[PART 2 of 2] ‘GOD DAMMIT MAYU’ Or, what makes Project Zero terrifying above all else

Okayeth folks. A post about the most awesome PAX Australia and my new Magic: The Gathering obsession coming right up after we finish this foray into horror. Are you excited? I am. I haven’t bee able to sleep properly since I started thinking about these games again unless I’ve been at my partner’s house.

Continuing where we left off, concerning why Project Zero II: Crimson Flutterby Butterfly (known to all you NTSCers as Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly – seriously, don’t you have abbreviation problems with that and Final Fantasy?) is, I think, so much scarier than most other horror games…

Oh and hey there. Have a listen to me whilst you’re reading this. You won’t regret it, we swears! 🙂

 

Tension

One of my favourite phrases to use when writing is ‘you could cut the tension with a knife’. It is such a powerful mental image. ‘This tension is so intense it is a solid thing that can be cut with sharp things’.

The manipulation of tension in Project Zero II is genius. I will not be told otherwise.

I don’t know if they had some killer programmers on their team making sure that even random encounters and triggers happened at just the right time, or if it was some sort of freak coincidence, but one of the games major pluses was its ability to lure you into a false sense of security, and shortly after, beat you over the head with it.

There is an art to how the rules of a game play out before you, how much the player is made aware of the rules, and how they rely on knowledge of them to complete the game. In most video games though, there aren’t just play-rules, but ‘rules of engagement’. If I’m playing Final Fantasy X, and I run out of potions, I know how the rules of the game work to how I acquire those. If I’m playing Age of Empires II, I know that when I hear the town-centre bell, it means I’m being attacked in some form and I need to assess what the attack is, where it’s happening, and whether I need to round up them villagers. In most game genres, these rules need to work, and work 100% of the time, for the game to be playable. There can be no wildcard. Imagine the confusion if every now and then, it was programmed into AoEII that some random drunk villager would ring the bell for shits and giggles. They just wouldn’t do it. There is no benefit to that, other than annoying and confusing players.

This is exactly what horror games have to do, though, to work. Break the rules of engagement. Because rules mean security, and you’re not allowed to feel secure in a world meant to scare you.

Well not break. Bend. The game still needs to be playable and the flow and understanding of it still needs rhyme and reason to be enjoyable. The player needs to understand their limits, their warning signs, their avenues.

A good horror game will go by its own rules of engagement for about %90-%95 of the time, and screw with you the rest of the time. Every now and then, it needs to let you know who’s in charge. Every now and then, it needs you to to know that you are not safe. Playing out this manipulation and bending of the rules is truly what keeps tensions running high.

My first example of this will be the save point system. In Project Zero II, you may save at the ‘spirit lanterns’, pictured bellow. Generally the music by these lanterns is gentler, and the room itself acts as a sort of ‘safe room’. Most horror games have a ‘saferoom’ type place as part of their mechanic, where you can have some downtime to rest your character, save, sometimes buy items. PZII’s spirit lanterns act as this… but only when they’re on.

The lantern has a dim glow. (you can save now).

I was about halfway through the game and clearly subconsciously comfortable that when I walked into a room with a lantern, I was freaking safe. I could put the controller down a moment, take a breath, then save. I had just done that, in fact, when suddenly I heard the telltale ‘heartbeat’ soundtrack used when a ghost was either attacking, or trying to communicate with me.

The lantern went out.

This artist sums up my initial reaction perfectly.

It was that same feeling of violation when you walk into your bedroom and can tell someone’s been in there when you weren’t around. It was the same feeling when you thought something was a sure thing, a safe thing, and suddenly someone turns around and tells you, “Nope.”

The first time this happened, I was shown ghostly images of the history of the place, but when the game was done showing me this the lantern came back on. I made the mistake of assuming that was the only time it would happen – or if it did again, it would be the same thing.

The next time I encountered the problem, the lantern was off to begin with, and I was jumped by a malevolent ghost.

“NO GAME, NO,” I remember screaming at the screen, “YOU DON’T GET TO DO THAT, YOU LIED TO ME.”

 

Going back to that false sense of security mechanic (and I’ll be brief with this because I’ll mention it in the ‘Music & Sound’ section too), this is my main gripe against Amnesia: The Dark Descent – they missed a massive opportunity to further freak out their audience, by not manipulating sound to their advantage to keep the player on edge.

Not that Amnesia didn’t have wonderful audio, because it did – but the creaks and bumps and little whispers layered within the background audio channels were never more than just that – sounds that played every now and then. For the first couple hours of play they did shock and concern me, until I realise one key thing – nothing was every going to happen when I heard those. They were just sounds, as part of the ambient track. After that point of realisation, walking around to the tune of those sounds became a bit well… boring.

To help keep the tension up, in Project Zero II, a lot of the background snippets of sound effects layered into the ambient audio were also tied to ghost appearances and cues. Most of the time you would simply hear it in the background. But every now and then, it had a chance to mean something. Usually just as you’d gotten used to a particular muffled scratching sound as just being part of the ambiance, abruptly it would mean some chick was climbing out of a box to get you. Again, I will go further into this later.

Woman In Box

My box, but only sometimes.

Speaking of boxes… another mechanic aiding with the tension, was the trolling of particular ghosts. Or the ‘let me think about whether I feel like jumping out at you right now’ mechanic.

The box pictured above is a kimono box. There is not much difference between it, and the other kimono boxes scattered throughout the game which are simple props or background decoration. Or maybe the ‘Woman in Box’ teleports between them, or uses some sort of sophisticated underground network of tunnels. We don’t know. All we know is that sometimes she’s lurking in there, waiting, and sometimes it’s just a box. It’s never just one or the other – there is always a chance, and it could be you’ve already turned away from it before she starts crawling out…

 

The bigger picture is – nothing in safe, not really. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. The game gives you enough of a rule-set that you are comfortable it’s not just trolling you, but plays bendy with that ruleset enough to keep the tensions high. Don’t trust it. don’t trust it ever.

 

Might Happen, Might Not

The first thing you may notice upon talking to multiple people about the game is their varied experiences. Some things that have happened to one person didn’t happen to others at all, and they might have their own unique thing that happened. I am not sure how this works in the game itself – whether you have to be doing specific things or be in a specific area at a given time to trigger particular little frights, quirks and/or jump-scares. I have played the game about three times, and each time some things I remembered happened, some didn’t, and one or two new things befell me. Let me give an example.

There is one ghost called the ‘Fallen Woman’. You might here people referring to her as the ‘Fucking Fallen Woman’. This is because she loves to drop in unexpectedly.

“I was in the area. Thought I might drop in.”

After she was first introduced, I thought I had it figured out pretty quickly. ‘Enter a large room with a staircase, an atrium or a big hallway. Stairwell room (especially one with a grandfather clock) is 90% more likely. Piercing scream, lady falls on me and crabwalks around the place like a freak. I guess I’ll just have to remember this’. There was also another so-far unspoken room about small storage-cupboard like rooms. Something creepy could happen in them, but generally they were for picking up items, some scary sounds, or in my case a place to hide in and go “NOPENOPENOPE” for a while and switch out my ability orbs (the game freezes when you go to your menu. I just liked going into a tiny safe room to do it). Encounters generally did not happen in cupboard-rooms. because you know, how the hell is is fair to fight a ghost with a camera in a 1 by 1.5 metre space?

This has only ever happened to me once, and my friends maintain it was likely a bug. I have heard of it happening to another though.

The fallen lady broke the rules, and fell on me inside a cupboard.

Inside. My fucking. Cupboard.

I think mid-way through hearing her desperate scream I was still in a state of shock. Then when she actually fell on me, I ran out into the hallway screaming (at first, I could not open the door). She then proceeded to fall into the hallway. At this point all other doors leading out were ‘held shut by a mysterious force’ until I killed her.

 

Sound & Music

The game sounds lovely. Apart from some quite disconcerting voice acting at times (mostly restricted to the first game), the sound plays a massive part in sucking you into the environment.

There isn’t so much music, per se, as there are a number of different ambient tracks – some restricted to location and what point of the game you’re at, with a few that you hear mixed in with others as you play, from start to finish. Mixed in with these, as mentioned previously in the section about Tension, are environmental sounds – files that are also sometimes used to signify something creepy happening. You never quite know when it will be one or the other. As for the ambient tracks themselves, they all blend quite seamlessly, and certain elements of them gradually wear on your calm, especially if you play for hours on end. I still suffer from walking through my house in the dead of night sometimes, when one of the easily remembered tracks floats back into my mind, and accompanies me up the stairs (seriously, this was a massive problem for me, hearing Project Zero music in my head when navigating places at night. I had to train myself to start replacing it with the Hercules theme). That music track I linked you to at the top of the article, ‘Sunken Fireplace?’ Okay, if it’s night time… turn it up, leave  it playing, then turn all the lights off and walk through your house. Do it. This composer knows exactly what sounds and tunes you don’t want to hear at night.

Every environmental sound effect also seems overly harsh against the quietly creepy backdrop as well, which was something that made me quite uncomfortable. I don’t know about you guys, but if I was in a haunted village, I would be opening my doors far more quietly than that.

Even worse though, really is when the music stops altogether, leaving you alone with your thoughts. This usually happens to prompt you to search for something out of the ordinary, or because an event is about to take place. For how the music adds to the creep of the game, though, you feel oddly worse when you walk through a door and it drops out altogether. ‘Oh shit, this room is so bad not even the music will follow me in here’. You realise that even the music had a form of security in it, at the very least from its ever-present familiarity. Double-whammy that with an off lantern, and you’re pretty screwed.

 

The F%*&ing Dolls

OH JOY.

Why are dolls creepy? Is it because they try their little non-existent hearts out to be as human-looking as they can, but just not close enough? If you’ve not heard of the term Uncanny Valley, that’s what it’s about. For those who don’t want to wiki, the basic meaning is ‘something that is very close to human looking, but just different or unnatural enough to our perception that it comes across as creepy, freaky, even disgusting’. There is something slightly off (sometimes more than slightly) that makes our brain go ‘nope, not human but trying to trick me that it is’,  and warns us to stay the hell away.

This is where the doll-creep comes in. They are too close to what we are. It is a trope, yes, to include the creepy-doll factor in a game, but you can use it as a cheap scare, or you can do it well, and Project Zero does – namely in the form of a child-sized doll you encounter mid-way through the game.

When I whisper Kiryu House, it is with the fear of someone who has seen things. Without revealing too much about the game, the Kiryu House, which you read about mid-way through, was home to two twins earlier in the village’s history, who’s father was a doll-maker. CERTAIN EVENTS lead to him making a life-size doll of one of his daughters, and then, well…the rest was creep factor 10. There are rooms with small geisha dolls in it around other parts of the village, but this house has it all, and it is relentless. From rooms with tiny dolls hanging from nooses (sometimes one of them will drop at random on you and scare the poor living daylights out of Mio), to others where a ball is mysteriously rolled around from corner to corner, to having to collect pieces of life-sized doll and put them together like a puzzle… This whole house is one long nightmare.

 

Camera Angles

This is something that I mourned with the switching of Project Zero over to Wii, and the camera became one that simply followed in a  typical 3rd person fashion. PZII did this in hallways, sure, but in rooms, they played with the camera angles a little. from a Dutch Tilt here, to a ‘I’m being watched from behind something’ there, to having the camera POV switch and make it look like that person-shaped thing covered in a cloth is watching you – well, it does something for the paranoia.

Then there was that little room with the hexagonal window that didn’t have it’s own camera and forced you to use the Obscura to look– no no, I won’t spoil it.

 

My Stupid Sister

There is nothing more terrifying than being stuck in a haunted village where everything is trying to kill you, whilst having to babysit your incredibly stupid, creepy, limping twin sister. And I’m not saying that as someone who dislikes Mayu – it actually works to the game’s advantage when she gets in the way, or runs off, or stares at me with those concerned, frightened eyes like she isn’t imagining my hands around her throat.

I never had a close relationship with my own sister, which maybe is why I never felt protective over Mayu, if you’re meant to, but God she felt like a liability. Running off. Touching things. “Sweetie, this village is trying to kill us and lure us into some screwed up incestful ritual, can you NOT?” She didn’t have any special AI that urged her to screw with things and open boxes and push red buttons, but just the feeling of being the only one with their head screwed on right, taking the situation seriously, whilst your sister and her weak constitution keeps running off drawing you further into the web (seriously, she limps, I don’t know how she kept getting so far) is a bit of a burden. There is no one there to help you.

 

I am sure there is a bit I’m missing. Or a lot. I could probably talk about this game for a long, long time, but then, where would be the fun in that? Really, you have to experience it yourself. Maybe your experience will be different from mine. Maybe you won’t lie away in bed staring at the ceiling and constantly flicking your bedside lamp on and off. Maybe the Fallen Woman will fall on you inside a pantry. Maybe the red lantern will always be on for you.

Don’t take my word for it if you don’t want – go out and play it! I strongly suggest the original PS2 version, or the Director’s Cut Xbox 360 version – the voice acting irks me in the Wiimake, and you lose the extra element of the camera angles working against you. It also seems a bit buggy.

Next time I’ll talk about PAX, or the other horror games I mentioned, and maybe some little comic strips in between. Until then, save your game whilst the lantern is glowing! If you’ve played PZII, as well, I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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