Monday, 3 December 2012

Silent Hill 2 [part1] - Planning and concepting

Planning and Concepting are 2 crucial elements of game production; they are separate processes yet they overlap and occasionally coincide with each other. It would be difficult for me to explain both processes as their own entities so instead I will look at a game which I personally love and feel nails these processes: Silent Hill 2.

One misconception a large amount of people, students and video game enthusiasts alike share is that concepting is the top notch digital painting depicting Master Chief in all his glory stood along side his trusty Warthog and miniature, blue-tinted muse. This is not the case; this is merely the end result of the concepting process and really, something which coincides with its respective game in order to promote it and offer as a visual aid.
As the little caption in the top right hand corner suggests, this is a piece of fine art. Although for an already established game such as Halo this may suffice as concept art as there probably aren't many drastic design changes and the company would hardly need to pitch the game for aproval given its status.

Concepting really doesn’t start with any visual aid at all; it begins with an idea. The strength of the end result is always factored by the strength of the initial idea - enter Silent Hill 2. I personally LOVE this game (more so than any of the other games in the series) because the concept behind the game is so strong, everything that follows after it only fleshes out this concept.

The protagonist, James Sunderland has received a letter from his wife, Mary to come meet her at their “special place”, Silent Hill. Only problem is, Mary’s dead - and so entails a psychological mind-f**k which toys with your sanity, emotions and even your patience in such a sophisticated way that it can only be described as art.

This game is famed for f**king with your head.

When beginning the planning process it is integral to have a healthy work ethic, efficient work schedule and a time table of deadlines in which each factor and job must be carried out whilst meeting these constraints. If a company is unable to ship its product on time it risks clashing with the release of competitors’ games, failing to fulfil supply obligations to stores and fundamentally spending more money.

The second part would be to outline the specifications of the game. In SH2’s case it was to be designed to be played on the PS2, as a third-person survival horror, with a focus on melee combat and puzzle solving.

At around the same time the visual team will begin their process of concepting the levels and characters for the game. When producing the concept material for the game, the crew went to similar locations to the ones they had intents of designing and simply took photographic reference material. This suffices perfectly for a start at the designing process and is even suitable for pitching the game. Visual aids are strong but at such an early stage in development even the simplest of references is effective if it is relevant to your idea.

One of the reference photos taken to be used for the bathroom area.

The characters are easily just as important as the scenery in Silent Hill (if not more) and the way in which the designers approached them was most likely to design their psyches and personalities before even attempting to doodle. Unlike countless other video game characters, the Silent Hill characters tend to be deep, ambiguous and psychologically disturbed.


Take our “protagonist”, James. On the surface he seems your very typical video game hero; unexplainably friendly, eager to enlist aid to any passer-by he encounters and most importantly, confused as hell. Instantly someone whom we can project ourselves on to - or so we would like to think.

What we find out towards the end is that James is an unreliable witness. He is in fact responsible for his wife’s death - he murdered her. We also discover that James is sexually oppressed, which is why all of the monsters are twisted, sexual interpretations of James’ lust. Most shockingly of all, we find out the monstrous “Pyramid head” is in fact James’ mirror image; a manifestation of his guilt for killing Mary. The game has tricked us into building an emotional attachment to James, only to find out he’s the bad guy. All of this criteria is in deed apart of the concepting process - the sketching came afterwards.

James Sunderland - Early concept sketch

Another fascinating character was Angela. At first glance she isn’t very much to look at; not particularly attractive, very plainly dressed - subtle, almost purposely boring. She also acts rather peculiarly, as if she’s constantly on edge. What happened here?

Angela Orosco

All of these touches were a conscious design process in creating the character’s appearance. Towards the end of the game the player might have been able to deduce that Angela was a victim of sexual abuse and rape - this explains her clothing which conceals much of her body and her unexplainably hostile attitude towards James (a man and someone she realises was only interested in his wife as a sexual object). What isn’t obvious is the fact that she is actually in her late teens - in game she looks nearly 40.

After this important character synopsis is compiled the character artist will begin to concept her physical appearance.
Early concept sketches of Angela

The final character, and arguably the most iconic out of the game (if not, the entire series) is Maria. Physically, she’s a doppelganger of James’ dead wife, Mary - however, her dress sense and attitude differ greatly. She isn’t a typical video game heroine - her features are imperfect, she has a bit of belly fat which she doesn’t have a problem showing off and it looks as if she bleaches her hair (and not particularly well). This was important in making the character feel more “human” and someone the player would feel more inclined to protect. This was possibly the most important factor of Maria’s physical appearance since for a good part of the game, James has to escort Maria throughout Silent Hill.

What makes her most intriguing is her personality and constant mood swings. At one point she acts seductively towards James, and in an instance can turn to cold and unfeeling. What makes her even more unsettling is that she appears to channel Mary at certain times, constantly forcing the player to re-evaluate who they’re looking at - only for her to reassure you that she is Maria.
Even early sketches of Mary and Maria both show striking similarities in bone structure and features. Its amazing how much personality the artist has managed to fill in these ketches. Also note how facial expressions can alter one face so drasticially that they could be confused for two seperate people.

Characters from the Silent Hill series may lack certain aesthetics when compared to other games; but their appearances are non-the-less, carefully considered and intricately relative to their psyches. This in my opinion is an example of good character design, born from strong concepts and ideas.
"It doesn't matter who I am. I'm here for you, James. See? I'm real."

Underneath are links to a short documentry on the making of Silent Hill 2 that I enjoyed and found relevant:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


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