Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! In this Friday series, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Holy moly, is it late October already? That means it’s already been Halloween season for nearly two months now! I can’t fully apologize for shirking my nerdly duties here; instead, I’ve been channeling my energy into my incredible (and yes, nerdy) day job of teaching kids about video game design and analysis, and my hope is that one day they’ll make you something truly amazing. But nothing can snap me back into focus like my very favorite time of year, and no season is better for talking about horror games – possibly my favorite genre. AND, anyone who knows me well (or carefully read my Top 10 Horror Games article) knows that there’s only one game that has ever directly given me nightmares. ANNNNNNND, that game is today’s subject. Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this story… The Tale of the Forbidden Siren.
Up until the early 2000s, mainstream horror gaming mostly consisted of Resident Evil titles (they had three PS1 hits under their belt and a few spin-offs already), with the cult success of Silent Hill turning a few heads. But in 2001, Silent Hill 2 came along and revolutionized the genre, proving that it was possible to “shake a player’s heart” with more than just jump scares and action.
A few other companies decided to take a flyer on this more atmospheric and cerebral trend, including SIE Japan Studio, the arm of Sony’s video game division that had already produced the similarly non-traditional (and beloved) Ico. The company put together a team of about fifty people, led by director Keiichiro Toyama (creator of Silent Hill), head writer Naoko Sato, and art director Isao Takahashi, and named them Project Siren after the first game they would develop.
Forbidden Siren was released in late 2003 in Japan, followed by European and U.S. ports in 2004. In the U.S., the title was shortened to simply Siren; it’s not clear why it was changed, but perhaps it was to make the game sound more mysterious to the general public in the hopes of picking up a few extra sales. I scoured the internet, but couldn’t find a definite number on how many copies were sold. Still, the evidence of the series continuing beyond a single title (and enthusiasm from contemporary horror fans) suggests that it had at least middling financial success, even if the reviews were lukewarm. (Seriously, the 72 Metascore is lower than most games of the era, and they’re not entirely unfair – more on that in a minute.)
Siren takes place in the Japanese village of Hanuda, which has been removed from the natural plane by some otherworldly event that’s converted most of its populace to semi-sentient zombies called Shibito – literally “corpse people”, their uncanny movements and macabre appearance make them one of the scariest groups of monsters in all gaming. As in the Persona series, everything in the game is deeply influenced by Japanese culture, which is a bit jarring for the uninitiated but is very welcome once your senses adjust.
Players take the roles of ten different survivors as the game progresses, each with their own strengths and weaknesses – a few can wield firearms, and a few others can do nothing to protect themselves but run and hide. It begins with likely protagonist candidate Kyoya Suda, a high school student who’s checking out the town under cover of night because he’s intrigued by the rumors of Occult happenings. He gets more than he bargained for when he accidentally interrupts a religious ritual and a Shibito cop shoots him, leaving him for dead and throwing us into the deep end of terror (and possibly frustration) right away. This playable opening sequence serves as a precursor for both the good and the bad to come: It’s tense and takes place in a delightfully claustrophobic area, but it’s tricky for the player to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do and they’ll likely die many times before getting it right (and then getting shot anyway as part of the story).
Siren, like Silent Hill 2 before it, is first and foremost about atmosphere and immersion. The locations in Hanuda are reused in different character scenarios with different objectives, so the player has the chance to get to know these beautifully detailed places extremely well by the time they’re done. The team wisely modeled Hanuda after a real-life abandoned village, and the setting contributes in subtle ways to the horror of a twisted version of normal life; in one particularly creepy sequence (the scariest part of the game, I think), we play as a helpless girl hiding in a recently aborted home that’s been inhabited by a family turned Shibito. The tight corners and personal touches in the small house add to the realism and claustrophobia in the scene, and I found myself white-knuckling the controller as I tried to escape the family’s notice.
One of the biggest contributing factors to the terror this game brings is also its most innovative feature: Sightjacking. In this system, the player character is given the ability to psychically reach out and sense the minds of the Shibito, hearing what they hear and seeing what they see – which is sometimes the player themselves, shortly before they meet a grisly end! This staticky interface serves the dual purpose of allowing the player to strategize their way through levels (evading enemies and learning more about the environment), and scaring the bejeezus out of them. The Shibito are as scary as they are because of their uncanny existence, and getting the up close and personal approach through their perception amplifies every creepy laugh and slightly off action, since they retain enough of their minds to unconsciously go through the motions when they aren’t actively chasing the player. For instance, in the above example, the Shibito father sits laughing at a TV showing static, the mother busies herself in the kitchen preparing rotted meat, and the daughter takes over the former child occupant’s bedroom and writes nonsense in her journal – all while laughing, breathing heavily, or jabbering nonsense. Later in the game’s timeline (which takes place in a non-linear fashion over three days), Shibito begin to transform into more animalistic creatures, but they retain enough human features to somehow be even more disturbing.
Thanks to sightjacking, the gameplay is mostly stealth-based, with a few frantic action sequences interspersed depending on the character. Controls are clunky, and players will die repeatedly before making any real progress in most cases. Some of the bad guys wield guns that can kill you in one hit, and you’ll need to be very determined to move past certain parts of the game. Even so, it’s incredibly satisfying when you’re given your own gun to fight back. Siren utilizes an approach I’d call “partial helplessness”, and I think it works better than what most horror games try. I’ve never been attracted to the notion of being completely unarmed against the baddies for an entire game (cf. Haunting Ground, Outlast), but any advantage you gain over the Shibito here is temporary as they’ll keep coming back for more after a set time.
Also supporting the scare factor of the game are the music and sound design. Even watching footage of the game is unnerving thanks to the dark, oppressive score, composed by Hitomi Shimizu (who’d worked on horror films before). The noises made by the Shibito during the sightjacking sequences are straight-up nightmare fuel, and they’re enhanced by the inherently creepy static that shows as you’re mentally searching for them.
The many characters of Siren are varied and well-conceived. Some are visitors to Hanuda, and others are locals. They all have believably different motivations, and the drama that slowly unfolds among various combinations of people is as compelling as it is mysterious. My personal favorite is the story of estranged twin brothers Kei Makino and Shiro Miyata: Kei is a kindhearted (and unwitting) priest of the religion behind the happenings in town, and Shiro is a doctor who seems to care for no one but himself. We first play as Kei, who’s escorting a local girl to find her parents (and yes, she also has a disturbing storyline). A bit later we meet Shiro, who wakes up next to a freshly unearthed grave and travels with Risa, the twin sister of his paramour Mina (who we subsequently encounter as a Shibito and who turns Risa into one using their psychic bond). We eventually discover that Shiro actually murdered Mina (documents indicate it’s because she was pregnant and he didn’t appreciate that) and the grave was hers. In our last mission with Kei, he’s acting a little unlike himself; subtle hints reveal that Shiro has killed him, too, and assumed his identity off-screen. It has all the makings of a soap opera plot, but it’s executed in the best way possible.
The 3-D character models and movements are limited by the PlayStation 2 technology of the time, but the facial animation used a new technique where real images of actors from multiple angles were projected onto the models’ faces, and it really pays off in cutscenes. The English voice cast is… not great, however. The game was dubbed for European audiences – apparently on a fairly low budget – so characters retain their (inexplicable in-universe) British accents. It’s perhaps the only thing that doesn’t seem to fit, design-wise – but the rest of the immersion is strong enough that you stop noticing it eventually.
Siren‘s Big Bad is almost unimportant compared to the situation it has created – the town’s disappearance from reality, the creation of the Shibito, and the waters turning to blood. Indeed, Kyoya is the only one of our PCs who ends up getting to the bottom of what’s going on in Hanuda (in no small part because most of them end up dead). But there is a reason for all this happening, and it’s tied to some interesting and creepy real-world Japanese lore. Hisako Yao, an ageless woman we encounter as friend and foe throughout the game, has performed a religious ritual to re-awaken Datatsushi, the old god responsible for her immortality and for turning the waters red. The titular “siren” is Datatsushi’s call, which compels people to walk into the water and become part of the Shibito hive-mind in order to protect its form and build it a nest. Much of the detail of this story is conveyed through missable documents players can find in the game, so it’s a hard plot to make sense of – but I think this fits well enough, because each character only knows what’s right in front of them, anyway.
All right, so I’ve covered the high points of this game, and I think its spot on my Top Ten Horror Games list is well-earned because of them. But it’s also perfectly clear why this game wasn’t a bigger hit and is divisive among fans of horror games. Even beyond the moment-to-moment frustration that can be found in some unreasonably difficult gameplay, the biggest issue Siren has is that the average player will have no idea what to do for large swaths of it. The story is told in a non-linear fashion via a spreadsheet with no discernible pattern for where (and when) it will continue. The mission objectives are often vague, and worse, if you accidentally complete one you’ve done before (there are two in most scenarios), you’re taken back to an earlier point in the game’s progression without warning and with no easily accessible way to proceed. The creators also didn’t do themselves any favors in the eyes of most players by making the story so opaque (even if I personally love that kind of thing, and perhaps you do too if you’re reading this massive analysis, weirdo). The bottom line is that it’s impossible to fully enjoy this game without a (preferably spoiler-free) walkthrough, and that is a major design failure.
As I’ve said before, Siren remains the only video game to give me nightmares. I stayed up late multiple nights playing it in college, and I’m fairly certain it was that darned sequence of playing as the helpless little girl in the house that did it to me. My girlfriend at the time came into my room after I’d fallen asleep, and I unconsciously sat bolt upright, pointed my finger at her as if it were a gun, and intoned (in a very creepy voice, she assured me), “Kill.”
So, yeah, the game got under my skin. It remains a Halloween favorite, and I highly recommend it to fans of the genre – with a warning about the patience required, of course. While it’s something of a cult classic, it has enough appeal and intrigue that general audiences may still find it worthwhile. You can find a Complete in Box copy of Siren online for around $15, or cheap out on the loose disc for only $8ish – a bargain for horror gamers, to be sure!
Siren was followed in Japan and the PAL regions by a sequel, Forbidden Siren 2, but this title sadly never made it to U.S. shores and I’ve been unable to play it as of this writing – although I have spent many a tense night reading through its plot! A Siren-inspired film was also made in Japan, but by most accounts it was nothing special. The real find for U.S. players is the 2008 PS3 reimagining (read: streamlining and simplification) of the original game, entitled Siren: Blood Curse. This game works in some American characters and adds a few interesting twists, but keeps a lot of the atmosphere and story beats that made Siren what it was, with much improved gameplay and graphics to boot. For those who lack the horror gaming resume to go after the original, it’s a fine option – but I feel like it’d be pretty hard to go back to the PS2 version after playing it first.
I believe that Siren has aged remarkably well, both in concept and execution. There’s been a dearth of games that hit this sweet spot of genuine scares and unfolding mystery, and fans of this title appreciate it that much more as a result. It did a lot of things wrong, but you get past them eventually. The way this game makes you feel fear in your gut – that gnawing at the back of your mind that something isn’t right, that you aren’t safe, and that you just need to get out – that sticks with you for a long time.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!