Ahead of the premiere (release? launch?) of the experimental Silent Hill Ascension tonight, we had a chance to talk with developer Jenvid about the game (TV show? crowd-directed narrative?), what it means for the Silent Hill universe, and how much work goes into animating versions of the narrative that will never be seen. going on
Calling Ascension a video game is almost a misnomer. There’s an interactive element, but you’re not holding a controller in your hand pushing characters to make decisions in the traditional sense. Instead, viewers download the Silent Hill Ascension app on mobile devices or PCs (there’s a Playstation option, but only to watch episodes, not participate) and watch a short sequence featuring options. Participants then vote on the results, and those decisions dictate what happens in the full, roughly 45-minute episode that premieres later. We see a short introductory sequence where two women try to perform an oath ceremony that awakens a monster. Characters can die and potentially change, or something like losing a limb can happen that affects them for the rest of the show based on viewer interaction.
In the app, players will also be able to solve Silent Hill-inspired puzzles to earn influence points (IP) that apply to the decisions they’re most interested in. You cannot buy IP. Instead, the game will be monetized with chat options that can be used during live-stream episodes, as well as avatar customization options and the chance for your avatar to appear as a side character in the show. This seems like a more public Telltale approach to story-driven games, which makes sense since most of the development team is ex-Telltale.
I think for Silent Hill fans, however, the big question is where Ascension sits in the larger canon. “We’ve been ahead of a lot of events that happen intentionally,” Ganvid CEO Jacob Navok tells me. “At the beginning of Ascension, the Foundation Cult is very active in Pennsylvania. Typically, in a Silent Hill game, you’re there after the cult has already gone to s***. You go into those rooms and there’s blood on the walls and notes and you’re imagining what’s going to happen. But the cult is very active. You see, that room was clean… until the monster came.”
The real-world timeline of the Silent Hill games has always been vague with suspicions that the first two games will take place in the 70s and 80s, and Navok is vague about Ascension, saying, “We’re not specifying. We’re keeping it a mystery. But the story of Ascension takes place over several months and it’s not a lie to call it a subtle prequel.” This is an origin story in the Silent Hill universe that doesn’t necessarily relate to what happens next, especially as viewers decide the next progression of the narrative.
The game has thousands of possible endings, and most of its introductory story moments are already pre-constructed, with the team not creating every possible scenario. “We’re running about four weeks ahead, which means we’ve got week four right now,” Navok says. “And then, because we don’t have to animate certain things, we don’t do them. So, it’s being built as the series goes on to intentionally reduce that burden.
I was impressed by the unique presentation of Silent Hill Ascension, but I admit to worrying about the content. Silent Hill, while it works and engages, is a very personal story about characters existing within a hell of their own design. The series often involves people grappling with their inner demons that take physical form and are difficult to identify. They’re surprisingly quiet games, and I don’t know watching characters as chat scroll through purchased emojis by avid viewers rooting for their favorite characters to live or die with Silent Hill’s ideology. Silent Hill is not a slasher flick at midnight screenings. It’s James Sunderland who contemplates stepping into the grave that bears his name as he watches to continue following the breadcrumbs left behind by his dead wife, who he may or may not have killed.
But with all that said, I’m very curious to see if the game finds its audience. If successful, it could be the template for an entirely new kind of massively participatory narrative video game experience.
“What’s important to me is that the audience is going to create the canon,” Navok says. “In a Telltale game, every ending is equally valid because you’re the player. Not so here. We’re making a television series. This thing is locked when it’s chosen.
Silent Hill: The Ascentsion is available today and premieres promptly at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT.