What if I told you that you actually didn’t know all that much about some of your old favorite games? Why it resonated with you so much or perhaps even what made them so great in the first place? What if there were some things in those very games that you took for granted, when in actuality they were flashes of brilliance in game design?
That is exactly what I’m telling you right now.
Don’t believe me? Read on and welcome to “Brilliance in Gaming.”
Before anything, I’d like to state that I’m not claiming to be the first person in the world to point these things out. It’s my desire to highlight what I find important not only to pay my own respects but also because I feel not enough people are aware of how profoundly effective some of these aspects are. That’s the reason why I’m starting the BiG article series.
The Fatal Frame series has become a classic among the horror game aficionados. Rightfully so, as the games are all terrifying, each with its own tragic story filled with malevolent spirits and locations no one in their right minds would willingly walk into.
Still, if you think about it, there are other games featuring ghosts and spooky settings (Ju-on, Calling, Cursed Mountain, etc.) that will never find itself in the same league as the Fatal Frame series. Why would that be? The answer is actually quite simple
It’s the camera.
Right now, you might be thinking, “I knew that, you asshole!” or, “marry me, you sexy bastard!” While both are entirely reasonable reactions, allow me to explain.
It’s not the fact that the tool to fight the ghosts is a camera that makes the difference but rather what that means both in the sense of game play and how it connects to the superstitions many of us hold in reality.
Fatal Frame is played normally through the third-person perspective. While the camera angles in which the player navigates in is fixed, it’s a view that gives sufficient spatial awareness to everything that’s going around the player.
When the player shifts into camera mode to fight off the evil spirits, the game switches to a claustrophobic first-person view where what they can see becomes quite limited. While still able to move to some degree, it’s very slow and entirely ineffective as a method to dodge attacks. However, to keep things fair the game allows a “sensor bar” which detects the proximity of the attacking spirit. It’s a light that becomes brighter the closer the player gets to having the ghost in their view.
In other games, it would be possible to back oneself to a corner and use a choke point to secure a good attacking position, but ghosts are no mere creatures. They are spirits, not bound by such trivial things like “walls”, “floors” or “pants”. They teleport around when it suits them, shifting through walls, floors and ceilings just to get the drop on the player. In one moment the spirit would be many yards away in front and in the next, it would be right behind, reaching its hand through the walls. Frantically trying to keep the ghost in view itself is difficult enough, but that’s not all as there’s more to do in order to exorcise the spirits.
The camera must remain directly on the ghost for a few seconds in order to focus otherwise it will do very little damage. The spirit must also be reasonably close or the focusing of lens would take too long. Lastly, the way to deal critical damage to a ghost is to capture an image the moment before it attacks. Given the player is given a limited amount of potent films to work with; it behooves the player to not waste the “ammo” and try to get the best shots in as possible.
So basically, this is scenario I present to you.
You’re locked in a haunted house armed only with a camera. The ghosts can and will appear at any time. They have the ability to teleport and move through walls. The only way you’re going to be able to kill them is by taking pictures of them. However, they better be really good pictures that are focused and right on target or they won’t work at all. In fact, you should take pictures of them the instant before they murder you for the best results.
That’s Fatal Frame in a nutshell.
The camera the player must use to fight is also the tool that makes them the most vulnerable, with low visibility and very little movement. The culmination of various elements required to be successful in combat encourages the player to observe all that the malevolent spirits have to offer, and take great risks in order to efficiently exorcise the ghosts. The game challenges the player to withstand its worst moments head-first to succeed and only those with a certain level of fortitude are capable of it. That already looks like a perfect recipe for horror but I’m not done yet. Now, let’s go beyond fiction- to reality.
Take a moment and try to Google, “Ghosts caught on camera.”
Don’t worry, as long as you open a new tab, I’ll still be here after you’re done.
All done? Good. (if you didn’t open a new tab and had to struggle back here, shame on you.)
What you’ll get is over a million results, many of which look incredibly fake and silly but among them are a handful that will send a chill down your spine. We’re all familiar with ghost stories and we’re aware that many people claim that there are spirits of the dead with attachments to the world that roam around without rest. In fact, many claim that they are undetectable with the five human senses but electronic devices like cameras, sound recorders and EMF meters can detect these spirits. Most of us may not believe this to be true but we do know that there are people who do. In fact, read this article titled, “Art of Stealing Souls” if you’re interested. It goes into detail about various cultures which find photography taboo to this day. So, we have a certain preconception when we’re approached with the connection between ghosts and cameras. It makes it feel even more unsettling, and somehow founded in reality whether we’re cognizant of it or not.
Also, the camera is something that’s found in every home, now more so than ever with the advent of smart phones. Hence, it’s a very relatable object that we’re all familiar with. Just as how news channels would often use terror techniques like, “something in your house might be dangerous to your children” to garner attention from their viewers, the idea that something we have ourselves has a function that we’re not aware of is frightening. In fact, I would challenge anyone to walk around their own house with all the lights off in the dead of night with the flash of their camera on, staring only at what the camera is showing them. While all of us reasonable people would like to believe that there would be nothing, there’s always that little piece of uncertainty in the back of our minds that will have us jump in terror and see things that don’t exist at all.
The implementation of the camera as a weapon in the Fatal Frame series is a triumph in game design. It not only manages to heighten the sense of tension by making the players feel more vulnerable, but also gives a certain risk versus reward factor that forces us to face the worst the game has to offer head-first in order to be successful. Then, it ties it all together by making it feel relatable and seemingly grounded in reality by playing at our popular preconceptions.
What more can I say other than to sum it up in one single word?
Fun Tidbit: Fatal Frame 1-2 have been re-released on PSN as PS2 classics and it’s a great way to check those games out if you haven’t already.