*MINOR SPOILERS (...of a thirteen year old game...) AHEAD*
Tecmo's Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (referred to hereon as FF2) remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest survival horror videogames of all time. Following the fate of twins, Mio and Mayu, as they’re spirited away to an isolated settlement hidden deep within the Japanese mountains, the game has a reputation for terrifying its players - as evidenced through its frequent inclusion in several ‘scariest games of all time’ lists. Focusing solely on the game’s opening chapter, in which the twins explore the game’s first environment, Osaka House, I'll explore the myriad techniques FF2 uses to elicit fear from the player and explain why it is I think this game has the capacity to terrify like no other.
Fear & Suppressed Agency
Any survival horror developer worth their salt knows that increasing a player's feelings of disempowerment is a highly effective strategy for enhancing their fear. The developers of FF2 knew this and suppressed player agency in a number of creative ways to instil feelings of terror within the player.
Not only does the game's excellent use of predetermined framing (a common feature in survival horror games from the early noughties) make a player feel trepidation as to what lies ahead, it's the game's highly original manipulation of perspective that is its real genius. While the game is mostly experienced through the third person perspective, this viewpoint shifts dramatically when engaging in combat. During fight sequences, the perspective changes from the third to the first person as the player attempts to exorcise the spirit by taking pictures of it using the Camera Obscura – the only means of ‘damaging’ the enemy. This feature - of forcing the player to switch perspectives while fighting an enemy - is a clever one. Games scholar, Kelly Boudreau, speaks of the way the third person perspective creates a broader field of vision for a player, enabling her to make more educated decisions in regards to gameplay. By contrast, the first person viewpoint restricts the player through a narrower field of vision, limiting a player's knowledge and demanding a more improvisatory approach to combat. Consequently, the loss of agency felt by the player as she's fighting the spirit in the first person viewpoint (who, by the way, also possesses the ability to teleport and attack from any direction!) creates a supremely unsettling experience.
FF2 also suppresses the agency of a player through the linearity of its level design. Not only is a player denied access to areas of the game world until she has completed the specific tasks demanded of the level - finding certain keys, taking particular photographs, etc. - she is also heavily guided by the onryō, Miyako Sudo, at several points throughout the opening chapter, as well. Scholars like Ewan Kirkland have spoken of the feelings of pre-determination experienced by a gamer when playing titles within the survival horror genre and the way in which the game designer’s insistence a player move along a pre-defined path echoes the controlling supernatural authorities to which the protagonist is subjected. Hence, the loss of agency a player is likely to feel as a consequence of the system’s high level of control may induce fearful sensations as she, like the protagonist, feels subject to the whim of higher powers.
Fear & Empathy
Another effective strategy for generating fear in the player lies in character empathy. Encouraging a player to empathise with the character she controls is a powerful utensil in any horror developer’s toolkit and the creators of FF2 play with this superbly through their ingenious use of the Playstations 2’s motion controller. The player experiences a sense of participation through the sudden pulse of the controller she experiences when a ghost is sighted - the short, sharp vibration replicating the sensation of a single heartbeat. This ‘heartbeat’ effect is then built upon, masterfully, in an early cut-scene: as mysterious footsteps are heard approaching the door to the room where the twins are situated, so they stare in horror and the motion controller pulsates with increasing speed, mimicking a rapidly escalating heartbeat – a common physiological response in humans who are afraid. Thus, at the moments in the game where the player experiences the ‘heartbeat’ sensation through the motion controller, her empathy increases, alongside her fear, as she involuntarily mimics the emotional expressions of the characters onscreen – her heart beating faster in keeping with the hearts of Mio & Mayu.
Fear & Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary technique whereby a future event is implicitly alluded to within a story and it can be a highly effective method for evoking fear, especially when used in conjunction with a game's environmental art.
As the player explores Osaka House, navigating the twins through its interior, so she is met by the sight of torn Shōji screens and collapsed wooden structures. The signs of decay evident within the environment foreshadow the vengeful spirits the player is soon to encounter; therefore, a creeping sense of dread comes over the player as she notices the scenery surrounding her avatar and senses the enemies that lie in wait, ready to attack. Additionally, foreshadowing features through the various items with which a player can interact while roaming the environment (diary entries, photographs, newspaper clippings, etc.) and the blood-besmirched manner in which they're presented hints at darker events to come and heightens the fear the player experiences.
Fear & Intertextual Links
Intertextual links refer to a text’s explicit and implicit references to other texts and, at times, FF2 clearly cross-references ‘J-Horror’ classics, like Ringu, in a bid to increase a player’s fear. This is especially evident in the game’s cut-scenes where certain visual motifs (like the extreme close-up on the hate-filled eye of an Onryō) are used to unnerve the player. The player's fear is certainly enhanced through the use of these ‘tried-and-tested’ camera shots and I believe that part of the reason the use of recognisable visual motifs are so effective lies in the concept of 'Emotion Memory'. Coined by drama practitioner, Constantin Stanislavski, 'Emotion Memory' proposes the human nervous system bears the traces of previous experiences and that we have the power to relive past emotions - like fear, love or envy. Coming back to FF2, it may be the case that when players with previous experience of the ‘J-Horror’ genre sees a visual motif they recognise, they feel an additional frisson of terror due to their recollection of past fears experienced while watching Japanese horror movies.
To summarise, whether it's stripping players of power through the enforced shifting of perspectives, encouraging players to feel the protagonist’s terror through the PlayStation 2’s motion controller, building dramatic tension through the foreshadowing evident in the game’s environmental art or exploiting a person's 'Emotion Memory', players are likely to come away from their time playing FF2 feeling more than a little unnerved... I could continue to wax lyrical over other aspects of the game - such as FF2's wonderful sound design - but that might be best left for another post. Suffice to say, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly will always hold a very special place in my heart and I look forward to the day when we see survival horror games of this ilk again.