Konami’s multigame revival of the Silent Hill franchise starts in 2023 with something brand-new: Silent Hill: Ascension, a streaming series that borrows from interactive fiction like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, and community-driven play, à la Twitch Plays Pokémon. The result will be a computer-animated series that plays out over weeks and months, and is molded by player interaction. It will be canonical to the overall Silent Hill fiction, its creators say.
Polygon recently spoke to Jacob Navok, CEO of Genvid Entertainment, the company behind projects like The Walking Dead: Last Mile, a community-driven multiplayer Pac-Man game, and Silent Hill: Ascension, to learn more about the project. You can read an edited version of our conversation below.
Polygon: In appropriate Silent Hill fashion, there’s some mystery around the story and how people interact with it. So would you mind kind of giving me the basics on how this is going to play out for people?
Jacob Navok: Let me start by talking about what it is that we do, because that context is going to explain to you how the product works. We create interactive streaming shows, but they’re not [Black Mirror:] Bandersnatch. You’re not just individually playing it as a live stream — we’re actually using the same back end that Twitch operates on, and it’s streaming live from a game engine [that] is accepting all of the inputs from the audience [all] at the same time. You’re basically doing crowd-control decision making. Now, many of those decisions will be made in advance to the audience so that you don’t need to be there live at that moment. If you’re not available at the time at which the streams are on that day, you’ll be able to participate and make sure that your voice is counted inside of the decisions. But if you are there, you’re going to see the outcomes of the audience decisions in real time, but you’re also going to play. There are sequences that will be streaming live, where the audience is going to see characters in danger and you are going to be able to assist them in real time through the video stream, you will see your input and the rest of the audience’s input, and the characters may not survive some of these sequences.
When we talk about [how] we actually don’t know how the show is going to end, we mean that. We’ve set up multiple main characters who are going to go through this nightmare of Silent Hill: Ascension. And we needed multiple mains because as the audience decides what’s going to happen — you saw some of that in the trailer; you saw redemption, suffering, and damnation — as the audience plays, when that character is going through that hallway, and those arms are grabbing at him, you’re gonna have quicktime event-like buttons that you need to tap. If enough of the audience fails, he will be killed in that sequence, and will wake up with reduced hope. And that’s going to lead him toward a path toward death.
So this series is going to go on for months, we have a massive storyline planned and which characters make it to the end and which characters do not make it to the end, we have no clue yet. Typically, in a Silent Hill game, you’re playing as the protagonist. And basically, you just keep restarting up until you survive, right? That’s how a single-player game works. But in my earliest discussions on Silent Hill: Ascension, I said there’s no reset button. And I meant that. So once that character gets on a path toward destruction, and as their hope is reduced, they’re probably going to be permanently out of the story. And so we need enough characters to see who can actually survive the gauntlet of Ascension, because the audience is actually directing the story.
This is going to play out over months?
Every single day there are new scenes. No day is the same as the previous. Starting week one, we’re taking you into it like a television show. We’re setting up the characters, we’re setting up the locations, you’re going to learn a little bit about them. And then every day, at predetermined times, there are going to be new sequences and new action settings happening. So you’re there on day two, and day three, they are not the same. Day four, they are not the same. The story is unfolding, every single day, differently.
Will people be able to catch up [on the story]? Maybe they’re out on day one, and they want to find out, well, what happened yesterday?
Yes. There are a couple of different ways that we’re going to be handling this. First and foremost, let’s say that you log on day three. The moment that you log on, there’s going to be a catch-up video that’s going to show you think of it like you know the opening of Game of Thrones or Succession — that 15-second here’s what you need to know. We’re going to have these generated daily, and they’re going to contain the output of what the audience has been deciding. We can’t really make them far in advance, because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen. Like, literally the day before, we’re cutting the videos, and then we’re going to put that live. Then every single day, those sequences air, and the decisions that happen in those sequences are going to be put into sections where you can watch the VOD clips. [...] Then every week, we’re compiling all of the main story sequences into an episode, just like a 45-minute episode of television. So by the end of the season, longer than a season of Fortnite, you’re going to have many episodes of television that’s going to result from this and it’s literally a Silent Hill series that’s built by the audience.
How long have you been working on this? And how many people have been putting this all together? Because it sounds like a pretty big undertaking.
It’s huge. We started working with Konami — the earliest discussions — in 2021. And there are a lot of different teams working on it. You know, that Behaviour [Interactive] is on it. And you know, that Bad Robot Games is on it. But we also have a cinematic team working on it called Senscape. They’re an indie horror studio, they’re based in Argentina, they’re wonderful. We’re going to be announcing in a couple of months the audio team behind it — a super famous band that Silent Hill fans are gonna get very excited for. And then we’ve got the writing team, which is being led by a woman named Shannon Ingles — ex-Telltale, was a writer on God of War Ragnarök and Marvel’s Midnight Suns. And there’s a big writing team behind it, because we’re writing hundreds of thousands of words for all of these. And we’ve got a 24/7 mocap studio running. So, several hundred people working on the project, again, for the last two plus years on this.
Where is this going to be streaming?
Think of our company and like an interactive version of Netflix. So you will be able to stream it on Ascension.com. But we’re also going to have apps and console builds; you can basically access it anywhere that Netflix gets access. So wherever you will be watching it on your TV, on your PC, on your phone, it will work there. And it will work at the fidelity of the trailer.
One of the cognitive dissonance issues that we have in the game industry is we expect gameplay to look different than CG-generated trailers. But the product is CG. Right? It’s going to look like the trailer. Because it’s all rendering in the cloud off of really high powered Amazon GPU servers — the GPU servers or equivalents of PlayStation 5, in terms of graphic fidelity. So, it will look that good, whatever you’re streaming it on.
How are you going to make money on this? Is this a subscription? Do you pay for an app? How does that work?
So we’re not answering the specific business model questions yet. But it’s not going to be subscription-based, and it’s not going to be a fixed price. We’ll get into that more a little bit later, but you’re not paying $70, and you’re not paying $9.99 a month. I can very clearly state that.
This is a community-driven group effort to alter and manipulate the story, but you’re obviously putting in a ton of work to have multiple story options. Will there be a way for people to see that at some point, the other outcomes?
Yes. For every 45 minutes of cinematics that we’re producing, 15 minutes are branches that you wouldn’t see. Right now, it looks like there are minimum 36 different potential endings, depending on the states of the characters by the end of it. The initial run of the show is the canonical run. And when we’re done with that, we’re going to rerun it kind of like a new game plus [at] accelerated speed. The canonical decisions will be blocked off and the noncanonical branches will be available for the audience to then try to compete to unlock. Probably not every branch will actually be unlocked in the new game plus/season two. So we may do like an additional director’s cut version of it, but we are creating a ton of content.
You know, a lot of our team are ex-Telltale [...] but we’re going to do something that Telltale never did. We’re going to tell you exactly where those decisions are going to end up for the character. So we’re going to be exposing what we call the “fate rails.” So when you see decisions that are going to lead to faithful outcomes, you are going to know in advance whether that decision is going to lead to redemption, suffering, or damnation. And part of what we’re doing here is we’re actually going to make it difficult for you to want to choose because you may see a story outcome that you’d like more. But if you know it’s going to lead to an ending that you dislike, it creates this kind of mental dissonance, and we want the community to argue, to care, and to be passionate.
If you go back and rewind to our initial teaser announcement of this in October, and you see that Discord-like shot, where they’re talking about Can we save her? What we should do? That’s what we want to create for the audience, the sense of We care about this, we want this to happen. We’re trying to get to that outcome, and can we as a community achieve that or not? Now, part of the reactions that we saw back in October, where people were like Everybody is just going to try to see every character killed because the internet is a bunch of trolls.
I’ve run a number of these projects [and] I was just on a call before this with Sean Kittleson, who is the VP of creative at Skybound and did Walking Dead with me. He said he renewed his faith in humanity because of Walking Dead: Last Mile [because] everybody tried to make every character survive to the end. The audience’s inclination is actually toward saving. One of our advisors is Cindy Holland, she was the VP of content at Netflix, she built Bandersnatch, she built Stranger Things, she told me, “In Bandersnatch, we always saw people try to get the good ending first.” You try to get the best ending most of the time if you’re doing a Life Is Strange series or if you’re doing a Telltale game. So we’re actually expecting the audience to try to save every character and we’re going to be throwing as many hurdles in front of them as possible. We’re going to be changing the difficulty settings in those action sequences. It is [going to be] very, very hard for the audience to get all of the characters to live at the end of it. There is a narrow path, and if the audience pulls it off, it’s going to be like them pulling off the ending of Twitch Plays Pokémon.
But you could also just lean back and watch, you know [if you aren’t] interested in playing. I just want to watch a television series. Cool, you can just watch. [...] But some people are like me, and I’m there for the memes. I’m there for what the community does. I’m super interested in the meta and what people are going to be doing on Reddit and Twitter and ResetEra, what people are talking about in the comments on Polygon, about what’s happening that day. What are they trying to achieve? And what are they trying to accomplish? And are they pulling it off? Again, we are live making the show. So we’re going to be throwing a whole bunch of roadblocks in front of you to see that ending.
Whose idea was this?
The crazy idea is a confluence of several people, but most of it comes from my experience and my team’s experience, having worked on cloud gaming for years. I spent a third of my life in Japan, [where] I ran worldwide business development and strategy for Yoichi Wada at Square Enix. I built their streaming subsidiary, Shinra Technologies.
So my COO, my CCO, our core founding team, Wada-san himself, we’re all here. We started working on cloud gaming in 2000. I was there in the earliest meetings with Google in 2011-12, talking about what eventually became Stadia. We were building content. That’s what Shinra was supposed to be: the next generation of streamed content.
But in 2014, something happened that shocked me, and I called Wada-san over because he needed to see it. And that was Twitch Plays Pokémon. Here was a million people playing the stream together; Pokémon wasn’t installed on their machine, it was a cloud game. But it was a massively played game. You’ve seen Stadia collapse, and you’ve seen Luna and other things struggle, right? Remember, when Stadia came out, they said, We’re gonna go after the next two billion gamers. And then they put their servers in North America and Europe. And they brought console games at 60 bucks a pop? If you think about the rest of the world, they are growing up with phones. That is very different than what we are used to, as you know, people who grew up with PlayStation consoles. [...] But you were seeing this massive audience who can’t afford or are not interested in $600 PlayStations, and for the first time they’re going to get that level of fidelity, operating on devices that can actually render it. TikTok, YouTube, Twitch, [it’s] video consumption. It’s a very interactive video feed that you are literally tapping and interacting with. When we think about the opportunity, those next two billion gamers that Stadia was talking about, those are the people in the rest of the world, but we haven’t had access to before.
The core fan base, of course, we want, we’re going to create a storyline that’s going to excite them that’s going to get them you know, really excited for this rebirth of the Silent Hill franchise. But we’re also opening up an opportunity for high fidelity interactive content and bringing audiences to the Silent Hill franchise that haven’t been able to do it up until now. And we’re very excited for where that goes. So, you know, this is a long-winded answer to your question of where did it come from? It came from all of those years of looking at thinking about what does game streaming mean. And what does it mean to actually create content for audiences around the world and audiences who aren’t necessarily one to have a television in front of them in a very expensive console?
Why Silent Hill?
We were looking at ways in which audiences interact and get immersed and it has affinity toward characters and storylines that they’ll care about. We met with a lot of idea holders. But there are many products which are too kind of action-oriented or skill-based, that aren’t necessarily a good fit for this [format]. In other words, you’re not [playing] Ascension to be the most skilled Ascension player because it’s not a video game. You’re not going to go and speedrun it. What we loved about Silent Hill was that it was about atmosphere, characters, story, and memories that you have the first time you played it, and you got scared [or] you were running away from Pyramid Head. That moment of James looking in the mirror. That was the perfect intellectual property. Here’s an audience that loves to get immersed in detail that will sit there debating what the meaning of the symbol is. There was no better fit in the horror game genre for us than Silent Hill. And we’ve been very, very excited that Konami has been open to doing something as crazy as this. And we’re going to reward those aspects of the fan base, because there is going to be a ton of lore and things to look at and crazy conspiracies that we’re going to be encouraging for people to try to unravel what’s going to happen at the ending.
But we want that same feeling just like when you watch Max running away from Vecna in Stranger Things. But in this case, Vecna’s catching up. And your input can make the difference on whether Max gets captured by Vecna or not. And the same things are gonna happen here.
I’ll end on one kind of final note of what I’m hoping happens here. I love Lord of the Rings. I’m a huge fan. And if you play a Lord of the Rings game, if the developer allows it, you can have Frodo jump whenever you want. Or you can even make Frodo jump into the fires of Mount Doom — he’s really not actually Frodo he’s just you, right? That’s the way that games work. But if you’re watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings in the movie theater, and you tell Frodo “Frodo move left!” He’s not going to listen to you. You know that. I want to create a product where if you shout hard enough, loud enough, if the audience does it together Frodo will listen to you. I want that suspension of disbelief that Frodo is a character and not just a vessel for you. That’s pretty much never been achieved in interactive entertainment before and that’s what we’re trying to get to. It’s different than a traditional video game. But it’s also not the same as a movie because you’re actually crafting it together.
Yes, but you have the challenge and responsibility of making that outcome as interesting when Frodo moves to the left.
100%. And that’s probably the most expensive part of developing this product: the script writing narrative, branching motion capture and cinematic work for things that people may never see. And, they all have to be equally good quality, but we will get there.