The future of the Silent Hill series may be uncertain, but its soundtracks remain as influential as ever.
Composer Akira Yamaoka has been the mastermind of Silent Hill’s aural DNA since its inaugural installment on the PlayStation in 1999, and he’s also its most consistent thread, composing for every instalment up to the recent Downpour, in addition to overseeing production and direction of its more recent entries. Yamaoka’s music and sound design dictates how virtually everything feels and plays out, from the sound of your first nervous footsteps to the shrieks and drones that accompany each game’s many spaces. For a series like Silent Hill, having a singular creative vision is important, because when its best games are firing on all cylinders (usually considered to be the first four, with a sympathy basket for Shattered Memories sometimes included), they get something right that very few films, books, or other games do: atmosphere.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Yamaoka says. “I love splatter films plenty. But psychological horror and atmosphere plays way more into what I am, and more importantly, what I’m not.” What makes Silent Hill important is the way it yields brain food and scares in equal measure. The games only give you the bare minimum of what you need, their environments, monsters, and Yamaoka’s sound design letting you take as much or little as what you want from them. While, of course, doing a fine job of scaring the shit out of you.
This is why if you’re a Silent Hill fan, you’re probably more than a little passionate about it. “I mean,” Yamaoka chuckled, “it’s been nearly 20 years since the first game even came out and I still have to talk about it.” There might be a more specific reason why the franchise is so beloved: Silent Hill 2 is often considered to the best horror game of all time, gaming’s first entry into its entirely hypothetical Criterion Collection. Musically and personally, it’s Yamaoka’s favorite, and probably yours as well.
“Silent Hill 2 was very special for its time,” says Yamaoka. “[Definitely] unique in ways that fans took a while to catch onto. Looking back now I still believe it’s the one that stands out as the hallmark of the series. First of all, when SH2 was released it was unheard of for games to explore themes based on euthanasia, terminal illness, guilt, sexual abuse and sexual repression. Taking all of that on at once was unprecedented in 2001.” The fact that it holds up as one of the most outright mature and thoughtful narratives in gaming is evidence of the amount of risks that it took as a storytelling exercise.
But it was also a point where Yamaoka’s music really began to branch out from his rock and grunge roots, though he agrees that was exactly where the franchise needed to start. “[Silent Hill 2] was also one of the first games to really introduce rock and industrial music into gaming, especially in Japan, and even more especially in a non-gimmicky way.”
Two years earlier, Yamaoka was approached by Konami to score its first real entry into “survival horror,” a genre description that up until Silent Hill’s release mostly applied to video games that featured good old fashioned zombie killing. And, to Yamaoka’s ears, nothing risky in its music: “In 1999, everything was cliché. There were certain patterns, arrangements, and moods that everybody seemed to follow, and I wanted to change that.” Yamaoka was hired as a composer but quickly took on a role as overall sound designer as well, creating every individual sound effect in the game as well as supervising its voice direction, though not its acting. This kick-started changes he wanted to see in Japanese game development, although as he clarifies with a smile, “you might say I wanted to destroy it, instead of just changing it.”
“I wanted it to be unpredictable: maybe during a big scare I cut everything out, and maybe if nothing was happening at all there would be a lot of sound.”
It’s an industry standard that’s on the way out, but for the majority of horror games made in Japan up until recently, the composer would be commissioned for music and the pieces would be composed and later fit in by a music supervisor, not the composer themselves. Yamaoka didn’t agree with that. “If it’s all me, if everything you hear is me, then you have total control over the mood and the tone. Games at the time almost never had moments of silence and I wanted to experiment and mess around with dynamics.” One of the greatest ways that Yamaoka enchanced Silent Hill’s fear building is by using music and effects in ways that run against what you’re expecting. “I wanted it to be unpredictable: maybe during a big scare I cut everything out, and maybe if nothing was happening at all there would be a lot of sound.” You have an empty hallway? Layer a few sirens and mix it in the red. You have an establishing moment with a villain or environment? Use only the sound of a sharpening knife.
What guided Yamaoka’s music over the course of his career as the composer of the series can actually be traced to Suspiria, Yamaoka’s favorite film. From a visual standpoint, Suspiria is probably the closest thing to the best entries of Silent Hill, but also musically, Goblin’s role in the film’s soundtrack is the closest ancestor to Yamaoka’s own pedigree in the series. “Goblin and I are amazingly similar,” he says, “and it’s not the music. It’s the risk. They went into film and forced their music to expand as rock musicians.” Yamaoka got his start in rock music as well, and took Silent Hill as an opportunity to expand into industrial, ambient, noise, classical, and even trip-hop. This is due in part to Yamaoka’s love of new wave and Nine Inch Nails. Taking all these influences and making them uniform with the series’ penchant for left turns and deeply disturbing stories is the icing on the cake. “I was the only one capable of making Silent Hill sound like itself,” he says. “I had an obligation to get into horror. It was my duty to do so.”
Well, that and a sense of duty to get out of composing happier tunes for more surface-level games, though this is in no way a dig at past Yamaoka works like Contra, Sparkster, or Snatcher. “When I try to make happier music, I become very depressed and sad myself. I don’t mean to get philosophical but when you treat and create music, it’s about keeping balance. If you do too many happy songs, you become negative. But when I make darker music I tend to go to this place that it isn’t inherent in me but it adds into my persona when I’m creating music in the moment, and the result is I get lifted out of whatever darkness I’m in.”
“I was the only one capable of making Silent Hill sound like itself,” he says. “I had an obligation to get into horror.”
These days, Yamaoka is taking a more laidback approach to his career, finally stepping down from his role as composer after the series’ reboot of where he began, Shattered Memories. There’s no clear direction forward, both for himself and the Silent Hill of today, which is currently at the mercy of whatever is going on over at Konami. However, like the rest of us, Yamaoka was surprised and disappointed at the cancellation of the Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid) collaboration Silent Hills, admitting that he was secretly hoping to compose for it. However, “the game was extremely early on in development, more so than people realize, so I wasn’t on board at all at the time. I wanted to be. But I was also surprised that it was cancelled, especially as a fan myself.”
Yamaoka is very much a fan and proud of his work, so he’s going to be bringing his music for the series on the road, beginning with two shows in the UK this weekend. Unlike most gaming concerts, where themes you readily recognize are performed with an orchestra to (admittedly glorious) results, Yamaoka wants to take Silent Hill a step further now that he’s gotten the chance to finally do some of this stuff live. “Most of the songs are going to be the more ambient and beautiful instrumentals that no one has performed yet,” he says. “I mostly want to bring players and fans back to experiencing the games for the very first time, with the show being interactive and changing depending on where we go.”
No word if Pyramid Head, the personification of your deepest guilts and regrets, will make an appearance.
Akira Yamaoka takes Silent Hill live in London this weekend as part of Illuminations festival, with dates on Oct 30 (Islington Assembly Hall) and Sun 31 (The Laundry). We’re giving away two tickets for the Sunday: head here to win.
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