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[Minor spoilers for Project Zero 2]
The best horror preys on grounded fears. Even in media portraying the object of horror through supernatural or preternatural elements, the extent to which a piece of horror engenders a lasting impression depends on how relatable the underlying terror is to its audience. Night of the Living Dead depicts fear of social and mental instability; Jacob’s Ladder focuses on the latter. Rosemary’s Baby is rooted in the insidiousness of spousal abuse, as is The Amityville Horror. Alien draws on fears of feminization and the female Other. Ringu is grounded in the anxiety of loss of control. A Tale of Two Sisters taps into terrors of familial corruption; The Exorcist plays that against our spiritual insignificance. My personal favourite, The Thing, speaks of unknowability of our fellow man.
Many videogames ground their horror in the inversion of safe spaces, which is a sensible enough tact given how players are typically expected to take in three-dimensional spaces in order to move around them. The settings for horror games are often schools, hospitals, police stations, houses, towns, stairwells, twisted and distorted in their natural rhythms and then populated with whatever ghoulies characterize the story’s pretence.
Project Zero 2 (aka Fatal Frame 2) is one such example, taking place in a deserted, haunted village in the Japanese countryside as protagonist Mio searches for her lost sister. Much like Ringu it bends supernatural elements around mysticism of the familiar in the forms of technology and locale—you fight ghosts with your spiritually-enhanced camera obscura.
The exciting thing though is how it represents these safe spaces to the player in a subversive way. To show you how Project Zero 2 composes its scenes to evoke anxiety from this base theme, let’s take a look at the scariest room out of the entire village: the projector room in the Tachibana House.
In the spirit of the game’s enthusiasm for old technology I’ve taken these screenshots with a handheld camera so you can get the full view of my television. Also because I don’t have any other means to take them.
The projector room is a rather small space housing little more than a wall-sized screen and a film projector. Because it’s such a tiny, claustrophobic room Project Zero 2 really gets to make the most with its second-person perspective, which is the sort where the camera is affixed to a scene at a particular angle and position decided by the game’s creators, rather than controllable by the player as in first- and third-person perspectives. This has a really neat effect with player identity, but that might be best left to another day.
In games that use the second-person perspective, some cameras in a scene tend to be stationary while others pan to follow your character as they walk about the area. When the player walks to the edge of one shot, the camera angle will change to give a different view of the room to accommodate your new location.
In the case of the projector room we’re given four stationary camera angles with which to view the space. Entering through the door on the south-east corner will give you this camera angle:
In the foreground you can see the projector, set on a table right in the centre of the room. You can walk right up to the projector and start playing any film reel you’ve picked up so far in the game, but because the projector screen is out of shot you won’t be able to actually view the film from this position.
Anyway, when Mio is standing at the door there are three directions she can walk in: backwards, leaving the room; to the left hand side of the screen; and to the right hand side. So long as you keep Mio within the frame, the camera will stay fixed, pointing straight at this door. If you move her too far to the left of the shot, the angle will change to this:
There we have the projector again but we still can’t see what it’s pointing towards. Instead we’re given two other points of interest within the room. The first is the door on the left hand side, slightly obscured by the projector, which when you’re playing the game is the direction you’ll want to head next. The second is that great big blue curtain, covering a wardrobe which takes up most of the northern wall. We’ll get back to that later.
Continuing on leftwards switches the camera to this next angle.
Now we can see the projector screen, so we’d be able to watch whatever film reel we decide to play. This is a great shot for showing us what’s on the film since the projector screen takes up about half of your television and Mio is clearly right there in the centre of your view, granting you easy visual access to her position and surroundings.
There is, however, a catch. I’ll tell you what shortly.
In the room’s corner just askew of the centre of this shot, a small divider rests propped up to the wall. It stays shrouded in shadow unless you point your torch at it, so here’s what that spooky corner looks like at the best of times.
Nothing spooky about it at all, although by pointing your torch there the entire left side of the screen plunges into darkness, so chances are you’ll prefer to face yourself as in the previous screenshot.
Moving on, when Mio walks to the left and slightly downwards the camera switches to this nasty shot:
The problem with this angle is that Mio can’t walk straight through it without becoming obstructed by the projector dead centre in the screen. This is where Mio ends up after leaving the previous shot by the left hand side—as you can see she’s almost completely hidden by the projector.
This angle is rigged to deliberately jar our visual connection to Mio as she wanders the room, since by doing that it breaks contiguity of our psychological relationship with her. When the camera switches to this and Mio is hidden, we experience a moment of anxiety in trying to locate her/ourselves on the television. And since we can’t tell immediately whether she is safe, we therefore cannot tell whether we are safe.
This momentary fright is remedied by moving a few feet more to the left, where she’ll end up here:
But even this position is not terribly ideal since we’re given a very limited view of the space peripheral to her. If a ghost comes out of the wall to attack her, we won’t have much opportunity to avoid it.
Note that we can still see the projector screen in full on the western wall. This is as close to a full-on view of whatever’s on the film reel as the room’s camera angles will allow. As well as this, the comparative distance between our point of view (and Mio’s ideal location on-screen) and the projector screen itself gives an impression of relative safety should anything jump out from it at us. Hypothetically speaking.
In essence, this shot gives us the best angle from which to view the film reel but at the cost of a sense of security given Mio’s positioning.
Now, completing the loop, if you keep moving leftwards you’ll arrive back at the entrance on the south-eastern corner.
So these are the four camera angles of the projector room, labelled 1-4 going anti-clockwise from the entrance. You can see that each camera angle adds something and takes something away—for instance, shot 1 makes for a smooth entrance and exit through the south-eastern door since it’s bang smack in the middle of the screen. When you enter this room for the first time, you can instantly see where Mio is.
The first trade off of this shot is that it doesn’t give you much of a view of anything else, so Mio has to walk straight into unknown territory for us to see what else is around her. The second trade off is if Mio runs straight ahead after entering through this door (there’s a button whose function is literally “run straight ahead”), she’ll end up running through shot 4 where she becomes obscured by the projector, putting you in a bit of a fraught position if you’ve not yet gotten your bearings about the room.
This second trade off applies to shot 3 as well—if you run forward after entering through that door, you’ll move straight into shot 4. What this means is the quickest route to pass through this room from either direction, which also involves the least navigational effort by the player, puts you through a jarring moment of obscuring Mio adjacent to a sharp camera switch.
This is just a small aspect of clever level design that’s worth appreciating, especially for what comes next.
So right about now you’ve made the circuit of the projector room and gotten a rough feel of it. There’s still the problem of the billowing blue curtain—scenery motion in Project Zero generally signals a warning, so an enormous curtain that’s centre framed in a shot is pretty damn ominous. But you can’t interact with it just yet, you can’t move through it and you can’t see what’s behind it, so you’ve no option but to leave it be for now and hope nothing scary happens from it.
The first time you enter the room it’s likely you will already have viewed all the film reels in your inventory so far. You can rewatch them on the projector here or you can move on with the game, which takes you to the door on the northern wall.
When you walk up to the door and open it, the camera angle switches to one much closer to the point of action. This is normal for every door in the game, I think. When in this mid-range shot, Mio opens the door and it will stay open until the player walks through it or guides Mio back into the room and out of the current frame.
This is the shot if Mio walks through the door:
A beautiful thing Project Zero 2 does with its doorways is, the camera will linger until Mio walks out of frame, in this case to the left or right. As with before, you need to walk blindly into the unknown in order to see where you’re even going. In a haunted house where line of sight is literally your only defence against your attackers this makes for a frightening plunge with every new room you encounter.
If you remember the map layout from the very first picture, going left takes you right in front of a doorway.
This door’s currently locked. However, you can see a small gap to the right of it that you can walk through, which is just a small closet. It has a very unfriendly camera angle:
There’s not much room to walk around in here and Mio is fairly obstructed by all the boxes in storage. It’s not a kind space. But what’s especially noteworthy is this tiny cluttered area is where you’ll pick up ‘film reel 6’. The projector room is not five feet away so chances are you’ll want to pop back in and give the film a watch.
Before you do, let’s see what else is in this area. Passing the door to the projector room brings you to a staircase.
And underneath the staircase, behind some broken floorboards…
…Is a well. If you’ve seen Ringu the hairs on the back of your neck might be standing on end—a boarded-over well was the final resting place of vengeful spirit Sadako, whose modus operandi was to crawl through the television screen of whoever watched a certain videotape to kill them horrifically.
Sure enough, spooky wells have somewhat recurred throughout Project Zero 2 so far as places of murder and tragedy. Finding a well buried underneath the Tachibana house is deeply unsettling, even as is.
But it gets worse.
I’m going to interrupt the flow here to point out something about the last picture. As I said earlier Mio has a camera obscura with which she can defend herself against ghosts. Since equipping the camera gives us a first-person perspective of our surroundings complete with full directional control, we can actually use it to get around the compositional trappings of the second-person perspective at any point in the game. In this case, for instance, we need to equip the camera obscura to get a proper view of the well.
We can also use it to see what the storage room looks like from a different vantage point. It’s full of boxes.
The camera obscura seems an incredibly valuable tool, so of course it has a downside. When we’re holding the device we lose a lot of Mio’s mobility—she takes forever to turn and look around and she can’t run. Add to that the extremely limited peripheral vision the camera allows us and it becomes clear it’s a glass cannon: great offensive capabilities but we become fragile.
For this reason the camera obscura is best used in combination with the second-person perspective rather than functionally supplanting it completely.
Anyway, now we have the film reel 6 and we’re on our way to view it, so we return to the projector room and slap the reel in the machine. The footage starts up on the screen.
The film shows a storage closet lightly packed with boxes, not terribly unlike the one we just visited. After a few motionless seconds pass, the lid of one of the boxes lifts an inch and slides down to the ground. From the cavity stirs a figure, first its head, then its arms raise into view and extend to the floorboards as the body pours out after it. The film scrapes and cuts briefly. The figure emerging from the closet janks its limbs forward and crawls towards the screen, towards the camera, moving closer and closer right up into the foreground. The projector cuts out. The film ends there.
With Ringu fresh in our minds, we crumble.
There is no good position from where we can watch this film. In shot 3 Mio is standing right up against the projector screen; with the angle of the camera, the figure on the film moves directly towards us the player. In shot 4 we have some distance but the figure’s path would have it exit the screen at the exact point obscured by the projector.
If we stand in shot 1 and watch the film through the camera obscura, we lose sight of the entire rest of the room. And shot 2 would have us standing right in front of the large, undulating curtain, behind which, on the other side of the wall, is that well.
Regardless of where you position Mio when viewing the film reel, it makes for a terrifying experience. There is no getting around that. When the projector cuts out and the film ends, nothing actually jumps out at you. Not from the screen, not from the curtain, not from the walls or the floor. The rising terror from the figure’s haunting approach lingers in the air unresolved. It would almost be better if something did jump out at you just so the moment would end.
If you gather yourself up and continue on with the game, you’d have to take the door on the northern wall again. This will take you to the staircase over the well and up to an area I haven’t yet dared to venture at the time of writing this. If while up there you decide to turn tail and backtrack to a savepoint, you may end up passing through the projector room again.
Remember now that the shortest and easiest way to make your way through it is by running straight in front of the projector screen and being visually disrupted by the projector itself. And every time you enter this room the film reel currently loaded in the projector starts up automatically, playing that accursed footage again, perhaps with a new twist.
At this point in the game I decided I had my fill of its tension for the time being and chose to head back to the nearest savepoint. I turned off my console, plugged it out of the wall and called it a night. This was the last time I played this game.
I did have plans to resume it later that week, however. I had set up the console, loaded up the game and turned off all the lights in the house. But as I stood at the hall door waiting for my eyes to adjust in the pitch blackness, my adorable little kitty cat ran up to me and touched my leg. And scared the shit out of me.
That was a year ago. I’ve not gone back to the game since.