Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Siren's Call

An American TV crew goes to Japan
Looking for weird stuff
...It doesn't end well for them
When it comes to the Silent Hill series the second entry tends to receive the most praise by critics and fans alike.  For me though the first game was the most enjoyable, and while I had fun playing the sequels they never quite had the same spark as the original.  This could be just another case of franchise fatigue, but I have a feeling it has more to do with the departure of certain key members from Konami after the original PSX release.  What happened to these folks?  They went on to create one of the most esoteric survival horror games ever - Siren.

Right off the bat Siren distinguishes itself in a big way by use of the second person perspective.  Unlike most video games, which limit your line of sight to what the player controlled character's can see, Siren  uses a default over the shoulder third person view that can (and must be) shifted to nearby ally or enemy view points via "Sightjacking."  It's an important gameplay mechanic for figuring out where your foes are, and in some cases, such as when you control a blind character, is essential to navigating the environment.

A total of three games were made.  The first two were both PS2 titles.  In order to get the most out of the hardware of the time the development team made use of facial texture mapping in which a variety of expressions were taken from real actor's faces.  The images were then pasted onto polygonal models creating a uniquely bizarre effect to say the least.  It also gives a subtly disturbing impression that everyone is wearing a mask.

Dr. Miyata has some strong parallels to
Dr. Kaufman from Silent Hill
Environments and locals are reminiscent of modern day rural Japan, except they are foggy, dark and rundown with claustrophobic overgrowth. Pools of mysterious red water can be found everywhere (it even falls from the sky). The player's adversaries are primarily "Shibito," a word created by combining the kanji for "death" and "person." One might be tempted to call them zombies, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Shibito are not dead, nor do they die easily. They do not age and while they can be incapacitated by physical trauma, their wounds will mend in such short order that they essentially unkillable baring complete immolation by fire or some other highly destructive force. How did these being come about? Spoilers ahead...

The story of the second Siren game is a bit of an aside, taking place in an alternate reality in which Showa Era Japan did not end.  For that reason it feels like a separate story meant to promote a movie tie-in.  So for that reason, I'd like to focus on the first and third games which are based more heavily on ancient Japanese folklore.  In Asuka period Japan, the remote mountain village of "Hanuda" is experiencing a terrible famine.  By chance the body of a inanimate alien creature is discovered lying in a patch of barren farmland.  It is brought to the town proper on  a crude wood plank stretcher (an object which later becomes a holy symbol).  Driven recklessly desperate with sever hunger, some of the starving simple minded villagers decide to eat this unknown entity.  Not yet completely dead the alien lets out a final cry as it is being consumed which sounds much like an air raid siren.  From that day forward those who ate the flesh, and any of their future offspring (called "Kajiro"), are cursed - they become Shibito.

Are those wings?  Sensing organs?
Limbs for interacting with 5-D objects?
This might sound like fantasy, but it actually has a bit of a science fiction twist to it. The devoured creature is actually a "Datatsushi," a being reminiscent of a giant crustacean/insect which exists in a higher number of dimensions than humans. By consuming the flesh of this organism part of its tissue's dimensional properties become integrated into the cells of those who ate it.

For all outward intents and purposes Shibito appear to be ordinary people living humble lives atypical for rural Japan.  The cult of "Amana" springs up though for those who carry the curse.  Unsurprisingly, Amana's religious dogma is centered around a self-sacrificing deity called "Kaiko" who will lead its chosen few to paradise.   Holy relics called "Uryen" are actually small objects that were found near the Datatsushi.  I don't want to give away everything, but lets just say things don't stay static forever.  After all death is only permanent so long as time, in relation to space, follows a single continuous path.

It is this break in human perceived reality that makes Siren difficult to comprehend.  Events in the games take place non-linearly over period of three days.  The large cast of characters is difficult to keep track of too due to the jumbled chronology.  Once things really start happening the Shibito also change physically and mentally, taking on traits similar to the Datatsushi.  Their notion of paradise turns out to be a horrifying form of mutation and insanity, at least from an outside perspective.  I guess they are happy after a fashion though.

70 year old Akira Shimura
 is about as tough as they
come in Siren
Finishing any of the Siren games without a detailed guide or FAQ is practically impossible.  Oftentimes locations are visited multiple times but by different characters.  This leads to situations where if certain seemingly irrelevant  but necessary actions are not taken earlier in the game then later progress is unobtainable.  Couple this with the frail, often poorly armed player controlled characters and you have a fairly unapproachable game.  Nothing is more discouraging than trying to escort slow moving dead weight people through an unlit, maze-like countryside guarded by an invincible flying sniper that can pick you off in two shots (and that's only the second mission in the game!).

So, Why would anyone want to play Siren?  Well, the reason I was drawn to the series had to do with the way horror elements are presented.  Much like Resident Evil or Dead Space, body horror and creepy atmosphere play a big part, but what gives Siren a deeper sense of substance is the other ways it gets to you.  Just check out this commercial to get a small taste of what I mean:

The lines between friend and foe are sometimes blurred in other ways too.  A doctor who dissects the Shibito in order to understand their physiology better comes across as both no nonsense hero and ruthlessly pragmatic villain.  Characters are often undone by their own failings as much as any external threat.  More than once I found myself feeling sorry for the Shibito since not all of them are willing participants in the transformation which they undergo.  Players are given control over Shibito as well, allowing a glimpse of what they experience and raising them above the level of mindless monsters.  All this is a far cry from Dead Space 3's cheap jump scares and heavy handed message of "Unitology and Markers bad...m'kay?"  One of my favorite bits from the Resident Evil series comes from the end credits of the fourth mainline installment.  It's incredibly disturbing to see still hand drawn images showing the slow and cruel corruption of a small community of Spaniards by the Las Plagas parasites.  It also did an excellent job of putting into context how these people ended up a bunch of brainwashed militant pagans.

digressions aside, Siren is one of those games that asks a lot of the player, but also rewards effort.  Perhaps if it had been a bit more forgiving, had a stronger central game mechanic, or simply been told through a different form of media the degree of commercial success would have been greater.  Regardless, I have to hand it to the development team.  They made the game they wanted to make.  A rare thing in this day and age where everyone feels the need to adhere to overused formulaic templates copy and pasted from passed hits.  In Europe Siren is called Forbidden Siren.  A apt title considering the direction the development team chose to go in.

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