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Siren: The success of suspense over surprise in horror

9:00 PM on 02.11.2013 // Revuhlooshun

Promoted from our Community Blogs

[For his "Horror Story" Bloggers Wanted response, Dtoid community blogger Revuhlooshun shares his experience with the PS2 classic Siren, and the difference between "surprise" and "suspense" as a means for scares. Want to see your own words appear on the front page? Go write something! --Mr Andy Dixon]

The original Resident Evil f*cked up my childhood. Living out near the woods as a kid, that game was the last thing that I needed to see while growing up. Leaving the house at night became a dreaded affair for years to come. Basements became a place that I no longer ventured into. If the power went out in a room that I was in, I wailed like a bitch. There was even a brief period of time where I lived in an apartment that was right behind a graveyard with the windows facing towards it. "Oh my gawd, if sh*t starts poppin' out the grave, I'ma be the first to go!" I don't know how my parents ever got me to sleep in those days. They must have been crushing Ambien caplets into my desserts before they put me to bed.

It's been a long time since a horror game has spooked me so much; I sort of became desensitized to the genre after playing so many of its games. I still enjoy horror games and play them frequently, but it's from a much different perspective than the one I had during middle school. Now when I play a horror game, it's less about the scares and more about savoring the atmosphere. It's a little saddening to say that, but let's be honest: How can a game scare you after you've seen everything that the genre has to offer? There just comes a time where these games stop scaring a person.

Then I played Siren, and I no longer want to go to Japan. Ever.

Siren is a PS2-era game produced by a lot of former Team Silent members, including the creator of Silent Hill, Keiichiro Toyama. A bunch of cult shit is going down in Bum Fuck, Japan, in an attempt to resurrect some sort of ancient god, and now everyone is turning into zombie-like mutants because of it. You play as multiple characters trying to flee from the area, ping-ponging between their stories to gain new perspectives of the situation as it unravels. What sets this game apart from a lot of mainstream horror titles is that most of these characters are either defenseless or armed with only makeshift weapons (there are a few exceptions to this rule, with one or two characters occasionally wielding firearms with limited ammunition). Given that you're playing as ordinary civilians using shovels for self-defense, the emphasis of the game is placed on stealth: You start at Point A, you sneak to Point B, and you pray to God that you're not spotted in between. You're not playing as a space marine or a STARS member, meaning that engaging with these mutants in hand-to-hand combat is usually a suicidal endeavor. In fact, you're better off just hitting the reset button as opposed to trying to brawl your way through a level.

This game got to me in a way that many haven't, which baffled me for a while. Why can a game like Silent Hill or Amnesia not phase me at all, but Siren can crawl under my skin with little to no effort? It took me a while to distill the answer, but I found part of it in the often-quoted words of Alfred Hitchcock:

There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

An integral mechanic to Siren is "Sightjacking," which allows the player to see through the eyes of the creatures around them (and the reason that they can do this is because all of the characters are slowly devolving into these creatures -- fuck!). This mechanic plays exactly into what Hitchcock was talking about when he spoke of suspense vs. surprise.

The previously mentioned Resident Evil relies a lot on surprise. Be it the dog jumping through the window on the first floor or the zombie hiding in a closet, the scares are brisk affairs that offer sudden jolts of fear which subside as quickly as they arrive. This is a much different approach to horror than Siren's focus on suspense. By allowing you to see into the eyes of your enemies, this creates a natural, perpetual tension that feeds into the game's hunter-vs-hunted dynamic of largely unarmed civilians pitted against a crowd of overpowered superfreaks who kill with impunity. The game's atmosphere and general weirdness help to feed the player a sense of terror and hopelessness, but it is the game's unrelenting thirst for suspense and anxiety that brings about the most dread. There's nothing more terrifying than hiding in a corner where you think that it's safe, only to then see an enemy heading towards you through its own eyes.

There came a point in the game where I had to delve into a tunnel, and I could see that there were at least two-to-three enemies laying in wait for me below. Not only did I know of their existence, but I knew of their general locations and I was equipped with a shotgun loaded with proper greetings. Yet I was terrified to go down there, even while playing as one of the game's few gun-toting leads. What if something goes wrong? What if they don't die right away? This gun only holds two bullets, am I going to have time to reload? What if they gang up on me? What if they're too fast? What if I'm too slow? Can somebody turn on a light in here?! This is way too stressful right now!

I loathed every step I took in this game, which speaks to the suspense that it puts forward. Siren put the screws to me at every chance that it got, causing me to sweat bullets for its entire duration. Every time that I turned this game on, I had to mentally brace myself for the shit that I was about to deal with. "Look man, just take shit real slow. There's no rush. Well, actually, there is, and if you get spotted, then run like a bitch and hope that these dudes will tire out before they can find you. Why am I playing this game?!"

The answer is because the game is awesome, of course. It's been quite a while since a game has riled me up like this. Is every person going to have the same reaction to this game that I did? No. Horror is subjective, and different things scare different people. But at the very least, I think that most people who are into the horror genre can appreciate the game for what it is. I encourage everyone to give this game a spin, if only to take in the story and the wonderful sights of Hanuda village.

Just don't drink the water while you're there.

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