Monday, 24 October 2016

October Nightmares II #24: Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (2003) - Camera Shy

As we’ve already delved in what is considered to be the greatest horror game ever made (Silent Hill 2, ‘natch), I thought that I should take a look at Fatal Frame II – a horror game many hold up as the scariest. Being the best and being the scariest are not necessarily the same thing, after all. Now that horror video gaming is well beyond its Golden Age I find that, increasingly, many are hiding behind gimmicky mechanics because they no longer know to frighten. They're like the middle-aged marketing executive who works for Müller clumsily trying to cling to his youth, and prove he’s down with the kids, by creating an advert about a rapping bear.

The list of gimmicks is endless. Forbidden Siren, for example, forced the player to see the world from the enemies’ eyes; Amnesia and Outlast removed all defensive options from the player, and Slender was essentially an entire game which revolved around a single jump scare repeated thirty times. In Fatal Frame II the gimmick is that you can only remove its ghostly enemies by taking pictures of them; as though they’re male celebrities coming out of a gay sauna and you’re the paparazzo trying to snap the career-ruining moment. Personally I blame this influx of gimmicks on the Resident Evil Gun Survivor light-gun games. For no specific reason other than those games were deep-fried garbage - and I will never not take this piss out of them- but also because Resident Evil was the first top-tier horror franchise to show it had no plan of where to go once its central concept was no longer frightening.

To its credit, Fatal Frame II is a particularly chilling game with a gimmick that works alongside the horror aspects. The camera works as a means of focusing in on the game’s most terrifying moments, and providing a novelty weapon. Set in a rural Japanese village, FF2 follows sisters Mayu and Mio (yes, this is Escort Mission: The Game) who become lost in the woods after Mayu decides to ‘follow the crimson butterfly’. Shall I make a drugs metaphor or a period joke? There's another one of those carefully crafted Alice in Wonderland style crossing the threshold of reality moments loved by wanky English Lit teachers who talk about transgression and boundaries. Except in FF2 it’s somewhat less effective than Lone Survivor as, being a J-Horror game, I had no idea of what any of it was supposed to mean. J-Horror is notoriously not too dissimilar to two drunken Scousers arguing – can’t make head nor tail of what’s happening, but it scares the fuck out of me regardless.

Fatal Frame II is your typical Silent Hill-Forbidden Siren style survival horror game: awkward controls, Dutch camera angles, claustrophobic environments, and a level design that's darker than a black hole containing all the Oreo factories in the universe. The primary difference is that FF2 goes in more for the haunted house atmosphere akin to The Woman in Black. From the lifeless village to creaky dilapidated buildings where objects fly off the shelves and things go bump, and each shadowy corner that conceals a terrifying ghost - FF2 is a relatively subdued experience. Unlike Silent Hill, the ambience in FF2 starts as a whisper and before slowly building into a pulsating crescendo. Like you’re having aggressive phone sex with a jobbing actor who plays King Lear part-time. The terror really kicks off when you go full David Bailey and try to snap the ghosts, only for a soundtrack that can only be described as the radio static they get in Hell plays. Japanese horror has this off-putting peculiarity about it, and I’m not talking about the fact these sisters, with their Japanese school girl charm, were clearly designed with the Deviant Art crowd in mind.

The pissed off poltergeists represent the simmering resentment, anger, and hate that comes with horror only a deeply repressed culture could produce. And that in turn made the ghosts even more frightening. Especially when the only recourse this game gives you is the ability to exercise them your ‘magic’ camera. That’s easier said than done, considering using the camera means using first person mode and using first person mode greatly limits your peripheral vision, and the ghosts relocate more than a travelling funfair. Essentially, the Camera Obscura (that’s its real name, and it is named for a real thing) is a pretentious Proton Pack from Ghostbusters. You even get ammo for it in the form of different types of film which have a variety of effects on the ghosts. 

Pragmatically the only reason for the developer to choose a camera over a gun is to make jump scares easier. Well, you also catalogue the ghosts in a manner that's part Pokémon Snap and part Luigi's Mansion. The photos you take score you points depending on quality (something Dead Rising would later copy and expand upon), and you can save the best ones in album to look over later. Which kinda seems off message when the ghosts are supposed to make you want to look away. Does the game actually want me to open the album and look at this photograph? Because everytime I do it makes me laugh. Fatal Frame II actually earns its jump scares, however, through a thoroughly nail-biting atmosphere and genuinely creepy ghost designs. Maybe not the scariest game ever, but it’s a concept worth developing. Get it? As in photo developing? Ah fuck you millennials and your digital everything.