Interview: Tomm Hulett, ex-Silent Hill developer at Konami

Not much more than a week ago, Konami announced the cancellation of their Kojima-Del Toro-Reedus spearheaded project, “Silent Hills”. The game was announced with one of the most successful demos […]

Not much more than a week ago, Konami announced the cancellation of their Kojima-Del Toro-Reedus spearheaded project, “Silent Hills”. The game was announced with one of the most successful demos released, “P.T”. However, upon rumors of Kojima’s withdrawal from Konami and the removal of P.T from the Playstation Network, it seemed more and more likely that the project was not coming along. Then Del Toro confirmed it wasn’t happening a day before Konami finally dropped the other shoe on us.

One of our correspondents reached out to Tomm Hulett, whose work on the Silent Hill franchise goes from Silent Hill: Origins to Book of Memories. Hulett’s work has shaped the modern perception of Silent Hill for better or worse. We decided to interview him about the franchise’s future as a fan and about his time as one of its main creative voices.

Liz: Could you talk a little bit about the “Homecoming” trilogy? I know the basics, but I was curious about the details of what that trilogy was meant to be, and why you (thankfully) put a stop to it.

TH – This one’s taken on a life of its own. The trilogy angle was never something that was greenlit by Konami and in progress. It was a conversation the original Producer of Homecoming had with me about where he hoped to take the series with the current writers, etc. They saw Homecoming as the start of a “Western Trilogy” in a matter of speaking, along with all the weirdness I mentioned in past interviews (super saiyan battle over Toluca Lake, old characters return to SH, etc). I spent some time obnoxiously pointing out all the flaws in this plan. Fortunately things went in a much different direction long before Homecoming was released.

Liz: I know you were very active talking to fans (I used to frequent Silent Hill fansites like Silent Hill Heaven) and were very involved in the Silent Hill community as a whole, which I thought was refreshing for the producer of a AAA series. How did the fans influence your work with the series, if at all?

TH – The fans didn’t influence the series to the effect of, say, I saw a post saying “I wish the next Silent Hill had ____” and then I put that in. However, I was always well aware of what fans wanted, expected, and demanded of a new Silent Hill game. But when making a product it’s important to defy expectations sometimes (or the product will simply mirror the older versions), so I tried to use that knowledge to the best of my ability. When people brought up ideas that would simply enrage the fanbase though, I always tried to point that out to educate folks internally.

Liz: You really brought a love and passion to the series that was obvious in many of the interactions you had with us fans–what are some of the most poignant or meaningful themes or moments in your Silent Hill work for you?

TH – I could probably go on for days on this answer but I’ll do my best to keep it brief. I mean it can all really be summed up in the credits song for Book of Memories: Love Psalm. This was a reimagining of Akira Yamaoka’s SH2 track, with lyrics by Troy Baker, performed by Mary, and featuring Yamaoka himself for a solo. Just existing, a returning old track with a new coat of paint and such talented SH veterans, it’s a nice coda for the series (it’s the last song in my final SH game, after all) but the lyrics Troy wrote really capture what I was trying to say with BoM’s story, and SH as a whole. I still get pretty emotional hearing it (as I used to, hearing the original).

I guess other than that holistic answer, the stories we were able to tell with Shattered Memories and Downpour are still amazing to me. Silent Hill (as a series) has always been about telling very deep, resonant stories that other games would never dare attempt. Stories about loss, guilt, family, abuse, etc. It’s why we all love the series. Shattered Memories (loss) and Downpour (revenge) told similar tales, and I’m proud I could help that happen, rather than let the series devolve into action tropes with burly heroes. I don’t think people gave Downpour enough of a chance, honestly. I hope they replay it someday without all the baggage that “Western Silent Hills” had.

Lastly, there was a moment at E3 2000 where I was watching trailers on Konami’s enormous screen. MGS2, Zone of the Enders, Shadow of Destiny… and I thought, I have to be a part of that somehow. Konami is such a great company and I need to see my games on that giant screen one day.  Well, at E3 2009, Shattered Memories was on that screen and I sat down on the dirty convention floor just like I used to, and I watched my trailer. It was a really special moment, and a career highlight.

On Silent Hills

Liz: How did you feel, personally, about Silent Hills’ cancellation and P.T’s release?

TH – I’m disappointed but not surprised. I was eager to see what Kojima and his team would do with Silent Hills, as I really enjoyed PT. But I figured something like this was coming when I heard the big news a month or so ago.

Liz: Do you think Konami intends to move forward with Silent Hills in some capacity after its failure to launch?

TH – The official statement said Silent Hills was cancelled, so I imagine whatever existed for that is done. If there’s another Silent Hill it will probably be all new / different from Silent Hills. That’s just speculation.

Liz: You often hear about projects like this having been on the shelf for a very long time. Does this apply to Silent Hills or was this something you learned about like the rest of us?

TH – I learned about this from PT like everyone else. But I left Konami over 2 years ago, so I don’t know how long it has existed. Less than that.

On The Franchise

Liz: If you could have an ideal future for the Silent Hill series, what would it be, if anything?

TH – I’ve seen lots of people saying they’d like to see more PT-sized Silent Hill experiences. Maybe by several different developers. I imagine an anthology of 5 or so Silent Hill experiments would be insanely fun. If you don’t like one, there’s several more to try out! It would be nice to see what other developers tried to do with the series. I wouldn’t mind trying my hand again as well – you know I’ve got ideas.

Liz: Which was more interesting for you to explore in the games you worked on: Silent Hill’s cult lore, or the personal hell/demons aspect?

TH – The personal demons aspect was far more interesting to me, because the whole obsessive cult angle just feels like a single “personal demon” when there are so many to choose from.

Liz: Which do you personally find more thematically interesting to work with?

TH – They were both fun to work with. Shattered Memories was obviously heavy on the personal (and after Homecoming’s version of the cult, that was fine by me). However as we got further into Downpour, and starting Book of Memories, I purposefully chose to delve into the cult aspect more. I read a lot of books on various cults and how they operate. A lot of the books you find in Downpour and the notes in BoM were the result of this research. I really tried to include it in BoM since we were taking a “greatest hits” type approach to that game. I wanted to make sure the more cult-oriented fans had plenty of information to explore.

Liz: When you were hired, what were your goals for the Silent Hill franchise?

TH – When I was hired at Konami, I set three goals for myself: save Contra, revive Rocket Knight, and maybe one day if I’m really lucky, touch a Silent Hill game somehow. I guess I’m trying to say I didn’t have any goals for Silent Hill because it seemed such a remote possibility I’d have anything to do with it. Somehow, I was immensely fortunate enough to accomplish all three goals—and not just TOUCH a Silent Hill, but be blamed for a majority of games in the series! It’s madness.

I mean obviously I had my rough patches with the angry fans and such, but I really am privileged to have worked on all the projects I set out to—all of them insanely farfetched dream projects—which is something that just doesn’t happen in the game industry. I try not to forgot how unjustly fortunate that was.

That said, once I did get involved with Silent Hill, my goal was to do everything I could to elevate the series to where fans expected it to be. Keep it interesting, keep it atmospheric and slow burn and psychological, rather than following other survival horror trends that developed. And despite what you read about a lot these last few days, Downpour wasn’t about shootouts and cover systems, so I think I did alright.

On Konami

Liz: You have cited creative differences between you and Konami in the past. Could you explain what you felt Konami’s vision for Silent Hill was, and how did it conflict with yours?

TH – I think “creative differences” is an inaccurate term. There are a lot of people involved in getting a game out the door, from the developer to the producer, all the different levels of production, marketing, pr, promotions, licensing, QA, and so on. While everyone wants the game to be the best it can to accomplish their goals, each group has their own ideas of how to accomplish that.

As a Producer I wanted the game to be awesome, stay within budget and on schedule, and I also tended to be very Developer centric and work a lot on the design and try to get things to swing in the developer’s favor. Those are the guys in the trenches, so they have to stay passionate and be taken care of. So that was my focus. Really, my loyalty was to the game and its vision. I wanted the content to be a true realization of its potential.

So I fought a lot of battles internally to accomplish my goals (as any Producer would, at any company). I won some and I lost some. A lot of internet folks think they know what side I was on and which battles I won/lost, but that’s all speculation and I can’t go into details on any of it. But I always did what I thought was best for Silent Hill.

Liz: How did you negotiate your passion for Silent Hill with a gig that seemed fairly thankless?

TH – As you can tell by my above answer, I have a delusion that the game itself can be an entity worth fighting for. Or as MGS’s The Boss would say, Loyalty to the End—the Mission. But it got very difficult as time wore on, and some of the angrier SH fans started targeting me in various ways.

However I’ve always had the tendency to dig my heels in when someone arbitrarily tells me I can’t / shouldn’t do something. I don’t know what it is, but it just gets my subversive hackles up. In school, if an art teacher told the class never to draw cartoons, I’d work Sonic the Hedgehog into my silhouette assignment. If a writing professor said she wanted only serious, academic submissions, I’d write stories about two dudes playing Ikaruga, or a violent anime-style epic. It’s just a character flaw I have that allowed me to weather the nonsense.

You can see this come out a bit in Book of Memories’ text (especially the DLC), when I was getting it from all sides. Even the credits song is a bit subversive, with the inclusion of Akira Yamaoka after he’d left the company.

That type of stuff kept me going.

Liz: Considering Silent Hills ultimate fate and the previous games’ relative lack of success, do you think perhaps moving away from the Silent Hill franchise (as much as that hurts my heart, having grown up playing the games) could be a healthy move for Konami?

TH – I’m not sure. Konami has a whole lot of people who decide whether or not a series is worth pursuing, so I’ll leave that up to them. They let me do Contra 4 and Rocket Knight, so that’s only fair.