Silent Hill: How Akira Yamaoka’s score blends beauty with spooky
There’s something about Akira Yamaoka’s music that I can’t quite pin down, a subtle maturity and a goofiness that complement each other in the most intriguing way. It’s a tone that is often so difficult for western artists to be able to capture.
So who is Yamaoka? Well… he’s a Japanese videogame composer. Alright, calm your shit! I know we music junkies are the cool kids unlike those video-game dorks! If you still feel like a nerd after finishing this article, I know a place where we can throw stones at those DnD poindexters – I’m gonna nab myself a Casio watch.
Making videogames sounds like the dream, but in actuality it’s an incredibly tough and hostile environment to work in. Often companies will make employees work insane unpaid overtime, it’s not always the case but it sadly isn’t rare. Konami as a company really goes the extra mile to make sure they are leading in making their employees miserable – a capitalist success story. In the beautiful year of 1996 Konami made a team of all their ‘fuck ups’ who refused to fall in line and suck the corporate peen. They were named ‘Team Silent’ as they started development on ‘Silent Hill’.
Konami envisioned a basic title that a western audience could consume easily but Team Silent had a different vision. Over the next year they would grow increasingly out of control, resulting in Konami threatening to fire them all if the game flopped. Yet the passion on the team was unmatched. For example, Takayoshi Sato, a 3D modeller, worked around the clock for two years, even sleeping at work, just to deliver the highest-grade work he could, also it was a tasty ‘fuck you’ to corporate, who loathed Takayoshi. Although this work ethic is far from healthy, it represents the passion of the team.
It’s February 1999 when the first title releases, and to the shock of Konami the game is both a critical and commercial success. At the time, a lot of RE copycats were flooding the market but Silent Hill managed to make itself stand out by focusing on subtle introverted horror instead of a giant spider trying to gnaw on your shins.
What I really want to talk about is Silent Hill 2- when videogames cross over to art. Fuelled by success the studio began work on a sequel. I am going to spoil SH2 although I recommend that you play the game. It follows James, a man lost to the world who has been invited to Silent hill by his wife, who is dead. As the story unfolds James meets other unhinged survivors, masochistic perverted demons and the hollow wells of one’s self. Near the end you’re blindsided by learning that James euthanised his sickly wife and his pilgrimage to SH is a form of self-flagellation. The more you look the deeper it gets, for example the infamous sexualised zombie nurses represent James’ guilt for feeling desire towards the nurses who treated his dying wife, and other violent abominations represent aspects of his psyche. On release it shocked the world, as narratives at the time were relatively simple, rarely dealing with anything of substance.
The Perfect Score
The game itself is fantastic, but Akira’s score is what allows SH2 to ascend into the ethereal, pretentious realm of ‘Art’. Taking the musical shorthand that was established in the first release but infused with western rock influences from 2001 – ‘OK Computer’ for example – the inclusion of more familiar elements really grounds the work in the setting. A good track to begin with is ‘Promise’ which opens with a slow and melodic guitar, a thoughtful drumline, followed by string work that connects straight into your emotional core. The track is slow, full but insolating, and although there is a rising hopefulness through line tone at points, it never escapes the depressive atmosphere and leaves you feeling forlorn. It’s perfect as a companion piece. The record fully embodies the tone and themes of the game – isolation, depression, anger, guilt and loss.
The work Yamaoka has done is extraordinary and helped cement SH2 into the gaming ethos. Every piece fits perfectly: when James is making his way through the cold, lonely town the music enhances this, and when the town transforms into hellish industrial nightmare the scores takes on a Nine Inch Nails aesthetic.
Does every track on the record slap? No, don’t be silly. But it does build an atmosphere that is hard to escape. Sure, some of the tracks are a little goofy i.e. ‘Homecoming’ (which I actually love) but I honestly cannot think of a score that has imprinted on me so heavily as Akira’s does. ‘Not Tomorrow’ is a perfect example of why I love this franchise. Throughout the first game you meet a terrified but friendly nurse named Lisa. As you play you begin to work out that she isn’t real – even though she thinks she is. After you confront her she begins to bleed, and the lead character pushes her away as she comes in for a hug – and she dies, begging for help. Whereas a lot of designers would have opted for a creepy tone, Team Silent gave it a sombre and depressing tune and by the end you feel intensely sad for a character with twelve lines of dialogue.
It’s with the music that these scenes and themes flourish and create something more than itself. Do I think the record on its own would have been a success? I honestly don’t know, but there is something truly special about being able to create an effecting record that coincides and connects so effortlessly with a whole team’s worth of artistic input without losing the creator’s identity in the process. Hopefully if you give it a listen you’ll feel the same.