Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This entry marks the third week in 2018’s month of horror game coverage. We will be discussing Fatal Frame, an intriguing if perhaps underrated survival horror series of the 2000s and 2010s.
In 1996, Tecmo released Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness on the Sony PlayStation console. The game was firmly rooted in the horror genre, but had one key twist: rather than playing as a disempowered hero, the player took on the role of a powerful force inhabiting and protecting a sinister castle. Gameplay centered on placing traps and torturing hapless individuals who wandered into the building.
Makoto Shibata was a planner for this title, which would go on to establish a franchise of its own. After working on its inaugural entry, Shibata was inspired to develop a horror game that placed the player in a more conventional perspective. Of course, pure convention wouldn’t draw fans to a series – Shibata would need to pull from his own spiritual experiences and history to give the game a unique identity.
According to a 2005 Gamespy interview with Shibata and his collaborator, series producer Keisuke Kikuchi, the primary challenge would be walking the line between what was possible and what was ideal. Shibata was notably a believer in occult spirituality, taking cues from his dreams and darkest fears, while Kikuchi would play the role of producer, ensuring that these ideas translated to the screen. Even the most imaginative ideas require some level of mitigation and, in a world of art as capital, commercialization. This partnership between the visionary and the businessman would prove to be a wise decision over the decade ahead.
Fatal Frame (2002)
Six years would pass between Shibata’s work on Tecmo’s Deception and the debut of his own horror series in North America (it had a late 2001 release date in Shibata’s native Japan). These years would be spent laying the groundwork for the game, as well as programming for the still-new PlayStation 2 hardware. The first element of the game to be completed was its narrative.
Seeking to develop the scariest game they could, Shibata and Kikuchi turned to contemporary horror cinema. This led them down a similar path to that trod by Japanese horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s – the intersection of technology and traditional spirituality. Shibata had wanted to set Tecmo’s Deception in a classical Japanese mansion, but this had clashed with the complexity of trap mechanics in that game; with Fatal Frame, he would have an opportunity to leverage this traditional cultural element in pursuit of pure terror. Unlike many of the films from which the team drew inspiration, the game would be set in the 1980s to reduce the presence of communication technology.
A subtitle on the North American release’s cover indicates that the game is based on a true story, but this is not accurate. Similarly, a popular myth suggests that Fatal Frame is based on the story of Tokyo’s Himuro Mansion haunting. In fact, Makoto Shibata claims that the story is based on Japanese urban legends:
In an area outside Tokyo, there lies a mansion in which it’s said seven people were murdered in a grisly manner. On the same property, there lie three detached residences that surround the mansion, all of which are rumored to have ties to the mansion’s troubled past. It’s said there is an underground network of tunnels that lay beneath the premises, but nobody knows who made these tunnels or what purpose they served. Many inexplicable phenomenons have been reported occurring on the property. Bloody handprints have been found splattered all over the walls. Spirits have been spotted on the premises… even in broad daylight. A narrow stairway leads to an attic where a spirit-sealed talisman is rumored to be locked away. Men have sought this talisman, only to be found later with their bodies broken and rope marks around their wrists. There’s a crumbling old statue of a woman in a kimono, but its head is missing. If you take a photo of a certain window, a young girl can be seen in the developed picture. These incidents have provoked fear in the people of Tokyo, and many believe that those who live near this area will become cursed. The deaths of those seven people are unexplained to this day.
Given such an unsettling background, it’s hardly surprising that the game would turn out to have an extraordinarily eerie atmosphere. On the other hand, it is rather surprising that the central mechanic – use of the Camera Obscura to defeat murderous ghosts – was not originally part of the game’s design. Instead, much like 2001’s Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, light was used to manipulate and destroy these apparitions. This was discarded in favor of the more offensive type of gameplay offered by a weaponized camera.
Fatal Frame’s plot is set in 1986 on the outskirts of Tokyo, true to its influences. In a brief prologue sequence, the player takes control of Mafuyu Hinasaki as he explores the abandoned Himuro Mansion. When he is ambushed by a malign supernatural presence, the narrative moves on to depict Mafuyu’s sister’s attempt to find him. Miku Hinasaki finds an antique camera in the mansion, then discovers that she can use this Camera Obscura to defend herself from menacing ghosts.
Aided by a spirit, Miku explores the mansion and rescues her brother. The estate’s true history is revealed along the way as well: it was home to a ghastly ritual which played out repeatedly over the preceding centuries. A shrine maiden would be identified and isolated for ten years, severing all of her ties with the physical world. At the end of this period, she would be gruesomely sacrificed in a rite performed within a cave beneath the mansion grounds. The most recent instance of this ritual was derailed, however, when the isolated shrine maiden fell in love with a young man who was subsequently murdered by the mansion dwellers. This prevented her from going to her death with no ties to the physical world and led to the failure of the grisly rite. A Hell Gate beneath the mansion was opened due to this failure and the evil spirits pouring forth from the gateway slaughtered all of the mansion’s residents. Along with the ghost of the murdered shrine maiden, they make up the spirits menacing interlopers in the present. Happily for the Hinasaki siblings, the shrine maiden is able to secure their escape from the Himuro Mansion.
Gameplay involves both first-person and third-person mechanics. Miku is typically controlled from a third-person point of view as she explores the mansion, picking up items and solving simple environmental puzzles. Environments are polygonally rendered, so the perspective can dynamically move in certain rooms or hallways; in the style of early Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark entries, however, the player has no direct control over the cinematic angles. When Miku makes use of the Camera Obscura, the perspective shifts to a first-person perspective as she attempts to take photographs of attacking ghosts. Photographs increase in strength based on the length of time that the player keeps a ghost in frame, so players are encouraged to look as long as possible before counter-attacking. This enhances the intensity of each confrontation, dovetailing elegantly with Shibata’s stated purpose of crafting the scariest game on the market.
Fatal Frame was released to relatively low sales numbers. Survival horror games tend to appeal to a niche market, however, so this was not unexpected. Perhaps attempting to recoup development costs with a wider appeal to American audiences, Tecmo published a special edition on the Xbox in 2003 featuring a new difficulty mode and a third ending. The European version of the PlayStation 2 original, on the other hand, would not be released until 2003. This version was called Project Zero, an apparent error based on the name of the team which developed the game for Tecmo; Fatal Frame was called Zero in Japan but this seems to have been lost in the European localization process.
Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (2003)
Shibata and Kikuchi were undaunted by the lack of commercial success and buoyed by Fatal Frame’s extremely strong critical reputation as one of the medium’s most terrifying experiences. They got to work on a sequel as soon as possible, resulting in a North American release the following year. Fatal Frame II would be built upon the foundation of its predecessor while innovating in a handful of key ways.
Many fans of the first game had failed to complete the narrative, due to the overwhelmingly scary atmosphere, so Shibata and Kikuchi attempted to convey a more compelling plot in its sequel. This narrative, set over a year after the events of Fatal Frame, centers on two twin girls who are drawn into a mysterious abandoned village while exploring an otherwise cheerful forest. Mio and Mayu discover that the village is inhabited by the spirits of the people who died there after a dark ritual similar to that in the preceding game. The village, it turns out, sits above another Hell Gate. The sisters eventually confront Sae, one of two twins who were the intended sacrifices in the aforementioned failed ritual; only Sae was sacrificed, and she seeks to possess Mayu.
Gameplay is relatively similar to the first game, though it does deviate in one significant way. The strength of camera shots is now largely determined by proximity, so the player must attempt to hold their trigger finger until an attacking ghost is directly adjacent to them. This bold design choice increases risk-reward calculation and directly contradicts the player’s fight or flight response. It was widely praised by critics as enhancing the tension in an already horrifying game. Additionally, the development team opted to leave audio-visual traces of enemies in areas even after they’ve been defeated; these traces appear only intermittently, keeping any space from feeling truly safe.
Critic Eric Swain, writing for Pop Matters in 2013, drew attention to the game’s genuinely innovative use of camera control to emphasize the player character’s disorientation. While navigation in the typical third-person perspective requires the player to move using the PlayStation 2’s left joystick, the first-person camera perspective shifts movement control to the right joystick. This decision upsets one of the core standards of twin-stick input mechanics established throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s – the left stick controls movement while the right stick, if used at all, controls the player’s perspective in a 3D space. Shibata and Kikuchi consciously undermine this at the most inopportune moments, when Mio is being menaced by a specter, increasing the connection between the player and Mio’s in-game experience.
One additional Easter egg suggests an attention to detail which pervades every crevice of Fatal Frame II. If the game is left on the pause screen for an extended (yet inconsistent) period of time, a ghostly face will grow increasingly visible. This face peers out of the image and directly at the player, shattering even the safety implied by the medium’s fourth wall. Most players will inadvertently avoid this frightful encounter, but that was no impediment to the scare-inducing impulses of Shibata and Kikuchi.
A Director’s Cut was released on Xbox in 2004 – this included cosmetic enhancements and a third ending. A full remake was later published on the Wii in 2012, featuring redesigned environments and a new over-the-shoulder perspective characteristic of action-adventure games following Resident Evil 4 (2005). The updated graphics were praised, but the revision did little to meaningfully iterate on its classic original version.
Fatal Frame II is regarded by some, even fifteen years later, as one of the scariest games ever made. Neil Druckmann, creative director for the horror masterpiece The Last of Us (2013), claimed in a 2014 Entertainment Weekly interview that it scared him more than any film. Influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic interpretation of The Shining (1978) and their own troubled dreams, Shibata and Kikuchi had delivered one of the most effective works of horror in the young 21st Century.
Fatal Frame III: The Tormented (2005)
Far from resting on their laurels, Tecmo’s Fatal Frame developers began work on their third title. The dual thematic emphases in Fatal Frame III were to be mourning and isolation. At the same time, Shibata and Kikuchi set about tying together a handful of loose narrative strings from their previous games.
The central character is Rei Kurosawa, a freelance photographer who has withdrawn into her home following the death of her boyfriend Yuu; Rei was partially responsible for the death due to her reckless driving. Following an eerie dream, she is branded with a slowly expanding tattoo and begins to have recurring nightmares in which she explores a ghost-filled mansion. At the same time, other people in Rei’s social circle experience similar phenomena. Two of those affected are Miku Hinasaki, protagonist of the original Fatal Frame, and Mio Amakura, protagonist of Fatal Frame II; the former is Rei’s photography assistant and the latter is the niece of Kei, one of Yuu’s friends who remains in contact with Rei following Yuu’s death. All of these individuals are being pulled inextricably into the dream world by Reika, a long-dead priestess who was responsible for absorbing others’ pain into tattoos drawn onto her body.
Over the course of the game, the player takes on a handful of roles. Each has the ability to navigate distinct parts of the Dream Manor in which they are trapped: Rei offers standard, middle-of-the-road gameplay, Miku can explore smaller spaces due to her slim frame, and Kei can move heavy objects. Each also has a few distinct camera-related skills that impact how they battle or avoid ghosts. Aside from a brief portion of Fatal Frame in which the player controlled the protagonist’s brother, this is the first time that the series has featured multiple player characters.
As in the preceding game, apparently safe spaces slowly become less safe over time. Rather than offering a quick scare, as the pause screen ghost had done, Fatal Frame III’s breaking of its own rules occurs in Rei’s apartment. This area, explored during the day between bouts of nightmares, is initially a haven. It starts to feature increasingly eerie imagery by mid-game, however, and ghosts slowly cross the formerly impermeable wall between Rei’s sleeping and waking life. Far from being a cheap scare tactic, this intersects with the game’s stated theme of mourning – even positive, safe environments can become tainted over time by the sad memories carried within a person’s mind.
Fatal Frame III was the last series entry published on the PlayStation 2, forming the conclusion of an informal trilogy. Sales were dire, suggesting that Tecmo had oversaturated an already-small market with their series. The quality had not diminished – Fatal Frame III was every bit as scary as its predecessors and still more beautifully rendered – but Shibata and Kikuchi seem to have discovered a limit to fans’ appetite for unsettling survival horror. At the same time, market trends were rapidly shifting and classic genre tropes were perceived as outdated. Western audiences had begun to seek more action in their horror games, culminating in 2005’s Resident Evil 4, and Fatal Frame was rooted in an inherently slow-paced, helpless brand of horror. It would be challenging to evolve the franchise without compromising its identity.
Fatal Frame IV: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse (2008, Japan)
After releasing three games between 2001 and 2005, Shibata and Kikuchi took a few years to reorient themselves for the next Fatal Frame title. When they did finally begin the process of planning Fatal Frame IV, they decided to make some significant changes to their development style. In particular, they asked Grasshopper Manufacture’s auteur Suda51 to direct the game.
Suda51 had gained a following for his bold work on Killer7, a highly stylized action-adventure game published on the PlayStation 2 and Gamecube in 2005. Two of his most passionate fans were Makoto Shibata and Keisuke Kikuchi. They believed that his distinct vision could bring a new set of eyes to a franchise that had run short on original ideas after three chilling episodes. Suda51, true to his self-effacing nature, was hesitant to take the job – he insisted that he would only co-direct with Shibata, fearing that his own impulses were too action-oriented to do justice to Fatal Frame’s atmosphere.
This impulse proved to be wise, as collaboration between the three creative voices was fraught with challenges. Shibata retained a sincere approach to the occult, while Suda51 instead offered up cartoonish violence and absurdist monologues; Kikuchi, as ever, had the role of approving each decision before the wider team could go forward with development. Game development was increasing in cost, and it was more important than ever to rein in over-ambitious or unworkable ideas. In the end, the team would strike a careful balance between their respective inclinations.
The game was designed for the Nintendo Wii rather than the new generation of HD consoles released by Sony and Microsoft. Avoiding the latter was an easy choice, as Fatal Frame‘s sales in the United States had only been diminishing since the series’ first entry and the Xbox 360 was largely ignored by Japanese video game hobbyists. Opting not to release the game on the PlayStation 3 is a more puzzling decision, but likely came down to three factors: Nintendo was willing to take on the role of publisher in Japan, developing for the PS3 would necessitate higher-fidelity textures due to its HD output, and Suda51 was only interested in developing the game if he could leverage the Wii’s unique motion controls. Horror had become comparatively passe elsewhere, but Nintendo’s console offered new opportunities for experimentation in its distinctive input and feedback mechanisms.
In Fatal Frame IV, players take on the role of Ruka Minazuki as she returns to her childhood home on a fictional Japanese island. The game is set in 1980, a full six years before the events of the original Fatal Frame. Ruka is one of five girls who had been kidnapped a decade earlier, forced to take part in a sinister ritual on the island, and then recovered by a detective with no memory of the incident. When two of the five girls perish in the present day, Ruka and the other remaining survivors return to the now-abandoned island intent on recovering their memories and ending the curse to which they attribute the deaths. Detective Kimishima, the man who saved the girls in 1970, pursues them in the present in an attempt to prevent further tragedy.
In addition to a story almost entirely disconnected from previous Fatal Frame titles, Fatal Frame IV offers a handful of gameplay updates. Bowing to action-adventure convention established by Resident Evil 4 (2005), and indeed Suda51’s own recommendation, the perspective is shifted from a distant cinematic point of view to a forward-facing angle situated over Ruka’s shoulder. This places an emphasis on events occurring directly ahead of the character, reducing the opportunity for carefully crafted angles but improving the chances of the player being startled by a ghost appearing out of sight. Tactile impressions and specific audio cues make use of the WiiMote controller, offering scares which had been impossible on the PS2 only a few years earlier. Settings on the island are also less distinctively Japanese than those in earlier games. One of the most important set-pieces is a sanitarium established as having been built in a Western style during Japan’s 19th Century Meiji Era.
Surprisingly, this hybrid East/West approach to environmental design did not reflect the game’s distribution. To the disappointment of Tecmo, publisher Nintendo opted not to localize the game outside of Japan. This was likely a prudent business decision based on weak sales of the preceding game, but Western fans could not help feeling abandoned by one of the medium’s best horror franchises. Happily, an ambitious group of enthusiasts published an unofficial translation in 2010. This file could be downloaded and installed on Wii consoles, bypassing their region-lock mechanism. Thanks to the patch, an enterprising player could now import a Japanese version of the game to play in English on a North American or European Wii.
Fatal Frame V: Maiden of Black Water (2015)
As is typical in the HD era, Fatal Frame’s interval between releases increased exponentially after 2008. Shibata and Kikuchi remained committed to the franchise, but the next release would not be published in Japan until 2014. Unlike its direct predecessor, a North American release followed in 2015.
The narrative is based on Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, a location notorious for its high number of suicides. Three protagonists visit the fictional stand-in for this real-world rural location, Mt. Hikami, each drawn by a different goal. Yuri Kozukata seeks the missing owner of the antique shop at which she works. Miu Hinasaki is searching for Miku, her mother and the protagonist of the original Fatal Frame. Ren Hojo is an author who visits the forest to gather information for a new book. All find themselves caught up in the occult machinations of the titular ghostly maiden, Ouse Kurosawa.
All also have distinct special abilities in keeping with the precedent established by Fatal Frame III. Surprisingly, early planning stages of the game focused on these diverse abilities and, for a time, the developers even contemplated excising the series’ central Camera Obscura mechanic. Alternative settings and weapons involved a futuristic science fiction world, swords and guns; these were collectively abandoned for straying too far from the series’ core identity.
Instead of iterating on or moving past the series’ most iconic feature, Shibata and Kikuchi opted to emphasize two major new elements. The first is tied directly to their choice of hardware platform: the Wii U’s primary input mechanism, a second screen known as the GamePad, is required for camera usage while the television screen retains a zoomed-out first-person perspective. Optional gyroscope aiming is leveraged to convey the sensation that the player himself or herself is looking around within the game world.
The second significant new element is ‘wetness,’ per the developers in a 2014 interview. Rain and water play a major role in exploration, as these environmental elements slow the player characters and make them more susceptible to ghost attacks. This is tied in to the Wii U hardware, as the development team wished to exploit the HD generation’s relatively new ability to render realistic water physics, while also being central to the antagonist’s backstory as a drowning victim. Less admirably, the developers admit in the aforementioned interview that much of their focus on wetness was driven by an attempt to titillate fans with sexy character models.
The most intriguing scenario encountered within Fatal Frame V is an episode featuring closed-circuit television. The player character is able to explore a bank of televisions, watching helplessly as ghosts grow increasingly close to their companions elsewhere in a mountain lodge. This sequence makes use of the hardware in a unique, inventive way, suggesting the potential for genuine evolution within the increasingly constrictive bounds of the Fatal Frame series. Otherwise, the game largely treads established territory.
Humorously, a crossover with Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive 5 is Fatal Frame V’s biggest surprise. The development team for that one-on-one fighting game had lent some of their tools to Shibata and Kikuchi for the newest entry in their horror series, and the favor was returned by the cameo appearance of a Dead or Alive series regular in Fatal Frame V. Unlocked only after completing the game, ninja Ayane is playable in a bonus campaign. She uses stealth to navigate Mt. Hikami and avoid ghosts rather than the Camera Obscura.
Sadly, Fatal Frame V was little celebrated upon its 2015 Western release. It was certainly a throwback to an earlier age of survival horror, as the sub-genre had begun to pass beyond even the over-the-shoulder mechanics common since Resident Evil 4. Resource management had been eschewed by new horror mainstays like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) and Alien: Isolation (2014), and Fatal Frame V was perceived as an awkward amalgam of 1990s and 2000s survival horror conventions. At the same time, its visuals were derided as falling short of expectations set in the HD era. Europe received a physical edition of the game, but Nintendo would only publish a digital version in North America. One hopes that, whatever its failures to live up to the series legacy, Fatal Frame V does not become the nail in this franchise’s coffin.
Since its origins in 2001, the Fatal Frame series has produced two spinoffs. Both make use of unique hardware to scare the player in surprising ways. Unfortunately, only one is still extant.
The first spinoff, a Japan-exclusive title, was released on mobile phones in 2004. Translated as Real: Another Edition, this mobile game featured casual mechanics based on the user’s location. Players capture ghosts by taking their phones to a particular location and using their phone’s camera functionality. Defeated ghosts are added to a player’s roster and serve as the foundation for a Pokemon-esque “catch ’em all” mechanic. Additionally, the player receives a text message from a ghost each time one is captured. New content was added over time, with users paying a monthly subscription fee for access. Sadly, the game’s servers were shut down in 2011. No images of the game were available at the time of writing, but the Internet Archive has preserved the title’s original Japanese website.
A suitable replacement would not be published until 2012. Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir was co-developed by Koei Tecmo and Nintendo, and was released to a worldwide audience on Nintendo’s handheld 3DS console. As a result of being developed so early in the device’s life cycle, Spirit Camera functions as something of a tech demo for the 3DS’ unique hardware.
Players make use of the console’s rear-facing camera to view and interact with visuals layered over their real-world surroundings. A book packaged with the game also features extensive augmented reality functionality, as it produces scenes, characters or visual effects when the player points the 3DS at its open pages. Ghosts appear and move around the environment in three dimensions, forcing the player to rotate himself or herself in 360 degrees to defeat the assailant. Camera combat is carried out similarly to the core series, but requires physical activity and a sadly finicky level of precision. Fans were amused, but the brief game offers little replay value or opportunities for play outside of a well-lit home setting.
Fatal Frame is one of the 21st Century’s most effective horror properties, though its design principles are heavily rooted in the 1990s. Unlike its survival horror contemporaries, it made relatively few concessions to modern game design as it evolved over its first decade. Series director Makoto Shibata and producer Keisuke Kikuchi have remained entirely committed to their stated objective: producing the scariest interactive horror experience imaginable. Western fans have had reason to lament the series’ inconsistent localization in the 2010s, but never cause to doubt Fatal Frame’s ability to inspire fear.
What do you think about Fatal Frame? Have you captured every ghost? Did you import a Japanese mobile phone circa 2006 just to play Real: Another Edition? Have you ever made it all of the way through Fatal Frame II? How would you like to see the series evolve in the years ahead? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Next week, Avocado luminary @Lovely_Bones will be publishing the final article of this feature’s October 2018 focus on horror games. This entry will shine a spotlight on the desolate streets of Silent Hill. Be sure to join us here at 9:00 AM EST to read and discuss.