(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
So I played through Fatal Frame II.
The cover says not to play the game alone. That was my first clue that this would be bad. My fiancée was unimpressed and refused to sit next to me while I played though. That’s okay, I have a blow-up doll.
Turning the game on, I was treated to a bright, upbeat, adventure-like menu-screen song. Maybe the game wouldn’t be too bad. Of course, that’s why the game started with a cutscene of two 12-year-old girls getting lost in the woods.
The game made me walk through the dark, creepy woods before giving me the title screen. Through this walk, nothing happened. And by nothing, I mean nothing. No enemies, no music, nothing. Nothing but the sound of footsteps. The path led me to an abandoned village.
Outside the first house of the village, I was treated to another cutscene. My character, who, again, is a 12-year-old girl, felt her sister’s hand on her shoulder. Then her sister walked past, and the hand remained.
That was creepy. I soldiered on.
The house was abandoned; still, no music. I was treated to wide-angle shots of the front room, the rafters and pieces of walls littering the floor, impeding my way. I maneuvered around them, toward the door.
As I reached the door, music began to swell. Ah, this I recognize. I’m a veteran of the Resident Evil series; I know when something is going to jump out at me. I went to open the door, and I got… a cutscene. No jumping enemies, rather a ghostly vision of a man in a lab coat murdering a woman. For a moment, I am that twelve year old girl, and her fear is mine. Then it dissipated. Something was going to jump out at me. It had to, right?
Pushing forward, I went to open the door. The game opened it for me and left me there, staring into the empty hallway. That’s right, unlike the RE games, opening a door leaves you standing, staring into an empty room, forcing you to move forward on your own. It seems minor, but the differences are astounding.
I was strong. I was invincible. I was a 12-year-old girl. I would not be stopped!
I pushed forward, into… nothing. No music. No jump scares. Nothing. I was especially on edge, for I knew something must occur. I continued. The game gave me just enough time to calm down before the heartbeats started. The room turned blood red, and I heard a ghostly voice:
“I’ve been waiting for you…”
Here comes the jump! I angled the camera around to get a good view, only to find a shadowy figure moving away from me, down a hallway. It was all gone before I got a good look. No music. No heartbeats. No ghost.
I was on the edge of my seat by this point. I followed, allowing the game to lead me to another room, empty but for the flashlight on the table. “An item!” I thought. ‘Finally, gameplay I understand!’ I moved to grab it and was treated to another cutscene. My character grabbed the flashlight, yes, but also an antique camera in the corner. Then another ghostly vision, this time of a person trying to take a picture with the camera, only to be grabbed by dozens of ghostly hands.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the music swelled. The heartbeats returned. The game treated me to ghostly whispers from just outside the door. The camera pulled a close-up on my character’s face, and then the door. Then another, closer shot. The heartbeats became as pounding drums! Is that the game, or is it my heart, knowing that I must be finally building up to a battle? The cutscene ended…
And then I saw my health and status information appear in the corner, realizing that up until that point I had not even been playing the game proper. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the cutscene left me in the room, forcing me to go to the door on my own. There was still no battle there. The battle wouldn’t be for another ten or fifteen minutes!
The entire game is like this. Instead of using enemies to build horror and suspense like many ‘survival horror’ games, it uses ambiance and mood. The ghostly battles are kept few, and many ghosts are there for storytelling purposes so you never get comfortable with the ghosts’ “existence.” Each ghost is carefully crafted so that you can tell by looking at them how they died. Much of the story information is delivered via audio cues and cutscenes instead of text, forcing you to experience the story instead of simply reading it.
The pacing builds the story marvelously. There’s a few times where I wasn’t entirely certain where to go next, but I never felt that the game was too confusing (rather, I was simply a poor investigator). The ambiance is so spectacularly done that even when I defeated a ghost, I didn’t feel safe. The ghost itself was not the enemy. The village was the creature I battled. And what battling could I do as a 12-year-old girl? My only weapon was a camera, a camera I found in the very village I was trying to escape. My helplessness was a constant companion, even though I continued to persevere.
Finally, though, I beat the game. I had not merely battled ghosts, but experienced their final moments upon this earth. I had been forced by crazed spirits to complete a hell-spawned ritual and kill my sister. I had been shocked, scared, startled, horrified; but in the end, I had won. The game would never again draw me into its gaping hellmouth. I looked to the screen, middle finger extended, intent on telling it of my victory.
Its response? “Costumes Unlocked.”
“Well played,” I thought as I began to play again. “Well played indeed.”