Sam Barlow has enjoyed an interesting career reviving video game trends and franchises, where Serious Sam, the psychological thriller, and Silent Hill are among his personal handiwork. To that point, unorthodox clings to his resume: His first major game was a single-turn text adventure in 1999, and here in the year 2015, his career has somehow been bookended by an FMV-rich indie game that has now surpassed 100,000 copies sold.
In our conversation which follows, we explored his whole career, title-by-title, broaching how he adapted a Marvel comic, why Konami let him try his hand at Silent Hill, and the mysteries of his new hit game, Her Story.
Your first major game is a text adventure called Aisle in which the game ends after just a single turn. Taking that turn again and again reveals different endings, which I feel perfectly represents the core of the types of games that you make. What was the creative genesis of Aisle?
At the time there was a very productive community of people making text games and releasing them onto the internet for others to download and play. A quick check of the XYZZY Award best game nominations for the previous year gives you a good idea— Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead and Adam Cadre’s Photopia are among them. There was a combination of nostalgia for the text games of the past (Infocom et al.) alongside a desire to push the medium forward and explore types of interactive narrative that no-one else had touched before. I guess sometimes the nostalgia trumped all and I had this frustration that even in the most ambitious titles, you still had to accommodate the ‘easter eggs’ — typing in magic words (“XYZZY!”) or trying out silly commands in order to get a funny response (“Kiss frog”, or “Hamlet, eat skull”).
The very early kernel of Aisle was the idea of a game where if you tried to get a funny response by typing something silly, you’d actually be made to feel a little guilty. Most of the stuff people type in those games tends to be fairly sociopathic — violent (“kill NPC”, “throw brick at NPC”, “kill me”) or inappropriate (“kiss postman”, “remove clothes”). So the idea was that the game would map out stories that accommodated these actions within a very everyday, non-fantastical setting — a supermarket. With this idea came the idea that in order to allow a huge variety of actions and alternate possible stories, the game only take a single turn. This had the effect of turning the game into something of a fragmented, cubist story. The arc I followed, and that many players follow, is one of first exploring the darker stories and then working harder to figure out actions that will actually produce stories that are happier, or more human. I was fascinated by the way the game would ask you to create and hold onto an idea of the core story in among the many conflicting alternates you discovered — often heavily influenced by the order in which players found them.
Do you have a written record of things people have typed into Aisle?
No. Only the initial testers. With both Aisle and Her Story it sometimes felt a little intrusive reading people’s transcripts, like you were peering into their thought process. It was a little too intimate!
I’m tempted to do some kind of Aisle-a-like now that the internet exists in the way that it does and have some kind of live pooling of people’s inputs. The ability to hot-fix and add in responses for unforeseen inputs would be fantastic!
What’s it like working for established IP’s whose games come with perhaps a more expected outcome?
It was a good experience. The teams on those titles learned a lot from working them and that experience was put to use directly on the Silent Hill games — not just technical know-how, but a sense of how we worked together as a team. For me, each of those games taught me something new:
Serious Sam I realized was basically cut from the same cloth as Contra and Smash TV, it helped me appreciate how you can re-use earlier design forms and what the translation to 3D can add and take away from the experience.
Crusty Demons...well, this was my first experience of focus groups of bloodthirsty teenager boys and I guess let me peek behind the curtain and see the face of the real Wizard of Oz. It was also a good lesson in listening to your own feelings about a game. I’m not a big fan of stunt games and about the only thing that stands up in the that game is the ‘crashing gameplay’. When I found myself playing and enjoying that part of the game, I followed my fun and we boosted up that aspect until it was fairly central. I also think that this aspect of the game showed us being true to the spirit of the Crusty Demons brand, but not in the way the publishers might have initially expected.
I guess Ghost Rider was when I started to realize that I was pretty passionate about game storytelling and allowed myself to admit to myself that’s what I’d been wanting to push all along. Despite working with Marvel and with some highly respected Marvel writers, it was pretty clear that most people’s ideas of how narrative should work in a videogame were not mine.
You directed two Silent Hill games: Origins and Shattered Memories. Both were spin-off titles of sorts, they were released fairly unexpectedly on the PSP and Wii, respectively, and both were quite favorably reviewed. So asking someone who seems to know the answer to this: what makes a Silent Hill game good?
I would be fairly loose with my definition of Silent Hill, which isn’t how some people view the franchise. I guess for me it’s three things. 1: The atmosphere — that combo of the music, the situations, the visuals; a textured, tactile dream. 2: The emotion at its heart — a Silent Hill game should hit you where it hurts and linger. 3: It should feel dangerous, or disturbing on some level... like a piece of you could get trapped in there, like a dream you can’t wake up from.
Personally, I think Origins maybe hit half of these, whereas Shattered Memories was a much more solid attempt to make a Good Silent Hill game.
I’ve read that your influences heavily lean towards Hitchcock, and I also sense a lot of David Lynch. I felt Shattered Memories checked off so many underutilized horror techniques in video games: a slowly built up sense of displacement, uneasiness, and acute forms of psychological drama.
Where do you see psychological horror fitting in with the overall gaming landscape? How well do you feel Shattered Memories accomplished what you set out to do?
Psychological horror in particular is a kind of advance party for games with storytelling aspirations. The fact that the genre is defined as having characters with internal struggles instantly puts in you a position where you have to work with characters that are more dimensional, and more clearly hewn from reality than in most other videogames. All horror games, and especially psychological horror are also unique within gaming because it’s not a given that they need to be fun. Pretty much every other genre has this — the ultimate test is: “is it fun?” That doesn’t happen with horror — you’re allowed to upset the player, to unnerve them, to disturb them, to bore them. And most of these games take place in a world that reflects and is clearly modelled after our own — not a fantasy kingdom.
So I think psychological horror has historically been important, and should continue to be important. For me personally, I’m fascinated by the need to add some distance between the player and their game character, and psychological horror is a great place to be experimenting with stuff like this.
I’m pretty happy with how Shattered Memories turned out. It was the game we set out to make and we put everything in it we wanted to. It wasn’t perfect, but what is? It asked interesting questions about the player/protagonist relationship, it managed to sneak in a core story line and protagonist that touched a lot of people and helped to inspire some important subsequent games such as Gone Home. If it were released today, I think the way social media works and stuff like that, I think it might have had a different life — maybe more people would have checked it out. But it lives on in the hearts and minds of those who did play it, and that’s not true of a lot of games!
How did you get handed the keys to the Silent Hill franchise? Since Shattered Memories originally released on the Nintendo Wii, what was publishing that game through Nintendo like?
When we came on board, the “keys to Silent Hill” had been handed around a few times — and were in possession of Konami US at that point. They’d made a PSP UMD of Silent Hill comics to tie in with the movie that had come out and were looking to follow that up with some proper games. One of those games was Silent Hill: Origins, which was being worked on by a dev. team in L.A. Unfortunately there were some problems there and the game they were making was not in the best shape. My team were finishing up Ghost Rider on PS2/PSP and we requested/insisted/did puppy dog eyes until we got to take it over. We hadn’t done anything to deserve to work on Silent Hill, but we worked very well as a team, had strong skill sets and, well...we were available.
At that point there wasn’t a huge amount of time to get the game done. But we insisted that we needed to re-do a lot of the game in order to make it something that wouldn’t embarrass the franchise — the powers that be were like ‘OK, but you have to hit the dates’. So we doubled down on the “classic” gameplay and worked very, very hard. The game we shipped wasn’t perfect — and I’d personally question even the idea of a prequel to Silent Hill — but it was much, much better than what might have been.
Having done that job, we had some goodwill among Konami US and so we kept talking about doing something else. One of those discussions ended up being Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. It was always conceived as a Wii game and that was great — both because of the opportunities the hardware opened up and (b) the audience being a broader, less “hardcore” one. We never had to deal with Nintendo themselves much at all, we were working for Konami — but knowing the game was leading on Wii afforded us a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. It allowed us to move away from the survival horror ‘template’, it allowed us to focus particularly on a more psychological horror rather than getting too gory. It was a great experience.
The game has multiple endings contingent on the ways players answer several psychologically tinged questions. Do you have a favorite ending?
Well, the key thing with that game was that it had multiple games — it wasn’t just the endings that changed. The whole thing changed, and in many different ways. And it was influenced by a lot more than just the questions — everything you did in the game was being watched. So for me, it was about the different ways that impacted the game — so I have fond memories of the different aspects of Michelle that the player can affect, how she mirrors the player’s personality; the way how all the different takes on Cybil the cop eventually converge on you liking her; the spunkiness of Dahlia and how all the layers of her are set up to push your buttons.
Sorry, I can’t really talk about it much! I love the original Soul Reaver and would have loved to have contribute to its legacy. We had some wonderful ideas and it was a joy to work with the team — so a shame that we never got to see it to completion. But these things happen!
Talk up Viva Seifert. Where did you find her? Did you envision such a surreal performance from her?
I actually met Viva when we were casting for the Legacy of Kain game. She blew us away with her audition and we cast her as one of the main characters. So I ended up working with Viva over a year or so. She really brought her character to life and every time we did a capture session we’d go back and write more scenes for her because it was so good. One of the tragedies of the game’s cancellation was that no one will ever get to see that performance!
When I started to put the early ideas together for Her Story, I immediately thought of Viva — I remembered how much the camera loves her, how precise she can be with subtle gestures, her ability to take lines and very quickly and intuitively summon up the character and give them depth. I remembered the video footage of that audition — just Viva standing on the spot, talking in an empty room, no wardrobe or anything — and how compelling it was. And she never got too frustrated with me asking for a hundred takes of any given scene. So she seemed perfect for what I had in mind!
The performance delivered exactly what I was hoping for and the reaction for those who’ve played the game has been gratifying to see — really chuffed for Viva that so many people have really connected with her performance.
You wrote an excellent blog post where you dive into the history of FMV in video games. Given the history of niche usage of FMV in games, where do you see this gameplay technique going forward, and where would you like to see it?
I think it’s one tool among many — and it has some big pluses. On a budget you can capture an authentic performance. You can create something recognizable and jump straight to a kind of “virtual reality”. It crosses barriers because it makes sense to an audience that might balk at 3D graphics or stylized characters.
Already you’re seeing AAA titles using video again because at that high end it sometimes just makes sense — for Need for Speed or Guitar Hero it’s simply easier and cheaper to film a hundred real actors in costume than to create them as high-end CGI. I’d love to see more people trying out ideas that use video. It’s such a big part of our media diet now — YouTube, Vine, Netflix, etc. — that finding ways to make video interactive seems important! You see people bridging the gap between the film/TV world and the world of games — you see things like Haunting Melissa or companies like Interlude and it’s easy to imagine bringing those concepts closer to the level of sophistication that some games pull off.
Have you sat in with someone as they played through Her Story post-release? Did you say anything if you have?
I’ve stood at a distance and watched people at shows and festivals. I always get nervous and then when they’re still there 30 minutes later and I have to ask them to let someone else have a go, I feel better! I’m very good at not interrupting or suggesting anything when they’re playing my game — but awful with the games next to mine. In Vienna I was next to the brilliant A Good Snowman is Hard to Build and was having to bite my tongue to stop myself pointing out puzzle solutions!
I know you are loath to give out any specifics, so I wasn’t going to ask anything that required meaning making...but I can’t help myself...
The last decade or so has seen some video games that excellently interlace contemporary music to emphasize a scene (Portal, Device 6, Bioshock Infinite, etc.) In Her Story, you can uncover a clip of Eve playing the folk song “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”, which feels so anachronistic and unnerving. Why does she play that song!?
Well, I can only speak for the characters...
The detectives have this piece of evidence that is important to them, that they want to bring into the room. From Viva’s character’s perspective, well she’s feeling playful... and I guess she wants to give her perspective on certain relationships, and doing it with this song is a way of doing that without being explicit. Given her interests in music and in the more Gothic stories and fables, you can imagine she knows quite a few of the classic murder ballads. This one is maybe her favorite...