“The Deathless Labour of Siren’s Survival Horror,” by Astrid B

Siren_20151021172330

Siren is one of the oddest games in the enduringly strange survival horror niche. Despite the creative pedigree of designers Project Siren, which includes several returning Silent Hill (1999) figures like director Keiichiro Toyama, writer Naoko Sato, and art director Isao Takahashi, it feels nothing like Silent Hill.

Siren is a stealth game, with rudimentary—and I mean rudimentary—combat as a last resort. The player switches between ten separate characters during three days the group spends trapped in Hanuda, a mountain-flanked village under a hellish curse and full of stumbling, single-minded shibito (lit. “dead person”).

Even though the combat in the early Resident Evil and Silent Hill games is rough and clumsy, the player is generally making the decision to engage a monster based on her current amount of supplies versus the potential ease of just running past the thing. In Siren, fighting the shibito is a choice based on the proximity of other known enemies and the potential of unknown enemies nearby. The game’s “sightjack” system lets the player telekinetically pinpoint and hijack nearby shibito’s perspectives and assess their routes, most of which are fairly predictable. Sightjacking also reveals that certain shibito are not prowling gun-in-hand around the midnight-black, fog-shrouded rural streets but dutifully hammering at boards or scything crops, enacting empty rituals of productivity on and on into a senseless undeath.

The extensive Siren backstory and chronologically jumbled plot are wildly ambitious: each level is a short snippet of time, displayed on a grid of all ten playable characters and times of day that looks like nothing so much as a TV guide screen. Perversely, the brevity of each “mission” only compounds the tension, creating hyperspecific gauntlets of obstacles and conditions to navigate. The player revisits each area of Hanuda multiple times, but each mission drops her in a different spot, making her piece together the locations of items, enemies, and points of interest from memory.

The game’s style is equally disorienting, building on Silent Hill’s use of fog to obscure environments and cutting it with a distinctly Fatal Frame-esque focus on simulated camera distortion and constant, heavy darkness. Sightjacking involves combing through roaring television static to “tune in” to a clear perspective; using the first-person zoom function gives the player a wildly erratic and unsteady way to peer through the roiling, ever-present clouds of fog.

All this makes Siren brutally frustrating. The “Game Flow” mechanical section in the manual has to be a dark joke given the game’s unsparing trial-and-error nature. But playing it, I’m reminded how soft, how accommodating, horror games have become, even at their best—nearly everything today is a child of Amnesia, which gutted the fiddly systems at the heart of survival horror. The sheer mechanical density and mental demand Siren puts on the player are frankly exhausting, and the game knows it. The loose televisual aesthetic, with each level introduced with a title card, clear-cut objective, and timestamp, gives it shape and keeps it from becoming oppressive.

Thanks to Cuphead, videogame critics have been chewing over the idea of “difficulty” lately, treating it as some kind of immutable quality we can discuss in general terms. It is not, and games like Siren are why: its systemic complexity is inextricable from the rest of the game. Like the shibito, the Siren player toils at simple tasks; retracing the same path after death, marking nearby enemy locations, hoisting their companion over ledges. She has to toil, just to survive.
This is the crux of classic survival horror, this endless mundane maneuvering and inventorying and accounts-taking. Survival horror turns its players into risk assessors, pragmatic pencil-pushers forging into an unhinged surreal otherworld with systems and logic on their side. As long as the player keeps her eye on this meter and that number she will prevail, like cool-headed ghost hunter Juliette Waters in the Sylvio games (which Reid wrote about). The player is ultimately smarter than the shibito, or at least more goal-oriented. They are stuck Romero-style on the rails of their former life; they represent the capitalist directive to always produce hacked down to its barest essence, stripped of any pretense to meaningful output. Only the ceaseless drive to work remains; for what, for whom, no longer matters.

***

Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.