A couple of months ago I reviewed The Broken Paragon by our very own Jonny ‘Steaksauce’ Lupsha. I loved every thing about this book, and not just because he is a very good close personal friend, but it dealt with my favourite subject Silent Hill amongst other games.
Jonny has kindly given me exclusive permission to print some of his essays on AIR Entertainment for others to view. Im not going to go mad and publish everything as the man needs to be able to feed his family through sales, but here is the one essay that I found extremely interesting and is also the last thing you ever think of when playing games.
Team Silent and Combating Technical Limitations
As technology advances, it’s easy to take for granted some of the limitations of the entertainment of yesteryear. Each new generation of home video systems embarrasses the last, with visibly noticeable jumps in quality from VHS to DVD and from DVD to Blu-Ray. Likewise, when considering a game system’s hardware, processing chips and memory can only go so far at their time of release. When faced with limitations in a system’s technical specifications, developers make certain sacrifices to deliver a well-performing game to the public. Whether lowering an image’s or sound’s quality to accommodate limited storage space or processing power, omitting certain ideas or facets of a game altogether or simplifying a complex sequence that demands too much of the title’s hardware, judgments calls are made on a daily basis. Fortunately, developers have proven unimaginably resourceful when considering their products. The Silent Hill series – especially its first three entries – benefitted greatly from that resourcefulness.
When players start any Silent Hill title, even before the town’s mysterious fog sets in, they’re likely to notice the film grain overlaying the screen. These myriad pixels of translucent static, added into the first four titles by Team Silent and to subsequent titles by other developers, serve two subtle but brilliant functions. First, they add a gritty feel to the whole series. It looks like players are watching the games on a second-generation VHS tape or over a loose coaxial cable feed on television. Given the visceral and horrific nature of the games, this emotional effect is ideal. Second, this effect – also called a “noise filter” – works wonders in masking some jagged edges that serve as edges on various objects in the game, including characters. Often, diagonal edges on 3-D objects are rendered and appear as a series of incredibly thin vertical lines of varying lengths next to one another. These jagged edges, dubbed “jaggies” by the gaming community, can be very distracting from a game. Anti-aliasing, a process which smoothes out jaggies individually by rendering them at angles, can be very taxing on a console’s hardware. However, when a noise filter covers the screen, as in series like Silent Hill or Mass Effect, the infinitesimal bits of film grain can help cover up jaggies. The resulting smoother edges ease the task of bringing players into the experience, and displaying the film grain on the screen is considerably easier on a console than anti-aliasing. Film grain is the first of three clever tricks introduced to the original Silent Hill by developers Team Silent to flesh out and authenticate the world of Silent Hill.
If adding noise to the display helped Silent Hill look better, the town’s signature foggy weather helped it run better. To this day, gaming consoles struggle to render a game’s physical environment as far away from the player as possible while maintaining a smooth framerate. The distance from the player that is processed, the “draw distance,” varies in accordance with the console’s processing power and the amount of polygons and textures that need to be loaded in the character’s immediate vicinity. Once the maximum draw distance is rendered, the rest of the world beyond that point fails to appear, which can look as though that point is the end of the world. As players move their characters forward, new elements to the environment like buildings, trees and rocks will appear suddenly, which is called “pop-in.” To help mask the pop-in effect of buildings in the titular town, Team Silent used the fog both to heighten tension in the game and to limit on-screen visibility to within Silent Hill’s draw distance. This way, buildings and other game elements would load just beyond the fog then seem to appear naturally as the main character, Harry Mason, ran towards them and they came into view. Since players never saw anything pop in, it seemed as though the world went on all the way to the horizon but was simply lost in the mist.
We know the fog was used as a resource to essentially bluff the size of the game because of an interview with series composer Akira Yamaoka in Music Japan Plus. In that interview, Yamaoka revealed much about Team Silent working around the limitations of the original Sony PlayStation, on which Silent Hill premiered.
“We loved the concept of the fog, but at the time we couldn’t manage, graphically speaking, what we wanted to ultimately achieve. So in the first game, the fog has two uses: one being the main element where the game develops around. The other use was to help us achieving background and building graphics easily by ‘hiding’ them with the fog. The PlayStation system didn’t allow us to go as far as we would have wanted to. But later, with systems such as PlayStation 2 or 3, the fog effect was done a lot better and without the need of hiding graphics.”
- Elisa, “Akira Yamaoka – Interview in Spain at Play Fest”
This very telling quote says at least two important things. First and foremost, that the eerie weather in Silent Hill did specifically help mask pop-in, which Yamaoka explains when he says that “The other use [of the fog] was to help us […] building graphics easily by ‘hiding’ them with the fog.” Second, he implies that the improvement in hardware from the first PlayStation to subsequent systems, which were home to later Silent Hill titles, eliminated the need on the fog’s part to fake draw distance. As consoles still suffer from the aforementioned jagged edges today, the noise filter is still a welcome disguise for them, but here Yamaoka testifies that if the only purpose of the fog were to hide pop-in, Silent Hill could do without it.
The third and final trick up Team Silent’s sleeve to extend the world of Silent Hill beyond its appearance is the use of permanently locked doors. The Silent Hill games have always involved locked doors, solving puzzles and exploring the world to find keys to unlock those doors. However, many of the levels have taken place in large public buildings that could have more than 60 rooms, and players find complete maps for each area they explore that appear to be officially produced for the fictional area – employees’ maps of hotels, designed maps of a hospital tacked onto the hospital’s bulletin boards, etc. Whether due to production deadlines, a fear of monotony in that many rooms, the hardware’s processing or storage capability or another reason altogether, the majority of rooms in those environments have always been inaccessible. When players attempt to open a door that is permanently locked, the on-screen text that appears will often say something like “The lock is broken. This door can’t be opened,” or “This door is jammed. I’m not getting through this way.” This is an assertive notice to players that they will never see what lies beyond that door, and a squiggly line appears on the area map along the door to notify players that there’s no use trying that door again. Of course, the same area map is drawn as complete, suggesting that there is in fact a room on the other side of that permanently locked door – players just can’t enter it.
Realistically, Team Silent didn’t design a room that gamers can’t enter, nor is it rendered and waiting forever. There is nothing beyond that door, not really. However, if players give themselves over to their suspension of disbelief, that imaginative leap helps to dramatically improve our estimated size of the game. Instead of entering 20 rooms and being given the impression that those 20 rooms are the full extent of the world, players seem to simply be shut out of 40 rooms in a 60-room level. With that psychological suggestion, the world of Silent Hill seems massive. Team Silent is convincing gamers that they’ve crafted a much bigger world but only some of it is visible, like an HP Lovecraft tale or a sleight-of-hand trick. The map and the fact that the doors exist at all are implication enough that there’s more than meets the eye in most Silent Hill areas.
Film grain, bad weather and busted doors. At the end of the day, these three of Team Silent’s cleverest tricks read like a list of everyday nuisances. However, not only did they use these subtle devices to their advantage, extending the feel of their spine-tingling town well beyond expectations of 1999 technology, they became trademarks of the series beyond their necessity. All three of these disquieting elements in Silent Hill returned in subsequent titles, and though they serve more fashion than function today, without them Silent Hill wouldn’t be the same.
Like I said, this essay covers things that you would never think of when gaming. We just put the disc in and away we go. The Broken Paragon is full of insights and studies, so if you like what you have just read, go and buy the book.
Please note that all the work on this page is copyrighted to Jonny’s publishing label A Carrier of Fire, AIR Entertainment have been given permission to use this for this article only.
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