Prior to yesterday’s Silent Hill Transmission showcase, it was widely accepted that Konami, as a video game publisher, had fallen from grace to a state of near-total irrelevance. It feels like we’ve been making jokes for years about the primacy of this onetime jukebox rental business’ many sidelines, which include casinos and health clubs. Konami hasn’t helped itself with seemingly desperate lunges at the latest tech trends, such as NFTs and metaverse development. Its last major game launch — 2021’s eFootball, a rebranding of its ailing Pro Evolution Soccer series — was an unmitigated disaster.
Most of Konami’s woes date back to 2015, a year that will live in infamy for fans of the 1980s and ’90s greats that made the company’s name: Gradius, Castlevania, Contra, Suikoden, and, of course, Metal Gear. 2015 was the year that Konami canceled Silent Hills, a reboot of its prized horror series by Hideo Kojima and film director Guillermo del Toro; permanently pulled Silent Hills’ acclaimed playable teaser P.T. from the PlayStation Store, making it almost completely inaccessible if you didn’t already have it installed; and conducted a protracted and undignified break-up with its star creator Kojima that included removing his name from promotional materials for Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and forbidding him from accepting an award for it at The Game Awards.
At the same time, new games boss Hideki Hayakawa was suggesting a shift away from console games toward mobile development, the company was restructuring to drain power away from individual studios like Kojima Productions, and the Japanese press was laying into its reputation as an employer.
It’s certainly possible that Kojima had previously been over-indulged at Konami. But the damage done to the publisher’s reputation with players — not to mention to its ability and indeed willingness to make games — was severe. Aside from the general apathy toward 2018’s misguided Metal Gear Survive and the barely remembered 2019 Contra game Contra: Rogue Corps, the clearest example of this is that the Silent Hill brand has lain fallow for an entire decade. The last games to be released were Silent Hill: Downpour and Book of Memories in 2012.
This context made this week’s Silent Hill Transmission a make-or-break moment for both the Silent Hill brand, and Konami’s games division. Surprisingly, perhaps, Konami rose to the occasion.
Several things stood out about the series of announcements: their quantity, the breadth of ground they covered, and — most pleasantly surprising of all — the spirit of invention behind them.
Grouping five projects together in this way certainly provided Konami with a degree of cover: None of them would be interrogated as closely as they might be if unveiled separately, and some of them could be pretty (read: extremely) light on detail. But it also gave the publisher a chance to show that it had all bases covered, and that it understands both the economic realities and creative opportunities of modern franchise management. And it really seems to. Konami! Of all companies!
Thus, a remake of fan-favorite Silent Hill 2 leads the way, which allows Konami to remind fans of, and introduce new players to, the series at its very best, and carries minimal creative risk. But this is paired with Silent Hill f, which looks to take the series into new territory: a different time period (the 1960s), a different culture (Japan), and a less gruesome and psychological, more organic style of horror.
With the movie Return to Silent Hill, Konami demonstrates an understanding that no contemporary entertainment franchise should restrict itself to one medium, as well as a keen understanding of what went right the first time (that is, hiring director Christophe Gans, who made the first, great, Silent Hill film). The same thinking is presumably behind the most dubious announcement of the bunch, interactive drama series Silent Hill: Ascension.
The most fascinating move, though, is Silent Hill: Townfall, a new game made in partnership with boutique “indie” publisher Annapurna Interactive, and developed by No Code (Stories Untold, Observation). Here Konami is acknowledging the huge innovation that smaller, indie developers have brought to the horror space in recent years, as well as a smart willingness to see Silent Hill move across genres and markets, and potentially into experimental forms, within gaming.
No Code’s involvement also points to another surprising and welcome development: a discerning yet bold eye for talent. When news first broke that Bloober Team (Layers of Fear, The Medium) was partnering with Konami and most likely working on Silent Hill, it was easy to fear a return to where the series had left off in 2012 — working with decidedly mid-range, journeyman Western studios like Climax, Vatra, and Double Helix. But it turns out that Bloober are remake custodians working under the watchful eye of original art director Masahiro Ito, while the creative risks in f will be taken by a fascinating coalition of talent: visual novelist Ryukishi07 and artist kera, backed by a relatively untested Taiwanese studio, NeoBards, and experienced producer Motoi Okamoto. Considering that safe, known quantities like Until Dawn developer Supermassive are known to have been involved in the Silent Hill pitch process, it’s great to see Konami take a risk on such creators and pursue an unconventional development set-up to realize their vision.
It is, of course, very early days, and many of these projects may not pan out. But this week saw the re-emergence of Konami as a savvy and creative force in video games. There had been green shoots earlier this year — GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon, a well received update of a vintage Konami game, and the apparent care taken with the forthcoming Suikoden 1 and 2 remasters — but the Silent Hill Transmission all but makes it official: Konami, as an entity that seems to care about making cool video games, is back. It’s even no longer unthinkable that it might find something interesting to do with Metal Gear, post-Kojima. Now that’s a turnaround.