After creating and directing Silent Hill, one of the most ground-breaking, iconic and disturbing horror titles in gaming history, you would think that the last genre developer Keiichiro Toyama would make his directorial follow-up with would be survival horror. However, though that kind of thinking may be perfectly fine for many other developers, it wasn’t for Toyama. In fact, Toyama followed Silent Hill up with what is arguably not only a better game, but also one that presents a horror location far more sinister and unnerving than the foggy streets of Silent Hill could ever hope to be.
The game was the 2003 Playstation 2 horror masterpiece Siren.
Siren (known as Forbidden Siren in PAL territories) is set in the rural Japanese town of Hanuda, a place that is largely segregated from the rest of the world, thanks to the rabid zealots who reside within its boundaries. After an earthquake devastates the region and replaces the surrounding area with an eerie, endless red sea, villagers consumed by the red sea begin to turn into possessed beings, hellbent on creating a physical form for the reawakening of an ancient god. These possessed individuals are called Shibito, and they roam Hanuda in an almost zombie-like state, moaning, grunting, carrying out meaningless tasks from their former lives and babbling as they seek out any non-Shibito to murder. The player, taking control of 10 survivors over the course of the game, must escape the town before they themselves become mindless Shibito. The story, which plays out episodically, takes twists and turns at various points, and ultimately reveals a conclusion that is both satisfying and shocking. Toyama explains his take on how he unravelled the story in saying, “If you undo the tight and tangled balls of yarn in various places, you will eventually discover that it is all just one taught strand; the moment of catharsis. That was how I explained it to the team when we discussed story development.”
Before Toyama began work on Siren, his departure from Konami wasn’t as smooth as he would have hoped. Speaking about this he says, “Silent Hill set a bold new standard, and I am proud of what we accomplished, but I was under a lot of pressure in my position, and my lack of experience led to a lot of issues as I managed the team. To be frank, I lost confidence in my ability to direct. In order to make a fresh start, I joined SCE (now SIE) to work as an artist in an entirely unrelated genre. It was there that I gained the experience I needed and had the chance to learn how to lead a team naturally. Even as I was working in a different genre, I was stocking up new horror ideas, so when the time came for me to take on the directorship of a title once again, I chose to make a horror title”.
At the heart of Siren is Hanuda, the rural village in which the game takes place. From the rundown wooden buildings across the town that show signs of regular lives that have suddenly been interrupted by some otherworldly calling, the various vehicles and activities that have been creepily abandoned when the villagers became Shibito, to the Silent Hill-like air raid siren that can be heard reverberating across the secluded region, the intense and bleak atmosphere of Hanuda is palpable and unmatched. Whereas Silent Hill is more of a ghost town of sorts, Hanuda is still inhabited, but the people who dwell there now are merely vacant lots for some malevolent almost Lovecraftian force. Though it almost sounds like a cliché you’ve read in almost every video game article since the medium existed, the town of Hanuda in Siren truly is a character unto itself. Toyama, born in the country himself, aimed to recreate the kind of terror “only a child can feel” by placing the player in such a secluded location.
Much like Hanuda, the large cast of Siren also takes center stage. Originally planned to allow the player take control of over 100 different villagers (yes, you read that right), Toyama cut down that number quite significantly in order to tighten up the story he was trying to tell. He explains, “We think 10 was a good balance. This gave the gameplay a lot of variety, including a stage where you play as a little girl who can do nothing but run and hide. We also did some things with our characters impossible in ordinary games – some of them drop out of the story completely, while others come back as villains. I think the narrative impact these moments have is one of our biggest successes”. The characters are for the most part normal people thrown into an unthinkable situation, and Siren does a wonderful job of giving this ensemble cast a heart. Additionally, a piece of their humanity is further achieved by using photographs of actors faces applied directly to their character models, a visual choice that not many games have opted for, particularly before Siren came along. This unusual effect comes across as unsettling at first, but soon it helps pull the player into the experience and, where possible, helps ground an impossible story within the realm of possibility.
Another aspect of Siren that helped it stand out among other titles in the overcrowded genre was the Sight Jack system. Sight Jacking essentially allows the player to switch their POV to that of a nearby Shibuto. This POV is unsteady as it perfectly follows the shaky and tormented movements of a Shibito and this, alongside the sound of their laboured breathing, garbled chatter and shrieking cries, makes for one hell of an unnerving experience. This POV is best used to survey the area for tactical advantage in terms of safely moving forward, as despite Siren offering the player a few different weapons for self-defence, Shibito are best avoided completely when possible. What’s more is that if the player is spotted by a Shibito, it is not uncommon for the screen to suddenly cut to the POV of the Shibito who is now in direct pursuit. These moments make for sudden scares that the likes of Silent Hill and Resident Evil could never even come close to. Toyama touches on the implementation of the Sight Jack system and says, “Among the ideas I had, one was taking pitched submarine battles, reliant on sonar, and replacing the sonar with something visual. It added originality to the gameplay, and it also allowed players to know something terrifying was approaching without letting them see it clearly. We thought that was particularly suited to the horror genre, so we used it in Siren. It became a symbol of the curse shared by the villagers, so it worked well with and added depth to the story”.
However, with the revolutionary system came issues in terms of achieving it. Toyama continues, “We faced a technical issue with the system. To maintain Sight Jack consistency, we had to retain every single Shibito and environmental effect in memory and track their movements, even if they were entirely in the background and unable to be seen. This restriction posed a huge problem for the technology of the time. But I was lucky to have a team of young staff who took a very positive attitude toward trying new things. So we had the benefit of a lot of momentum from considering and then resolving each issue.”
Siren took inspiration from several different sources, from novels such as Battle Royale and the Shinki series, the Manga artistry of Junji Ito, Daijiro Morohoshi and Ryoko Yamagishi to photographs by Paul F. McCarthy directly influencing the design of the Shibuto. However, the main well of inspiration for the project was Insumasu o ouu Kage, a 1992 TV Japanese TV adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth. In terms of real-world inspiration however, Toyama was inspired by the so-called “Hidden Christians” who lived in the Kyushu region of Japan, while he also drew from the Tsuyasma Massacre, a killing spree in 1938 which saw 21-year old Mutsuo mercilessly murder half of his entire village with the aid of an axe, shotgun and katana.
Backing up the chilling setting, disturbing imagery and bleak atmosphere in Siren is a truly incredible soundtrack by Hitomi Shimizu. Keyboardist and composer Shimizu typically focuses on live-action and animation for her work, as well as being part of the musical duo Syzygys, but she has composed on Siren and Siren: Blood Curse, which was the 2008 reimagining of the original Siren game. Her work here is impeccable as her composition becomes something that is more in the “soundscape” territory than typical “soundtrack”. From strange chanting, otherworldly howls, swooping winds, distant noises and the churning of machines to audio that sounds like garbled transmissions from a different reality, Shimizu’s work intrinsically binds itself to the very fabric of Siren itself. Incredible.
As of 2018 Siren is 15 years old. The game spawned a sequel, a remake, a live-action film adaptation, and an upcoming manga series. But despite each new piece of the Siren franchise expanding and building upon the horror of the original, the first game still stands apart from everything else. After Toyama revolutionized the survival horror genre with Silent Hill, he positively perfected it with Siren. Toyama remarks about how Siren is currently being received in saying, “We recently held an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary and I was shocked to see so many new fans, even more than the initial launch. Two aspects of the game, the blurring between reality and fantasy and the timeline being revealed from the beginning, are incredibly well-suited to the culture of Let’s Play videos and Twitter that has emerged in the past 15 years. The title has become a shared experience that is passed onward. This makes me incredibly happy, and I can’t wait to see how the community will grow and change from here.”
Since Siren: Blood Curse, Toyama has moved onto directing the Gravity Rush franchise, but perhaps one day he will return to his survival horror roots. However, who’s to say that when he does instead of merely giving us Siren 3 he decides to hit the restart button entirely. Regardless of what the future holds for the franchise, Siren is a classic that gamers who passed it by upon release should consider giving it a chance now.
Finally, when asked if Toyama would change anything about Siren he simply says, “Maybe an overhaul of the controls, especially the shooting sections… But I actually feel like players nowadays have a fondness for those not-exactly-polished parts of the game. So maybe we shouldn’t change anything at all…”.
Indeed. Nothing at all.