This article is the fourth and final installment of Darren-Kun’s Magical GungHo Adventure! If you haven’t read the introductory piece, you can find it here. The second was an interview with GungHo president and CEO Kazuki Morishita, found here. The third was a chat with Hideyuki Shin on Let It Die, and it’s found here.
In this piece, Darren sat down to talk with renowned videogame sound director Akira Yamaoka, who is incredibly well known for work on many titles ranging from the classic Silent Hill series to more recent titles like Shadows of the Damned and Killer is Dead. Darren took this chance to find out from the man himself how he views his role as a sound director, how he feels about being tied so strongly to his work on Konami’s seminal horror series, and a number of other topics besides.
Tyler Inouye once again continued doing excellent translation work for this final interview segment.
This roundtable was also attended by Mike Rougeau, representing Playboy.
Mike Rougeau: You’re well known as a composer, but your role here is bigger as a sound director. Do you like composing music more, or do you like to be in charge of all aspects of the sound?
Akira Yamaoka: My stance is that I really don’t have to, you know, compose music. If I can make a game fun, interesting and awesome by taking things that other people compose or the sounds they create, managing that to make sure that the game is something amazing from a sound standpoint… I’m totally okay with that! I don’t have to compose music. I can, but in the sense that if I do these things to make something great and fun for the end user, I think this is the best thing for me right now.
MR: I think a lot of composers would say that composing music is their passion, and it sounds like you’re saying that something else is your passion. So if your passion’s not creating music, then what is it?
AY: So in regards to my passion, I guess some people have an image of passion as someone saying ‘this is my passion, and I want to do this!’. In my case it’s not really so much of that. Not to say that I don’t have a passion if it’s ultimately going in that direction, but for me if I can arrange, create, direct, compose or otherwise put something together for the end user to enjoy… not only enjoy, but enjoy on a whole new level where it brings out emotion or stirs feelings, and really makes some sort of difference within them… that just really makes me happy.
It might be a little different from the answer you’re looking for in regard to passion, but I get the sense that’s more or less my passion which may be different from what other people consider ‘passion’.
MR: Sounds like ‘sound director’ fits, then.
AY: Not just sound, even. It doesn’t have to be sound, or music. More or less ‘directing’, I just happen to be in a sound directing position, in that sense.
Darren Forman: I’m a huge fan of the soundtrack in Let it Die. The radio stations really show that each band in the project were given free rein to approach each song as they pleased. It led to a seriously cool mix of styles and genres that sets it apart from the crowd. Given how few gaming soundtracks really stand out, do you feel that games in general are too constrained and conservative in their approach to presenting a soundtrack?
AY: With Let it Die it’s kind of an interesting new chance I took upon myself, because, of course, working on tracks like Silent Hill‘s has a very specific mood and atmosphere, and it’s in the horror genre. I did that kind of thing a lot until now, and then had this idea — ‘just wait a second, games are not like movies’.
When you have horror or action movies, they have a certain type of feel that starts at from zero and follows for two hours, right? Games are more on the interactive side. How a user perceives a game is probably going to be different based on their experience, versus a movie where most people will probably get the same thing out of it.
So, with that I kind of went in a different direction and didn’t want to go with ‘if this is a genre, it has to be like this’ and set a limit on myself. I went completely in the opposite direction to see what could be done with all kinds of genres in the game. ‘Does it fit, does it maybe not fit…’, and I think in the end we still made something great.
MR: How do you feel about the fact that after all your accomplishments and everything you’ve done, you’re probably still best known for working on Silent Hill and the music there?
AY: So at one point being known as ‘Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill‘ was kind of annoying. It’s like ‘really, just Silent Hill? I mean come on, I’ve done other things besides Silent Hill, but after 20 years I can’t quite come to terms with it.
Thinking about it, with Silent Hill I did a lot of things – not only sound, we did a lot of things on the creative side and I was able to do a lot of things that I wanted to do with that. And in that sense I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had with Silent Hill.
That said, if you look at it from another angle, not a lot of people from this industry, or even a lot of other industries, genres and whatnot, not a lot of them are known after 20 years for anything. In this case, I really appreciate the opportunity I was given to still be known. And I’m really glad and happy when people approach me about Silent Hill because it means that something I did reached out to them and touched them, and it made something resonate within them.
DF: When you’re working on a game’s soundtrack, the concept art and visuals would obviously play a huge part in that, but does it often come from completely unexpected sources, or can random things provide inspiration?
AY: In regards to creating sound or music for games, it’s maybe not so much from concept art and visuals. They’re probably part of it, but I think the biggest thing for me is the inspiration I get for creating the sound and music arrangement for the game, or even adding creative input to the game itself, comes from people – the interaction I have with people.
When you meet with people the first time, or you talk with friends… it doesn’t have to be anything in particular, but the reactions and emotions that come from people that you meet on a regular basis, people you’ve known for a long time, is always different, interesting and refreshing.
There’s a special art that we have for making games. Not everyone can just make games. Talking and dealing with a lot of people, what kind of reactions they give based on what you say, what you do, really drives home how… at least I think, what puts them together, to see what kinds of reactions we can get from people when we make games. It’s like a service we’re providing, be it making games or if you’re a cook in a restaurant, you’re always doing something to try and get something out of people. Usually it’s something you want that’s positive about them.
MR: How do you enjoy working at Grasshopper?
AY: It’s really fun! (Laughs) I mean, it’s not like I could really say that it’s not fun or that it sucks.
MR: I wouldn’t want you to! I mean, how is it different to what you’ve done in the past? What’s unique?
AY: Nothing’s really all that different from anywhere I’ve been before, in some aspects. I really follow a typical company structure, or a typical layout of how people are arranged in a tree of positions. Read between the lines!
MR: Can you talk about the work that goes into selecting a band to create a song for Let it Die? The bands are all very different from each other, so how did you choose… how did you approach those bands, or what bands answered your approach?
AY: There’s two main things about how I approached these bands. The first one was my own personal interest, so I’ve been following a lot of bands and their music, and all of these were bands I thought were really cool. I like their style, I like what they do and I like the kinds of music that they’ve created.
The second part is that these are Japanese indie bands, so they’re kind of in the underground scene, up and coming within Japan. I really wanted to help bring them to the world to show that in Japan there are bands like this making music for people to enjoy. I didn’t want that to stop in Japan, I wanted it to reach the world, to show the world that there are really interesting musicians with interesting styles in Japan that are trying to break out. That’s really what I wanted to do with these bands.
DF: I hear you’ll be playing at the Replay Expo in a few days. I’m just wondering how you feel playing live music compares to working in a studio?
AY: In regards to a live performance, I definitely prefer that to a studio because there’s an instant, real-time response to however you’re performing. The audience reacts, and you can really feed off of that. It’s pretty awesome.
I’m really not as much like a musician as you might think, so I can’t really give you a musician-esque answer. I’m sure there are a lot of people who’d be glad to be like ‘for me, I’m like this and do this’, but it’s not really me in this case.
DF: Nah, that’s good. I’m happier with an honest answer as opposed to an expected one, you know?
AY: (Laughs) So really, there are a lot of things that people expect or there might be creators who are like ‘yes, I’m very particular in this sense’ and for me it’s not really like that. So, you know… it’s a little bit different, I think.
MR: So what games are you playing?
AY: Little Nightmares. That’s kind of like Inside.
MR: As somebody who was so involved in, not the earliest, but early horror games of 20 years ago… what do you think of horror games today?
AY: I think a lot of horror games are really awesome. Even if they’re not really horror, but have been inspired by horror games, like Inside, are really something to see. It’s not like they’re a complete copy or homage, you can see that there are certain elements that have been inspired to create something completely original and new within this field. As a result it doesn’t have to be horror because it might have elements of horror, and it’s different, refreshing, new and great.
MR: Have you played Resident Evil 7?
AY: All of it. (Laughs) I think I’m good in regards to Resident Evil. It’s enough. I mean, you’re playing the game, and walking, and items still… yeah, it’s the same as twenty years ago. Did you see the end of Inside?
AY: It’s a sheer stroke of genius.
MR: Is this an office thing? It seems you guys are all playing it.
AY: Shin-san (Hideuyki Shin) came to me and said ‘you need to play this. I mean, you might die tomorrow… so play it!’
It was all done in Unity too. I can’t say much more about it, it was all just really impressive. I was thinking ‘how did they make this?’ I’d love to get the PlayDead team on this side of the table, and be on your side of the table. I wanna talk to them, the level design… I don’t know, I’d just really like to know what’s in their minds when they did this!
DF: One of your most well known pieces is the Theme of Laura from the Silent Hill Series. I’ve got a signed CD of yours from Shadows of the Damned and I was despondent that G Drive wasn’t on it. I was just wondering, out of the work that you’ve done, what do you think was most notable on a personal level?
AY: It’s the same for me. No matter where I go around the world, everyone says that’s their favorite track. It also became mine because no matter where I go, no matter what, so many people have been moved by this track, this theme I put together… I just love that so many people love it.
So in regards to everything that I’ve created up until now, with every creation I’ve made, I’ve put in 100% of myself. It’s really hard for me to differentiate and say that ‘I like this track, I really tried so much harder on this one track compared to all the rest’ or whatnot. So I really didn’t have a standout until people started telling me how much Theme of Laura was their favorite… and because of that it just kind of became my favorite as well. To know that it stood out so much from everything I’d created just anywhere in the world, Saudia Arabia, Brazil, America… anywhere I go, everyone tells me the same thing. So I must have done something right there to really reach out to everyone in the world, and that’s how it became my favorite as well.
At this point, time ran out and we wrapped up for the day — but in closing, I leave you my personal favorite Akira Yamaoka track, G Drive. It may not be his most famous or complex work, but damn my eyes if it doesn’t get me hyped up to smash some demon skulls every single time.
The chance discovery of a muddy, burnt out copy of '50 Shades of Grey' in a hunting pit gave him an appreciation for complex plots, characters and overarching narrative, and the unexpected gift of a Spectrum 48k allowed him to indulge in these newfound sensibilities with intelligent, highbrow games such as 'flee from the badly animated spinning turquoise dolphins' or 'avoid the deadly glowing bricks of doom'.
The fusion of both these interests finally culminated with Darren teaching himself how to write by basically guessing at what words might look like when jotted down on paper as opposed to being howled inarticulately at the skies.
Now others occasionally get to read his scribblings. Lucky them.