This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
Well, it's that time of year again. The stockings have gone up, and the owner of the stockings has been paid $20 and left my motel room. Yes, it's almost Christmas, and there's just time to get caught up with something I missed before the end-of-year roundup: Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water on the Wii U. If you're not familiar with this franchise, it's kind of like Ringu by way of Pokémon Snap: you take candid paparazzi photographs of Japanese ghosts so all their ghost cellulite gets put on display in Ghost Cosmopolitan and they die of shame.
The series is called Fatal Frame in the US, which is one of the few cases of an American localization change I wholeheartedly support. Not only is Fatal Frame snappier, no pun intended, but it actually means something. It's a game about death and photography- "Fatal Frame". It is not a game about whatever the fuck Project Zero means. What, are we taking pictures of ghosts for our school project, which is the prequel to the first school project we made? Or maybe I'm pronouncing it wrong, and it's Pro-ject Zero, as in a game about characters from Metal Gear Solid 3 being forcefully thrown out of a nightclub.
In any case, Fatal Frame games always have the exact same plot: One or more schoolgirls with skirts so short you can practically see their labial folds peeking out the bottom like the questing feelers of a tunneling spider is trapped in a dilapidated area that's really haunted because some kind of death-torture ritual was conducted in the past there by someone with really liberal interpretations of Japanese Shintoism, and there are pretty good odds that one or more characters will turn out to be the reincarnations of somebody or other.
In this case, the severely under-dressed schoolgirls are trapped on a mountain that's haunted because some crazy motherfuckers were packing young women in gift boxes out of devotion to the FedEx branch of Shintoism. And speaking of liberal interpretations, Maiden of Black Water has strange ideas of what "trapped" means. Every single chapter ends with the current protagonist going, "Oh no, we're in the middle of a haunted forest full of inescapable hostile ghosts who want to claim our soul, how can I possibly get out of this one? Oh, I know! I'll fuck off home, eat my tea, and have a bit of a sleep, then contrive a new reason to come back to this deadly haunted mountain tomorrow night!"
Usually, the reason is to look for a missing person. One wonders why we couldn't save time and look for two or three of the established missing people while we're up there, but whatever, maybe we're getting paid by the day. If we find the missing person dead, we fight their ghost, if they're alive, we take them home and go, "Well, this possessed person who keeps wandering off obviously needs their space. Let's put them to bed, unsupervised, in an unlocked room, and then sit at a desk for six hours frowning at something." I swear this happened like, twice for every character in the game, and I only played up to about halfway through the story.
Frankly, I ended up rooting for the ghosts, because ironically, they were the livelier ones. They're dead and angry, so they're going to take it out on the living. That shows about ten times the capacity for rational decision making as the alive characters ever display. At least they don't react to deadly supernatural threats by raising their eyebrows a quarter of an inch over the course of about ten seconds. At least they don't run like they're running through a boy's locker room with very sticky floors, flapping their limp wrists left and right going, "No, please don't flick me with your towels, tee hee!"
See, I've enjoyed Project Fatal Zero Frame games in the past. I found them slow-paced, but uniquely atmospheric. But Fatal Frame: Pirates of Dark Water- Who remembers that?!- takes the "slow-paced" thing a bit too far. Over and over again, we go through the same maps, fighting the same ghosts. Over and over again, our character sees something frightening and reacts like she just realized she forgot to take the library books back. At one point during a cutscene, the camera holds on an establishing shot of some teacups for like, six whole seconds- I fucking counted. And as for atmosphere, it's got the atmosphere of a party thrown to celebrate a successful mass lobotomization.
Part of that's the Wii's screen controller; using it as the camera made sense in theory, since it's built like a Fisher-Price "My First Smartphone", but immersion was impossible. Every time I'd gaze at a shift from the TV to the controller, it would also track over my poorly-vacuumed carpet and growing mountain of foul-smelling tissues, and my brain would go, "We're not in a haunted forest! We're in our flat, trying to stave off the inevitable moment of drunken self-reflection!" Besides, teleporting behind you is the only source of entertainment in the life of a ghost, and the controller tilty-controls aren't much help at that point, unless you're sitting on a Lazy Susan.
So between the controller, and the boredom, and the characters acting with all the common sense of a lobster in a jacuzzi, immersion is impossible and therefore it's not the least bit scary. Which, as we all know, is the foot that ultimately kicks the chair out from under the bad horror game. I didn't even jump when ghosts suddenly appeared, and jump-scares are as easy as it gets. A cat in a bin can manage a jump-scare, and most cats haven't seen Ringu 1 or 2! Maybe they shouldn't have put great, big indicators on the screen going "Hey, I'm not saying there's gonna be a ghost, but maybe look over there, wink wink!"
Maybe the characters could have reacted like the ghosts were something more than an occupational hazard. Or maybe the game shouldn't have given me 20 uncle-felching healing items at the start of every chapter, and killed any chance of actual challenge! Which leads us to the question, if the game isn't scary, challenging, or interesting, then what does it have left?
Well I'm glad you asked, myself. The answer lies in the mechanic wherein the ghosts get more aggressive the more wet you are. Well, the playable characters are always pretty fucking wet, but I meant in the moisture sense. How you know that you're wet is that your clothing becomes realistically clingy and see-through. Which sheds certain light on the fact that most of the protagonists are teenage girls wearing thin white cotton blouses. Oh, that's right, it's a Koei-Tecmo game. I did wonder why most of the female ghosts were rocking more cleavage than the San Andreas Fault. You know Koei-Tecmo, they make Dead or Alive, which is a fighting game series in the sense that late-night Cinemax films are thrillers.
Now, I'm no harumphing prude, as you know. I'm masturbating right now. I get that cheesecake is a grand, noble tradition in fighting games, which are about larger-than-life characters spreading their legs and jiggling about like they're trying to scratch their itchy assholes with the thread of their G-strings. But an atmospheric horror game is the kind of thing I play in the 20 or 30 minutes of the day that I don't spend masturbating! "No, no, no, no, it's just realism!" I'm sure the game would argue. "Clothes go clingy and see-through when they're wet! That's what happens! Christ, talk about political correctness gone mad." "Granted," I would reply, "But why do our clothes not go clingy and sexy when we're playing as the one male character?" "Oh, are you gonna say that's sexist now? It's just 'cause he wears thicker clothing, 'cause he's a man, and therefore possesses a brain!"
- Bustin' makes him feel good: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Maybe a stupid question but why don't they just power the flashlight with whatever the camera's flash is powered with
- Maybe that's how Alan Wake came about