Siren: Tension, Frustration and Visibility

Group project summary, by leader John Churay

Siren is a survival horror/stealth game developed by Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio. The game takes a third-person over the shoulder point of view. Movement in the game uses tank controls, so left and right on the movement stick rotate the character instead of moving them. Unlike more traditional third-person viewpoints, the camera does not move around your avatar. Moving the right stick can change the camera’s orientation, but it is stuck squarely behind your character. The game consists of levels that often revolve around moving from one spot on a map to another. Along the way, you pick up items, defeat enemies known as “Shibito,” and escort AI companions. To pick up items, you must open a menu using triangle and select to pick up that item.

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 11.12.31 PM.png(Image credit: exceeding09 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7zmvKPlC8g)

You use this process to interact with almost all objects in the game, including unlocking doors and entering specific key locations. In the reboot Siren: Blood Curse, this process is streamlined to pressing the X button. However, using the flashlight in the remake requires using a menu, which is not the case in the original. In each level, you can access a map of the area. In the remake only, this is decorated with your position and the locations you need to visit to accomplish tasks. There are multiple characters who you will play as throughout the game; however, there is no choice on who you play in any given level.

The story starts with a young-looking guy named Kyoya Suda. He is in a forest at night, where he encounters a cult performing a ritual. Suddenly, a police officer comes up to Kyoya brandishing a gun at him, and you begin the first level: “Escape from the Police Officer.” As you will come to learn as the game progresses, the cult has transported the nearby town into an alternate dimension of sorts. The ritual turned the people of the village into zombie-like creatures called Shibito. This policeman is one of those transformed people.

This first level offers little-to-no guidance. The player knows they are to escape from the officer, but upon trying to leave, invisible walls block off all exits for the area. Playing around in the space shows no real way to kill the police officer, who often shoots in your direction when nearby. Hiding from him does not eventually make him leave. This process of fleeing, attacking, hiding is somewhat reminiscent of the climactic scene in Friday the 13th Part 2; however, instead of building tension, this creates frustration. The game leaves the player scrounging for what to do, but the threat is predictable in a way that becomes annoying, not quite scary. This frustration is common to the game’s sequel/reboot Siren: Blood Curse. The game has a similar framing device, but I found it difficult to determine where to go to accomplish the goals the game set forth. This first level is the only without a map. The scenery is exceptionally dark, which hinders visibility. For example, the image below shows the area you are supposed to move towards in the sequel. All while right behind you is a cop shooting at you. This terseness of goals and visual comprehension, which exist in both games, heighten initial fear and leave a sense of helplessness. The game leaves the player to flounder in their environments, which makes progress hard-won, and getting to new content nerve-wracking.

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 11.27.55 PM.png(Image Credit: MrGSTAR321 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBRCJULYbTo)

To progress in the first level of Siren, you must enter a shed where you pick up keys to a truck. You then take those keys to the truck outside and then escape. While playing, some of our group members were ambushed by the cop as they were picking up the keys. When you take the keys, the perspective flips. Due to the required menuing to take things, the policeman had time to enter the doorway and begin coming their way. The menuing builds a mounting horror where the player screams internally for the character to take the keys already, and run. But the mechanics force them in place. Because of the difficulty in finding where to go, this situation became far more stressful than it might otherwise have been. Progress in the game is a driving force for the tension.

However, without that clunkiness of control, the situation would not be as suspenseful. As you take the keys to the truck, you must unlock, get into, try to start the car and fail before you can get the truck going and escape. Each step is drawn out as the policeman comes closer to killing you. To quote Kevin Yan’s thoughts, “holy **** just let me get into the truck already I’m about to die.” So, these clunky mechanics make for these moments where your brain can scream at the character “do this” much like in Hitchcock’s story. But they come at the hefty price of frustration when things are unintuitive or aimless.

The main gimmick of the game is the “sightjacking” ability. Sightjacking allows the player to look through the viewpoint of any other character in the level. When activating this ability in Siren, the player must move the right stick so that it points to where the target would be relative to the player. While doing this, your vision is entirely obstructed by static, much like searching for a radio station. When you do land on another character, their eyesight tends to be much better. The darkness does not overtake the screen as much, and you have better visibility into the area. Furthermore, a blue cross hovers over the location where you are on screen, even if objects obscure your avatar. This functions as a way to orient yourself and determine safe spaces.

Even though the majority of the time you use sightjacking to take control of enemies, it never functions the same way as Murray’s killer POV. While in film there is a sense that the killer could be anywhere, in games we get clues as to where the enemy is and can act on that information. This allows us to locate the killer in space, creating a sense of safety. You know when your avatar is in danger because you can check to see if you’ve been noticed. It opens up the visual space of the game, whereas clever camera work in movies allows shots to hide that area. The player also knows they aren’t going to be faked out with these shots. The rules of the game ground the information you receive as accurate. However, the sense of security the system gives can lead to terror if you check back to an enemy and realize you’ve inadvertently moved into their sights. The fear of failing your plan to avoid enemies turns into suspense.

As you play through the game, the camera becomes an annoyance. Your character’s body can hide parts of the environment. Typically, third-person viewpoints give the player a better idea of what is around their avatar. You would be able to see around corners or behind you. However, by fixing the location of the camera relative to the character, Siren denies this convention. Often I would pan the camera, hoping to see behind a corner or check if an enemy were in sight only to realize I would need to move my character into danger to do so. The fact that movement used tank controls only compounded this difficulty. Paranoia builds as you feel like you might be hiding a needed item or an enemy coming around a corner with your avatar. Dark visuals compound this effect. Only the area lit by your flashlight can be seen. As your body hides a lot of that lit area, the game can create a sense of alignment where you don’t have the same information your avatar has.

In Blood Curse, sightjacking works very differently. Instead of having your screen replaced with the other character’s view, you get a split-screen view between your perspective and the target’s. As you stay still, the target’s segment of the screen grows to cover 80% of the screen, whereas while you move your view grows similarly. This dynamic increases the sense of claustrophobia the game already has. You worry you haven’t targeted the correct enemy, because you’ve lost the ability to check around you. It functions differently than totally losing your sight because you are encouraged to keep an enemy’s vision up while you move towards targets. Suddenly, there is a sacrifice of knowing the area around your avatar for some safety. Whenever there are multiple shibito around, this can be a giant liability. Those enemies can become part of the offscreen space in a way they didn’t before. The false sense of security of seeing one enemy’s view can hide dangers from other areas.

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