If you recognize the name Akira Yamaoka, it’s probably because of Silent Hill. The audio signatures for Konami’s once-venerable horror series—otherworldly keyboards, rhythmic, screeching metal, shambolic noise that screams at you that something is very wrong—are as mechanically unsettling as they were when they were introduced more than a decade ago. They’re also unmistakably Yamaoka’s.
Already a longtime employee at Konami by its development, Yamaoka volunteered to write the music for the original Silent Hill in 1999, fueled by deep dissatisfaction of the industry and determined to destroy compositional norms. His work over the series’ course varied wildly, with trip-hop beats, guttural invocation and grungy, mechanical sound layering erratic, abstract cores.
It starts to make sense when you look at Yamaoka’s career post-Silent Hill. Now head of all things audio-related at Suda51’s studio Grasshopper Manufacture—Japan’s former “punk” independent developer acquired by Gungho in 2013—Yamaoka’s appetite for trying new things has only seemed to grow. For proof, just look at games like Shadows of the Damned (dreamy ditties and shredding metal; experimentally, Silent Hill as processed through a grotesque carnival) and Black Knight Sword (offbeat orchestral musical theatre), maybe two of his most diametric examples.
For Grasshopper’s upcoming Let It Die, an appropriately over-the-top cocktail of survival games, FromSoftware’s Souls series and the dystopian manga Violence Jack, Yamaoka wanted to imbue the game with a number of voices; the surprising result is a soundtrack featuring a hundred relatively unknown independent artists from Japan, on top of his own contributions.
To find out more about Let It Die, how the project has changed since its original incarnation (the now-cancelled Lily Bergamo) and Yamaoka’s own unique approach to audio, and I spoke with him last month in Los Angeles.
You said recently that you are always thinking about sound. What sound are you thinking about right now?
Right now I’m thinking a lot about how noise is echoing and vibrating around in here, how you can hear it bouncing off the walls and because of how big this room is, how the sounds are resonating and why that is.
Yeah, it is very loud in here. It should make dealing with the recording fun.
[laughs] Yeah, very much so!
So lately when think about sound are you mostly focused on Let It Die’s production or is it something more abstract?
Well, right now it’s [ideas] about how I could incorporate sound into future projects as well as Let It Die’s sound. It’s in the final stages, but there are still some final touches that need to be added.
Musical touches or working on the sound design?
The overall sound design. So, seeing if there’s any bugs or if there are any sounds that need to be added or deleted in certain areas of the game.
Pretty much every game you’ve worked on—Silent Hill, Shadows of the Damned, Sine Mora, etc.—they have a distinct profile both in the sound design and the music itself. So how would you characterize Let It Die’s style?
With Let It Die, there isn’t one distinct style. For the soundtrack this time, we’ve brought in over 100 new indie artists from Japan. So it’s more of collage or a mosaic of all these different bands, and how the music reflects their own version of the game.
That’s how you’d characterize it, like a collage?
Yeah, that’s right.
How did you come up with that idea?
Since I’ve been lucky enough to be in the industry for so long, it kind of feels like it’s my turn to give back and get new artists involved in the game industry. That’s why we’re showcasing them in the game. So when players hear all these bands, hopefully they’ll think, oh, this is interesting, look them up and become fans so that they get more famous. Eventually I hope they can have the same recognition as me!
Did you come up with that idea after the game moved away from Lily Bergamo?
Actually it was more hand-in-hand. It happened in parallel to Lily Bergamo’s development.
Oh, that’s interesting. Especially since Let It Die is very different from what Lily Bergamo was originally going to be. How did the audio direction change?
Initially, the sounds were more lighthearted and comical to the touch compared to what they are.
You’ve talked about messages you want sound to convey in your games in the past, particularly with Silent Hill. What’s the message you want to get across with Let It Die, if there is one?
Well, it’s not really a message exactly, but through the music and the sound I want players to get engulfed in Let It Die’s world. And hopefully they’ll be so enthralled they’ll play for hours and hours on end! Also, since we have so many bands involved in the project, I’d like players to try listening to them all, so that they can experience all the different sounds. And hopefully they’ll like them.
Fair enough. So let’s talk a little bit about the sound design itself. What was your original idea for Let It Die’s audio direction?
Initially the plan was to only use sound effects, with no music. So players would get that effect of just hearing all the sound effects resonating around them, rather than hearing music loop in the background.
Where did that idea come from?
At first we wanted to go more dystopian and more serious to emphasize more on the survival aspect of the game. So putting tracks on top of the sound effects wasn’t an ideal plan for conveying that kind of tense atmosphere.
Is that something you’d want to revisit at some point with another game?
If possible, definitely.
What kind of a project would that be?
Probably similar to [Playdead’s] Limbo. That’s very close to what I’m picturing it would be like.
So, if Lily Bergamo’s audio was more lighthearted than Let It Die’s, how would your approach change with making sound effects? Say a player hit something with a sword—what would be the difference between the sound that would make in Lily Bergamo versus in Let It Die?
Since Lily Bergamo was going to lighter, I was thinking about not including to much of the swish of the blade. With Let It Die, there’s more of that hardness, both of the [sword moving through the air] as well as the sound of hitting your opponent—more of a hard, heavy, dull sound afterwards.
And when you’re actually making the sound effects, how do know, say, how squishy something should sound to convey gore effects, or how heavy the swing of a weapon needs to be?
Usually I multiply any realistic sound times three. So, if it’s a sword swipe, or you’re thrusting and hacking at someone, I’d imagine a sword that’s three times longer and three times heavier and use that sound. Usually that’s a nice match—not too loud and not too soft.
Do you make the base sounds yourself, or do you use recordings that already exist?
It’s half and half. I make some myself, some I borrow from libraries.
How is working on audio direction for games different than doing Foley [sound] work on films, for example?
Because games are interactive and dynamic, no two players are going to be playing the same way. So I have to keep that in mind when I’m making something. There has to be enough changes in whatever the player is hearing so that nobody hears the same thing over and over. Even if they’re doing the same action, like with hack and slash sounds, there’s always noise added to it to so that there’s variation.
Is there any particular type of music or sound work you listen to that inspires you? Do you go anywhere in Tokyo to find inspiration?
No, not too much. I usually just work at my studio. But a lot of sound ideas do pop into my head when I’m doing normal, everyday stuff.
Right. And the sound designs you’ve used over the years have run the gamut from pleasing to harsh, intense cacophonies, like in Silent Hill. Which do you prefer?
It would be nice if there was a nice balance between the two. If everything’s too calm and quiet, it can get a little boring. And the same if there’s too much music—it’s exciting for the first few seconds, but then it gets dull after a couple minutes.
With all the bands working on Let It Die, how much music did you actually compose for the soundtrack?
I wrote 80 percent of the soundtrack, with the rest coming from the other bands.
Another interesting thing about your history in game development is taking a strong influence over a lot of the games you’ve worked on beyond the audio. What were the initial conversations with Suda and the rest of the team like when this project was being conceptualized?
Everyone was really excited about the idea to get so many bands involved. There was a little bit of doubt over how we could find a hundred of them, but overall the attitude was good.
Did you mostly talk about Let It Die’s audio or did you also have conversations about the setting and game design?
Yeah, I have been involved in talks with Suda from the beginning of development. I wanted to add more survival elements, more like Dungeon Master.
Is there anything you want to do with music or sound design in a game that you haven’t been able to do yet, in a game?
Well, right now, PS4, Xbox and all the gaming consoles are just for playing games—you can listen to music on them, but it’s not interactive. So I’d like to do something with that.
What about VR? How do you feel about its potential for sound design?
It’s the holy grail for sound.
VR is mostly showcased for its 3D visuals and you can look around 360 degrees, right? But there’s a huge opportunity to use sound too, because that’s also 360 degrees, surrounding you. So it’s different listening to something from a hospital bed versus being there and listening to the same track with a headset on, so you’re actually stargazing or you’re on a mountaintop. That would be a totally different experience.
What to you is the most pleasing sound?
Oh! The sound of the wind. Like how it sounds in Malibu. [laughs]
When Konami first approached you to do the sound design for Silent Hill, I read that at the time you were very unsatisfied with how Japanese game development was going, and you wanted to change that, both in and outside of audio work. Do you still feel that way?
Japanese game development is very conservative—companies value tradition [above anything else]. And when the industry moved toward smartphones and apps six or seven years ago, everything in the console market kind of starved or died out, and nothing’s really improved since then. Plus the international market’s been developing so many awesome games over the past several years, the market in Japan is just not very good now. It’s going to be hard to revive it.
What about sound design in particular?
It’s the same way—very conservative. For all the big franchises you still hear the [composer] names from back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’d like to destroy that and bring fresh blood into games. So that was the other reason why I wanted to invite so many new bands to work on Let It Die, to hopefully help the industry.
It seems like expectations also play into why things are conservative. Like expecting a Zelda game to sound like Koji Kondo.
Yeah. If I ever joined a big franchise like that, I’d want to experiment a lot and break its traditional sound so it could be re-invented.
So what does Akira Yamaoka’s Zelda soundtrack sound like?
It would be pretty hard to break Super Mario, Zelda or Final Fantasy—but maybe I could break Final Fantasy. [laughs] That would be fun.
[laughs] What would you do if you had total creative control over your game, from the audio direction to the art and design? What would you make?
A horror game. I’d like to do something with traditional Japanese horror from [folklore], but revive it so that it appeals to a worldwide audience.
What’s interesting to you about Japanese horror?
So, take Silent Hill—that was a pure Japanese horror game, and as a Japanese player it was very scary. And when it was introduced worldwide, people became interested with the culture behind it. They thought it was scary too, but mostly it was original. I found that very intriguing and would want to do something similar.
What was it about Silent Hill that made its horror “Japanese”? Was it the more abstract elements?
Yeah, the atmosphere is what makes Japanese horror different.
I see. Are you playing anything right now?
I’m not playing anything right now. I’m mostly just playing Let It Die nonstop and sleeping when I can [laughs].
Is there any kind of music you’d like to score a game with that you haven’t been able to, like all jazz or classical or something?
The Free-to-play Let It Die will be released for PS4 later this year.
Steve Haske is a freelance writer whose work can be found regularly on Vice and Motherboard. He lives in Seattle, WA and tweets from @afraidtomerge.