Siren Maniacs - Keiichiro Toyama interview
The fear of the space that connects the other world to this world
The director of Siren. After gaining experience at Konami, he joined Sony Computer Entertainment in 1999. After Silent Hill, this is his second directorial work.
--First of all, please tell us what led you to start planning Siren.
Toyama: The previous game I'd been working on as design leader, Yoake no Mariko, was on hiatus, so I proposed Siren, which I had been planning myself, to the producer, Fujisawa. With Mariko, the director in charge, Shirasu, was very particular about colour, so I thought, "This time I want to try planning out something in my own style"... I transferred to SCEJ and thought, "It's about time I started aiming for something." In a sense, I think I went to the right place (laughs).
--Before transferring to SCEJ in '99, you were involved with the horror game Silent Hill while employed by Konami. Have you always been so fixated on horror themes?
Toyama: Actually, I wasn't thinking all that hard about horror when I was working on Silent Hill. Honestly, it's more like I was given a horror theme in my job as a creator employed by the company (laughs). But maybe making Silent Hill opened my eyes to the horror genre... It definitely made me realise that horror games are really interesting.
--What kinds of things do you think make horror games uniquely interesting?
Toyama: It's based in things like experiencing fear from memories of things that really shook you up, even out of all of your experiences. This is something that would probably often sound weird if it were used in action or fantasy. I think it's the kind of theme that has a big impact just in the way it's presented. And also, looking at it from the perspective of game creation, with things like how to draw in players and what to control, to the creator there are lots of tricks to be used. I feel like these things are tied to the funness. But for me, rather than all-out horror, I prefer things with a dash of sci-fi, like "Boy's Sci-Fi Series" that was broadcast ages ago on NHK... I think both Silent Hill and Siren have some kind of "slightly strange" feeling about them.
--You can sense something similar in the manga author Daijiro Morohoshi's series of comics.
Toyama: Daijiro Morohoshi had a strong influence on me. Rather than being inspired by one particular work, Morohoshi's series of works share a common technique... Starting with the motif of fables, folk tales and myths, collecting them in a modern way... I feel like I was inspired by that method. Also, the character of folklorist Tamon Takeuchi from the game has parts of Reijiro Hieda, main character of Mr. Morohoshi's manga "Yokai Hunter", projected strongly onto him.
--Siren, a horror set in an abandoned Japanese village, tries out the concept of "Made in Japan" on the world... or at least the idea of that seems strong to me, but where did that orientation come from?
Toyama: A long time ago, when I was getting materials from foreign press to do with Silent Hill, they would ask me things like, "You're Japanese - why are you making a game that sounds like a Hollywood movie?" (laughs). But I guess they're right. Also, when I was working on Mariko and started formulating ideas for Siren (around 2000/2001), the movie version of The Ring and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Cure" had achieved worldwide popularity... It was also around the time I read Fuyumi Ono's horror novel "Shiki", which left a strong impression on me. I guess you could summarise the phenomenon as a "J-horror" boom. That's when I decided I wanted to try showing the world original Japanese horror.
For me, horror is a perilous feeling that lurks at the border between normality and abnormality. If I had to put the fearful qualities of Siren's setting, Hanuda Village, into words, I would say that it's a place adjoining land that is neither of the "other world", nor of our world. Just by taking a single step away from the life they have lived until now, it seems somehow familiar... but there is that fear of being lost in an abnormal place, unable to escape their despair. It may be a story that tells of a world that is only a short distance away, an extension of normality, but take for example the weapons the characters obtain - they're things like crowbars and pokers, concentrating on things that would normally be around that kind of area. In that way it shows the intense contrast between the "abnormality" of the Other World and "normality", to which the closer you are the better. That country scenery, ingrained in Japanese people's memory almost genetically, feels like something I desperately needed.
--The game is based around an urban legend of a village which vanished after the massacre of all of its inhabitants, which feels very Japanese...
Toyama: It's based around the legend of Sugisawa Village, which caused quite a stir on the internet for a time. Things like the "Tsuyama massacre of 30", a real incident that actually happened, and a dark incident set around the muddled connections between a group of people in an insular society, came to mind... To reveal one other thing: when some places were getting all excited about the Sugisawa Village thing, there was a lively thread on a big BBS with an occult story that told of a boy who went to a rumoured haunted spot on a mountain bike. Back then, I was following the thread along as it went (laughs). Kyoya Suda from Siren riding his mountain bike to the legendary Hanuda Village was based on my memory of this. I wonder if the people writing all kinds of things on that board under the name "mountain bike" realise that they projected themselves onto Siren characters...? (laughs)
--What was the reaction like when you first brought up the proposal for Siren to producer Fujisawa?
Toyama: Even if I do say so myself, I'm quite thorough with the proposals I write. Like, "The target is a worldwide audience," and, "The budget will be about XX." But if you're always so firm with it people might think it lacks novelty, which would be an issue, so I also wrote things like, "Innovation: sightjacking!" (laughs). I planned to write down things that would be fairly hard to make fun of, but for some reason he came out with retort after retort (laughs). He said things like, "What's 'sightjacking'? Are you out of ideas or something?" At the time, it was said that development in Fujisawa's team only went down two paths, but there were about four directors, so it was rather like a competition. Because of this I'd intended to show him a pretty detailed proposal, but he was full of questions like, "Precisely what do you want to do with this bit?" I started to think, ah, this producer is really harsh. But it's because he wanted such detail from the early stages that Siren in its complete form isn't that distant from the initial and final proposals.
--So Mr. Fujisawa was a strict producer? (laughs)
Toyama: What I thought was interesting about working with him, though, was that ideas that would normally be tossed aside as crazy during the creation of a game somehow all got past him when I told them to him (laughs). A lot of the time you get excited about ideas during the planning stages, but then when you try to actually do them you realise it's impossible... But with Siren, we gradually made real the ideas we had wanted to try out... Also, when I went to ask him to let us actually go and scout abandoned villages around the country he said to me, "Great, I'll come too." My reaction was, "What, you're really coming!?" (laughs). His attitude towards the rules of the workplace taught me a lot, though.
Mr. Toyama says he is enchanted by games that also have a hint of sci-fi rather than being pure horror. There is actually a hidden ending in Silent Hill, known as the UFO Ending, in which it is interpreted as having all been the work of aliens. There may be some who, during the process of diligently unravelling Siren's archives, see a connection between aliens and Datatsushi as being one interpretation.
According to Mr. Toyama, some of the things he proposed to producer Fujisawa thinking they had no chance were:
1) Creating textures using photos taken of actual actors for modelling
2) Creating BBS boards with actual posts by Kyoya Suda, real websites etc. on the internet. So basically... things that meld the game with realty.
--I think that Siren's "sightjack" system is symbolic of the game; how did you originally come up with the idea for it?
Toyama: This is like a kind of trait as a planner thinking about a game, but my ideas began based on the key phrase, "growth, expansion of sensation". I also did simply think it was interesting, but at the time of Silent Hill, rather than changing the physical viewpoint we used a bit of change in the player character and nominative case. With Siren, the ability to jack another's vision is a literal change in viewpoint.
--Was that kind of idea around from the very beginning?
Toyama: It came from something called a "perception exchange system" I experienced when I went to an art exhibition with Sato (in charge of setting and scenario on Siren). Two people would put on goggles equipped with a camera and a monitor, and it would make it seem like the information they obtained from that was totally switched around. In other words, it let you experience the visual information of another person as though you were seeing it for yourself. That way of thinking made a big impression on me, and caused the creation of the sightjacking system.
--So where did you get the idea to make the concept of switching viewpoints - in this case, "visions" - the core of a horror game...?
Toyama: First of all was the thought, "First person images are creepy, huh?" I mean, if you're suddenly shown a first person image you don't even know who's the one seeing it. At the time I was quite addicting to voice chatting on my computer, but sometimes it would switch over and I would stumble onto someone singing something (laughs). I didn't know who or where they were; all I could hear was them singing. Or sometimes, I would just hear some indistinguishable sound for a while... I would think, "Who is making this kind of noise and why?" When I change this to vision and think about it that way, it becomes, "Someone, somewhere, is staring right at my back." I thought it sounded really scary (laughs).
--I see. When you think about it that way, it really does seem a good fit for horror.
Toyama: That, and there's one other thing. The visions system is based on an old submarine game.
--A submarine game!?
Toyama: It changes hearing into sight, but submarine fights take place underwater where you can't see what's around you and have to pick up sounds your foe makes, and anaylse them to decipher their location. Sometimes you use the sonar to search for them... Some of these parts were changed from hearing to seeing and refined into the sightjacking system. The very first sightjack system was very similar to the way sonar is used in the submarine game. That meant that, through sightjacking a Shibito, there was the risk that you may actually have your own location discovered. But as we went through the balancing process we thought it would make things too difficult and modified it, until it finally became what it is now.
--Along with visions, what gives the game such a strong impression is the titular siren.
Toyama: In a plot I thought of before, there was something about one of your friends suddenly going crazy when it hit midnight. The one who had, up until then, fought alongside you would turn into an enemy... It would be the fear of wondering who would be next. That idea ws also the foundation for the siren heard at midnight. The sound of the siren itself already appears in Silent Hill, constantly sounding in the background when the setting changes to the horrible "otherworld"... I was quite interested in the idea of using something that symbolises the bad and ominous as an effect, so we used it this time as well. Originally, though, it was based on the very effective use of a siren in Industrial Symphony by David Lynch.
--For Japanese people in particular, who have read about air raid sirens in books, and have gone through evacuation drills many times since they were children, maybe we have a kind of understanding that sirens sounding means something bad drilled into us.
Toyama: Yeah. I'm from Kyushu, and was raised in a small rural town, so whenever there was a fire I would hear the siren. Whether I was playing, or what, suddenly... And I could never really tell where it was coming from... What I knew for sure was that something bad was happening.
Also, in this game with so many player characters, at times we used the periodically-occurring siren as a sort of indicator for things like, "This is what A was doing at this point," "This is what was happening to B."
As well as its literal meaning, the titular siren is also apparently taken from sirens, aka mermaids. This likely comes from the image of their victims, drawn by their magical voices from the other side of the horizon, piling up after getting stuck on the shore, and the horror of a red sea. In response to the interpretation pointed out by some that it is a hint of Silent Hill, or put in as a "test" from a game of the ultimate difficulty, Mr. Toyama simply gave a silent, mysterious smile...
--Earlier, you said that allowing reverse detection through sightjacking would make it too hard, but it seems as though it would be appropriate for a game with difficulty as high as that of Siren. I think that it must be the hardest out of all of the games I've played lately.
Toyama: Siren's difficulty was one of the things I was aiming for from the start. I thought it would be nice to have a hard game like old times. I was imagining Namco's "The Tower of Druaga" at the time, but there was that one game you first managed to get through because everyone brought their own knowledge to the table, right? I wondered if we could reproduce that feeling of everyone getting excited about it over such a diffused internet. At the time of The Tower of Druaga, information spread throughout the community by way of word of mouth, or notes left at arcades. I wondered whether that kind of atmosphere could be created again, on the internet. To do this, I didn't want the kind of difficulty that would let people skillfully progress through it alone. Also, with Siren, it's true that it was kind of hard to finetune the system and also the difficulty for Siren. There's no on-screen health gauge at all, but for example if you allow them to take just one more shot from a sniper, they're able to slip through using brute force. There are also no kinds of healing item in the game, so we struggled with dropping the difficulty without destroying the balance. I was trying to stimulate the exchange of people telling each other how they made it through each part, so the difficulty was something I was quite insistent upon.
--With regards to the internet, you also actually set up sites like the Occult Land BBS and The Truth Behind the Hanuda Incident, heightening the reality of the game world with extreme care.
Toyama: I proposed it to Fujisawa with the mindset that basically I had nothing to lose, and he pretty much just said okay (laughs). It was based on the impression that the movie The Blair Witch Project left on me. If people who didn't really know what it was about saw it online, they might think it was a real incident that actually happened, which is the effect I was going for.
Ultimately, I think that my intention to stimulate exchange of information and discussion online was quite a success. This, too, was due to the passionate players who have supported us, though... As developers we set up all kinds of mysteries, but if we hadn't been able to watch the players reading between the lines and enjoying figuring it all out, then it would have been for nothing.
In that sense, with Siren's rather high difficulty, and storytelling where mysteries remain even if you make it to the ending... This game is lucky to have been blessed with players who have overcome all kinds of hurdles, and even now keep searching around. As its creator, I'm really grateful.
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