Fatal Frame 2 is a survival horror game that plays with the interplay between abstraction and firm understanding. Using game mechanics that constantly shift the player’s view of the game space, it disorients while still allowing the player multiple perspectives of the same game details. You can read the description of an object, look at it from the third person, and observe it from the first person perspective. From these multiple angles, it is easy to understand how a rich, frightening abstract game space is crafted.
The overall plot is kept simple. You play Mio, whose twin sister Mayu has accidentally wandered into the Lost Village. The local residents were in the habit of sacrificing little girls, and they aren’t going to let being dead stop them. You race around the village trying to keep your sister safe and escape all the ghosts chasing you. The game is also one of the strongest examples of reasonably well depicted female characters in a video game. It passes the Bechdel test. The twins have emotions but keep their shit together, and there isn’t a Daddy issue for miles around.
Fatal Frame 2
The individual houses in the village is where the plot shines, each acting as a self-contained narrative that relates to the larger issue of the story of the village’s grisly past. Each house is filled with audiobooks (in the form of memory crystals), bits of text, and dozens of audiovisual cues representing the various elements of the gruesome events in each of them. The home of an insane doll maker who replaced his lost child with a possessed replica or the house where someone’s wife was thrown to her death are just two examples.
Eventually you encounter these spirits and confront them in the game. The variety of details and their various forms of delivery means that the player is always creating an abstract understanding of what happened. There is no one concrete version. There is the visual imagery along with the text, cutscenes, and audio cues that represent fragmented pieces of an understanding of such events.
In some ways, this approach would not be feasible for a game trying to tell a linear narrative. If you want to be absolutely certain that a player will hear or see something, you have to lock them into a cutscene. Fatal Frame 2 is able to leave it events as vague and abstract because it is an intrinsic element of Japanese ghost stories that they be so. An article at Chris’ Survival Horror Quest, a web site by a Silicon Valley based game designer, points out that culturally the Japanese tend to alternate between Buddhism and Shinto beliefs when it comes to ghosts. The Yuurei are ghosts or spirits that have been stranded in this world because of unfinished business or because they died while experiencing intense emotions. (Chris, “Chris’s Guide To Understanding Japanese Horror”, Chris’ Survival Horror Quest, 2006)
Additionally, Chris quotes horror author Koji Suzuki’s description of the overall difference between horror stories in Western and Eastern cultures:
To me, blood-and-gore horror movies are for kids… Kids are taken in by that sort of stuff. But real fear, the genuine article, has to stimulate the adult imagination. In America and Europe most horror movies tell the story of the extermination of evil spirits. Japanese horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours.
For this reason, a Japanese horror game is often unconcerned about resolving spiritual issues. Ghosts just exist. There is a unique advantage of not getting bogged down in explaining supernatural details in the narrative because the whole point is to play on the person’s worst fears. Leaving the dark unspeakable evil unexplained is better because the moment you reduce it to words or images the player’s imagination no longer feeds it. The abstraction loses traction.
In Fatal Frame 2 the function of the Crimson Sacrifice, where one twin murders the other to satisfy a demonic gateway, is never really explained in any logical manner. It just is. The ghostly powers and flashbacks are never painstakingly explained in detail. These events simply happen, and you don’t understand them anymore than your character Mio. The player is welcomed to invent whatever horrible reason that they want for the game’s gruesome circumstances. Thus, it’s not really a problem that the game never holds your hand in the individual houses or the larger story. You just pick up what bits you can and figure out the rest.
Fatal Frame 2 develops this concept through the interplay between the abstractions of Japanese horror and the various ways of looking in the game itself. Your weapon in the game, the Camera Obscura, allows you to switch from a third-person perspective to a first-person perspective. This is a very disorienting experience because the way that you navigate a virtual space is intrinsically different in the two modes. In third-person, you identify your location by gauging the proximity of your avatar to the objects around you. In first-person, it is by gaiging the proximity of objects to the screen. When you’re walking along in third-person view, a ghost will suddenly jump out at you. To defeat it, you have to switch to the camera, creating a moment of confusion as the player struggles to adjust to perceiving where the ghost is from the first-person perspective.
An essay discussing this mechanic by Michael Nitsche explains, “It can demand frenetic adjustment of the viewpoint by the player to find the axis of action necessary to master the situation, a task that is complicated by minimal lighting and lack of visual landmarks. Mastering the first person POV becomes integral part of the title’s functionality and gaming experience. Ultimately the cut does not violate the spatial continuity but instead operates with it through the interactive feature and thus enforces the player positioning” (“Games, Montage, and the First Person Point of View”, Digital Games Research Association, June 2005).
The game plays with this alternating point of view in a variety of clever ways. Combat feels a bit like being under siege because you have to alternate perspectives to fend off ghosts. You need the third-person view to spot the ghost since they vanish and reappear in order to attack from multiple angles. Mio will automatically lock on to these ghosts once an indicator lights up, but she still has to face the ghost’s general direction. After that, a separate depth perception game commences because to maximize damage you have to let the ghost get fairly close in order to do much damage to it. So not only is there a disorienting perspective shift going on, the game leans heavily on the player by expecting them to maintain their own depth perception.
I’d say that by about the midway point I was proficient at switching point of views and that the fear these induced started wearing off. The game smartly adjusts for this loss of tension by shifting the focus onto your twin sister. She can be hurt or killed during combat if she is around, so that often during fights you have to worry more about keeping her alive than you do yourself. Multiple ghosts with unpredictable movement patterns amp up the difficulty, and at some points, the game leaves you defenseless.
Another unique play on abstraction in Fatal Frame 2 is the multiple ways that you can observe an object in the game. One of the stranger design quirks is that the game still relies on textual descriptions of objects in the game. This approach was important during the PS1 era because graphics were often too fuzzy or obscure for someone to always understand what they were looking at. On the PS2, the conceit is not really necessary and games like Silent Hill 2 only use it to draw the player’s attention to a key detail. In Fatal Frame 2, the game will flash messages like “The floor is horrifically splattered with blood” or “You see a demonic statute” at appropriate times The player can switch to the Camera Obscura and then examine the object for themselves. Such examination serves the same exorcising function as the camera does with ghosts because the player can remove the mystery from the object in this way. Several puzzles in the game require the player to use the camera in this manner, either by taking pictures of landmarks or by studying their environment from this perspective.
Cutscenes in the game are equally ambiguous and rarely devolve into explanation of the plot. Instead they are only used to release tension or increase anxiety. An essay by William Huber that goes into more detail about this idea suggests some similar ideas, “The oscillations between narrational, cinematic and operational modes are a kind of ‘catch and release’. The cut scenes and cinematics, during which the player is not called upon to act, release the compression created when the signs of the uncanny accumulated during operations are instead released into another kind of reading. This release is never complete: even as the player is transfixed by the phantasmic spectacle on the screen, the sequence may contain clues and indications which the player will need to progress through the game” (Ludological Dynamics in Fatal Frame 2, Software Studies Initiative, 19 June 2008).
My favorite moment of the game comes in Chapter 6 when Mio accidentally drops the Camera Obscura. You basically have to run a long loop between two houses to get back to the Camera, all while being chased by a freakish little girl ghost. The spirit is wickedly fast and vanishes for long periods of time. Locked doors and hidden keys block your progress as you try to stay one step ahead of the pursuit of the ghost. The game lets you get comfortable with your abilities and then yanks them away for the sake of administering a dose of adrenaline and fear.
It’s inevitably the struggle of any horror game to decide how much control should be given to a player. Too little and they get frustrated, too much and the game ceases to be scary in the proper sense of the word. Fatal Frame 2 has its flaws in this area, and when it’s not experimenting with various solutions (some of which work better than others), it is content to engage the player in less frightening dynamics. I’ve never been the photo collecting type, but a large amount of the game’s appeal is in methodically collecting every single photo of a ghost hidden in the game’s environment. This is no easy task and requires several playthroughs to accomplish.
To get an even remotely happy ending to the game, you’re going to have to play Fatal Frame 2 through at least twice, which might be the game’s most interesting quirk. It really takes a lot of work to find all the scattered details of its narrative. After playing so many horror games that always forced me to listen to elaborate explanations of why zombies are on the ship or what unspeakable evil someone dug up, it was refreshing to experience a game that just let the player find explanations for themselves. Fatal Frame 2 is a game that knows that some things are scarier left unsaid.