This is the second in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Mike's book on Silent Hill 2 and Philip's book on Resident Evil are funding now on Kickstarter.
You’re known primarily for humor, but you’ve selected one of the most deadly serious titles in gaming history. What made you decide to write about Silent Hill 2? What do you think you bring to the conversation as a humorist?
To be fair, I played Silent Hill 2 long before I tried and aggressively failed to be funny. Silent Hill 2 is one of those games that's stuck with me my entire life. It also holds up incredibly well, making revisiting it less of a stroll down memory lane and more a chance to peel back more layers in its design and story. I'd say I'm approaching Silent Hill 2 less as a comedy writer and more as someone who's suffered from mental illness and abuse, which is always the most fun angle one can take. At the same time, comedy and horror do carry similar rhythms; both rely on context, suspense, surprise, and escalation. While Silent Hill 2 is rarely funny, you could say that the game's twist is an eight-hour punchline on the first scene of the game.
Silent Hill as a franchise seems like it should be able to endlessly reinvent itself, but after the third game its star harshly fell and never quite recovered. Now it’s dead, at least for the time being. Why do you think it failed to keep an audience?
It's hard to say, because I am a fan of the series as a whole. Even bad Silent Hill is still fun in its own goofy way. Most forms of art, and especially games, require massive teams of people who all genuinely want it go well. Nobody wants to leave a project feeling like they disappointed their audience. But if I had one criticism of the series - and please keep in mind this comes from a Silent Hill 2 fanboy - it's that it became too enamored with its own iconography and lore. Lore is great, but when a horror series gets weighed down by its past, there can sometimes a split between introducing new, scary elements and fan service. For example, I love the Bubble Head Nurses in Silent Hill 2, but when they come back in the movies and on t-shirts and in games like Book of Memories, they feel like mascots rather than horrors. There's just a point where Freddy Krueger goes from haunting your dreams to being a vinyl figure on a shelf.
So I don't necessarily think Silent Hill failed to keep an audience - and there is still a very dedicated audience online - but I do think that some later entries lost the thread on what made the series so captivating in the first place. Sadly, games that did try to reinvent the series like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories were essentially buried by Konami. Show of hands - how many of you played Shattered Memories? Exactly. You're missing out. Konami's cancellation of Hideo Kojima's Silent Hills after the release of the incredible P.T. also likely left both the series and the fandom in suspended animation. Finally, Konami has unfortunately failed to make playing most Silent Hill games easy for modern audiences. Outside of the poorly-produced Silent Hill 2 HD Collection, there's just no easy way to play most of the series on modern machines or at all. Well, unless you emulate.
We each chose to write about survival horror games! What are your thoughts on how that genre has largely faded in the past couple of generations, with the emphasis shifting back to action?
I don't think horror games have largely faded, but I think they've split up into action games with horror elements like the Evil Within and smaller, more artistic horror experiences like Layers of Fear. I'm sure this theory doesn't hold up under even the slightest scrutiny. But for me, the genre didn't fade so much as I found the experiences I needed off the AAA path. Games like Corpse Party, Pathologic (1 and 2), Darkwood, and Stories Untold. These are off the top of my head, not a list of my favorite games, people who are ready to be mad at me. That said, many of those AAA action-horror games are great! Look at something like Bloodborne. It's action-based. It's an RPG. But the way the game unfolds, the way you try to figure out what exactly happened doesn't feel that far from what Silent Hill often tries to do with its environmental storytelling. And I'll say that playing Resident Evil VII in virtual reality is one of the scariest gaming experiences I've ever had.
What is the earliest piece of media (not necessarily horror) that you remember scaring the hell out of you? Walk us through every aspect of that childhood trauma!
Two things come to mind. First, I was terrified of horror movie VHS box art. Just the designs - especially of those late '80s, early '90s horror movie boxes, just felt mysterious and terrifying to me. I didn't get into horror until middle school, so as a child, I would just see boxes for movies like Child's Play and feel immense fear. Two, the Large Marge scene from Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Honestly, still scary.
How far did the final book land from what you envisioned? What changed during the writing process?
Hoo boy. As you know, these books aren't very long, so we don't have space to cover everything we want to talk about. I had to cut down chapters on the development and release of the game (although I do touch on it) because the developers themselves released a making-of documentary that's available on YouTube. My first draft was somewhere in the range of 65,000 words and I had to get it down to 30,000, so some topics just had to go. I care about these topics! I just put more emphasis on other subjects I felt like I'd seen a little less of in the ether. I'd also say that the earlier drafts were "funnier" in the sense they had more jokes, but upon re-reading, I felt like I was shoe horning them in a bit much, accidentally making the book a bit more cringey than fun. Who knows if I've succeeded making it less so. Probably not!
Mandatory question: What features and creatures would you encounter if you were to visit Silent Hill? (Or, perhaps, “when.” I have no idea what you’re planning to promote the book.)
What I like about Silent Hill 2 compared to other games in the series is that the horrors you face come directly from your own sins. Most of the other Silent Hill games may have put the horror on a cult, but Silent Hill 2 just wants its characters to feel bad for what they did. So I'd probably encounter a really sad, deteriorating city that made little sense and left me feeling lonely and isolated based on the sin of letting friendships and relationships fester until they died. As far as monsters? I think the ones that always disturb me the worst are the ones that have human forms but look wrapped in a sweaty sheet made of flesh. F that S.
This is the first in our author-vs.-author Boss Fight Q&A series. Both Mike's book on Silent Hill 2 and Matt's book on Red Dead are funding now on Kickstarter.
You're writing a book on a game that is both inspired by and subverts tropes found in traditional Westerns. What was your previous experience with the genre? If you had little experience before, what about Red Dead Redemption made you interested in the Western setting?
Honestly, my experience with the Western was limited before I started thinking about this book. I suspect a lot of people my age absorbed the genre from their boomer dads via osmosis; mine was not the biggest Western fan. But The Searchers has been embedded in my brain ever since an eccentric old lefty named Mr. Loose showed it to us in high school film class, freely throwing around terms like "phallic symbol" and "miscegenation." He really showed us how you could look beneath the surface of the genre to find the values undergirding it (American exceptionalism, gruff machismo, gun culture, etc.), and his head kept reappearing in my mind like a foul-mouthed Obi-Wan when I sat down to play Red Dead for the umpteenth time. It seemed clear to me that the best way to understand what Red Dead does, as a game and as a narrative, was to delve into the source code of the genre that it tries to emulate, cannibalize, and ultimately outdo.
[RDR1 SPOILER IN THIS QUESTION AND ITS ANSWER] Red Dead Redemption ends in the death of its hero. As someone who also wrote about a game with a sad ending, how do you feel a game protagonist's death affects the "interactivity" of the form? How does it clash with regular gameplay in which a death outside of the narrative is curable with a restart?
To me, Marston's death scene might be the most interesting moment in Red Dead -- the way Dead Eye blankets the screen in orange and makes you scramble furiously to pop off headshots, only to watch him get pumped full of bullets. I think it's amazing because both Red Dead's game genre (open-world action game) and its narrative genre (Western) let you indulge in a fantasy of lawless freedom, yet it ends with this death that clamps down so brutally on both the character and the player. Other games have tried to wag their finger at you and be like, "No no! Not so fast! You're not so free and powerful after all, gamer! Heeheehee!" -- but because Red Dead makes you feel so free, because it has GTA in its DNA, because it makes you inhabit a cinematic and literary genre that has meditated in so many ways on the promise and meaning of freedom, the moment lands in a way that feels authentically tragic. I think the interactivity of the form makes his death a hundred times more effective as an ending. And then "respawning" as Jack, doomed to continue the cycle of violence and run into the same Big Government buzzsaw -- that, to me, is authentically tragic, too.
We both went to grad school for English, although you got a PhD and I most certainly did not. How did your academic experience reflect on your view of the game? How did it reflect the way you approached the book itself?
Somewhere on ProQuest is my 350-page dissertation on Victorian literature and the concept of species. This is not that book; this is nothing close to that book, which I think only 4 people will ever read. But I guess one thing that really fascinated me when I was doing my degree was the way that we (and by we I mean 21st-century Americans) keep returning obsessively to the Victorian era as an aesthetic touchstone: e.g. steampunk, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, these Vox sickos
from a few years ago who decided to live like Victorians by bathing with a bowl and pitcher and using a letter opener made from a taxidermied deer foot. To me, steampunk Victorian England and the "West" are two sides of the same coin -- the Western is the rugged, American version of the same idealized 19th century, just as packed with stereotypes. I think my academic work made me predisposed to question why we keep returning to that period, and what we get out of reimagining it over and over.
Despite the massive success of Red Dead Redemption 1 and 2, games set in the Wild West are few and far between. Why do you think that is? What do you think are the challenges of the setting for other games?
I have some theories. First of all, Westerns dole out violence at a slower, more deliberate tempo than other movie genres. They're all about tension and release -- the quick, precise revolver shot. There's nothing about that rhythm that's impossible to translate into gameplay, but it needs to be done properly, and when done properly I think it translates into gameplay that has a more niche flavor. The closest analogue I can think of is something like Sekiro, which borrows from another prominent movie genre (Samurai flicks) that isn't replicated faithfully by games as often as you would think. In a true Western video game, bullet sponges of any kind should be illegal; XP systems and skill trees should be heavily frowned upon; damage in number form -- any kind of damage that isn't completely binary, kill or no kill -- has no place. In other words, a lot of the basic design principles of modern AAA games besides the open-world don't really gel with the Western.
But also, the genre isn't the towering cultural behemoth it used to be. Critics used to say the Western was "dead" every 10 years or so, and they were always wrong; the last time it "died," which was around the mid-90s, after Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves, it just ended up migrating to TV (Deadwood, Westworld), along with a bunch of other genres that used to fall within the category of mid-budget prestige pictures for adults. But it is true that sometime around the late 70s, after Star Wars and the original Superman, the Western lost its pride of place as the premiere form of pop-cultural American mythmaking. Sci-fi and superhero blockbusters superseded it, both in terms of box office and in terms of cultural importance. And those are the genres that videogames borrow from, more often than not.
If you couldn't have written about Red Dead Redemption for your book, which other game would you have chosen? Why?
Someday I will write the definitive critical study of Banjo-Kazooie and everyone will laugh at me for defending collectathons and toilets with googly eyes. But by God, I will do it.
Rockstar games has been criticized in the past for its working conditions, especially during crunch. While this is a common problems in the games industry, how does this knowledge affect your view of the game?
It's a problem throughout the industry, but what gets me about Rockstar's particular brand of crunch is the level of irony and complete lack of self-awareness. Every Rockstar game -- including this one! -- has snarky things to say about evil corporations, capitalism, and an authoritarian state bureaucracy that consumes and coerces ordinary people. Every Rockstar game starts to seem a wee bit hypocritical when you peel back the curtain and look at Rockstar itself. I generally try to keep that curtain in place when I think about games, because I tend to look at them -- like books or movies -- as cultural artifacts. But it's impossible to ignore the disconnect between the values Rockstar espouse in their games and the values embedded in their corporate culture, and that disconnect casts a shadow over the games themselves.