Once upon a time, the life of most heroes of survival horror games was pretty cool. Shoot the zombie, shoot the zombie behind him. Take the ammo conveniently forgotten here and there by whoever is able to lose his ammo in such improbable places, find some herbs that make them laugh and some spray to kill cockroaches. Put that stupid chess pawn/animal/tarot card -shaped key in the first lock you find, discover some extremely destructive weapon somewhere, then, somehow, everything explodes at the end, and they can rest with some nice little music that means "it's over, kids!".
Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, things are going to change, thanks to Siren. Don't be fooled by the "Oh no! zombies run after me! I'm so scared" aspect of the game, it's much more than a simple clone of Bio Hazard. Imagine a mixture of Silent Hill, Ico, and Metal Gear Solid, and add to that a complex and solid scenario, a lot of interesting and likable characters, and a real will to create innovative ideas in the narration or in the system itself. Everything directed by Toyama Shūichirō, director of the first Silent Hill. Take some coffee, it'll be a long night.
Such a gem won't be taken that easily. Siren is one of the most arid games I've ever seen. It’s not transparent; nothing is given. You select new game, then you are shown a very short scene of a (very ugly) guy meeting a girl in the woods - she has a dog and seems to be hitting something on the ground. Fade to a few hours later, the same guy at the same place (maybe) witnesses some weird ceremony. Someone sees him, he must flee, with a really weird policeman running after him. There, the Player likely doesn’t realize that he has to play, and gets shot in the back and dies stupidly, a mere 20 seconds into the game.
The rest of the game conforms to that beginning. But in our Player’s defense, I have to say that Siren is a really difficult game anyway, especially when you look at the recent crop of survival horror titles. Also, the difficulty is not progressive but remains constant (the third mission is as hard as the penultimate one). This won't help the beginner, but it definitely helps to lend credibility to the game world.
But the game’s alienation of the casual gamer doesn’t stop there. The extremely particular ambiance of the game and the feeling of reality found in both the characters and the enemy encourages independent immersion in the story. Maybe even too much in fact, as many people sold the game the very day after they bought it. They said they just couldn't play the game, it was too frightening; one fellow in a Japanese bbs was talking about how in the first mission, he hid and stayed still for at least 10 minutes, without moving, without seeing anything, just hearing the noises of the cop around him.
But our Player is more than a casual gamer! Even though he’s already cleared a few missions and met a dozen characters, he still doesn't understand much. But he begins to see what it's all about.
The setting alone is intriguing. A small Japanese village lost in the montains - Hanyūda. One midnight, a siren rings and all the village's water turns red, the surrounding mountains disappear and are replaced by a red ocean, buildings destroyed in a land-slide 27 years earlier reappear, and the villagers begin to "change". About fifteen people have not been too seriously affected, and now, they have to survive. Very few of them will succeed.
The extreme "japaneseness" of the universe of the game will surprise you if you're used to Silent Hill and Racoon City. This is especially true because in Siren, every character is played by an actor, who did the voice acting, the motion capture, and even the model for that character. The resemblance between the actors and their in-game counterparts is uncanny. The creators put a lot of efforts into every detail of the game, to deepen the immersion of the player. For example, they didn't use the word "zombie"; they used a uniquely japanese word - "han-shibito", half-person-cadaver. The game heavily borrows from japanese traditional imaginary. To that end, there are a lot of purely japanese words and very few sino-japanese words in the legends, for example. Discerning people may notice that the game occurs in the year Shōwa 78.
The ambiance is both close to Silent Hill and fundamentally opposite to it. In SH, you have a general scenario, then a lot of weird events without any link to the main story - just for the sake of it, or to make another reference to Jacob's Ladder. In Siren, you'll see a lot of disgusting things, but very, very few totally free events. Even those which appear to be free and meaningless are actually connected to the story (for example, the shibito who appear in two extremely disturbing scenes in the hospital are actually two characters that appeared in the short stories on the official website).
Siren also avoids the bravado-pitfall of most survival horror. The big ugly monster suddenly appears in front of the main character (who is shown terrified, as if this were the only way to frighten the player). Then when the cut scene ends and the fight begins, the (supposedly terrified) character runs everywhere normally, and the big monster appears as what he really is, some videogame boss as frightening as a Rockman character. Siren is completely different. Of the ten playable characters, most of them don't have weapons, and even if a select few of them manage to find some along the way (and they are so desperate that they could use anything, even a stupid umbrella), there won't be a lot of situations where you will be able to run bravely to the nearest shibito with your mighty Hammer in the hand. And even if the fights are not that hard (if you have a good weapon, and if the shibito is alone and doesn’t have any), most of them are useless, because the shibito are truly immortals. When they're down, they quickly shrivel and begin to regenerate. At best, they'll wake up in one or two minutes, some much more quickly. The worst enemy in the game wakes up in 10 seconds, so you'd better run fast (and your characters are not immortals, they get tired if they run without stopping).
There is an easy way to evade all fighting: never get spotted! Easier said then done when you don't have a cardboard box with you. But the characters in Siren have a power which could have made the life of Snake much easier: they can see through other people's eyes. Find a quiet place (you're defenseless when you concentrate), hit L2, then look with L3. You’re then on the "frequency" of the shibito in the immediate vicinity. You will see what they see, so you'll be able to walk discretely behind them when they're looking elsewhere, or walk precisely in the angle the sniper isn’t looking (or to let his back have a friendly talk with Mister Hammer). Then, when you're noticed by a shibito, you'll briefly see what he just saw, so it may help you to understand where he is around you (even though most of the time it's already too late).
Useful, right? Unfortunately, the power in itself is disturbing. As you may have noticed in everyday life, healthy people can’t see through other people's eyes. In other words, each of the characters in the game is slowly beginning to change into a shibito (and there also are some shibito who can look through your eyes to spot you more easily, haha!). The practical side of this is, if you got hit but manage to stay alive, you only have to stay still a few dozen seconds to heal. For the player, it's reassuring - for the character, considering what's happening to his body, it’s quite the opposite. It also has the side-effect that there are no healing items in the game. All the items you will find will be connected to the mission, even the ammo, since, like in real life, you will only find ammo in the places where you should find it (which means nearly nowhere). If you begin with 6 bullets, cherish each of them and think before you shoot.
About the shibito, though them are just hunting people like you for sport, a lot more of them continue to live their lives; mailmen keep going, farmers continue to work in the fields or to "repair" houses, or they can also continue a happy and healthy family life (nearly) as if nothing happened. They keep a lot of their intellect from when they were human. To bother the player, they can still use guns or rifles (when you look through the sniper's eyes, you can see their guns, which look as though they were built more than a century ago). They can also laugh at a stupid program on TV for hours, and, most of all, they can open doors. Don't even think you can run from a horde of angry shibito, open a door and chill out because it's the save point room. There's no such thing as a save point anyway. Since they can open doors, the shibito can also lock them, and you may have to sneak behind a shibito that just entered a room, take the item you need and run quickly for your life.
The shibito also have a much more subtle use: the game is incredibly dark, maybe more than Silent Hill. With your lantern on, you'll see just a few steps before you. With snipers all around the place, you may not even want to turn your light on. But it's not just a cheap trick to cover the clipping or to accommodate a limitation of the console – it becomes an integral part of the game, as the shibito can see much better than you through the night (and the fog, by day). If you can locate a shibito that walks around the place a lot, or is on a high peak and looks down sometimes, you had better take a few minutes to look through his eyes before walking everywhere like a blind man. There is a map, extremely precise, of each place; but unfortunately, like maps in the real world, they don't show your physical location on them. As such, you'll have to use even the tiniest visual indications to see where you are and how you can get where you want to go.
And even when they aren’t doing anything weird, the shibito are…well, weird. They murmur incomprehensible things, suddenly break out laughing or sob without reason. This is extremely stressful when you're crouching just behind them to walk quietly to the other side of the street. When you look through the shibito's eyes, you can hear the sounds they make distinctly. Sometimes they're chanting, or weeping sadly. Actually, the real drama of the game is that the shibito are bored. While the mundane zombie just wants to eat your brain, the shibito wants to have a lot of new friends. If you manage to look through a shibito's eyes when he's running after you (which is NOT a good idea if you want to stay alive), you might hear him laugh in a very innocent way, like if he was thinking "Hey! A new pal to play with!". Well, of course, before you become his pal, he'll stick his huge knife in your back, but it's for your own good.
As an end result, the common shibito has a lot more personality then the average monster you're used to. And when the shibito running after you happens to be a character you just played with half an hour ago, and who was completely healthy then, (especially when you didn’t even see him die), you begin to panic. When the shibito finally knows your character and calls him out by name to come and play with him, then you can begin to scream.
In the average SH or BH, the total number of characters, both good and evil, barely rises above 5. Siren on the other hand, begins with more than 15 characters alive. Even though the number of survivors reduces quickly, the fact that most of the characters don't disappear after their death helps to keep them present in the mind of the player until the end. And anyway, before their death, they'll all have enough time to seduce you, especially since 10 of them are playable. Even a character only playable for 2 hours manages to develop a very special link to the player, the kind of link I personally never had with any character from Bio Hazard for example.
Suda Kyōya, the nice, curious, courageous and stupid hero of the game, comes to the village after having heard some weird rumors about the place. He will quickly meet Kajiro Miyako, a 14 year old blind girl (who is on the cover art of the game) and who, like most of the basic heroines of any game, will begin to hit her brother in law, who came to help her, with a large stick. She then takes Kyōya's hand and runs with him, ordering him to help her and overall being more rude then she would ever be to her dog. Her role and the role of the Kajiro family will slowly be explained through the game, as will the history of Makino Kei, the far too nice priest of the village, who would dream to be as cool and popular as his twin brother, Miyata Shirō, the charismatic doctor who uses his heavenly Hammer of the Justice on everyone who bothers him. And let's not forget the mysterious Yao Hisako, the sister in red that helps you at the beginning of the game.
Around these, there also a bunch of characters who have absolutely no tie with the general story and just got dragged into this mess. Takato Reiko, elementary school teacher, maybe the bravest character of the game, will act like a mother to the young (and despicable) Harumi (10 years old) ; Mihama Naoko is a fallen idol who has to make a stupid report for some crappy cable network - Onda Lisa is a young unemployed nurse, who should have known that when the director of the game made Silent Hill 1, it's not a good idea to be a nurse and to be named Lisa.
This balance between completely innocent characters and characters that are actually involved in the mess helps to strengthen the realism of the game. There even are a few shibito, who basically do nothing more than work in the field all day, but who manage to have a deeper scenario then the common Redfield or the first bereted Valentine. You get to know the shibito as well - Ishida, the dumb cop who obviously has a problem with alcohol, or the director of the elementary school (with his charming smile and his BIZARRE affinity for Harumi) will bump into you every now and then, and each encounter will lead to cheerful exchanges of shots and baseball bat hits on the head.
In addition to the in-game drama, the official Japanese site has 4 stories about characters that don't really appear in the game, but who you may be able to spot (or to see their traces) if you play carefully.
Here lies Siren’s biggest problem – one which will prevent a lot of players from liking it. The game asks you more than just push some buttons. It will require you to think. There is absolutely no long explanation wherein the big bad guy will tell everything about his evil plans, and no stupid and boring introductory scene every time a new character pops in. You want explanations? Look for them! You’ll have to earn each bit of information, nothing is given. Like in every good investigation, the questions you ask are as important as the answers. Why is there a line in the mission menu, inscribed with the year 1976, the year of the land slide? Why, just above, is there a line labeled "year 674" ? Why does one of the stories of the official site talks about Kajiro Miyako, but in 1976, before she was born? There are a lot of archives to find in the game, like in SH or BH, but in Siren, they won't help you to solve any puzzle, but to understand pieces of the scenario. You can finish the game without even looking at a single archive. You just won't understand anything.
An example: Takeuchi Tamon, one of the most popular characters in the game, appears with the unbearable Anno Yoriko and her awful voice. The booklet will tell you their ages (34 and 22), their jobs (he's a folklorist, she's his student), and... that's it. What are they doing here? Why is Tamon one of the only characters with a weapon from the beginning? Did he know what was going to happen? And why is it a police weapon? Why does the name "Takeuchi" appear on so many archives?
This kind of investigation will also help you to understand the characters. Yoriko's class book will help you learn about a particular Japanese legend which may or may not be related to what's happening. You'll understand her feelings for her teacher when you see him drawn in a shojo-manga style. You will read her complain about how she's bored, but you'll also see she's less stupid than she looks, because she writes about extremely precise legends and concepts without seeming much impressed.
Another example: you may notice when looking through the archives coming from the period where Naoko was a popular idol that her birth date changes a lot ("I'm still young! I'll be 20 forever!").
Of course, all of these details are completely useless for the game itself, but they are the kind of details that make the difference between a character you forget as soon as he disappears from the screen and a character you like (or love to hate, which is finally the same thing). Once you have discovered enough about them, you won't be able to help thinking about what they will become, and how they will evolve. Which ones will survive? How? Will they still be humans? Which ones will hang on, which ones will turn crazy? I don't think I've met such "believable" characters in a game for a long time.
As paradoxical as it sounds, this may be one of the biggest problems of the game. The characters are so interesting that they divert the attention of the player from the main scenario of the game. Because the progression of the game is somehow random and stilted, you may have a scene with Kyōya (who will see most of the important events of the game, as the "good dumb generic ugly hero") and pass it quickly because you're dying to learn what happened to Makino or Miyata. Another problem of the game would be the strange ending, which not only leaves a few details totally unexplained, but also manages to introduce an insane (and totally free) plot twist a few hours before the end, without explaining it, and in a such bizarre manner you may not even notice it if you're not looking closely enough. Reading through Toyama's personal site and the latest guide do help to understand some of the questions that the game doesn't answer, and there are only a few empty holes here and there, but I also think that those explanations, as well as the 4 short stories on the official Japanese site, should have been included in the game in one way or another. (The latest guide, Siren Maniacs, will be released by the end of the month and should explain everything clearly. But if every fan of the game waits for that book, the mere fact that it is needed should be considered as a flaw).
Actually, these problems are far from serious and the biggest part of the plot is perfectly intelligible; and most of all, it's incredibly stimulating if you like to think independently about how this or that happened.
If the story and the difficulty seduce you, then the other minor problems (the sniper rifle could have been easier to use, the characters you carry along can sometimes block the passage when you want to retreat, the game could have been nicer, the way you unlock new scenes and scenario is too random) shouldn't bother you. On the contrary, if you don't want to play a difficult game or if you don't want to think on your feet, you won't even notice those problems before throwing the game away.
[Next: The Game!]