Tuesday, 4 October 2016

October Nightmares II #4: Forbidden Siren (2003) - Song to the Siren

The question of what makes a horror game effective is the primary focus of this month-long series. Many would argue grotesque visuals and raucous jump scares are enough. Whilst overwhelming the player with terrifying sights and sounds is the most reliable way to evoke a primal reaction, for a horror game to truly get under the skin it (like Inception's protagonist) needs to go deeper. Condemned, depicted an ordinary city succumbing to intraneous corruption; whereas Call of Cthulhu dealt with the idea of your mum shagging a fish-monster from the deep. Forbidden Siren, meanwhile, explores a nightmarish world in which the Japanese have been possessed by Victorian ghosts. Or maybe the English dub is just really bad.

Forbidden Siren was created off the back of the Silent Hill franchise - developed by several ex-Team Silent members who found themselves at a loose end once the series came to the West. The pedigree behind this PlayStation 2 exclusive survival horror game is certainly evident in the game's strange atmosphere, eerie audio and disturbing visuals. Set in remote Japanese mountain village Hanuda in the days following a mysterious cataclysm, Forbidden Siren follows several survivors on the run after Hanuda's inhabitants are transformed into thralls for an eldritch being. To make matters worse, a thick fog permeates the desolate streets of Hanuda, which are abandoned save for the zombie-like Shibito. Moreover, the supposed mountain village has somehow been placed atop an endless sea of blood - causing the landscape to resemble the artwork of a Slayer album, as well as rendering escape impossible. Forbidden Siren starts off weird and gets increasingly bizarre from there. I don't wish to spoil the ending but picture a Catholic communion where wine and wafer have been replaced by the baby-spider thing from Toy Story.

The way the story is structured doesn’t really work for me. It's told out of sequence and shifts between ten different protagonists. For some reason the Japanese really seem to like this kind of narration, as it’s seen in movies like The Grudge and Shock Labyrinth (oh god, not that again). In practice, it serves to allow the game to set up ludicrous cliff hangers which it doesn’t have to bother resolving until much later. But the way it plays out reminded me of when I was four or five and reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, not realising it wasn’t supposed to be read like a normal book. Despite the varied character pool there’s only really one approach to the game – avoid the Shibito and hastily move to the level exit. Most characters don’t even get a weapon, never mind a gun; so the few times you do get to use a gun come as a welcome relief from the rock-hard stealth. I’m not sure I like having minimal options for defence – considering the game is set in a fucking farming village - but I admire Forbidden Siren’s ability to make you feel powerless even when you do get weapon.

I’ll admit that I’ve never completed Forbidden Siren. Not for the lack of trying, mind; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given up half-way through. Forbidden Siren is the sort of old-school survival horror that’s harder to get into than Cambridge. Nothing handles intuitively in this game. I realise unintuitive gameplay was one of the terms included in the Survival Horror Constitution of 1992, but Forbidden Siren has more menus than an Oriental All-You-Can-Eat restaurant. It’s not enough that you press ‘X’ to get into a car – instead, you have to open the interact menu and select “open car door,” and then repeat this process for each step of getting into the damn car. Furthermore, Forbidden Siren is bloody hard. Parts of Forbidden Siren are almost ‘Nintendo Hard’: requiring the player to juggle multiple tasks and progress entirely through trial and error. That may be fine for a game like Battletoads, but having the player constantly dipping into a FAQ is hardly conducive to maintaining an immersive horror experience.

Still, there’s something about Forbidden Siren which keeps me coming back. As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, the atmosphere is memorably odd. I’d describe the experience as being like the feverish nightmare you might have if you spent all night marathoning Japanese horror movies. Throw in a few poorly dubbed martial arts movies to complete the effect. J-Horror usually deals with rather grisly themes – malice, mental anguish, vengeful dead, and disturbing folklore tales – and Forbidden Siren follows this convention. Helping to maintain this atmosphere is the rather innovative mechanic of ‘Sight-Jacking’. This allows the player to see from the perspective of nearby Shibito; delving deep into psychological territory as you observe these barely sentient creatures carry out disturbing versions of the routines they had when they were human. And there’s few things more terrifying than Sight-Jacking into an enemy only to discover it is moments away from stabbing your character in the head. It’s like accidentally catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror whilst masturbating.

Mother always said it'd make you blind.