Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fatal Frame, and other things that go bump in the night

Generally, when one thinks of "Survival Horror" in the video game world, the Resident Evil series will be the first name that pops up, followed by Silent Hill. To me, they both miss the point.

While both games can fall into a "survivoristic" mode, I've never found that much horror in them. Sure, Resident Evil has zombies, or mutants or whatever, but it's always been another run-around-and-shoot-stuff-that-moves game to me. It might as well be Nazis. You are trained military with guns, fer christs sake! You BETTER be able to survive those things. Walking around with a loaded shotgun doesn't really provide me with a sense of impending doom, knowing full well I can blast whatever beasty is around the next corner into 40 little pieces.

And Silent Hill, which dabbles more than a bit in the supernatural, winds up just coming off as just plain weird more than scary. Nothing like the little mutant babies that just follow you around in Silent Hill 1 to be creepy...but the strange mannequin monsters, sure they are definitely strange, but hardly scary. And the whole "pyramid head monster rape scene" is a bit over the top.

Nope, if you want a true scary video game experience, you need to pick up one of the games in the lesser known Fatal Frame series.

Fatal Frame does scary the right way. You aren't running around with guns ablazing, not that guns will do you any good anyway against the ghosts. All you've got is a camera that, given enough time to focus, will "capture the essence" of the attacking spirit in question.

But, really, the scariness goes beyond the combat.

The camera is equipped with a raspy buzzer that alerts the player when something supernatural is around. And just because the buzzer starts going off, that doesn't mean you can see what's making it buzz. Sometimes it's an attacking ghost, other times it's a hidden "key" that must be photographed to be revealed to progress in the game. Occasionally it's a random haunt by a wandering spirit that has no care about you.

In other words, it doesn't just instantly jump monsters out at you, but alerts you to the fact that something MAY be jumping out at you in the very near future. Which makes a lot of difference.

I've recently started revisiting Fatal Frame due to the fact that there's a Fatal Frame 4 coming out in Japan for the Wii (exclusive). Which means, hopefully, a winter U.S. release.

Fatal Frame
is the gold standard as far as I'm concerned in trying to make a haunted house game work well. It's one of my design goals to somehow capture the spirit of it in a board game format. Somehow. Some day.

There already exists a fan-created Fatal Frame card game in print-and-play format. The game uses imagery from the video game source well to make a very pretty looking game. But ultimately, like most adventure-ish card-based games, it's a collection of CCG-like cards that interact with each other, that tell the basic story of a Fatal Frame-like game. Which is fine, but I'd love to see a method that can somehow create a general sense of uneasiness and spookiness, if not real scares.

Granted, that wish of mine is a hard target to meet. The emotional responses that something like Fatal Frame creates is due to the complete sensory look and sound of the game, and of the pacing of various elements. It's tough to get that out of a pile of quiet cardboard.

Anyway, in my search for info on Fatal Frame 4, I've come across some pretty funny YouTube videos of a bunch of guys playing the Fatal Frame games, which give you a pretty good sense of the "jumpiness" Fatal Frame provides. Now, I have no idea if "Brad" in the videos is really freaking out, or if he's just joking around, but the videos are pretty hilarious.

And, I should note, the audio is rated:

The one brilliant thing that Fatal Frame does that really enhances the scare factor is that the game lets the player switch from your standard 3rd person viewpoint when exploring to 1st person, which is required to take a photo through the camera (to deal damage). The 3rd person lets you see things out of the corner of your eye, and the 1st person really captures a claustrophobic feel, as it's easy to lose the ghost while in "battle view." And then when you least expect it, that ghost which looked far away in 3rd person view is actually right on top of you.

"It's a f***ing doll!"

"Wait a minute, they want me to look through here..."

"Oh, and there's blood all over the mirror."

"It's like The Ring!"

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Blogger Joe - said...

Thanks for mentioning my Fatal Frame card game!

About replicating the spooky, uneasy horror feeling... one of my early builds of the FF card game had the ghosts not as playable cards, but as cards that you had to deal with as you drew them. So you draw a card as normal, but if it is a ghost, it would attack and you would have to use other cards to capture it or face the consequences. I had hoped this would lead to players becoming "fearful" of drawing cards... but it seemed unbalancing, because if one player was unlucky and kept drawing ghosts it become just mean. Plus I grew to prefer the screw-your-opponent nature of playing ghosts against each other.

Just one of many abandoned ideas... I probably did not investigate it very thoroughly!

10:05 PM  

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