By Rida Zeng
After playing Siren (JAPAN Studio Project Siren, 2003) and its sequel Siren: Blood Curse (JAPAN Studio Project Siren, 2008), nearly everyone in the class reached a unanimous agreement on the tremendous confusion in navigating through the game. The game series’ signature mechanic, sightjacking, which is supposed to enhance the player’s chance of survival by equipping us with the nearby monster’s 1st person POV, with or without split-screen (respectively in Blood Curse and the original version), turns out to be a huge distraction. “The mechanic is not just illegible, it is actively unhelpful at best, and arguably even a hindrance at worst” (according to a much-reckoned discussion post by one of our frustrated classmates). Our second most shared complaint against the game is its multilevel map design and night space, whose complexity, instead of pairing along well with sightjacking’s extra POVs, mostly deepened the navigation confusion. Is navigation confusion a necessary tradeoff for the multilevel spatial experience? Probably not, as Murder House (Puppet Combo, USA, 2020) and countless examples have shown by delivering very successful puzzle-solving experiences without any extra POV incorporations.
Point 1: Siren’s incorporation of sightjacking is nothing incidental
However, though many of us, including Nitsche in this context, do consider sightjacking a “laudable” “interactive feature” that probably didn’t end up contributing anything good, I do think sightjacking makes a core part of the game as a befitting mechanic that pairs well with its story setup, thus essentially contributive to the narrative even outside the combat sessions.
One supportive example of this opinion is how sightjacking, and the intense puzzle-solving/ combat experience that accompanies a result, well complement the game setup as situated in a world with heavily distorted temporal and spatial elements. In Siren: Blood Curse, the surviving crew of outsiders find themselves wandering in the terrifying local architecture that was supposed to have disappeared dozens of years ago. And in both versions of the game, the village’s mountainous location is immediately switched into a helpless island surrounded by red sea. In a world where time and space are severely distorted, sightjacking offers a very intense and difficult combat experience that demands draining calculation. All play stations in the class report difficulty timing escape and memorizing the multi-floor space in order to pass the level (the one wherein a family group of shibitos roams around), which, although initially seems to be only creating hindrance for the gameplay, actually reckons with the distorted world setup in a legitimate way. To escape from a world with more distorted rules surely demands more attention and effort.
Another interesting feature about sightjacking that pairs well with the story setup is the characters’ reactions after being (presumably) “killed” by shibitos. When struck by the monster in Siren, the character doesn’t immediately die but rather holds his/her head in a squat position, as if experiencing an excruciating migraine. This seems to indicate the meta-setting of the world as a mental disarrangement, rather than something that actually takes place in reality: the shibito attack brings down not real health but character sanity and explains why the characters can automatically heal in a short time after taking a heavy blow. The suggestion that the whole perceived world is a psychological influence resonates sightjacking as the character’s special psychic power: the reason that the player-character is capable of entering the heads of shibitos could be that they’re all in the character’s head already.
Point 2: Imagining the adaptation of sightjacking as in a Siren visual novel or VR game & its potential deficiencies
Yet despite my efforts to justify sightjacking as a non-incidental design in Siren, I personally had suffered a ton from the navigation confusion and, finding it too much to bear, am provoked to think about potential adaptations of sightjacking in alternative versions of Siren a visual novel or a VR game and their possible deficiencies.
In the case we try to adapt sightjacking in the case of a Siren visual novel, if the players find it difficult to identify with the monsters despite seeing their 1st person POV, how about considering sightjacking another character in the game? The imminent question that arises is that of player control. As how Nitsche explains that the player’s ability to control is already detrimental with sightjacking in the first place – “Instead of achieving a spatial reinforcement, the comprehension of space is threatened. Neither the hero(es) nor the enemies can be directly controlled in that view [of sightjacking]” – it appears to be an extremely challenging idea to try incorporating real-time combat with both normal play and sightjacking on the same screen. This may be workable in Siren, wherein sightjacking takes up full screen, but how about Siren: Blood Curse which opts to split screen? As we certainly cannot manipulate both characters on screen at the same time, the best effect I imagine would be to align the sightjacked character’s movement with the main player-character, say, to have the main character walk towards a mission object while a villain character on the other side of the screen blows the head off another character whom we tried to protect. Such imagined scenario sounds appealing but risks reducing the game interactivity down to the level of a visual novel, where we gravely suppress the combat elements in the game to raise storytelling. Yet if Siren indeed wants to take down this path and beat other brain-consuming games that weave intricate interpersonal puzzles, do we really have enough thriller plots and character time parallels in this game to back that up? With tons of visual- or text-based games that invent the most unthinkable thriller mysteries out there, Siren would have to take a big leap and innovatively build on sightjacking to create a unique visual novel experience.
If we adapt sightjacking in the case of a Siren VR game, responding to the sole enjoyer of sightjacking/ the game in the class (perhaps the only one aside from Professor Jones), we may be able to bring the immersive, spooky experience onto the next level. Here sightjacking in the monster POVs in the original version of Siren (the full-screen version) seems more plausible since a split screen now creates an overly dazzling spatial split in 3D space, whereas only the immersive haunting experience will be left where the sightjacking POV appears full screen.
What’s discussed above may seem attempt to justify and rescue Siren and its sightjacking mechanic from the ruthless gameplay experience. But when I withdrew myself from the initial frustration with the gameplay, I did find sightjacking to be a very unique and deeply intertwined unit of the game, with its world settings and psychological implications. Reimagining the incorporation of sightjacking in a visual novel or a VR version of the Siren game further unveils the pre-intended balance between sightjacking as a peculiar mechanic, world setup, and agency design in the game. And intentions to tilt the genre of the same story propose new challenges to plot design and negotiation with three-dimensionality.