[This post contains spoilers about one of the best moments in Siren. If you haven’t played it yet, please ask yourself what you are doing with your life.]
There is a moment in Siren in which your character, a young teenager, is trying to reach a church to meet her parents. The landscape is full of crazed shibito, some of whom have begun to grow bug-like appendages and extra sets of eyeballs. It is dark and foggy, and to survive the trek you must sneak past these monsters using the title’s signature “sight-jacking.”
The game has trained you well by this point. Siren is a game in which stealth is paramount; if a shibito even so much as hears you it’s all over. A flash of red and quick cut to the enemy’s perspective signals that you fucked up, you failed to sneak well enough, and now you’re about to get killed. By the time you reach the church stage you are a sneaking pro.
Your high schooler crouches behind some bushes as you wait for the bug-thing roaming around a few feet ahead to establish a pattern. Her name is Tomoko. She’s still wearing her red phys ed jumper, as if the cataclysmic event that turned the residents of this rural Japanese town into monsters happened right in the middle of her gym class.
The moment comes and you go for it, crouch-walking just behind the shibito as it pauses to examine a flyer pasted on an ancient farmhouse wall. As you pass you can hear the mutated ex-farmer crying. But then a flash of red, and for just a moment you see yourself through the eyes of the enemy. You didn’t make it. The shibito has turned and discovered your hiding place. Tomoko has no weapons and no means of defense, and this close there’s no chance of escape. That’s it, you fucked up, game over.
And then, it doesn’t happen. The monster doesn’t attack. It saw you, that much is clear, but it doesn’t move. The creature just sits there, a few feet from your 11th-grader, looking at her. Slowly you inch her away and then break out in a run. The monster continues to sob quietly to itself as it watches you go. After a moment it returns to the flyer.
Something is wrong here. The game has trained you that getting caught equates to a quick and grisly demise. You’ve put hours and hours into this game so far, and never has a monster failed to attack. The rules, somehow, have changed.
As Tomoko stumbles forward other monsters see her. There’s a red flash of recognition, but nothing approaches her. Nothing attacks. You don’t know what’s going on, but this opportunity is too good to pass up. You put the girl into a sprint, her red jumper a blur of color across the monochrome landscape, and cover more ground in the next minute than in the previous ten. Soon the church is in sight.
The end of this level is one of the scariest moments Siren has to offer. Sony used it in a television commercial that the Japanese government banned for being too scary. It’s a moment where the game’s developers knife you in the back and then twist the blade.
The reveal is this: when Tomoko reaches the church, she runs to the windows and bangs on them for help. Her parents, sitting inside, turn at the noise and are horrified. Tomoko’s eyes are bleeding. She’s joined the ranks of the terrible shibito without realizing it.
One of the most powerful things about Siren is that it forces you to play as characters that ultimately do not survive. There is a large cast of playable characters, and in the end most of them don’t make it. By constantly switching from person to person, the game denies you the comfort of knowing that the protagonist can never die. It eschews the trope of the untouchable main character by not having a main character.
Alien does this as well. The passive camera refuses to give the viewer a protagonist, and so he must assume that any character might die at any moment (and, for the most part, they do). Alien sets up Dallas, the strong male lead of the crew, as a potential hero and then promptly kills him. There’s no clear hero until everybody but Ripley is dead.
Siren is exceptional in its capacity to replicate the Alien model. How many games can you name in which the protagonist is not obvious? How many that have no obvious protagonist? How many in which some of the playable characters turn out to be enemies of other playable characters? This just doesn’t happen in video games. Games are usually about someone in particular, and death of that person is just a play failure. Oops, you died, restart.
In Siren, characters die and the game progresses. The effect is subtle at first, as individual levels play out like traditional games. There’s a single protagonist and death is a level-restart failure. But the meta game spans time and characters in a way that I’ve not seen often, and the effect becomes powerful: nobody is safe. A level restart is not enough to revive a character. Most will not make it.
The one other title I’ve played that does this is Eternal Darkness. Though very different from Siren, it uses the same multi-character mechanic to keep you on your toes. Characters die and the game progresses, the roster of playable characters continually expands, and early protagonists become antagonists by the end of the game. Eternal Darkness gets away with a few scenes like Eye Bleeding Tomoko because its fundamental game structure allows for playable characters to be killed off. If you make a bad decision you can’t always just restart and try again.
That’s the meta-mechanic here: making decisions carry weight. In a medium where every failure can be undone, horror games must go out of their way to increase the cost of a mistake. This is how good horror games create tension. Atmosphere and environment might suffice for an hour or two, but eventually a horror game must teach its player that their decisions matter. Resident Evil does this by rationing shells and saves. Silent Hill does this putting save points far apart to increase the time cost incurred by restarts. Amnesia obscures the rules related to failure, forcing you to constantly second-guess yourself.
Siren does all these things: it rations resources, has few checkpoints, employs obscured rules, and on top of that it allows characters to die. It is terrifying.