Originally published April 2015.
Adorably nerdy film director Guillermo del Toro has never been shy about making his long-standing desire to become involved in video games known. That's why Silent Hills seemed so perfect.
The project was set to pair del Toro with game director Hideo Kojima, who in turn has never been shy about his eagerness to be involved with the movie industry — heck, a couple of years ago, I attended the opening ceremony for his studio's Los Angeles headquarters, a setup clearly arranged as a means to put Kojima Productions within striking distance of Hollywood. Silent Hills should have been a perfect team-up, and last year's playable teaser for the project (a microgame called "P.T.," as in, well, "playable teaser") seemed to bode well.
But as it turns out, Silent Hills is not to be. The game's future was cast somewhat into doubt when rumors began to swirl of an acrimonious rift between publisher Konami and its golden child Kojima, reinforced directly by close sources and indirectly by strange (and seemingly passive-aggressive) actions by Konami. Then a few days ago, people began to talk about the fact that P.T. will be delisted from digital platforms on April 29. This snowballed over the weekend into rumors that Silent Hills has been cancelled, which rolled into statements to that effect by del Toro, and ultimately a direct confirmation of that fact by Konami this morning.
Silent Hills is dead, and while Konami has made nebulous promises for the franchise's overall survival into the future, fans of the series understandably see this as the final straw. For that matter, many fans seem ready to write off Konami altogether. Once a vibrant and leading force in both the arcade and console space, the company has almost entirely dropped out of the games industry. It's no secret that these days Konami would rather focus on its casino and fitness clubs ventures over video games; besides the occasional classic reissue that shows up on catalog services like Virtual Console and Sony Entertainment Network, Pro Evolution Soccer and Metal Gear have become the publisher's last significant presences in the game industry. And with Metal Gear producer Kojima reportedly being pressured out of the company, even that mainstay's future is in doubt.
At the moment, of course, all anyone has to go on is hearsay. Definitive statements like this morning's announcement of Silent Hills' termination have been few and far between, and what whispers of infighting and corporate politics have trickled into the public has become the fuel for a raging bonfire of speculation, innuendo, and assumption. Unsurprisingly, much of this has resulted in recriminations directed at Konami. A powerful sense of betrayal defines the attitudes many gamers feel toward the studio; over the past decade, it's slowly abandoned the properties and experiences that engendered such a profound affection toward the Konami name in the first place.
For example: Suikoden fizzled out with a pair of disappointing portable games, the most recent of which never even left Japan. Castlevania was handed to a Western studio that managed to produce a single excellent (if not especially Castlevania-like) title before losing the plot with its sequels. Silent Hill has had ups and downs since being farmed out for external development, and this fresh cancellation would seem to be its funeral. The last release in the Gradius family was a mundane shooter centered around its supposed sex appeal, somehow. And so on.
Disappointing as it's been to watch this bastion of video game excellence and creativity shrivel into a pale reminder of its former glory, though, I'm having trouble getting too worked up... and not just because I've learned to make peace with the passing of my old favorites into obsolescence. Video games are creative works, and their active and interactive nature means they often feel like more than mere products to their fans... but at the end of the day, Konami is a corporation, and corporations exist to make money. They're not in the business of making anyone's lives better, except for executives and shareholders. Even Google, whose early mission statement was a vow to do no evil, has back-peddled from their promise not to make the world worse, because profitability and philanthropy so rarely coexist in peace.
While there are rumors that Konami's cofounder and president, Kagemasa Kozuki, has developed a vindictive hatred for video games and that the company's recent maneuvers amount to some sort of personal vendetta, those claims seem spurious at best. Konami is a publicly traded company, and its executives have to answer to shareholders. If Kozuki were in the process of scuttling the company's bottom line out of rage, he wouldn't be calling the shots for much longer. But he's not; the reality is that Konami has long since ceased to be predominantly a video game company.
Konami's shift toward casinos and fitness and health insurance isn't some newfound revelation but rather the company moving toward long-time ventures that have proven considerably more profitable than video games... and with far less risk. Hideo Kojima does not make cheap games. He wants to hobnob with Hollywood talent like del Toro and Kiefer Sutherland. His last major console Metal Gear title, Metal Gear Solid 4, demanded so many resources that (I've been told by people at the company) the entirety of Konami's video game division ended up dropping their existing projects to help get the game out the door, which is why you see the names of so many people from other Konami franchises like Castlevania in the credit roll. Metal Gear Solid V will undoubtedly make Konami a great deal of money, and no doubt Silent Hill would have, too... but the up-front costs must seem unattractive for a corporation that has seen the comparatively sane risk-reward relationships of industries beyond games.
Creating big video games requires a huge amount of money. And that may be the acceptable cost of doing business for companies whose existences revolve entirely around games, such as Electronic Arts and Activision. But I suspect Konami has tasted the sweet nectar of life in other industries and would prefer to cut loose such a volatile part of its business. According to its official corporate history page, Konami has been in the business of producing casino machines since 1992 and in fitness since buying out People Co. in 2001. This is not a corporation decreeing that its video game fans are unworthy and must suffer; it's a corporation saying, "Video games don't make money for us anymore, and our shareholders would be much happier if we refocused on areas of business that do."
So is the death of Silent Hills Konami's fault? Yes, of course. But it's a reflection of a shift resulting from the general fragility of the current AAA-focused video games industry. This is hardly news; these days, producing a blockbuster video game seems a little bit like throwing yourself on a live grenade and hoping it doesn't detonate. It's probably suicide, but maybe you'll get lucky. That's why so many big game launches, like BioShock Infinite, are followed by massive layoffs or studio closures. That's why so many developers in both Japan and the west are looking to first parties for funding. These days, many companies would rather gamble on mobile games than big retail releases; sure, that market is even more volatile than consoles, but at least the investment is much smaller. The risks smaller.
Accounts from current and former employees that have sprung up across the web in recent weeks paint a picture of Konami as a broken, toxic corporation foundering under the weight of conservatism and a lack of value for creativity. That's as may be, but I can't help but feel that in large part is a reflection of the damaging nature of the modern games industry. Like many former game giants, especially those based in Japan, Konami struggled with the transition to HD consoles. It fell into the trap of trying to remain at the cutting edge it had helped define since the NES era without the internal restructuring to match. Some of the company's peers seem to have bounced back after surviving turbulent years, such as Square Enix, but evidently Konami never found its way back.
Of course, this doesn't have to be the end of all those games we love. As great independent releases have proven time and again, great video games don't only come from $100 million projects; some would say quite the opposite, in fact. And even if the company didn't want to dabble in bush-league development, it could make a mint as a character licensing concern — making no games of its own accord, but watching over a small empire of properties bankrolled by outside studios. There's a market for everything from Rocket Knight to Bomberman, not to mention countless passionate developers who would pour their hearts into working on new projects in the franchises that inspired them to become game creators in the first place. Yet despite this, dozens of classic brands and series will almost certainly languish in the bowels of a disinterested corporation, and that's a tragedy.
Still, like I said, I just can't find it in myself to rage against Konami. I'm not a fan of the direction the company is taking, and it's especially disappointing to see the medium's last remaining creator who's actively involved in a long-running franchise about to be severed from his life's work (even if, as some rumors suggest, Kojima brought it on himself). Abandoning the industry that gave the company its start seems a poor, even faithless business tactic... but, ultimately, it is all business. However much Konami may have dropped the ball here, they're hardly the only publisher to have lost the stomach for the turgid waters of the games industry. There's more broken here than Konami, and until those larger issues are repaired, Konami is hardly the last of the old giants destined to shuffle quietly away from their video game legacy.
Whatever the case, though, I do hope Guillermo del Toro eventually gets to make his video game. The poor guy deserves it.