[29 October 2013]
The horror genre is in part built upon the notion of upending expectations. It’s similar to comedy in that regard. The end goal and therefore methods for achieving it, of course, being somewhat different. In comedy, the interest of the artist is in subverting expectations and changing directions at the last moment. In horror, the interest lies in twisting and prolonging expectations, all the way to their breaking points.
At a more fundamental level, the mediums in which a particular work is a part of have different methods for conveying meaning. One of the less acknowledged forms in games is the feel of play. Video games in particular are tactile in nature due to a constant connection to the controller or other input device that connects the player to the game. It is important both how it feels for the player to input commands as it is to how it feels to receive a response in moment to moment interactions. However, due to the nature of the interactive cycle, there is a limit to how much you can upend the expectations of input and output.
Atmospherically, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is one of the creepiest games that I’ve ever played. Few games can throw a player so off kilter so quickly. It opens with a cutscene of twin sisters Mio and Maya in a bright idyllic looking forest clearing. Mio is talking, and when she turns around, Maya is gone. After looking around, she finds her sister going deeper into the forest following some crimson butterflies. The camera shakes around and changes angles very quickly. Things begin to blur as the very air begins to vibrate, which is communicated directly to the player via the rumble feature of the controller. Something that took me doubly by surprise because I laid my controller on my desk and it created a very loud clattering sound.
The world has transformed around you. Mio crosses a Shinto gate and meets up with her sister overlooking a village from a mountain pass. You have no choice but to make both characters go forward. The only noise is the noticeable crunch of gravel beneath their feet. In another cutscene, Mio kneels down after she has seen a vision. Her sister places a reassuring hand on her shoulder, and Mio grasps it. Maya walks by her to look at a house, but the hand is still there.
In very short order Fatal Frame II has twice quickly upended my understanding of the world that I have been placed in. And it has yet to put me in danger. It’s twisting the cord and stretching it out, creating tension and an ever present sense of dread. Both the music and sound design are pitch perfect, also creating an uneasy setting, and the art that defines the village suggests a certain understanding of what we will find within it. That by itself could be scary enough, but the game emerged during the era of the PlayStation 2. Horror hadn’t adopted the pared down design of the current crop of games.
Fatal Frame II ends up with a number of mechanics you have to learn throughout your journey and elements that you have to keep track of. But at the beginning, the only act of play that Fatal Frame II has the player perform is walking, or when holding down a button, jogging and picking up items. Each new mechanic is introduced by itself, layering in the complexity and teaching the visual clues for each required interaction. The first house that you enter may as well be the tutorial section of the game.
Opening doors is such a simple thing in most games. But in Crimson Butterfly, the first third of the entry of this house is devoted only to exploring and most importantly opening doors. Every time that you press the button to open a door, Mio slowly approaches it, puts her hands on the knob (or within its slats), seemingly counts to three, and then jerks it open halfway. She then proceeds to slowly open it the rest of the way. It’s an unskippable animation, but it doesn’t include going through it. The game hands control back to you for that honor. The camera remains in place so that when you are walking into a room you can barely see for several steps before it jump cuts inside and the door closes behind with a sharp click.
At every point that door could easily be pulled open, but the game lingers on the action. There’s a fear of the unknown in Mio’s movements that makes her act tentatively. The wait to be able to complete the action builds the tension. The question of what is behind the door builds in your mind. What could have been a simple instruction has been prolonged to build anticipation and, given the circumstances, dread. This comes to be played with as well as preyed upon.
Most doors have an empty space right in front of the opening, so the tension slackens a little as we see there is no immediate threat. We may not know what is the left or right of the small section of the room that we can see, but we deem the door itself safe, though one of the doors in the house has a hanging kimono right on the other side of the door. From the camera’s perspective, opening that door makes it appear that the garment is blocking the entrance. But it is the sharp contrast between bright color and what we mostly we see in the game’s settings (browns and blacks) that comes in the shape of a human figure that subtly startles the player. Even after entering the room a number of times and knowing what to expect, this detail still worms its way under one’s skin.
Eventually you will find the Camera Obscura, the only weapon that you have against the ghosts. What were once images in the distance become slightly more common sights. In the front room, you will see a ghost enter a room you’ve already explored. If you’re quick enough you can exorcise it, but the ghost indicates a point of interest. Once again, you have to open the door. Only this time there is a blue face peeking around the half opened sliding door. Mio stumbles back. The door is now held closed by an unseen force. To unlock it, you have to stand in front of it and wait for the ghost to emerge from the blue aura and reach out to you before snapping a picture to exorcise it.
The exploration of the house ends with what amounts to a boss fight. You encounter the spirit of the woman whose journal you’ve been finding scraps of around the place. You’ve used the Camera Obscura before to banish ghosts, but here is where the design of the camera’s mechanics really become apparent.
Over the years, games have codified certain actions to certain familiar controller layouts. Since the Nintendo Entertainment System, moving has always been something controlled on the left side of the controller. To this day, move is always mapped to the left analog stick in most games. This is true of both third person and first person perspective games. Likewise, the camera is now traditionally assigned to the right analog stick. Fatal Frame II follows this convention. Though you don’t have control of the camera (the game features static viewpoints on its world that switch upon entering certain areas), character movement is still assigned to the left analog stick. That is, until you bring up the Camera Obscura. When you bring the camera up to use it, you switch to the first person perspective.
It’s hard to think about something like controls when you are trying to save your sister from an angry spirit coming out of the walls. You have to the center the ghost in the camera’s frame and wait for the camera to register the apparition so that you can take a shot and cause it damage. The ghosts in this game walk slowly, but they take several “shots” of damage before they vanish. With each shot, you have to make sure that the camera recognizes the ghost indicated by a circle in the frame or you end up taking a picture of nothing—even if the ghost is visible. Plus, after each photo, you have to wait for the camera’s film to reload. The slow pace of these battles contrasts with the kinetic feel of the danger. Again, the game is prolonging the sense of danger.
As the ghost comes in close, the normal reaction one has is to put some distance between us. I would try and move backwards as the film reloaded, then I’d end up looking at the floor or ceiling. Suddenly I’d panic as the ghost moved in and I tried to recenter it in the frame as my only line of defense. Control of the Camera Obsucra is assigned to the left analog stick and character movement to the right. After years of playing games that drill into your head that left is move and right is look, having the script flipped on you can cause all type of problems—even more so in a tense situation.
What’s interesting is that you’re fine until the ghost gets in close. Using the left analog stick to aim the camera by itself is easy. You’re perfectly fine doing so. It’s when you have to add in the second thumb that you’re brain settles into old habits and everything becomes a lot harder as you fight your training in addition to the spirits from beyond. The game doesn’t let you get used to these controls either, as the rest of the play time is spent using the familiar standard analog stick controls layout.
The art direction and sound mixing set the mood of the village. It creates an atmosphere that puts us on edge, but a backdrop by itself isn’t going to scare anybody. Instead the game uses that to frame the action. By having the location itself disturb us, it then crafts interactions that lengthen our stay and focuses our attention on what may or may not be there. Finally, the game strikes by upending our expectations. Mechanics are designed to formalize certain player behaviors. The game feel changes depending on the existence of a threat or not. Without the otherworldly beings, the game functions normally. The rules change when they make their presence known.