Sunday, 16 October 2016

October Nightmares II #16: Clock Tower (1996) - Runs With Scissors

As a sub-genre of horror movies, the slasher has proven reliable for providing audiences with cheap scares and z-list actors with work. The formula was established in the Sixties with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and the Italian ‘Yellow’ films, before really hitting its stride in the late Seventies and the Eighties with films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nowadays, the slasher is largely the preserve of the hack director seeking to replenish the cocaine bucket as cheaply as possible. The slasher should translate well into a video game format - it’s a genre that wears its murder-stiffy on its sleeve after all - but for whatever reason there’s rarely been a decent slasher game. There's Obscure and Until Dawn, sure, but slasher games are mostly like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre game that was basically an obstacle course in which you play as a man with a twizzling nob sticking out of his chest. 

Clock Tower, released for the Playstation by Human Entertainment, was one of the first attempts to properly capture the structure and feel of the slasher; thrusting you into the shoes a teenage girl whose only method of self-defence is to flee and scream. Like how most of my dates end really. For its time Clock Tower was revolutionary; whilst horror games were settling down into the gritty struggle of survival horror, Clock Tower sought to do away with the cocktail of weapons and healing items and replace them with…nothing. A horror game which locks off all the player’s defensive options may seem quaint nowadays - what with Amnesia, Outlast, Penumbra, and the whole cottage industry that’s sprung up around overacting Youtubers like PewDiePie. But back in 1996 Clock Tower made a game about a man coming out of the closet genuinely chilling – like how gay lawyers must have felt when watching Philadelphia. 

Video game naming conventions being as nebulous as they are, Clock Tower is actually the second game in the series. It’s the sequel to Clock Tower (1995), later renamed First Fear, and this game directly follows its story. Which is problematic as the 1995 game was exclusive to the SNES and never released outside of Japan. But I quite liked the effect this disparity caused as principal antagonist Scissorman already has a mythos built up around him. It captures the sentiment of a good horror sequel without being inaccessible the player. The setup is thus: 12 months after the events of First Fear, traumatised sole survivor Jennifer is in therapy trying to recover when another series of grisly murders breakout – prompting Jennifer (or secondary protagonist Helen) to seek the truth behind this mystery. Not a masterpiece of storytelling by any means, but what do you expect from a slasher setting? The first one’s always teenagers fucking and getting killed, and the sequel’s usually the hardened survivor trying to finish the job.

The game handles fairly uniquely, combining point-and-click adventure game exploration and puzzle solving with tense survival horror. As is the case with I Have No Mouth, the player navigates their way through the world by clicking on the screen to either move in that direction or interact with a particular object. But whereas I Have No Mouth, or say Broken Sword and Monkey Island, featured mostly static screens where the player is free to spend as long as they want trying to solve a particular puzzle, Clock Tower added the looming spectre of the Scissorman into the mix. He shows up at scripted (and occasionally, random) intervals, forcing the player to flee or try and fight him off. But as a point-and-click game on a console without analogue sticks inevitably moves like a cripple trying to walk up the down escalator, the escape scenes are even more tense than intended. Yes, Scissorman stalks towards the player like he shat himself two weeks ago and still hasn’t gotten around to changing his pants; but it’s still initially tense when you’re trying to figure where you’re supposed to hide, or what you’re supposed to use to fight off Scissorman. Even if some of this impact is lost during that one time you escape by throwing a blanket over your pursuer. This really happens – it’s like an episode of Scooby-Doo. 

Clock Tower trades in the Dario Argento-esque dreamy atmosphere of the original for an out and out recreation of the slasher. A warts-and-all recreation that sacrifices the supernatural atmosphere (replete with murderous mirrors) found in First Fear in favour of cheesy dialogue, even cheesier scares, and a disposable cast of characters. It’s a cheesy slasher filtered through a Japanese perspective on Western horror. The final third of the game takes place in a castle for fuck’s sake. Looking back on Clock Tower it’s difficult to see exactly what was scary about the game. As a villain Scissorman really hasn’t aged well, he looks like he’s been kicked by a horse and he’s definitely not ‘all-there’. That infamous scene with him spazzing out in rocking chair is meant to be on par with Psycho, but Scissorman instead comes across closer to Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.

However, Clock Tower does still offer a unique and eerie gaming experience. It’s the lack of any sound other than ambient white noise in most scenes which helps. Noise is only really used for the chase sequences or to otherwise scare the player. I still feel that Clock Tower does ‘run-away-and-hide’ horror better than, say, Outlast. Because in Outlast it’s haunted house attraction style catharsis, and you can run away in any direction giggling. At least in Clock Tower you have to be more proactive and tactical in order to escape. If Clock Tower was your house and it was being burnt to the ground, it’d make you find all the crest pieces before you could escape.