Words: Zero series director Makoto Shibata
There is actually another horror game besides the Siren series that portrays the "indigenous horror" at the root of Japan's unique landscape. This is the Zero series, which has so far released three games. What does the creator of Zero, a game that freezes the hearts of its players with Japanese houses and ghosts, have to say about Siren?
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※1 - The sounds that ghosts in Zero make are based on special sounds that I, the creator, heard for myself during spiritual experiences. This is a digression, but we work hard to carefully reproduce the effects of the in-game ghosts and make them as close to the ones I saw myself as possible.
A unique game creator who has been able to see all kinds of things since he was a child. He also has a widely varying range of nightmares each night, saying that those experiences are used in creating the Zero series.
I don't think the "horror game" genre exists. Most horror games are little more than adventure or action games with a sprinkle of horror added in.
When I try to write about what it's like to play a horror game, I'm first drawn towards their syntax and amusement as a game, as well as the physical sensation of fear. However terrifying the monster, in a game they are an enemy you are expected to defeat, and the moment they become used as an "obstacle" to proceeding across the map, they begin to encode themselves within the player. The fear that this kind of game specifies gets more and more distant.
Perhaps you can't pin down horror into a game completely, but I believe that it is possible to create a horror game that is close to complete. There is a kind of fear that is only possible to achieve using the interactive medium of games. I also think that, if you attempt to make the scariest horror, you will eventually arrive at the kind that plays on your imagination - the kind of horror that, instead of showing you terrible monsters or grotesque scenes to shock you, does not show you the object of fear directly but rather causes the player to imagine it. However much CG evolves, it won't match up to the human power of imagination. The scariest thing is the one you create in your head. And probably in the dreams you have at night, too...
I think that both the Zero and Siren series are the kind of horror that always aim to show something to the player that makes them imagine something they can't see. As someone who has also made a mental horror game, I'd like us to think about the approaches that both series use.
The Zero series is made of games that try to conform to the action-adventure style of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, while still creating a kind of fear that appeals to the imagination.
The map reproduces the darkness that dwells in uniquely-constructed Japanese houses, behind paper screens, under decking and on top of beams. Sounds※1 play during the time between cutscenes that evoke the player's imagination, allowing them to experience ghostly phenomena. The background is created to make a multilayered image, and a scenario is created that abides by the rules of the nightmare...※2 Zero was created focusing on making the player steadily progress along the linear story, imagining what will come from atop the line, or what is either side of it.
Siren, however, is not on a line but rather specific points, using the approach of making you imagine how they are tied together along the line. I will explain this point using sightjacking, the link navigator and archives.
※2 - In my dreams, things happen when I think that I don't want them to happen, and despite me being the protagonist I do things I don't intend to do, repeating similar things from the past, unfolding based on unique rules. I call these "nightmare rules". When I discussed them with Toyama, he said to me, "I should try to have nightmares while I'm awake," to which he replied, "I know, but it seems kind of hard," and laughed. Even though he's the one who made Silent Hill.
※3 - Siren has sightjacking, and Zero has Camera Obscura mode. They have their differences, but Toyama and I agree upon using first-person view to expand the fear, which I found unexpectedly exciting. When I heard that sightjacking is based on modern art that exchanges sight and sound, I was surprised by Toyama's attention to art. This is a meeting between horror and modern art on a game console.
※4 - At first, I was hesitant about being so explicit. I wanted as few clarifications as possible, and to increase the imagined fear. When we discussed this, I asked Toyama of Siren's explicit system and stance of showing even the final enemy clearly, "Don't you want to have invisible things?" and he told me, "What you can't see is on the other side of the final boss." I didn't know his true meaning at that point, though...
※5 - Notice how not all of the levels in Siren are consecutive. In a normal game, the map is made to be as consecutive as possible in order to make the player feel as though they are actually in the fictional universe. Siren fragments that part as well, but also joins the pieces together.
Sightjacking※3 is a system that lets you know of your foe's location and presence, something that is surprisingly practical and systematic. Because of this, you will not be surprised by unexpected attacks or events.※4 However, another characteristic of sightjacking is that, while you can use anyone's view, you can only see one view at once, so that at the same time as you sense "someone" moving around elsewhere, it also succeeds at making the area itself in which you are encompassed seeming wider. Since you can use anyone's eyes, you can also envision the places you can't see. Siren is in its own unique space, where time has stopped and yet seems to constantly be writhing... I felt not only from the levels of the game I was playing, but from the very world itself (even the other world on the other side of the red sea) that it was all alive, and was always connected. No other horror game could express this sensation.
The way the levels are told using the link navigator is another way of showing time using "points". The levels are told from the viewpoints of several characters, though this does not mean that all of each character's actions are performed during the game※5; nor do you play the stages in chronological order. Even the occasional custscenes are fragmented. This method, seeming to reject the method of dramas that involve the player's emotions, is not uncommon in novels, but could be said to be extremely rare as a way of furthering the story in a game.
※6 - Right after the start of planning, Toyama explained to the people around him about the game's image that they should compare it to freeing a clump of hair, or a mechanical box. He says he got this idea from Steven King's modern novel "Carrie". By gathering together fragmented information, you finally begin to see the truth, a part of which is also used in the latter stages of Silent Hill, and "worked quite well", says Toyama, which appears to have led to it becoming the method of progression in Siren.
※7 - Naoko Sato expresses this as "gathering together parts of things that at first glance appear meaningless, putting them together based on some intent and then arriving at an unforeseen conclusion, and the shock and joy of the experience". You could say that Siren really begins once everything starts becoming clear.
※8 - Call me next time you want to put in ghosts, Toyama. I'll help you plan something that looks and sounds close to the real thing...
Here, I want to touch upon the way Siren's story is told. I think the game qualifies as an action-adventure game, but it has some definite differences from other games.
In standard adventure games, you continue through the story, discovering a reason behind your actions as you play. In this format, the player is the game's protagonist. However, Siren daringly cuts this out. Your objective is clear from the start, the player fulfulling it in a mission format. There is a story from the start, and perhaps it is easiest understood to say that the actions performed by the characters in the story are guided by the player's actions. To me, someone who thought that adventure games control the feelings of the player, this was quite a shock.
And then there's the archive. Hidden in these passages and pictures, unnecessary to complete the game, are hidden intricate details about the background of the world. This is like a fusion of the "points". These "points" are loosely connected, and require quite a lot of imagination in order to decipher the world. They also have interesting ties to history, myths and a variety of legends, full of pedantic enjoyment. This part, in a way like a sort of romantic novel, requires quite a firm background when it's created, so it takes a huge amount of time to actually make, and has so far generally been ignored in the making of games.
This is how space, time and background are three layers of "points" that are loosely connected, creating Siren like a building. This construction latches onto the "unseen things" mentioned at the start, enfolding you... I believe that is the new horror game format of Siren.※6 What the game tries to create is a unique system that scares you by expanding your imagination.
Siren isn't the kind of game that is resolved once you see the ending. Many of its points are mutually connected, spreading out ominously. Finishing the game allows you to experience the fun of suddenly realising the unforeseen connections between these points.※7 The protagonist in Siren is the world of Siren itself.
I think that the Siren series has succeeded at producing a world blessed with fear and rich hints. In 2, there are parallel worlds, past sight and new elements that add to the depth of the construction. In the end, then, with what kind of approach will the next Siren game challenge the unseen...? As a lover of horror games, I have great expectations.※8
Finally, I'd like to mention the artistic things. That means the ruins.
I like abandoned buildings too, and I collect photos of them, but I believe that there are two kinds of ruin. The first is the kind that seems as though someone has been there. They bear all kinds of traces, like those of life and thoughts. When you go into abandoned houses like that, it feels uncomfortable, like you're sneaking into someone's home while they're out, and there is a fear in imagining why everyone is gone. Houses are divided by inside and outside, and inside they have topos (a place's force). Places with that remaining are my favourites - in other words, the kind of house from Zero.
The other kind of abandoned building is a ruin that has lost its topos. Though you are inside the building, the air feels like that of the outside. You could also call these the corpses of buildings. There, things that once had meaning to people return to being objects. This is what Siren's ruins are completely. I think the reason they feel this way has a good deal to do with the game's camera system.
Zero is played from a third-person perspective where the character moves in accordance with fixed camera angles across a room, which I think lets you express the distortion of a location. You can show how the darkness or shadows in a corner of a room, or an altar is important, and by composing it to look as though someone besides your character might be there you can also make people feel the gaze of an unseen person.
However, Siren normally uses a camera that follows the character around from behind and is quite close to first person, showing all areas evenly, shattering topos. I think this is a way of completely expressing the corpses of buildings, though. Along with faithfully reproducing actual ruins, Siren's old buildings do a good job of showing dead buildings with their insides and outsides connected (this is the same charm as most books about ruins have).
This point is another reason why I am fascinated with Siren.
■ Horror adventure ■ 13/12/2001 release ■ PS2 ■ 6800 yen
A Japanese-style horror game in which Miku Hinasaki, a girl with a sixth sense, takes the Camera Obscura - a camera that can photograph "impossible things" - and investigates an abandoned Japanese house in search of her missing brother. She can use the camera to seal away spirits, solving mysteries using things that appear in photos and pursuing the root of the curse. As I wrote in the main text, the approach we used was based on my nightmare rules and the distortions of a Japanese house, a game in which I searched for how far I could take things and make people sense "unseen things" through a game.
We packed the game full of Japanese horror-style things such as an indigenous worldview, unbroken customs and rituals, the chains of the curse and sensing invisible things, giving it an atmosphere overflowing with unease.
Sato played it as reference for Siren, on which work had already begun, and says that at the time she thought, "Ahh, they're everywhere!" (Shibata)
Zero ~Akai Chou~
■ Horror adventure ■ 27/11/2003 release ■ PS2 ■ 6800 yen
Twin sisters Mio and Mayu become trapped in the Lost Village, where crimson butterflies flutter, becoming caught up in an ancient ritual in which twins are sacrificed in the second installment.
Strangely, the release date was close to that of Siren, and they are both set in vanished villages featuring twins, sharing several similarities since they both draw inspiration from Daijiro Morohoshi's Yokai Hunter, but it's a complete coincidence. When you take a closer look, Siren's bird's eye approach and Zero's weaving of personal emotions are totally different... You could also say that there is a contrast between Zero, which is enjoyed as an interactive movie where you experience the story, and Siren, which is a pure blend of game and novel methods.
Close to the release date I was talking to Toyama, who said, "Siren is the Gran Turismo of the horror world," and I still remember how shocked I was. (Shibata)
Zero ~Shisei no Koe~
■ Horror adventure ■ 28/7/2005 release ■ PS2 ■ 6800 yen
"I survived..." Rei Kurosawa, a photographer who loses her boyfriend due to her own error, begins to be beckoned to a manor in her nightmares from the day she sees his shadow. Each time she awakens, a tattoo spreads across her body. The mystery of the "House of Sleep" is unravelled from three viewpoints: Rei Kurosawa, Kei Amakura, and Miku Hinasaki. This is the third entry in the series, portraying fear that eats into everyday life.
This is an embodiment of my nightmares and the ghostly phenomena I experience in my everyday (?) life turned into a game. I put a lot of effort into the documents, placed so as to mislead you, and getting out a feeling of lack of clarity through the multiple viewpoints. You can see these multiple viewpoints in Siren's method, too, but here the characters share the single experience of seeing another person's dreams, not changing Zero's method of controlling emotions. Toyama said in a magazine that he'd like to do a collaboration with Zero, but Zero was released more than six months earlier, so it was impossible. Perhaps the Yamirei are the remnants of this...? (Shibata)