Video Games

The Curious Case of Silent Hills.

Silent Hills pic 2.

Dad was such a drag. Every day he’d eat the same kind of food, dress the same, sit in front of the same kind of games… Yeah, he was just that kind of guy. But then one day, he goes and kills us all! He couldn’t even be original about the way he did it. I’m not complaining… I was dying of boredom anyway. But guess what? I will be coming back, and I’m bringing my new toys with me.”

Rewind to last August and you may remember when I posted this article about a particular Playable Teaser (PT) that had the entire video game industry falling over itself to have its say on the hype.

At that point it all looked so promising. I got caught up in it like everyone else. In fact I still recall the morning I found out the news. Silent Hill (as we once knew it) was coming back, with a cinematic auteur, well known American actor and video gaming pioneer in tow. This was big news, even for those who had not previously been fans of the series – partly because it had been so long since this once celebrated series had seen anything truly worth celebrating.

Yes, it had been a decade since the days when a new Silent Hill game was worth looking forward to. In that time we’ve had two average-at-best movies and various American iterations bearing its name; fast food versions of the classic titles from the series’ Japanese origins.

The original Silent Hill, released for the PlayStation in 1999, and its first sequel (2001) remain two of my all-time favourite video games. My review for Silent Hill 2, first written around four years ago, is still my personal favourite of all the ones I’ve written since, including all those I’ve done for films.

Another one of my favourite games from that time was Metal Gear Solid, a cinematic masterpiece in gaming terms, along with its sequel which first gave me a taste of just how convoluted storytelling can be. Its creator, writer and director? Hideo Kojima, who looked set to be the creative force behind this new Silent Hill alongside acclaimed film director Guillermo del Toro.

A glimpse of what could have been produced from such prestigious minds is (or more appropriately, was) showcased in PT. So you’ll forgive me for having initially gotten a little carried away over last year’s big announcement.

Survival horror has been (or again, was) one of video gaming’s signature genres, a style unique to this medium and unable to be recreated in films due to its very nature (the whole point rests on you being in control as the player). Those first few Silent Hill titles owned and defined it. But the genre itself proved too niche to thrive as yearly iterations of first person shooters and open world, free roaming titles began to form a stranglehold on the industry.

It is precisely because of this – survival horror has not seen a title worthy of its tag for at least a decade (though some faster paced, action oriented games have tried to bastardise the label during the interim) – that PT proved such a big standalone hit, not just with fans of the series but with a whole new audience less familiar with its roots. The experience felt fresh, like something different from anything else currently on the market, because it hinted at a return to vintage survival horror and presented only a taste of what that could be like.

Therefore if there are any positives to be found in the following situation, it is that one or two developers have hopefully seen this potential niche in today’s gaming market. Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed may still be selling well but there are a large number of us who are profoundly bored with what’s being offered in the mainstream.

All of that is no more than speculative thinking, though. None of it really matters right now, because Silent Hills has been officially cancelled and the main question everyone seems to be asking is: why? Why has its publisher, Konami, taken the decision to cancel what would surely have been one of their most commercially successful titles in recent years? Why go so far as to pull the PT demo from the PlayStation Store, and try to erase any record of the game’s existence? What exactly does it all mean?

Well, the thing is, no one really knows. No one outside of Konami that is – and they don’t seem willing to divulge too many details. A situation started brewing over there back in March when it emerged that, following the completion of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hideo Kojima would be leaving the company after 30 years working for them. This immediately prompted questions and rumours regarding the future of Silent Hills, which of course also had Kojima’s name attached to it.

No further information was given on that (for a lot of people, rather important) issue until about a month later, when del Toro was quoted on Twitter as saying “it’s not gonna happen and that breaks my greasy heart” in reference to the game, swiftly followed by a tweet from Norman Reedus appearing to confirm the suspicion – see the story here.

Probably feeling their hand had been forced, Konami finally made a statement about the matter the following day (April 27th), confirming what many of us had feared: Silent Hills was cancelled after all. However, from there things were just about to get a little more complicated… and instead of drawing a line under the situation, Konami proceeded to upset their fan base yet further.

You see, during all of this we still had the consolation of that PT demo; the very same that had everyone in such a flurry last year and indirectly the main cause of our subsequent disappointment. If we were not going to get the full game then at least we could eventually learn to be content with this snack-sized glimpse of it, right?

Not quite. Big bad Konami decided they wanted to rewrite history altogether and take that away from us, too. The demo ‘expired’ from the PlayStation Store on April 29th, with Konami moving to prevent anyone from re-downloading it even if it was already attached to their account.

Now I should clarify here that I don’t think Konami ‘owes’ me, or anyone else, anything. They’re under no obligation to make us a game. They’re not a charity, nor did anyone actually pay money for PT (though they may have to if they wish to play it from this point on…) and really, they’re missing out just as much as we are when you think of all the money that gamers were eagerly lining up to hand over in order to play this game. You may be upset about it, but a publisher is within its rights to cancel a game when no one has paid any cash for it yet, much as many people would have liked to if given the choice. There has been no legally binding contract or agreement broken.

The cancellation itself, while undeniably one of the most disappointing announcements of the year so far, is not the problem. Rather there is a wider issue here, brought to the surface by Konami’s decision to withdraw PT from availability and their attempt to nullify its relevance, or even proof of its existence. That issue is to do with one word on which the future of the entire video game industry could hinge: preservation.

Of course, I’d heard the warnings before. I knew the potential for an issue like this to arise at some point and the detriment it could be to the industry long term, like a ticking time bomb waiting to be set off. And I wonder if Konami have now, perhaps unintentionally, set such wheels in motion.

This is really the first time it has affected a lot of people – who are now angry that a piece of work they saw (if I may be so bold) as artistically significant is seemingly lost, unable to be experienced by anyone else in future the same way it was experienced by so many gamers over this past year. That frightening thought is what hurts most.

It’s also the most important point. The fact that a demo, for a game no longer due to be released, has been removed from availability may seem logical from the outside; an issue not worth much attention because its commercial purpose in the first place was only to advertise something else. If we look at it only from a commercial standpoint, that’s true. Surely it makes sense, after all – it means people won’t come along in future and feel puzzled over why the demo ends with an announcement for a game that doesn’t exist.

There was a game here...
There was a game here…

A lot of people feel this wasn’t just a casual demo, though. In fact it wasn’t even a demo in the traditional sense. Actually it was the first ever interactive, playable teaser. Most other teasers typically consist of FMV sequences or brief videos of gameplay – kind of similar to the format for a film trailer. PT was arguably a prime example of what the video game equivalent should be.

Players also went into this teaser demo not knowing what game it was supposed to be advertising – or whether it was advertising any game. It needn’t have done so at all; the experience was unique enough to stand on its own merit had it not turned out to have an attachment to the as-yet-unannounced Silent Hills (though that did of course help it garner more hype in hindsight).

Thus, you can hopefully start to see where the main issue lies. It is not commercial, but an aesthetic one. Some have been arguing for years that video games deserve to be treated as art. If that case (and I believe it’s a strong one) is ever to be taken seriously, it needs to start from within the industry. Not that I’m saying publishers should try to force the issue – but at the moment they certainly aren’t doing much to help it. What is one of the defining features of art, whether it be a painting, a film, or literature? Being able to preserve it for future generations, of course.

This is not something the video game industry is currently in the habit of doing – unless it represents a profitable opportunity, as is the case with the recent trend of HD re-releases of popular older titles (something I don’t have much of a problem with, if only for this very reason). But usually, older hardware and software is deemed close to obsolete by the time we get to the next console generation.

My trusty old 60gb PS3, purchased on its UK release day in March 2007 (a long time in technological terms), still has backwards compatibility, meaning it’s able to play discs from the previous two console generations. This feature was gradually phased out, however, with later models sacrificing it to focus on more progressive areas (usually related to graphical capability) and there was no mention of it when the PS4 appeared on the market. Not an issue for many gamers, who prefer to look forward rather than back, but I think it could ultimately turn out to be shortsighted.

It is perpetuated as well by yearly iterations of the biggest (or more appropriately, ‘bestselling’) games. Who seriously still plays Fifa ’07 after all, when there have been around eight further updates of the game since then? Certainly, living in the past is not cool if one wants to be a relevant Fifa or Call of Duty aficionado, and if you’re one of the major publishers, these guys represent your core demographic. So why not cater to them if your main job is to generate significant end-of-year sales?

These issues are less serious than the one confronting us presently, though the trends typical of this industry are partly what have led us here. Now, developers and publishers are attempting to move away from selling hard copies of games at all, and into the murky waters of ‘digital distribution’. They prefer this because it essentially offers them greater control over what gamers get for their money. Rarely are modern AAA titles simple one-off purchases any more, with ‘day one patches’ frequently released to cover bugs that developers didn’t have time to fix before the completion deadline set forth by their bosses… and that’s just the beginning:

Digital distribution, as Konami demonstrated, has a dark side, in that a company can yank a game offline at any point for whatever reason” – PC Mag article.

This is the essence of the PT controversy. It shows the video game industry is heading in a dangerous direction. It means this issue has become bigger than the Silent Hills cancellation, and the story has probably become much bigger than Konami intended.

PT is gone because they said so, and there isn’t anything we can do about it. Remember what I said before about Konami not owing us? That is painfully true. As the content providers, they’re entitled to cease production when they see fit. But it means, in this new format, many years from now when those limited hard drives on which this Playable Teaser is now exclusively stored have broken down, the game will be lost in digital space.

... it's gone now.
… it’s gone now.

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