Live and Let Die

[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.Tomoko_Maeda

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.

17 thoughts on “Live and Let Die

  1. Hi Chris,

    I am a long time reader and a big fan of Siren too. I’ve wondered before and now seems as good a time to ask as ever, did you ever get around to playing Forbidden Siren 2? It may not be quite up there with the first game, but I think it has some very interesting ideas. It uses a lot more surrealism in its monster design. I’d love to read an article about that if you ever get around to it.

    Also, I just started playing the new Project Zero game on the Wii U. I’m enjoying it so far, the environments are fantastic. But what is bothering me about it is the hand holding. For example, early on in the game I am asked to look in a character’s room for clues. I know the room is upstairs, but the game feels the need to show me a map and a “you are here” display, and the room in question is highlighted. That kind of thing really takes me out of the experience, and it’s even worse when it is used in the thick of the action in haunted woods. Another annoying thing is at the very start of the game I am given about ten of each different health item, and one of the items that prevents you from dying. That’s an extreme example of hand holding, but it’s something I’ve noticed more and more in post PS2 horror games. Highlighting collectibles with on screen button prompts being the most common example I can think of. It makes me wonder if some of the design decisions of the classic horror titles like Siren and Silent Hill were more to do with technical limitations, and that makes me very sad.

    Finally, I’m looking forward to playing Dead Secret when it comes out on PS4!

  2. I’m surprised how few survival horror games use a timer as a player mechanic restriction, and one that is either speeded up or slowed down depending on what actions the player takes to some bad end or a checkpoint where they can increase the time they have on the clock. It’s something I’ve been considering for the game that I’m developing.

    One advantage having a clock is that saving the game doesn’t help their situation much. If they’ve wasted too much time, then no matter how many times they reload..they’re stuck with the time lost in the actions they’ve carried out. I remember in the original System Shock that you had a 6 hour timer to complete the game and with all the possible diversions, that time could become very tight.

    It also gives interesting possibilities is that it can force you to take actions you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have a time limit. If taking a cautious route takes five minutes and a mad dash through danger is a single minute. And you could have a power or device that removes time from your timer, but can assist you in the game. So you have to balance aid versus not having enough time to complete the game.

    And for ultimate hardcore approach, don’t give the player a clock in the UI so they have to find fixed clocks in the level to show their current time.

    And are those clocks accurate? How would the player feel if the clocks were smashed or the display was corrupted? Or revisit parts of the level to check their current time and find the clock that was once there is now missing because something else has moved it.

    I think that finding something that the player was forced to rely on suddenly changes so they don’t know (for a short time) how much time they have left would make the player even more concious of doing things that waste time. Inducing fear through increasing the level of uncertainty within the environment.

    • It’s all inside the blog now. Scroll to the bottom and select tags to find things. I need a better way to surface games as a list independently from blog posts about those games, but it’s all there.

  3. This also happens with another character in Siren: Blood Curse. Also I too recommend Siren 2 – IMO it’s much better than 1.

  4. Well, Heavy Rain also does this, but much more clumsily than Siren. You have multiple playable characters, one of which turns out to be the villain, and if a character dies, the game continues without them.

  5. Long time reader, first time poster. I am SO glad you have brought up this point. This moment was hands down one of my favorite horror game moments. Even the environment outside of the church has a more surreal feel versus some of the other environments of the game.

    I also think that the tell tale games walking dead series does a fairly good job of giving the player the impression of weighty decisions. On first play, there is so much impact when you think that your decision lead to the death of a character, even if that character was going to meet their fate regardless.

  6. Hi Chris,

    I confess i haven’t read the article but i have been wanting to play Siren for the longest time but i’m completely lost on which one to play and don’t have the time nowadays to go through all of them. From what i understand there are several versions of the Siren game:

    Siren (Japanese version) – the original PS2 version
    Siren (USA version) the PS2 version that apparently has atrocious voice acting
    Siren: Blood Curse. The Americanised remake.

    And possibly more…

    Which would you recommend for the best experience?


    • I played the USA version. The voice acting is weird because it’s Japanese people with English accents, but in the world of horror games it’s nowhere near as bad as many other games. I would play this game in English if I were you, unless your Japanese is very good, as the UI is complicated. Blood Curse is a good horror game but they changed a lot of the stuff I really liked about the original Siren, most specifically the sight-jack mode. It’s my least favorite of the three, though it’s still quite scary.

  7. I’ve played Siren, and I was not a fan. It has a great story, and I really wanted to get further into it.

    Unfortunately, the hide or die mechanic is what kills it. You can’t play a game if you get frustrated from being killed for the fifteenth time because someone on the other side of the map saw you and alerted everyone else.

  8. For someone who’d like to avoid frustration, the “blood curse” isn’t feel a better choice over the original?

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