Akira Yamaoka: the ‘Silent Hill’ composer’s unlikely return to horror

Gaming’s rockstar discusses his career and exploring music beyond horror

While there have always been rumours of a revival, apart from a surprise Dead By Daylight DLC earlier this year, the Silent Hill franchise has remained dormant – save for PT, the critically acclaimed demo for Silent Hills, which was subsequently cancelled after Hideo Kojima’s highly publicised departure from Konami.

There’s all kinds of reasons why the beloved series has yet to make its comeback, no less down to Konami reducing its involvement in game development. But it’s also hard to imagine the Silent Hill franchise without composer Akira Yamaoka. While the original in-house Team Silent behind the first four games had changed members, Yamaoka was a constant figure so synonymous with the series he was even a producer for the third and fourth entries.

The atmospheric dread conjured by Yamaoka’s score was vital in channeling the games’ unique brand of psychological horror, while introducing industrial rock and haunting melodies unheard of before in video games.

“Great artists know how to balance their influences and originality,” Yamaoka tells NME. “I always tried to identify what makes my influences unique, then I figured the best ways to build your own sound was to ignore the status quo. Even in video game music, I’ve always found it strange that when huge monsters appear there’s the orchestra sound and there’s subtle music when in hotels or bedrooms. I was able to diversify my influences to create my own sound in Silent Hill.”

But as much as he is celebrated for his work on Silent Hill – with plenty of fans, including the composer himself, regarding Silent Hill 2 as his masterpiece – Yamaoka also has a widely diverse career in game music. He first joined the industry in the early ’90s, composed audio with chiptune for Konami.

“Deep inside, it’s always been video games and music that have been my passion,” says Yamaoka. “I wanted that to be my career so I decided to send my demo tapes to video game companies – I was very lucky when Konami offered me a job.”

Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2. Credit: Konami

While creating music for Silent Hill, the composer also contributed to Konami’s popular rhythm games, such as Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution, projects that are often overlooked in Yamaoka’s colourful career. Featuring fast and upbeat tracks of all genres and styles – including gabba! – that music was a world away from the eerie soundtrack we’re more familiar with.

“I used to be hesitant about having a specific genre, but now I’m more open to any opportunity that rises,” he says. Rock music continues to be hugely influential in his work. Artists like Hollie Kenniff, Riverside, Conception and Rosalie Cunningham are just some of the music he’s currently listening to, but Yamaoka reveals he’s also got a soft spot for ‘Say Sayonara’ by JOANovARC from Rock Band.

Yamaoka spent the subsequent decade as the sound director of Grasshopper Manufacture, the developer behind action-adventure hack and slash game, No More Heroes. But perhaps his most surprising collaboration was in 2017, when he contributed an epic track titled ‘Battle In Japan’ for the free-to-play online multiplayer game, World Of Tanks, and even went out to Wargaming headquarters in Minsk to work closely with the audio team.

It’s this partnership that led Yamaoka to reunite with Silent Hill’s original art director, Masahiro Ito, both of whom contributed to World Of Tanks’ spooky Halloween PvE event that’s currently running. Taking inspiration from Chernobyl, as well as the works of H.R. Giger and, of course, Silent Hill, this time-limited mission sees players battle AI-controlled tanks in Mirny, an eerie abandoned town that’s also covered in fog, while visibility deteriorates throughout the match and you’re even pursued by a Pyramid Head-type enemy that can’t be killed.

Yamaoka sets the mood with a dark ambient track for the mode’s hangar. It has all the eerie atmosphere we’ve come to know, though he was actually asked to rein in the mix a little as the Wargaming team found the track to be just a little too creepy.

World Of Tanks
World Of Tanks. Credit: Wargaming

Sure, it’s not quite the Silent Hill reunion fans might have had in mind, but the collaboration isn’t as bizarre as you’d think either. Ito, who has designed some of the spooky enemy tanks for the event, is not only a German World War II tank enthusiast but has also stated that the edges of Pyramid Head’s helmet were directly inspired by the lower hull of the King Tiger German tank. Yamaoka, despite being better known for his work in console and arcade titles, also turns out to have been an avid PC gamer for more than 30 years, including World Of Tanks, before the series went multi-platform.

Speaking on future projects, Yamaoka says he’s interested in the idea of making music for an interactive environment. But what are his thoughts on next-gen, especially with PS5 making noise in regards to 3D audio? “Personally I’m not really interested in 3D audio,” he says. “There’s game middleware which includes functions such as automatic generation of sound variations, graphics and visual effects. If we can improve the engine and features, we can definitely generate myriads of sound effects that’s more suitable for gameplay music.”

However, looking at his current slate of projects – the World of Tanks collaboration, his involvement in Death By Daylight’s DLC and upcoming psychological horror The Medium – it seems Yamaoka can’t quite escape getting pulled back into horror. Not that we’re complaining.

The Halloween event ‘Mirny-13’ is running now on PC until November 9.

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