A very Human horror

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[CONTENT WARNING: Chapter six of Twilight Syndrome Special/Twilight Syndrome Kyuumei-hen deals with a high school suicide and the bullying that caused it, and I discuss this story further down the page.]

Human Entertainment are exactly the sort of game developer I adore; the kind that’d rather give a fresh idea a go and have it come out a bit wonky and weird than never try at all, the kind that’d rather flit between creating wrestling games so good even non-wrestling fans enjoy playing them, a brilliant 2D Taekwon-do simulation, whatever the heck Mizzurna Falls is, and this release – Twilight Syndrome Special – than rest on their under-appreciated laurels. This 1998 bundle is actually two games in one… or perhaps more accurately two halves made whole: Two years earlier Human released the Tansaku (“Search” – the first game) and Kyuumei (“Investigation” – the second) volumes as two separate products about four months apart, but it’s only when played back-to-back and in order that they form a complete story that gleefully unleashes all of the expected Japanese horror tropes while still leaving plenty of time for slightly less supernatural – and far more disturbing – tales of misery as well.

But before we get stuck in to all that I’d like to take a moment to talk about the wonderful Goichi Suda (AKA: Suda51), the creative talent famous for The Silver Case, Killer7, No More Heroes, and many other highly regarded titles. These first two Twilight Syndromes are often framed as “Goichi Suda’s early games” when discussed in English and to a certain extent I can understand why – he’s a familiar name and he did indeed step in during the development process to take over general directorial duties. However, and by his own admission, his role in this instance was more of a practical one – a statement backed up by the customised credits the Kyuumei volume so helpfully displays at the end of almost every chapter (sadly Tansaku only has a standard staff roll) Suda’s name only comes up as the co-director of the fifth chapter and the sole director of the bonus “Prank” chapter – scenario writing and directing are otherwise credited to a combination of Hiroshi Kasai and Mika Mishima in all other cases. I make this point not to try and diminish Suda’s past, present, or future, work but simply to give credit where it’s due and to try and avoid all the praise on this collaborative effort defaulting to the most famous person on board.

Twilight Syndrome begins with neither a bang nor a whimper but – and this is before we even reach the customary publisher’s logo – a blood curdling yell into the void, a scream virtually guaranteed to make those playing all alone in the dark leap out of their seat in shock (definitely not me, oh no). It’s a fantastic demonstration of how central a role sound plays in this game and a dramatic aural illustration of the game’s “3D Sound” feature mentioned on the back of the box directly underneath the “Headphones recommended” text. Even so making people jump with unexpected loud noises has to rank as one of the most obvious scares any form of entertainment has ever tried to pull and I was eager to see if Human had anything more inventive up their ear-sleeves than raw volume and left-to-right whooshing stereo sounds so I popped on my best pair of headphones, turned the volume up, and really made an effort to listen.

I was deeply impressed with what I heard: Sound effects are crisp and detailed, so much so that when making an in-game phone call I could hear not only the correct tones as buttons were pushed but also the quiet little “clicks” of an old landline trying to make a connection before the regular rings started up – and when the call got through the audio felt controlled and close, as if the handset really was being held up to my left ear. When that’s happening with everyday noises you’re appreciative of the effort put into the sound design and enjoy feeling immersed in the setting – and then you hear footsteps. And singing. And the singing gets closer… and closer… and closer…

And then as the game’s leading trio hide in a classroom nearby – silence. Until…

“I’ve found you~”

The ghost’s voice is crystal clear and very obviously coming from the opposite end of the room even before the camera’s finished panning over there to visually reveal their spectral presence – a heart-stopping scare in every way that absolutely wouldn’t have the same impact if the game hadn’t made such a great effort to consider what players are supposed to hear as they race around the dark halls and haunted rooms. Honestly I had to take my headphones off and pau- that’s when I realised Twilight Syndrome has no pause button.

Graphically the collection feels like the natural evolution of the style Human used to such memorably unsettling effect in 1995’s Clock Tower (same developer, different staff): Characters are mostly re-sprited versions of real people wearing costumes who have been recorded performing various horror-adventure game tasks and thanks to the power of PlayStation these 2D characters get to roam around what we should probably call “2.5D” locations – 3D environments viewed exclusively from a side-on perspective, constructed from multiple flat planes as if we were an audience watching a play. This rigid framework actually allows for a greater level of intricacy and overall cohesiveness than would have otherwise been possible, with detailed 2D foreground and background props (for example: a store front, stone lantern, statue or fronds of tall grass) mixing almost seamlessly with the heavily pixellated textures used to decorate each area’s 3D elements – rows of lockers stretching towards the foreground as umbrella sprites sit in baskets, library shelves filled with indistinct spines scrolling by as you approach what in reality is only a flat image of a desk. This polygonal construction enables even very ordinary rooms to have an uncomfortable sense of depth, a suggestion of airless gloom for ghosts to lurk in, a place where foreground objects may temporarily obscure your vision. At any time your exploration may be interrupted by unique event scenes and animations using any mixture Twilight Syndrome chooses of digitised photography, traditional animation, static artwork, and FMV clips to really twist the atmospheric knife – you honestly never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s exactly how a good horror game should be.

Venturing through these eerie places are three schoolgirls: Yukari, Chisato, and Mika – almost always together but sometimes worryingly apart – and as over-used as teenagers getting themselves into trouble is as the catalyst for some haunted storytelling this trio really do a great job of showing off how great Twilight Syndrome’s writing is, all of them always behaving as rounded individuals whether they’re running from danger, eating junk food, squabbling amongst themselves, or wrestling with something deeper they might not have the emotional vocabulary to properly deal with yet – they feel like real teenage friends, with all of the happy mess and passionate turmoil that tends to bring. They’re also totally unprepared to deal with anything supernatural beyond running away and hoping for the best – a concept that sometimes works very well (Haunting Ground) and sometimes doesn’t quite hit the mark (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) – and sometimes taking a quick photo of any unusual phenomena they find (using film in a camera, which makes me feel nostalgically ancient). The lack of options coupled with the claustrophobic atmosphere leave you feeling vulnerable and tense, hoping the gruesome rumours traded at school are nothing more tall tales even as you hear the door you just came through slam shut behind you…

There are ten main stories in total (excluding Tansaku’s prologue, the cliffhanger leading into Kyuumei-hen, and the unlockable bonus chapter that behaves as a sort of rough teaser sketch for Moonlight Syndrome), with each one operating as a mostly self-contained mystery of wildly varying length and degree of freedom dotted with subtle details and B-plots that do build up over the length of the game even if their significance isn’t always made obvious at first blush. In the beginning it almost feels as if Twilight Syndrome’s merely flirting with the supernatural – a bit of childish fun, a bit of maybe they didn’t really see anything at all – yet even during those early moments the tension while you’re exploring is almost suffocating; there are lots of things that might be dangerous even if they’re not accompanied by sudden chills or unexplained moans from shadowy corners: when you see someone who is very much alive running into the distance at it’s not hard to wonder if they were just getting some evening exercise or sprinting away from something harmful – and if you should be too. During every scenario you’ll often be given a selection of responses to pick from, sometimes operating more as standard dialogue trees and in others deciding how the girls will react to a given situation – “Do we go in or do we run?” “Do we search for clues or listen at the door?” – and crucially many of these meander back around to the same main path even if you end up taking a slightly more scenic route to get there. Now there are two ways to look at this: If you’re only concerned with the overall outcome of a story – of breaking everything down into either progression towards the final credits roll or failure – then many of these decisions are technically meaningless. The alternative point of view for us non-robots out there is to understand that thanks to this behaviour when three or four potential choices come up we never have to think “Great, which one’s going to get me insta-killed this time?” or “I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to go for, I’d better check a FAQ first…” – Twilight Syndrome gives you the space to behave in a more natural manner and to react as you personally would actually want to – and as two out of each chapter’s three possible endings (these endings are separate from “Game Overs” caused by death) allow you to move on to the next you can focus on enjoying the scares and being naturally curious even if you don’t reach the perfect conclusion first time (and if you’re really stuck the manual offers a short hint for every scenario).

By this point in the game and for all the twists, turns, and scary photos that imply your head is going to be forcibly removed from its shoulders it throws your way you feel pretty confident you understand how Twilight Syndrome works and look forward to tackling another chapter – The Seven Mysteries of Hinajo High School. Yukari’s once again got her torch in her hand and her friends by her side so all that’s left to do is prod this collection of gruesome mysteries until all the ghosts come out of the woodwork and we can move on to the next one. Only… only this time the rumours really are rumours, plain old reality made slightly unreal by twilight shadows and half of a truth passed eagerly around friends without proper context; this time the whispers in the library are nothing more than secret after-school meetings and a model skeleton really does move at certain times of night… but only because of the boiler rumbling away in a room nearby.

And it’s amazing.

By this point the game had got you into something approaching a routine: The rumour the girls were discussing was always going to be genuine even if their brushes with the spirit world were only brief ones so all you had to do was work out how to best investigate it – hear about the ghost, find the ghost, run away from the ghost, move on to the next one. It was all in danger of getting a bit predictable, and nothing kills a horror game quite as thoroughly as politely waiting for the scary thing to show up and “surprise” you. What this apparently silly chapter does is reintroduce the concept of reasonable doubt, perhaps encouraging you to pick a more dangerous choice than you would have if you took everything you’d learned at face value – or alternatively making you worry just a little more than normal that something you were certain didn’t matter might still end up chasing you down a corridor…

Now that Twilight Syndrome has taken the time to remind you it can and will be whatever the heck it wants to be whenever it feels like it the game takes another sharp turn, finally presenting you with an unambiguously supernatural disc-spanning adventure filled with impossible spaces where you get to have direct conversations with people who are without a doubt long since dead, all taking place within a whole new landscape stuffed with spirits and all the strange dream-rules that go with them. Any other game would use this as a convenient excuse to open the floodgates and go full Ghostbusters, enthusiastically thumbing through an encyclopedia of Japanese folklore for gruesome tales from beyond the grave to casually lift an increasingly oddball range of spooky spectres from, but instead of grabbing this paranormal opportunity by the bedsheet’ed horns the next chapter decides to bring us crashing back to reality in the most painful way possible:

What if… what if a ghost was just a dead person?

This is the thinking behind the sixth chapter of Twilight Syndrome, an episode that is without a doubt one of the most emotionally draining short stories I’ve ever encountered and not something to be approached lightly. The rumour this time deals with a tragic suicide – as many tales of ghostly appearances do – only unlike the rest this one was a very recent event, the boy in question just a “weird” kid from the next classroom along the hall. He’s sitting in the PE equipment storage room now and he doesn’t quite realise he’s dead – he doesn’t even know why he’s there or where his other shoe went. He’s fine – of course he is, he’s always fine. He’s got friends, loving parents, and he goes to a good school – these things all mean he should be fine.

As this chapter progresses you get to experience a psychic flashback showing the PE equipment room ghost – showing Tatara, the boy who took his own life and couldn’t tell you why – being physically assaulted, an animated silhouette of his “friend” nonchalantly bouncing a basketball as they instruct the others in their group to only violently beat Tatara where it won’t show up your only visual, the act itself cruelly left to the sounds ringing in your ears and your own imagination. It’s a raw, ugly, and unflinching take on the subject matter, one where classmates fall somewhere along a spectrum of anger and denial rather than empathy or understanding: “Why didn’t he stick up for himself?” “It wasn’t just me, everyone was doing it” “I didn’t want to get involved” – the same old lines that get wheeled out whenever anyone, anywhere, becomes the victim of bullying. You’re forced to come to the terrible realisation that even if all the right people had known at the right time it’s unlikely much would have changed, partly because most of the people who could have done something already knew Tatara was being bullied anyway, but also because Tatara himself couldn’t understand what the problem was – if someone’s your friend then they’re nice, aren’t they? And for all the talking the trio of amateur paranormal investigators do – to his classmates, to his bullies, to his mum, to Tatara himself – the one thing that gives him peace isn’t seeing justice done or finally realising that his “friends” were using him, it’s finding the “missing” shoe that was bothering him so much, that “minor” humiliation that makes every second of a school day an absolute misery, and putting it back in his locker next to the other one.

Twilight Syndrome’s a horror game alright, just not always in the way you’d expect it to be.

Once that chapter’s over we’re back into more traditionally spooky territory from there until the end of the game – telephone calls from the dead, haunted paintings and forbidden rooms in forgotten World War II facilities, ghostly schoolgirls staring at you from across the way – each one blurring the line between horror story and personal tragedy with you left never quite sure whether to run in terror or approach with sympathy. The story eventually loops back around to where it began with the girls once again chatting by a classroom window, no world saved or ancient evil defeated but three friends who’ve fought so hard to take care of each other through both the fantastical and the mundane left feeling a little older, a little wiser, and still looking forward to the future – what could be more Human than that?

If you need help playing there’s a fantastic FAQ here (Japanese): http://twilight.riroa.com/index.html
And if you’d like to watch the whole thing subtitled in English a very kind soul has put a lot of effort into making that a reality for you here: Tansakuhen/Kyuumeihen

[Ko-fi donations are far more than a nice little bonus for me – they genuinely make this work possible. This post literally wouldn’t be here without your help and I’m deeply humbled by your support]

5 thoughts on “A very Human horror

  1. Human’s sound design was always so on point. I still remember playing Clock Tower for the first time. This dum little sideview SNES horror game. What possibly could be scary about it? And then there is no BGM, only (musical) silence and noises. Creeking of the setting house, some wind blowing. Until suddenly a window creaks open by itself or the TV that turned on by its own makes static noise.

    Or even worse. Slowly, the clank clank of the scissors get louder in the background and then the one piece of Halloween-like stalker music starts running.

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  2. To be honest, I am kinda relieved Suda didn’t have a bigger role in this. For me his name is mostly connected to Flower, Sun & Rain and that game is….certainly something special.
    Anyway, Twilight Syndrome sounds interesting, but I could also never really get into Clock Tower (though I’ve never played the first one), so maybe this isn’t really for me, either? Well, that’s a hypothetical anyway, not like this game is available in English outside of the YouTube playthrough you’ve linked. Maybe in 10 years when I might be able to read a complete Japanese sentence without looking up every other word/kanji.

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