'Let It Die' Composer on Horror, Comedy, and Combining Both

"I've never died before," says Akira Yamaoka, "but apparently it feels really good."

You might not guess, but Let It Die’s composer and sound designer Akira Yamaoka — best known for his career-defining, decade-long role creating the shrieking aural phantasmagorias of Silent Hill’s twisted worlds — has quite a sense of humor.

After leaving Konami in 2009 to join Suda51’s studio Grasshopper Manufacture, now owned by Puzzle & Dragons giant GungHo, Yamaoka has worked on all kind of projects, from Shadows of the Damned to tracks for GungHo’s mobile titles; his style similarly runs the gamut, including dalliances into trip-hop, drum and bass, shredding, Reznor-esque guitars, and plaintive, sparse piano. Just by virtue of his eclectic body of work, then, you could see how he might be more than just the dark creative mind his atmospheric horror tracks might suggest.

It’s something I became aware of right away when getting an extensive session with the PS4 exclusive Let It Die, which has as wide a range, and yet as distinctly a Yamaoka-ish flavo as anything he’s done. (Notably, it also has frogs that go, “gero-gero,” the onomatopoeic Japanese equivalent of “ribbit ribbit.”) Speaking with him last month from Grasshopper’s offices in Tokyo, I asked him more about the balance between comedy and gravity, his legacy with horror, and designing sounds for Let It Die — including those hilarious frogs.

Yamaoka shreds at a Let It Die concert event during this year's E3 in Los Angeles.  

GungHo Online Entertainment, Grasshopper Manufacture

It seems like you had a ton of fun with Let It Die’s soundtrack, because it’s all over the place.

It is fun, but we’re still in the middle of development, right? And creating music and sound for the game is a very creative process of thinking in terms of what we want the players to experience. Whether [we’re conveying] fun or something just sounding awesome, that’s what I’m focusing on. But making audio for games is a little different than your typical music composition or having things performed with orchestras or bands and whatnot.

Yeah, one thing I absolutely love is the noise the frogs make. How you’ll just be walking around the environment and hear this, “gero-gero” coming from somewhere.

Ah, yeah! [laughs]

I’m really glad you liked the frog’s “gero-gero.” What it ultimately comes down to is a lot of sound effects are kind of like signals. So in this case, part of your survival in Let It Die means you’re going to eat a lot of creatures — frogs, rats, and so on. When you hear them in the game, you’ll think there’s something nearby that I can pick up and eat or save for later. “Gero-gero” is the Japanese “ribbit ribbit.” That’s actually a person voicing that, not a real frog.

[laughs] Of course, yeah.

[laughs] Since you picked up on the “gero-gero,” I’ll say there are a lot of fun aspects like that in the game. From a creative standpoint, we’d definitely like to see players find at least one thing like that they really take away from it, like, “oh yeah, Let It Die was really fun because of this.” We’re always trying to get players to have a great time. If you’re getting that with the “gero-gero,” I think we’re doing something good there.

I love it because it adds a lot of personality to something that could’ve been pretty straightforward.

You know, for the rats I thought maybe we’d have them say, [Mickey Mouse impression] “It’s Mickey!” [laughs] But we’d probably get in trouble.

[laughs] Yeah, that probably wouldn’t fly.

Yeah, definitely not.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is another Japanese game with silly frogs.

Konami Digital Entertainment

Metal Gear Solid 3 had something similar with the Kerotan frogs you could find in the jungle. Did you have anything to do with that? I know you dabbled working with other games at Konami. Or did you want to include “gero-gero” just because it’s distinctly Japanese?

There’s no relation here to MGS3, but I guess it’s kind of related to being Japanese. With Let It Die it’s like a hardcore action game with lot of killing, fighting, and brutality, but it has other things we wanted to put in it that balance it out, so we have some humor here and there.

We thought about a lot of it, especially with sounds, in terms of where the limits are for where it’s okay to put in something a little bit funny without being over-the-top ridiculous. At the same time, we’re making a really unique world that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. If you were going to punch someone and it made a “boiiiing” sound, that’s going a little too far, but with the frog’s “gero-gero,” you know, its a little odd, it’s funny, and it still fits in this serious dark setting and adds to what’s unique about the game itself.

Grasshopper’s always been known for using humor in that kind of way. Is that something you’ve contributed a lot to with past games? Shadows of the Damned is funny, for example.

It’s kind of been that way, yeah. But with the idea of balance, if you have a white piece of paper and you write with a black pen you can easily see it, but if you have a black piece of paper and a black pen, you can’t, and same goes for white on white. It’s the whole thing with the horror genre too. If everything is just horror on horror, you know, it’s really scary, but you get kind of used to it.

But with Grasshopper, we’ll have really serious things, like how Let It Die is bloody and full of gore; if you add something that’s completely opposite but doesn’t throw the overall balance off, it really adds to something’s originality. Having both serious and funny parts makes it a lot funnier and [doesn’t take away] from what’s serious. So using opposite parts of the spectrum really balances each other out. It’s not just one shade of experience. That’s something that Grasshopper’s been doing for a long time.

GungHo Online Entertainment, Grasshopper Manufacture

In that case, how do you reconcile the lack of comedic elements in something like Silent Hill? Where’s the balance there?

I guess humor in Silent Hill probably wouldn’t have balanced the game, but we weren’t always focused solely on creating horror, either. It was in the horror genre, but it wasn’t just that. And what was really important to help balance out the extreme and scary aspects was using music and sound to show other states humans have, [making it] emotionally moving in a way other than how a typical person might experience horror, whether that’s love, romance, longing, sadness all of these other elements put together. That was very important.

That’s a really good point — Silent Hill is synonymous with horror, but its really more about the wide psychological range of emotions people experience.

Yes. When you play a game a lot of it’s done visually, but we’ve come to understand that a lot of that feeling, and what moves people, comes from the sound. Creating music and sound to really get players to feel on a deeper level or have that emotional reaction is all based around that, and with Silent Hill I added other parts to [complement] fear and form an overall emotional experience. My goal was really to make something that hadn’t been felt before, like a new emotional experience [driven by audio] throughout all of gameplay. That’s really something that’s special about sound production itself.

How would you say you’ve adopted that approach at Grasshopper?

I didn’t really feel like I had to. Overall the roller coaster of emotions games have — you know, fear or the feeling of running from something, or the high-strung tension of being in battle, or even going somewhere in a game that’s less tense and is kind of funny, that’s there in any part of game development. Everyone’s kind of in the same position. But overall the process hasn’t changed for me.

Most people think of you as a more serious artist. It’s nice to see you work on something that uses humor.

Well, you know the UFO endings in Silent Hill? I did some interesting and funny stuff then, too!

[laughs] Yeah, that’s true.

If you look deeper into it, things weren’t always completely scary or serious, though I understand that, especially with Silent Hill, most fans see that side of it. That makes sense. But you have to have fun doing that [kind of thing] too. And maybe there’s a little bit more of that now at Grasshopper.

I’d say in the west it’s not necessarily well known — especially with something like Silent Hill — who might have done what at Team Silent. So rather than associating the UFO endings in particular with you, fans might think, you know, these could’ve been anyone.

Ah, yeah! I’ve been bitching about that for years! Give me some credit! I mean, come on — it’s the sound. What’s up? [laughs]

[laughs] I imagine having a little bit more leeway to use humor is probably something you enjoy.

Yeah, there’s always a choice in descriptions, you know, “creator,” “creativity,” who has what say over what. But I don’t feel like I was really that limited at Konami. My focus has always been, what can I do to make something people will enjoy and have fun with? That hasn’t really changed.

Silent Hill 2

Konami Digital Entertainment

How would you describe your sense of humor?

Never really thought about that! Thats a hard question. [laughs] I love comedy. This might not necessarily be a clear answer, but I think in general it’s when something’s missing. It’s a balance thing, but you know, it’s like when something’s just a little off from a normal situation, like if you see a very serious person trip and fall. You’d never necessarily think about it happening, but if it does, it’s kind of funny, right?

But you know, if they fell down and were hospitalized, that’s not funny. It has to be the right balance — it’s never a one plus one equals two, and it can be hard, but [it’s great when] basically something’s a little off. Those kinds of things are funny. Every country or culture also has its own sense of humor, too, and something that’s funny in Japan might not be in America, or vice versa. What I find fun is to discover things — maybe they’re not necessarily hilarious, but smaller things that can get a chuckle out of any user from anywhere. That’s been an interesting thing to figure out.

When we talked at E3 earlier this year, you told me if you were going to make your own game you’d want to go back to horror. But from this conversation, it’s clear you enjoy funny things too. Would a comedic game be something you would ever want to make? And where would you prioritize it versus horror?

I mean, of course I’d still make a horror game. But in terms of priorities, for the last 20 years I’ve made horror, doing music and sound. And I’d get up in the morning and think, “What’s scary? What’s creepy or sad?” So the genre is part of my life, it’s inside me.

But for the remaining days I have left in my life — and since we talked about the comedy aspects and I do understand the genre so much and I know what’s scary and how the timing of it works — maybe I could make something that some people find scary and others find funny. It could be a mix of both, depending on the player and how they interpret it. It could easily be both, if I wanted to take it that way.

GungHo Online Entertainment, Grasshopper Manufacture

What would be an example of that?

Thats a really good question. Hmm. Hmm. [long pause]

Well, when we brought Silent Hill over to the west for the first time and watched people play, you know there’s a very typical horror game scenario where you’re walking in a corridor and you turn a corner and then all of a sudden there’s a monster there, right? We developed that to be scary, it was supposed to scare the shit out of you. But one of the people playing was just laughing their ass off. And we were like, why is this funny? This is supposed to be scary! We thought it was so interesting that someone that would find this stuff funny that wasn’t supposed to be. It just blew our minds.

But it might be that it was just so out of this world [weird] and unexpected that it just ended up being funny. So maybe with that kind of thing I might not exactly aim to make something to be both funny and scary simultaneously, but I’ve got a better idea of what scenarios might work so that people could interpret it differently like that.

GungHo Online Entertainment, Grasshopper Manufacture

When I think of comedy and horror, I can’t think of too many really good examples aside from Shaun of the Dead, how it uses the shock of gore and the subject matter, but it’s mostly a comedy. I dont know else you might approach that sort of thing aside from using shock value.

Yeah, for movies that’s a great example. And what it comes down to really is the psychological state of human beings. I mean, I’ve never died before, but when you die, apparently it feels really good, like maybe one of the greatest feelings ever. But at the same time, even though people know that, everyone fears death. So there are these two things, fear and feeling good — it’s very psychological.

And like I was saying before, digging deep into the psyche in terms of what’s funny or scary — it’s very interesting to think about how we can trigger these feelings and emotions through interactive experiences. It’s something I really like thinking about.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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