Games as Art: Fatal Frame III

A long time ago in entries past, I rambled about the inspiring designs of games like Folklore and the beautiful grotesqueries of Fatal Frame. I wanted to come back to those discussions in what I hope to be an ongoing series on this journal (yes another one) featuring games I feel move beyond mere entertainment into the realm of being a work of art.

I love games, the art that goes into them, the music, and the increasing quality of storytelling we’re seeing as the industry progresses.  With my current career choices leading me down a possibly game-related path, it seemed only natural to start exploring this passion of mine and connecting the dots of inspiration, artistry, and industry.

So let me introduce you to Fatal Frame III: The Tormented, a little known horror game that came out in 2005 exclusively to the PS2.  The story revolves around a young photographer named Rei Kurosawa. Barely a year before the start of the story, Rei lost her boyfriend, Yuu, in a car accident, which she blames herself for.  Rei begins to unravel mentally when she experiences a hallucination of her boyfriend beckoning to her during a photo shoot at an abandoned house.
She begins to dream of a sprawling mansion,Yuu beckoning her deeper into its depths.  Ghostly priests and priestesses bow at her presence and she soon finds herself staring up into their faces as four young priestesses line up silver stakes with her hands and feet, chanting a lullaby while they nail her into the ground.
A scene from Rei’s initial dream. Surrounded by four singing
priestesses.
The Manor of Sleep.
The game untangles the mystery of this ‘Manor of Sleep’ and the urban legend that those who visit it will either be reunited with their departed loved ones, or disappear from the real world with nothing left of them but ashes after 7 days.  One need not have played the past games to enjoy this one, though those who played the previous games will recognize familiar faces and recurring locales.
The game features three playable characters who all have varying abilities which allow them access to different parts of the Manor of Sleep with the main combat mechanic involving the use of an old fashioned camera to exorcise violent spirits who attack you. 
This is where the game really starts to play tricks on the mind.  Unlike many other horror games where you have to run or are able to combat your monstrous enemies with brute force, Fatal Frame (true of the entire series) forces you to stare at them as long as possible so you can get the best ‘shot’ of them with your camera, and therefore the most points.  We must face our fears and look them dead in the eye.
Facing our fears up close and personal.
Rei and Miku’s huge apartment must
cost them a fortune in rent in Japan!
If that weren’t nerve-wracking enough, the game’s story unfolds in day and night chapters, the day sections taking place in Rei and her assistant, Miku’s, apartment, while the night chapters start with Rei falling asleep and dreaming of the same ghostly mansion each time.  She starts in the same location almost every night, giving us a feel of deja vu each time she awakens to the same terrible situation.  Each night she must venture deeper and deeper into the Manor’s depths and uncover its terrible secrets, cementing the sense of impending doom in the Player every time she awakens.
Sure enough, as the game unfolds, the horror of the dream world begins to invade the safe realm of the apartment, pushing the tension of the story and the desperation of the characters to a breaking point by the end.  
Eventually Miku becomes embroiled in the mansion as well and we see her view of the Manor of Sleep where she, too, is searching for a loved one, and a ghost that has plagued her own family.  Those who played the first game will feel that tightening sense of dread when they see the hints of the Rope Ritual from the first game in the familiar dreamscapes that invade the Manor’s geography and cast us deeper into the unfamiliar.
Those of us who played the first game will know to fear this hallway.

Ritual sacrifice plays a large roll in making Fatal Frame as immersive and terrifying as it is.  Each game forces us to unravel the mystery at the heart of each central ritual and what has caused so many tormented spirits to remain on earth. These mysteries usually involve the troubled lives of the main characters, and therefore the Player, who empathizes with the trials of the characters as we descend deeper and deeper into madness with them.  This tie to Japanese Shinto ritual also provides one of the strongest visual motifs for the series, which is permeated with eerily beautiful images of corrupted priestesses and picturesque temples destroyed by past cataclysms.  We, the Player, peel back layers of mythos through documents, love letters, old photographs, decrepit film reels, and snippets of flashbacks presented via cg scenes overlaid with dated film texture, all utilizing a subtle design sensibility that submerges us in a world of old, forgotten things now coming to light.
Fatal Frame III takes the Player beyond a mere product digested for entertainment and into another realm of emotion, utilizing all the tricks of charged atmosphere, clever audio-visual queues, involved storytelling, and subdued design to create a wholly unique experience in gaming. A pity such a game will probably never see widespread acclaim, being as niche as it is, but it’s my hope this entry will have at least shed some new light on an old gem some of you might appreciate!
For now, I leave you with more shots to haunt you into the Halloween weekend:
Rei stands amid lanterns sent out for the dead.
A great example of the creepy beauty in this horror game.

Forgotten Shinto rituals and shrines give this game an eerie atmosphere
saturated by folkore.
Just one of the many creepy ghosts with such fascinating
details that make you want to both run away and look harder.
While outright gore is rare, the game relies more on hints
of gruesome ceremonies to drive the tension.
Just a note – that’s not a massage table.
Finally, we have a video of the intro section of the game I described above:

5 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Stumbled upon this article while searching around. I’ve been playing the first one recently (trying to actually finish the game so I can get to the other ones). So glad there are other Fatal Frame fans out there 😀

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