Heaven's Night: An Interview With Akira Yamaoka

By Brandon Sheffield

When Konami's Silent Hill was released in 1999 it looked very different from other video games. But perhaps more important, it sounded radically different.

With music and sound design by Akira Yamaoka, the sonic environment of Silent Hill was an inseparable part of the game's sepulchral mood. As players explored Silent Hill's fog shrouded streets and decaying halls, Yamaoka draped the world in vast sheets of sound. Often suggestive of air raid sirens, background radiation, or the quiet hum of a dialysis machine, Yamaoka used guitar and electronics to create a sound that was alternately lush and bracing, with melancholy dreamscapes dissolving under a rain of lacerating distortion. Video game music could never sound quite the same again.

Below, we present the full text of the interview with Akira Yamaoka which ran in the December issue of Game Developer magazine, including the musician's controversial comments on the state of game development in Japan.

On the Silent Hill Franchise

How did you get into composition from the beginning?

Akira Yamaoka: I wanted to be a designer in the first place, then I started work with CG using a computer, and while working with CG, I learned that I could make music using the computer. So yeah, I was a designer working with CG stuff, but I began to play around with music and thought 'hey, this is interesting!' Granted this is a story from more than 20 years ago, but I guess that's how it started.

So you taught yourself music?

AY: Yes.

When you were first making music 20 years ago, it was chip tunes? Like Famicom sound?

AY: It was actually exactly Famicom sound. Only three sounds at the same time.

Do you have any of that music still?

AY: Yeah I've got it! (laughs)

I would love to hear it!

AY: It's on a cassette maybe, at home.

If you find it, you should make mp3s and release them.

AY: I want to hear it! I have for a long time, if I could find it.

It's worthwhile. You should do it. So how different do you find working on the Silent Hill movie, versus working for the games? Takayashi Sato said that it was like looking into his past, when he watched the movie. I wonder if you felt something similar.

AY: Well with this one, I really didn't feel like I was making a movie. The director Christophe Gans really wanted us to work together on it. So I went to Toronto so many times to really work closely with him, to help the movie do justice to the game. There wasn't really a lot of difference from working on the game.

And he used some of the same camera angles from the original Silent Hill as well, which is very interesting.

AY: That's exactly what the director wanted to do. He had a 40-inch or so TV screen on the set, and he played the PS2 on the scene. When he gave instructions to the actors, he looked at the game, and gave instructions.

When you were composing the music -- and I know you say it's an extension of the game -- did you feel you had to put more into it, because it's a different format, or did you have to treat it differently, maybe because of higher-fidelity sound because of better speakers?

AY: Yeah...I didn't want to do that. Basically I didn't want to change the music from the game's feeling. I actually used the sound that was similar to the PSone games. I didn't want to make the game music like a movie, I wanted to make the movie more like the game.

 


Is there going to be a sequel to the movie, and are you going to be working on it, if so?

AY: Well there's nothing announced, but there's some production website out there talking about it I think. If I got the opportunity I'd love to do it again.

I'm curious to know what you think of interactive music right now in video games. Is there more that we could be doing with it? Games like Q Entertainment makes, or all the other companies that are trying to do that, like flOw on PSN.

AY: The interactivity makes games different from other entertainment, music, movies, DVDs, or books. Interactivity makes the difference. People who design games are seen as creating interactivity, and I think musicians should also be recognized as part of that... what should I call it -- entertainment group? Something like that.

It should be recognized in a different way... maybe it should be a new category, but sound and music creators need to be thought of as part of that interactive creation process from the beginning. I think if you do that, something different will happen, just from a change of project perspective. I've always thought you should get everyone thinking about the interactive and creative aspects of the game together, from the very beginning.

In the Silent Hill series, for instance, most of the interactivity of the music and background is either just sound effects or two tracks of music -- one that's just normal state, and the other that is when you're in the Silent Hill state. One goes down, and the other goes up, and then reverses. Do you think that you could go even deeper than that, and make something more like your actions really affect how the environment works and reacts to you?

AY: Oh yeah, we could go way deeper. There's nothing to say that we need to just have static state changes all the time. There's no limit. You really should be able to make the sound respond to the players' actions or movements. It's not just like "battle music start," or "ambient music start" and then crossfades like you were talking about... I think it's really important to go beyond that. I keep thinking I'd like to have the games and the graphics really and truly agree with each other. But it's still a game. I don't really want to make it virtual, I don't want to emulate reality.

Konami's Silent Hill 3 for the PS2

It seems like you could have several similar tracks running simultaneously that could thread in at different times. Not even just music, but also ambient sound that will really bring the player inside of the environment.

AY: Yeah, I think that's good.

Will you be trying to do that on the next Silent Hill, or is that even further in the future?

AY: Hmm, after all, the next one's going to be on a next-generation platform, so we'll utilize Dolby surround sound of course. We're trying to do some new things, but it's nothing like the type of interactivity I was just talking about. The music presentation could be more detailed.

What is it like working with an American team for Silent Hill 5? Is it different from having a team in-house with you?

AY: It's completely different working with an American team. There are of course advantages and disadvantages, but overall, I'm really impressed with the American staff and their technology. Their graphical and technical ability is amazing. There's a huge gap, actually. They're very advanced. I'm Japanese, and I think this is not just with Silent Hill but with the whole of the industry -- I look at what American developers are doing and I think wow... Japan is in trouble.

 


That's interesting, because I've been noticing this for a while. Technology in games in Japan is falling very far behind. Usually I have to ask people if they think so, but you said it without prompting. Why do you think it is? Is there just not enough communication between companies, and sharing of technical know-how?

AY: There are two reasons I think. One is that the development environment in Japan is divided into developers and publishers. Publishers have to create a game in a short amount of time at low cost, and it's a lot of pressure on them in that respect, and they pass that on to the developers. So basically it has to be done as quickly and cheaply as possible. And the people doing this are getting old like me. And tired! And the salary isn't that great.

So you've got pressure on these people to perform like they did when they were 20, and it's just not possible. I look at a game magazine, and I see interviews with the "important creators," like Mr. Sakaguchi. He's a great game creator, but he's not young. And I don't see many young game creators in Japan. Then I look at the west, and I see all these young guys coming up so fast, it's just amazing.

The second reason is that... well for example, on another project [we] were in development for a while, and we realized that we needed a new driver for some graphics program. That happens of course. So we looked around for it, and we found it, OK. Same maker, same everything, should be fine right? But the problem is they're all in English. So we get this thing and we have to localize it into Japanese.

So we don't have a lot of people who can understand English deeply enough for something like that, so that reduces speed. And while we're waiting for that, we're already a step behind everyone else who can understand it intuitively. This sort of thing builds up, and we just fall further behind. I mean of course we can understand it once we know what it says, but this falling behind really affects the quality of what we can do. So that's the second big problem.

To that point, it seems like in Japan, every company has the same problem, but they're all working on it separately by themselves. Here, we have people using the same engine, and if they're using the same engine, they'll compare ideas and problems and fixes and things like that. That's my perception of one of the problems.

AY: Definitely, that's a big one. Like back in the Famicom days, people didn't want other companies to see what they were doing to maximize the console. And it's not even company to company, even the same company with two different projects, those two teams won't share driver research or resources like I was talking about before.

That's funny, because that's another one of the things that I thought was true. I've heard of other companies where two teams are working on the same type of game, but they didn't share an engine or assets or anything. Same company, two similar games, totally different tools. I've been feeling as though that is the reason why next-gen games are not taking off in Japan, because Japanese technology has not made it easy for Japanese game creators to make games for their own market.

AY: Yes, that's absolutely true. There really aren't people who can use the tools. The people who are starting to learn this stuff in Japan are still rather green too, so they can't even meet the levels we need to get to.

Will Silent Hill be with American teams going forward?

AY: I really don't know yet.

Depends on the result, maybe?

AY: It depends on results, and how platforms perform. We don't know what's going to become of them. There are different patterns that could result, I guess.

 


Why did Konami choose The Collective?

AY: Basically their graphical skill like I said, and also they really understand the world and concept of Silent Hill.

What do you think of it so far?

AY: They're still working on it, so I can't really comment. But they utilize the next-gen architecture, and I hope it'll be something we can all look forward to.

If you had to pick a previous Silent Hill that the feeling was closest to in Silent Hill 5, which one would you say it is like?

AY: None of them actually. It's really quite original I think.

Switching to a lighter subject, what bands do you like right now? Top five?

AY: The Cult, PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Metallica, and HIM.

And are there any other composers in games or outside that you admire or enjoy the work of? Now or in the past?

AY: Mr. Uematsu and Mr. Kondo. I respect them both.

I'm listening to Takada Masafumi from Grasshopper Manufacture lately.

AY: Oh he's my drinking buddy! About a half year ago I did a live concert with Grasshopper.

You guys should collaborate!

On His CD, iFuturelist

When did you make iFuturelist, and what was your inspiration for doing that?

AY: It's different from Silent Hill-type music. I think it has a lot of smiley humor. Smiley? Something like that. I started work on it about three years ago.

It has a lot of humor, yeah. Some of the songs are very strange, like Lionzuki. What were you trying to say with those songs?

AY: I like '80s music very much, like electro-type music. It sounded cool and soulful. When I was a student, I thought this one song was really cool, and I checked the lyrics, and I found out they were the complete opposite of what I thought. For example, that song said something like, "If you smoke too much, you'll get lung cancer. So you should reduce tobacco." Something like that.

It was very shocking to me, to find out that the lyrics didn't have any meaning. So I like those lyrics after all, when they don't really meet with your expectation of the music, and that's what I wanted to do with my music, like with Lionzuki. It's good music, but the lyrics don't have any meaning.

So is it just for the sound of the voice, and the pronunciation of the syllables that you pick specific words?

AY: Yeah, it's really just about the sounds. So like with Lionzuki, it just sounds good.

Actually, my favorite song on there was more like trance-type sound. I think it was number two or three or four. That was the most normal one, so I feel bad that it's my favorite.

AY: But that trance-type music has some originality to it too, I hope. I wanted to add that smiley humor as well.

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