I have to confess that this week’s entry has put me in a situation not unlike walking in on a room full of beautiful, lonely lesbians; I may have just discovered the best thing in existence, but I can’t praise it because of a single catch in the logic that renders it of absolutely no use to me. To give you an idea of how confused this game makes me, that previous sentence took approximately fifteen minutes to write. Have you ever played a game so brilliantly designed that you wanted to erect a statue of it and place it at the top of the highest mountain so that everyone could see your rather weird graven image, but one thing about it just kept driving you insane until you decided you’d rather construct an effigy of the game and hang it, set it on fire, then pee on the ashes? Well, if not, I recommend Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly.
Fatal Frame 2 tells the story of twin girls Mio and Mayu, who after a shaky-cam montage that the player can only pray to the game to explain, find themselves in an abandoned traditional village after nightfall. After a bit of exploration, the girls start hearing noises and seeing glimpses of movement here and there. Doors begin to unlock by themselves, and items appear in rooms when Mio and Mayu leave to search other rooms. Soon, they come across a camera with a note explaining, in terms only slightly more scientific than the average paranormal investigator uses to describe their own equipment, that it has the power to exorcise ghosts. And then Mayu displays the most astounding lack of survival skills in the history of horror, running off into the village full of angry spirits without her sister, who now holds the only means of defense against the supernatural menace.
Fatal Frame 2 combines all the best aspects of successful survival horror games. Like Resident Evil, the noises Mio makes as she traipses through the environment sometimes sound enough like ghost noises to keep you panicking. Like Silent Hill, it creates an atmosphere of total isolation, garnished with introspection and the slight hint of a dark past. The horror builds off of Japanese culture, especially the significance of twins and the mythology of butterflies, which many Western players will find unfamiliar enough to spook them (but relax; if you’ve seen “The Ring,” the game offers one scene of a ghost girl climbing out of a well). Furthermore, they took away the standard issue gun and replaced it with a camera, making the player feel completely helpless in the face of adversity–it even requires letting ghosts get close and attack in order to do any meaningful damage to them. Imagine a donut made out of birthday cake, filled with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, frosted with Oreo cream and topped with M&Ms; this game feels like that. (I’ve recently cut back on sweets…can you tell?)
However, Fatal Frame’s Fatal Flaw might just negate all of that. Have you ever played a survival horror game that asked you at the beginning to “adjust the brightness until you can just barely see the gray line”? Well, this game doesn’t do that. It just assumes you like it dark. In fact, not only do you not want to see the gray line, but you don’t really care to see the text asking you the question, either. What? You can’t see Mio? Well, you shouldn’t look at her anyway, given her young age. If you need to know what your environment looks like, you have a map. Use it! (I honestly spent less time following my GPS through downtown Minneapolis than I did checking the map screen for Fatal Frame).
While I understand what Tecmo intended by making the game darker than a chain smoker’s lung, and while I have to begrudgingly admit that certain scenes would not come across as terrifying in a lighter environment, I often needed to check the map to see what direction Mio faced, and due to the adoption of Resident Evil’s shifting camera angles, even that didn’t guarantee that I knew how to get her to move forward instead of back, slightly to the left, or directly into the nearby wall. Horror relies on senses, and the deprivation of one heightens the unknown, forcing you to interpret information more heavily with your other senses. Good horror can overload those senses. However, video games lack texture. You can drop a character into a pitch black room, but the player doesn’t entirely come along for the ride. A vibrating controller simply doesn’t substitute for placing your hand on something warm and gooey that you can’t see. One might as well climb into a sensory deprivation chamber and then have a friend dump a bucket of spiders on the outside. Yeah, it might scare you if you think about it hard enough, but you have a good layer of insulation protecting you.
It turns out that other people have had this problem as well, but no one could offer an infallible solution. Despite the game having the option to increase brightness, you can only increase it enough by finding a TV that naturally has a more vivid contrast. For the record, none of mine could do it. They both interpret an increase of brightness as watering down the picture with more white pixels. All in all, not very helpful.
I wish I could get past that because I did enjoy the game (at least what I could see of it). I can only describe the initial ghost encounters as “pants dampeningly scary,” and by the time the shock wears off, it feels as if some sort of character growth happened…somewhere. (I don’t know. They don’t really talk much.) Despite occasionally pairing up with Mayu, it doesn’t turn into a babysitting mission. Still, they managed to make her creepy enough that I started to feel safer without her around. True to the genre, the player learns Mio’s story as Mio in turn learns the story of the village. Also true to the genre, she does this by picking up scattered notebooks, letters, and other writings left around the village because apocalyptic horrors always result from a breakdown in private filing systems. If you ever notice disembodied pages from diaries lying around town, get out while you can; those places collect monsters like Gamestop collects used Madden games.
Unfortunately, not only did the lack of vision and direction ruin the experience, but a plot full of dangling details never fully explained make the ending not quite satisfying (I played the PS2 version, but I heard they added endings for the XBox and Wii). Plus, while having doors unlock on their own adds to the creepy factor, it doesn’t give you that solid line on where to go next, like Resident Evil does when it hands you a specifically marked key. And while the four houses in the village don’t really qualify it as sprawling, I’ve never enjoyed the “just walk around until something happens” mentality, which only pisses me off and sends me rifling through the internet for a walkthrough, a cardinal no-no in my book of game design flaws. Still, I have to give them credit for minimizing puzzles.
So I should probably lay out all the information to see my ultimate opinion of the game: creepy as hell, great atmosphere, nice departure from guns-n-ammo approach to horror, no stupid puzzle solving. On the con side: walking from room to room feels like solving a puzzle, shifting camera angles in the dark causes Mio to dance in little circles, and the ending falls just shy of explaining anything. I can honestly say I have never played a better survival horror game, nor have I played a worse one.