I feel like having done film school is what really helped my burning appreciation for the Project Zero series (probably known to most of you as the ‘Fatal Frame’ series, but hey, I’m a PAL girl). Mainly because there were a lot of techniques used in those games that, whilst they would have most definitely still worked on me, I would have in no way been able to appreciate the way that I do. For the first three games at least (They are all I’ve played, because I don’t know Japanese beyond ‘desu desu’ and some asshole at Tecmo decided Project Zero IV and V didn’t need to be released outside Japan) , The creators take all the tropes and perfect them. It is a beautiful collection of horror genius, and Project Zero II: Crimson Butterfly was the height of it.
When I first played Project Zero II: Crimson Butterfly back in 2009, I was in America staying with some friends, and we were playing the special edition version on the X-Box. I remember not sleeping well whilst we played, namely because the room I was sleeping in had sliding cupboard similar to those in old Japanese houses, and I kept swearing I could see them slowly opening in the dark, noises coming from within.
When I returned home a few weeks later, I could not go to bed without my floor lamp on, and I slept very badly for at least two weeks. In short, this game had terrified me into the realm of paranoid insomnia… but at the same time, I adored it, and I didn’t want to stop playing. It takes a special sort of carefully constructed horror to do that to someone. I was terrified, and every single time I picked up the game I knew I was going to go to bed that night staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, jumping at every noise and constantly turning the light on and off to scan the areas I’d previously seen the shadows warp in. That didn’t stop me though. It was as though a madness gripped at me. ‘Keep going, keep going, you can’t stop now’. Or, similar to the characters in the game, I felt that if I could only get to the end and figure everything out, then the ghosts of the Lost Village would be laid to rest and finally leave me be.
I haven’t played Crimson Butterfly for a few years, but anytime anyone is talking about horror I will reference it. If they claim the game that scared them shitless that year was Dead Space 2, or Gods forbid Slender, a certain brand of righteous fury overtakes me (I have also been verbally bitchslapped more than once for saying “F.E.A.R. was just dumb”).
Mainly because, since playing the Project Zero games, I became completely bored and desensitized to any other brand of horror other than a select few games. Gore? It was just gross. Jump Scares? Overdone and cheap. In fact the only horror games I have been vaguely impressed by since finishing Project Zero III: The Tormented were:
- Five Nights at Freddy’s
- The Trilby ‘Chzo Mythos’ Games
- Other Japanese Horror Games (including those made in Wolf RPG)
Yes, I did not mention Amnesia: The Dark Descent there. Not that it wasn’t a fantastic game. it was lovely, atmospheric, and damn creepy at times. I do remember quivering in a corner waiting for Britney (laugh if you get the reference) to go on his merry way and not eat my face off…. but I use one thing and one thing only to rate how scary a horror game is.
‘If I don’t take it away from the computer with me, it is not scary’.
True fear is something that lasts. True fear stays with you. It encroaches on your senses, it impedes the way you go about your day. Those who suffer anxiety can understand this – true fear is debilitating, whether it of something we have seen, heard, or something we create in our heads.
When I played Amnesia, of course, I was thrilled and scared at times. But ones I put the game down, turned the computer off and walked away, I was fine. The game stayed in the hard-drive, and out of my head. I was almost disappointed.
A horror game being debilitating once you stop playing it is not necessarily always a good thing. I need to stress this. When you play a game on a device of some sort you don’t want it to have a negative impression on your life after you put it down. I’m not condoning it, or saying that ever single horror game that comes out need to be such an intense psychological trip that you don’t sleep or eat for weeks after. All that said, it could just be me having this response. I tend to take things to heart and I have a really overactive imagination – and all of our minds are brilliantly unique. Something which is a terrifying trigger for fear for me, another might just laugh at and go “Steph, oh Steph, you scaredypoo.”
It’s not just me, though. The Project Zero series has a very devoted cult following, and we’re all terrified of it to varying degrees. After the fourth game wasn’t released outside Japan, a group of fans from all around the western world got together to make their own English patch for the game. You need the original game and a hacked Wii to play it, but it’s still available here. I believe they are also working on an English voice-acting version, too. The point is, us fans of this series love the way it scares us, and we constantly want more.
So, what is it about Project Zero II that had such a profound effect on me, and dozens of other fans? What had they gotten right in their recipe at Tecmo, that wasn’t included in the mix with the other games? I replayed through the first three games, and briefly took a look at a few other horror games which originated in Japan, and took special note of what was going on, how the game played, acted, sounded, and how it unfolded before me.
Compared to my experiences with western horror games (which tend to be all about the gore, the psych wards and/or overzealous Hell symbolism), all I can deduce, really, is that the Japanese somehow intrinsically understand human emotion, regarding fear, on a different level than the rest of us.
Is that an unfair and possibly racist (yes, everything is racist all the time) deduction to make? Possibly. Hear me out, though.
So anyway, let me try to dissect this, because I’d like to get to the bottom of why my mind in particular finds Project Zero so much more horrifying than any other game.
Made You Look! – the Camera Obscura
The thing that first attracted me to the series was when I heard that the only ‘weapon’ at your disposal was an old camera. I already disliked games with guns, though mainly because I couldn’t shoot to save my life. Project Zero involved a completely different sort of shooting. ‘Huh. interesting mechanic’ I thought.
And, that’s all you get really. There are other items you pick up in the game, but the only thing you have to combat the ghosties inhabiting your general vicinity is a camera and some old film.
I’ve noticed a pattern of play for a lot of horror games, when I look online at LPs and the like. ‘Look at the scary thing as little as possible’ is usually the tactic. Look, flail the camera about, fire a few shots and get the bejeezus out of there ASAP. Not in this game, you don’t.
‘Killing’ ghosts (or capturing, since most of them come back and there is a clear link to the ‘camera film steals your soul’ here) required you to level the Camera Obscura at them, look through the viewfinder and take your best snap. No, literally, your best snap. The mechanic of the camera is that it charges up as you follow the ghost with your focal ring. The damage you do depends on the charge of the ring. The position of the ghost, and it’s aggression towards you also helps the camera lock-on. So you want to try and take your photo at the best possible moment. This is usually when the ghost is all up in your faces, arms out, screaming at the top of it’s lungs.
It is a clever mechanic. You are forced to look upon the object of your terror and -wait- for it to come after you. Running will not do you any good, nor will moving about too much, or trying to move on. You need to pay close attention. You need to let it come for you. That is against our basic instinct, when something is coming for us. ‘Fight’ doesn’t work because it’s an incorporeal thing. Flight won’t solve the problem, and sometimes the doors are just locked. And as there is a wide range of ghosts and different locations and situations you encounter them in, having to look upon them constantly still doesn’t desensitize you.
Playing in a real-world setting
I have always found the ‘insane asylum’ a bore, in horror games. It is a vastly overused trope, and in the recent few years has hardly been reused in any original way. It is also a hard scene to relate to. Of course, everyone feels like they’re going nutters at least once in their life, and some of us have actually had to be inside a place like that, where the walls have you closed in and the horrors of your mind – and everyone else’s – all bounce around inside the same space. I have been inside an asylum before – both an abandoned and burnt-out one, and a still-functioning one to visit a sick friend. They are not pleasant places, closed-down or operational.
It is hard to find something to relate to in them though. By this I mean visually. We all recognise the padded walls and tiled flooring and that bloody wheelchair creaking back and forth on its own under the flickering fluorescent. Most of us haven’t been there though – most of us can’t empathize with the setting.
In Project Zero you are in a village, and constantly in and out of places that used to be perfectly functional, even happy homes. You learn the stories of those that used to live there – and you learn that the home, a place that is meant to represent safety and belonging, is no longer safe.
I’m not saying my house resembles anything like a traditional Japanese village, but when I turned the console off at the end of a play, I would go back to my room later that day or night, and find I didn’t feel as safe as I usually did. My cupboard was suspicious, I didn’t like the way the shadows played on the wall, the chest of drawers – surely I hadn’t left the third draw down open earlier? These everyday items, just like the abandoned everyday items you see in the game, suddenly had the ability to hold a terrible secret. The characters in the game, surely, had once thought their homes safe as well. What made mine so different? In the dark of the night, the stairwell in my house could most definitely resemble the one that the fallen woman tumbled down with a shrill scream. They are, at their core, similar locations.
Something can definitely be said for immersion here – as a friend of mine argues, a game like Outlast is creepy and terrifying even though you cannot relate to it, because you are dragged into the game’s world very expertly. That is not my point though. Project Zero succeeds at immersion, but also bears subtle similarities to the world we surround ourselves in that it can make our own surroundings seem suspicious and frightening. (Project Zero III: The Tormented does this particularly well, as it is the first in the series that has part of the game taking place in a regular modern apartment – ‘our world’, and shows the bleedover of the world of ghosts into our reality).
Gore? What Gore?
There is not much gore in the Project Zero series. Sure, you see ghosts who had their eyes ripped out, or long needles jutting out of their arms, but it is less about showing gore and blood and grossness and more about the suggestion of violence and pain, and what it has made.
This is valuable because it plays on the concept of our imaginations being far worse than anything that can be shown to us, with the right suggestion. Gore shown in games can freak you out, and make you shudder, and in some cases make you sick. The Evil Within had a lot of examples of using gore as horror, which were quite well done.
For those of us with very vivid imaginations, Gore can be a bit of a tell-all. ‘Ew, that’s gross, that is going to stay with me’, but there is nothing to play on the nerves and wonders. Of course more often than not its still enough to freak people out. I could be desensitized to it because looking at a gory 3D model with it’s head bashed in and blood dribbling down the revealed skull and brain gets more of an ‘oooh, that is a really nice sculpt/normal map’ out of me than an ‘OH MY GOD THE BLOOD THAT FACE’.
Looking at the above example though – the picture of the Engraver, with her eyes gouged out and needles in her arms – it not only looks visually painful, but it shows just enough for the imagination to dwell on that – how did it happen? It must be – oh yes, she’s moaning, it must be painful – aaargh I don’t want to think about how painful it is. Oh, and her eyes are gouged out. Oh, and someone has threaded rope into her empty sockets – yeup, I’m going to puke. It is a horrific image, but leaves much to be wanted by the imagination, and therein is the beauty of it. Gore is spoon-fed horror. The suggestion of violence is more subtle, and has the ability to stay with you long after. All you might have to do, after beating that Engraver and putting the game down, is look down at your wrists and think about what it would feel like to have those needles driven through them.
This post is getting longer than I thought it would be already, So the rest will be continued in part 2, next Wednesday. After going through the rest of the points and observations, such as the use of tensions and creepy dolls, we’ll also take a look at some other games – the ones mentioned on the list above and what makes -them- scary, as well as what happened when a game released as a horror isn’t scary, and why.