Siren Maniacs - Naoko Sato Interview
The set-up that creates the fun of reading between Siren's lines
Planner: Naoko Sato
In charge of Siren's background story and scenario. Has worked as a team with the director, Mr. Toyama, since working together on Silent Hill. Also wrote the side story, "Strange Tales of Hanuda".
--I hear that work on this game was started by you and Mr. Toyama, the director.
Sato: Toyama and I created a game called Silent Hill together previously at Konami, but midway through development I started to think, "If the next game we make is a horror game, I want it to be set in Japan!" Later I worked with Toyama again, on the development team of Yoake no Mariko with SCEJ, and late in development I learned that he had been planning something with a similar theme... So we said, "Then why don't we plan it together?"
--Silent Hill is a horror game set in an American city; what was it that first made you think about having your next game set in Japan?
Sato: I believe that "fear" is an emotion that sits between normality and abnormality. So with this as the premise, trying to illustrate fear in a vivid manner, I first of all started to think that we had to clearly portray the everyday things. Speaking honestly about it now (laughs), back when we were making Silent Hill I constantly doubted it, thinking, "Is this actually realistic?" The game is set in a city in America, but even when we put in things to suit a town like a drug store with the stars and stripes flag fluttering outside, or a metal collection box on the side of the pavement, I constantly had a twinge of doubt as to whether or not it was realistic. The normality I know best as someone born and raised here in Japan is naturally that of this country. When I started thinking this way, I said, "I want to make a game set in Japan!" I also wanted to base it in the darkness of the country, which most Japanese people feel physically, with its damp climate, a kind of unease that is hard to explain.
--So you thought that, from the point of view of reproducing normality, something based on expressing fear through "something Japanese" would have a strong charm to it.
Sato: I've always strongly believed that true horror lies in Japanese horror. For example, the nurse monsters from Silent Hill were designed by me, but what I imagined as I was coming up with things like their movements was Sadako from the film "The Ring" (laughs).
--Before you mentioned wanting to create a feeling of unease; are you saying that setting it in Japan and bringing that kind of mental fear to the forefront are the same thing?
Sato: This may come from a difference in mentality, but overseas, particularly in America, there seems to be much more fear coming from physical injury. However, it feels to me like the Japanese idea of horror is mainly the kind that goes after you mentally, that kind of helpless despair.
--As we speak, I find myself being rather drawn in by the "fear" theme (laughs). Where do you think that charm lies?
Sato: I guess I can only answer that it's just because I've always liked that kind of thing (laughs). Since I was a child I've liked scary things... I can't remember where, but at some point I read something that said, "The reason women like rollercoasters and haunted houses is because they bring about a similar sensation to that of sexual arousal." But even if that was pointed out to me, all I could say would be, "Huh, so that's one explanation for it." (laughs)
But a certain big-shot in the gaming industry has built up this theory about the "three main principles of games"... According to their theory, the main points are "eroticism, gambling and violence", so I guess it's pretty simple to understand (laughs). Though I do kind of feel at the same time like horror does also have elements to it that are like sexual things. At least, they are both inseparable from those basic desires everyone has.
--I would like to know your own experiences with horror games, knowing how entranced you yourself are with the theme of "fear"...
Sato: I don't mean that I'm a hardcore gamer or anything like that (laughs). With regards to actual consoles, after the time when I was in elementary school and was addicted to my TV Game 15 (laughs), I had nothing to do with them in as a middle- or high-schooler. Later, when I was at university, I did try out the Super Famicom (SNES), but it wasn't until I played the first Biohazard (Resident Evil) that I had my sudden awakening to the horror game genre. After that, the scenario of Moonlight Syndrome had quite a strong impact on me.
--A game with a high school girl who has a taste for the occult, sneaking into school at night pursuing an urban legend... The Twilight Syndrome series is a kind of fairly orthodox school horror game. On the other hand, although Moonlight Syndrome is set up like one of the "Twilight" games, it departs from the traditional "haunted school" path and shifts into quite a mental realm.
Sato: "Twilight" also realistically portrays the everyday life of a high school girl from the suburbs, and its world view with a motif of ghost stories and urban legends that are unique to Japan is quite impressive, but what made more of an impact on me than anything else was "Moonlight". Things like the excessive keyword quotation, and the way the characters are totally destroyed... At first I was speechless, but when I recovered I was totally trapped by its unique trippiness (laughs). It was the first time I'd felt the sense of an author from a game.
--Saying that Moonlight Syndrome's story impacted you... I know that you wrote the setting for Siren yourself, but how did you feel about the division of roles between you and the director, Mr. Toyama, with whom you started the project?
Sato: After starting the Siren project we gradually added new members to the team, like Takahashi, who's in charge of art direction, so Toyama and I split the roles into two teams. Toyama was in charge of the game side of things, like the direction of its flow and overall feel. I was in charge of background and story. That said, in the end all of the staff ended up putting in their own ideas, which we combined to make the game.
--Siren has lots of almost trick-like mysteries and hidden back-stories hidden in it. Even with a walkthrough the difficulty is high, and I think it's quite hard just to reach the ending, but more than anything I think the sense of scale, like there's too much just to be contained within the game, and the overwhelming amount of mysteries to solve is what has most of the players hooked. That uniqueness that Siren has... myths and curses, UFOs to Tsuchinoko - where did this huge amount of information come from?
Sato: Toyama is like me; we're both enchanted by standard "strange stories". I think it was a TV show I saw on TV as a kid, "Boy's Sci-Fi Series", that was my gateway, but I just had a natural interests in lots of things like time travel and parallel worlds, and started investigating them... Knowing about them was interesting in itself, but what more than anything left an impression was that the very act of invesigating them was fun, too. So with Siren, I wanted to put in a lot of things that would make it fun to read between the lines.
--I think the best way to experience the "enjoyment of reading between the lines" you speak of is in the side story "Strange Tales of Hanuda" published on SCEJ's official Siren website. Did you write "Strange Tales" as well?
Sato: Yes, I did.
--I think the idea of giving out the info that isn't directly spoken about in the game parallel to it in a different kind of media is very unique and interesting. Up until now, had you always written novels as a hobby?
Sato: When I was in elementary school, I co-wrote a novel like Stand by Me with three of my friends. It was a story about kids from an American country town who go camping and are killed off one by one. It was totally made up of silly tricks like a boy who is killed in a river and is discovered after being carried along by groundwater and turning up in a pond. Thinking about it now, what kind of a novel is that for an elementary school girl to be writing? But other than that, I have no novel-writing experience. Even though I'm in charge of writing the game's story at work... But basically, I'm addicted to manga and printing type from books. I've always been told that all I know is useless trivia that is of no applicable use in life. When I was young, by mother told me that reading books would make me stupid, for some inexplicable reason, so I was raised in an environment where manga and even books were banned, so I suppose that spurred on my infatuation with printing type in retaliation.
--So, what led to the genesis of "Strange Tales of Hanuda"?
Sato: It originated around the time of the Korean release of Siren, when I was asked by some people on the Korean side of things how I would feel about writing a side story to supplement Siren's world view to publish in a magazine. When I first heard this, all I thought was how interesting it sounded. I thought I should ask a professional writer over there to do it. But when I thought about it, I realised that I was the only one who could write a side story. At that point I was quite anxious (laughs).
--So, was it from someone outside the development team who put forward the idea to display the side story via the medium of internet?
Sato: Yes. But after I decided to do it too, I thought we needed to pool our enthusiasm and team up. Particularly since I realised that the scenario I'd been writing for the game up until that point and a novel were totally different things, first of all I went out and bought books on how to write a novel. I'm the kind of person who really likes to have a clear idea of what they're doing before they get started (laughs).
--How did it feel to actually write a novel?
Sato: First of all, when I took on the writing job I made three promises to myself: "As a standalone novel, it should be interesting to read even by itself," "It should make playing the game more enjoyable," and, "It should supplement the things that had no time to be explained in the game." I decided these three things for myself. After I actually started writing, it was quite troublesome since it was a serial. Particularly because, unlike creating a scenario that the entire development team would work on, the act of writing a novel made me realise how lonely it actually is (laughs). To be honest, it was so bad that sometimes I wanted to run away from it all. But as work progressed I started to realise that writing a novel has its own amusement... I felt like by finding that enjoyment, it somehow completed it. The events that occurred in Hanuda 27 years ago and the events of the current time are structured like a puzzle, and I determinedly tied up the story hoping that the readers would feel the impact of things as each piece slots neatly into place.
Mr. Takahashi, who worked as art director on Siren, and Ms. Sato are colleagues who worked together creating Silent Hill. At the time, Mr. Takahashi, who had recently transferred from the advertising movie industry, and Ms. Sato apparently had a heated discussion over "what constitues realism" in videos. Incidentally, the theme of the argument at the time was the thickness of beautiful nurse Lisa's legs (laughs).
The charm of writing a novel is that, unlike the game scenario, no hardware capabilities or development limits and the restrictions that these create need to be taken into account. As Ms. Sato says, the only difficulty is "the loneliness while I'm writing (laughs)", and it seems like the Siren staff love making noise, becoming drinking buddies with the actors who played characters in the game and going out to drink with them several times afterwards... Even since development on the game ended, their relationship hasn't changed.
--Did you notice any specific differences between creating the game's story and writing the novel?
Sato: When you're creating the story for a game you have to bear in mind the technical limitations, so there are various restrictions. But with a novel you don't have to think of the technicalities and can write freely as you please, so that point was really appealing to me.
--What are the kinds of technical limitations you have to keep in mind when you're making the game's story?
Sato: If I had to give an example it would be conversing with characters, where with a game scenario you think, "Ahh, we can't have such long lines..." It has a direct impact on the amount of voice data and cutscene length, after all. Also, I feel like things such as reminiscence scenes and scene changes should be avoided as much as possible when creating a game's scenario, since you end up having to make new background data for these scenes. Besides this, scenes involving physical contact are affected by the character model's construction and motion data, so I don't think we should try doing it.
--There are quite large differences in methodology between the two, then.
Sato: Contrarily, a game scenario has its own fun of the process of having the story tied to the player's actions causing various expansions... I guess I've experienced for myself that both game scenarios and novels have their good points, and now that it's over I think it was a really fun job (laughs).
--As the one who worked on Siren's scenario, which is your personal favourite scene?
Sato: The scene at the end of the game at Inferno in which Miyako, no longer possessing a physical form, stands beside Kyoya. Due the flow of the game Miyako has no choice but to lose her corporeal form, but I personally thought that was too sad for Miyako and Kyoya both. So I'm really glad that Miyako is able to manifest and stand by Kyoya's side in that scene. Also, the scene where Tamon Takeuchi is rescued from the landslide in 1976 and the scene near the end of the game where Harumi is safely rescued. These were intentionally designed to resemble each other - did you all notice? As a trick to make things feel like the looping of beginning and end, it's naturally a scene I like.
On the other hand, if I had to say what regrets I had, it would be the feeling I have that perhaps we put too many humorous things amidst the archive items. The doodles in Yoriko's notebook and the wordplay on the Hanuda triangle - thinking about these kinds of things later, they feel to me like they might be jokes that strip away the tension of a horror game. Although, seeing all of the opposing opinions after release of people who were perfectly fine with it, I felt kind of relieved (laughs).
By the way, it's been pointed out that in the final boss fight Datatsushi is surprisingly weak, but this is one of the concepts Toyama held dearly (laughs). In a way, it was intentional.
--Though it seems as though how to interpret the side story "Strange Tales" is an issue as well, how to interpret Siren's complexly-structured story is the subject of lively debate on the internet even now. As a creator, have you seen this for yourself?
Sato: As one of the people who made the game, I'm really grateful! Honestly, when we were making the game there were lots of things I was worried about, like how the things like Yami Nabe would be taken in this mishmashed game. What if we overdid it and people got exasperated, etc. During creation, even the staff on the development team would say, "No one's going to get that!" but I kept putting more and more little jokes in. Even I, the one who was thinking up the backstory, was internally uneasy, thinking, "I don't think anyone will notice this as long as they live," but when I took a little look I was shocked! The players with their enthusiasm, knowledge and logic had solved the mysteries in the blink of an eye, totally surpassing anything I could have imagined. I hope that someday I can once more bring to the table a game that causes such intense debate and excitement for everyone.
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