fog and mist, but also explains why no Silent Hill character is resolutely "bad." Instead, "every character has a multifaceted personality," because such unpredictability provokes fear.

"I think reality is a very important aspect of horror," Yamaoka continued. Nonetheless, he made sure to qualify that his working definition of "reality" is different than merely "looking natural," since people don't consciously notice all visual information conveyed to them. Thus, especially in light of the trend towards greater visual photorealism, Yamaoka urged the need to work on "mechanisms to make the users feel like it's real." For example, in Silent Hill 3, one major design concern was taking advantage of the communicative power of eye movement. If a character's eyes aren't doing anything, Yamaoka pointed out, the interaction lacks a certain intangible something.

Shifting subjects to his expertise in sound production, Yamaoka remarked that he hardly separates general game production from sound production, advising, "You can't look only at sound or only at the game." He elaborated, "Silent Hill doesn't have what we normally know as music," warning that "music tends to be explanatory." For example, traditional soundtracks tend to imply when a scene is scary or romantic. The solution employed in Silent Hill, Yamaoka explained, was to abandon such conventions and use radio static – a sound to which players aren't instinctually attuned--to signify the presence of nearby enemies.

Towards the end of the program, Yamaoka stressed that Silent Hill isn't merely a puzzle-solving game, but rather an emerging form of interactive media in a more general sense. "What we call ‘game' might change," he suggested.

Yamaoka was one of several Japanese speakers at GDC this week, as part of the "Focus on Japan" Global Developer Program initiative. Yamaoka's lecture, which he delivered in his native Japanese, was simultaneously translated into English and broadcast to attendees via special headphone sets.

By Douglas Wilson -- GameSpot
POSTED: 03/11/05 05:47 PM PST

GDC Panel: Keita Takahashi - new kid on the block
Katamari Damacy designer analyzes self, industry, and games in general.

"In a sense, games are an unnecessary thing."

This is a strange sentiment, perhaps, from a highly anticipated Game Developers Conference speaker...a speaker not even one day removed from his 2005 GDC Choice Award in Game Design. Yet in Keita Takahashi’s Thursday talk, this sense of critical self-questioning recurred as a major theme.

Takahashi, the creative brain behind Namco's sleeper Katamari Damacy, addressed a range of topics both serious and lighthearted in nature, always speaking with a distinct air of humility. The one-hour lecture, entitled "Rolling The Dice--The Risks and Rewards of Developing Katamari Damacy," was given in Takahashi’s native Japanese and simulcast in translated English.

"I would like to do something that makes people happy," Takahashi revealed. Betraying a clear sense of progressive-minded idealism, Takahashi wondered aloud if making people smile, even if only for brief periods of time, could help prevent negative behaviors, such as fighting and racial discrimination.

Takahashi recounted his long path to success, constantly thanking the "unprecedented, miraculous" opportunity presented to him. The story goes that Katamari Damacy began when, after several years of working at Namco without finding a project that interested him, Takahashi finally reasoned, "Perhaps I should come up with a project myself."

According to Takahashi, his big break came in the form of a certain computer design curriculum that decided to adopt his idea for a student project. Creating a prototype that would ultimately sell the game’s potential, about a dozen students worked on game art while Namco took care of the level maps and programming framework. After roughly three years of prototype and development, Katamari Damacy was finally released. The rest, of course, is history.

Citing his inspiration from Japanese children's ball-rolling games, Takahashi expressed his opinion that "It's fun to roll something," further asserting that rolling a huge ball around the streets would be "hands down more fun than playing games." Despite initial criticism of his idea as overly simplistic, Takahashi decided to "proactively ignore" the voices of dissent, in large part because he "really enjoyed" rolling the Katamari around using the two analog sticks.

As for the process by which the specific design arose, Takahashi remarked, "... I just basically came up with this idea," and apologized for his lack of a better explanation. He did, however, underscore his "desire to do something new, something that is easily understood, something enjoyable ... something you could only do in a video game."

And although he admitted that Katamari Damacy "is not that sophisticated a game," Takahashi qualified, "I do not mean simple is best." In fact, Takahashi claimed that the simplicity of his design was more the result of necessity, lamenting that he lacks the skills to explore more complex subjects such as love.

Takahashi also noted the connection between Katamari Damacy and his sculpture education at art college. In particular, he looked back on his experiences in which he was forced to focus on the tactile rather than the visual, as well as the enjoyment he got from "being able to feel things with one's hands."

Takahashi did, however, describe a major art philosophy dilemma from which he struggled (and continues to struggle), openly musing, "I often wonder whether [artists] are contributing anything to society." He expressed his fear that artists are only relevant to themselves and remarked that the thought "never sat well with me." Nevertheless, Takahashi did share that he has been able to find self-reaffirmation in the fact that "those who touched my least they smiled."

But Takahashi questioned more than just art. He challenged the very cultural value of video games. "Children would be better off playing outside," he asserted, arguing that video games can potentially waste away the precious and limited time of childhood. "I’m not trying to help people escape reality," Takahashi explained, and clarified that he would rather "make daily life more fun by giving people a fun game to play once in a while."

Takahashi was also harsh with respect to the general video game industry. "I don't think technology has played a huge rule in increasing game content," he stated, dismissing better graphics and sound as "minor improvements." He argued that "as one form of expression, the [video game] field seems to be really narrow," and therefore proposed that we focus on making software richer instead of trying to design the next-generation console.

But the panel wasn't all serious criticism and analysis. Takahashi made the audience laugh more than a few times with his humorous slides. And he even began the lecture by placing a Katamari stuffed doll on an empty speaker pedestal.

Highlighting some of his core design principles, Takahashi stressed that video games need to be stimulating. He stated, "[A video game] sometimes has to be 'rock'; sometimes [it] has to be 'punk' ... if not, [there is] no meaning for its existence." Takahashi also pointed out that stimulation "doesn’t have to take the form of shooting things, killing things." For Takahashi, the "peaceful, mellow atmosphere" of Katamari Damacy stands as one such example.

Takahashi also speculated that if violent games do indeed have tangible negative effects, as some speculate, other types of games might potentially have positive impacts. He did seem to doubt that Katamari Damacy accomplishes anything similar though, admitting, "I’m not sure how much I have achieved my goal."

The audience, in contrast, seemed quite confident of Takahashi's achievement and treated Takahashi to a hearty standing ovation at the lecture’s end.

By Douglas Wilson -- GameSpot
POSTED: 03/11/05 09:51 AM PST

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