Feature: Legendary Silent Hill composer and sound artist AKIRA YAMAOKA recently finished work on impressive XBLA shooter Sine Mora. We sat down with him to discuss his career, videogame music, and why he finds emotion so exciting.
I have a theory that sound is the most important element of immersive game design. It’s an area we rarely talk about, but it’s everywhere, working carefully to draw you into the worlds that games present.
“I absolutely agree,” nods Akira Yamaoka, the legendary musician and sound designer who, during his lengthy tenure at Konami, scored the Silent Hill series. He’s recently finished work on Sine Mora, an outstanding side-scrolling shooter for XBLA developed in collaboration between Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality.
“Actually,” he continues, “your brain processes information from your ears more quickly than information from your eyes. So sound is really important from that point of view – sounds can move emotions faster than visual effects.”
Yamaoka originally wanted to work as a game designer, but his passion turned to sound and music during art college. He joined Konami in 1993, where he headed up audio duties on several Silent Hill games, as well as their feature film spin-offs.
Two years ago he left Konami to join Suda 51′s eclectic studio Grasshopper Manufacture. Since then he’s worked on Shadows of the Damned and, now, Sine Mora.
It’s a big, bombastic shooter with explosions galore, huge blasts ripping out of the speakers. It also boasts an eclectic, jumpy soundtrack that fits perfectly with the intensity of the on-screen action.
Sounds like a looker
But Sine Mora is a visually fascinating game, too: an unusual cross between chunky steampunk and more traditional science-fiction. The distinctive art style instantly struck a chord with Yamaoka. “It got my motivation high!” he enthuses. “Because it was so visually impressive… it’s not that it made me competitive, but I wanted to make sure the music was as good as the visual effects.”
Where does one even begin designing the sound and composing the music for a videogame? Concept art goes a long way to informing the final look of a title, but audio is something a little more abstract – the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to take top spot in a design document.
“The very first thing we do is have a group discussion,” Yamaoka explains. “We discuss the theme of the game, the storyline etc. And then I decide on the musical approach. I do that on my own, but we start with a group discussion.”
The visuals and music go hand-in-hand, though. “We communicate constantly,” he says. “When [the artists] produce something visually they’ll pass that to me, and I’ll do the same with the music.”
For Yamaoka, successful sound design and music are about an artist’s ability to communicate feeling to the player. “It’s more sort of what the music tries to say, rather than the sound of music itself,” he explains. “So, I mean, the message could be anything – ‘I want this to sound cool‘ – but if you can feel that emotion in the music – if it’s a love song, you feel ‘I love this girl’… if it’s a strong enough message, I feel really touched and moved. So when I can really feel the emotion of the writer, that’s what excites me.”
It’s clear from talking to Yamaoka-san that his work is meticulously crafted and carefully considered. Throughout our interview, he repeatedly pauses, searching for the right words to best convey his thoughts and approaches (and not just because of a language barrier: we’re communicating via a translator). His passion for music and audio is clear, but it’s not a frantic, fanatic enthusiasm. For Yamaoka, it seems, music is as much a science as it is an art.
He finds it frustrating, then, that the games industry doesn’t always share his views. He tells me it’s often difficult for composers to convince developers of the importance of taking great care over sound design, in much the same was as many writers in the industry struggle to make their voices heard.
“[But] on days like today I think I’ve been quite lucky,” he adds, “because I feel interviewers like you guys, people in the media industry, I feel that you care about it. In a way, I think audio creators have to be a bit stronger. If people create good work, strong work, then the industry will care more about them.”
Yamaoka’s CV is enviable – a checklist of some of the most spectacularly scored games that spring to mind. As we part ways, I ask him about his career highlights – the times he’s felt the most proud of what he’s achieved.
He pauses again. “It’s difficult to choose one particular moment. I’ve been involved in music and game-making, and what makes me proud the most is that I’m a Japanese person, living in a Far East country, yet people all over the world are enjoying my work.
“That makes me immensely proud,” he says, calmly. “That is the highlight of my career.”
Sine Mora is out now for Xbox 360 via XBLA.