Tecmo’s Project Zero — also known as Fatal Frame in the United States, and simply Zero in its native Japan — has always stood out.
“Survival horror” is most certainly not what it once was, but even during its heyday in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Project Zero set itself apart by eschewing the blood, gore and violent scenes people had come to associate with the genre.
Instead, it provided a rather more contemplative, supernatural tale with its roots in traditional Japanese spiritualism. And by golly has it held up really well since its original release nearly 20 years ago.
Project Zero opens with a young man named Mafuyu coming to a creepy old Japanese mansion in search of Junsei Takamine, an author who has been acting as his mentor. As these things tend to go, something apparently horrible happens and he doesn’t come back, leaving his sister Miku rather worried. This being a horror game, Miku decides that she probably doesn’t need to alert the authorities, and instead decides to check the mansion out for herself, armed only with a little torch. And thus begins her ghostly adventure.
Director Makoto Shibata began contemplating the original concept for Project Zero shortly after he finished work on Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation to Darkness on the original PlayStation. While Deception had been a deliberate attempt to create a complex game system to “broaden player experiences”, in Shibata’s words, he wanted the new game to be have somewhat simpler mechanics and instead focus on emotional engagement.
“We tried to emotionally reach out to players and get them to feel things they cannot actually see on screen,” he wrote on the PlayStation Blog in 2013, shortly after Project Zero was released on PSN as a PS2 Classic. “As a result, we selected the horror genre, which was an area aligned with my personal interests since I tend to ‘see’ things myself every now and then in real life. In other words, my experience of seeing things that weren’t actually there — or noticing abnormal things around me — were some of the fear factors I thought would appeal to the emotional side of the player, if we were able to embed them on top of the adventure side of the gameplay.”
This design philosophy is apparent right from your first moments in Project Zero. Initially playing as Mafuyu, the screen is covered with noise, often leading you to believe you are seeing things in dark corners of rooms when there is nothing there. Once this initial scene ends and we start playing as Miku, the noise disappears for the most part — but the darkness remains, and those ill-defined shapes in that inky blackness remain just as terrifying.
Project Zero’s use of colour is deliberately limited, with the initial Mafuyu chapter being completely monochrome and the main Miku component of the game remaining mostly desaturated, with the main colour on display being the muted red of Miku’s hair and her shirt. This visual style was entirely deliberate: art director Hitoshi Hasegawa noted on the game’s official website around its original release that he wanted the colour white (seen most prominently on Mafuyu and Miku’s clothing) to represent hope, and the colour black (making up most of the screen) to represent fear. The flashes of red, meanwhile, represent life, but its desaturated nature reflects that it’s only a faint glimmer of life: Miku is alone in the house.
Hasegawa noted that it was a challenge to get that balance between light and dark just right when designing the way Miku’s torch illuminated the darkness. Too much brightness and the player would feel too secure; too dark, however, and it would be too difficult to play! Ultimately he managed to find an excellent balance; Project Zero avoids the simple “tint everything dark blue” approach that all too many games go for, and provides a genuine feeling of stumbling around in the dark without making navigation overly frustrating. You can just about discern ill-defined outlines of things when you’re not looking directly at them, and some absolutely stunning use of dynamic shadows provides visual interest as Miku explores the environment.
This latter aspect is one of many ways the game drew inspiration from Konami’s Silent Hill series — something that Shibata is not at all shy about — but Project Zero distinguishes itself from those games by eschewing their harsh, gritty, dirty industrial aesthetic in favour of a somewhat more ethereal, almost dream-like feel thanks to subtle but effective use of motion blur alongside the clever use of lighting throughout.
Alongside the visuals, an extremely important part of Project Zero’s overall aesthetic is its use of sound — and this ties in with Shibata’s concept for the game, too. Sound director Shigeki Okuda quickly decided that the game needed to make heavy use of stereophonic sound in order to enhance its atmosphere and play up that feeling of “feeling things you cannot actually see on screen”. Okuda’s intention was for players to really get a feeling of where things were in 3D space through the use of sound, and indeed this concept is used extremely effectively throughout — whether you’re simply hearing Miku’s footsteps across various types of flooring as you explore, or if a ghost is present and ready to make your life miserable.
Ah yes, ghosts: probably Project Zero’s most distinctive, defining characteristic. In contrast to its contemporaries in the survival horror genre, the game eschewed physical, corporeal enemies in favour of vengeful spirits. The game’s interpretation of ghosts primarily stems from Japanese horror films, which in turn have their roots in stories that date all the way back to the 17th century. Japanese horror as a loose genre tends to combine elements of the supernatural (ghosts, or more accurately yūrei, the Japanese interpretation of ghost-like spirits) and aspects of folk religion, Shinto and/or Buddhism, and indeed Project Zero follows this format almost to the letter — with a slight caveat: the developers didn’t really know a lot about the sort of rituals that formed part of these religions, so they had to make a fair amount up, drawing a bit of inspiration from Daijiro Morohoshi’s 1970s manga Youkai Hunter along the way.
The central ritual around which the game’s narrative revolves — the “Strangling Ritual”, in which a maiden is torn apart in order to saturate sacred ropes with her blood, which in turn are used in conjunction with a Holy Mirror to seal a gateway into Hell — is entirely fictional. But while horrifying, the concept behind it has its roots in traditional Shinto myths and legends: specifically, the concept of there being worlds other than our own, and certain events bringing those worlds into contact with one another. (We last explored this idea here on MoeGamer with the visual novel Ne no Kami if you want to know more.)
The concept of “the Calamity”, which the Strangling Ritual is intended to prevent, mirrors the tripartite view of the universe that the Shinto religion takes. Specifically, the Calamity represents the underworld (or Yomi) breaking through into our human world, unleashing the forces of darkness in the process. Here, said forces of darkness are represented not by a specific deity or monsters, but by the amorphous concept of “The Malice”, which infects wandering, restless spirits and refuses to allow them to move on to the afterlife. In other words, Project Zero’s ghosts are tied to the mortal realm not due to a specific grudge or any “unfinished business”, as often seen in ghost stories from both Eastern and Western sources, but simply because the ritual to maintain that barrier between the human world and the underworld failed at some point in the past.
Ghost stories can easily get very complicated and confusing, particularly when multiple “timelines” of events are involved. Project Zero manages to sidestep this issue by keeping its core conflict relatively straightforward and easy to understand, despite there being three distinct “eras” in which things have happened.
Firstly, there’s the “present day”, in which Mafuyu went in search of his mentor, and then Miku pursues him. The team made a specific decision for the game’s “present day” setting to be during the 1980s rather than the late ’90s or early 2000s; this was to further the feeling of isolation by depriving the characters of modern conveniences such as mobile phones, while maintaining at least a certain feeling of “modernity” about things.
Secondly, as Miku explores the mansion, she begins to uncover the story of a family headed by a folklorist who had been researching the strange rumours about the mansion. While the father and mother of the family ended up dead as a result of the mansion’s ghosts, it seems that the daughter of the family escaped this fate somehow — though exactly how this relates to everything else that is going on isn’t revealed until the latter hours of the story.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the time period where the Strangling Ritual failed, allowing the Malice to escape and filling the mansion with restless spirits — including those of the folklorist and his wife, as well as Mafuyu’s mentor and his party of companions, all of whom met a grisly end at the spectral hands of various ghosts.
Each of the game’s four “nights” focuses on one of these time periods, allowing you to develop a full understanding of what happened in that mansion and gradually working your way back in time to the source of everything. And as you progress through the game, pretty much everything you do and discover ties in to the overall narrative and setting in some way.
Of particular note is the way the ghosts themselves are handled. Rather than simply being random, generic spirits designed to be scary and little else, each ghost has some sort of connection with the overall narrative. Each night tends to have several major encounters with ghosts that are directly related to the story thread explored in that part of the game — for example, during the first night, Miku repeatedly encounters the ghost of Ogata, an editor who worked with Takamine, and the “boss” of the whole night is the spirit of Takamine himself.
But that’s not all. The “random” encounters throughout the game — which occur either at predefined moments or if you spend too long hanging around in one place — all relate to the narrative, too. For example, a recurring ghost with a broken neck is the spirit of a woman who committed suicide after the Strangling Ritual failed; the “wandering monk” ghost is the spirit of someone who attempted (unsuccessfully, obviously) to exorcise the ghosts from the mansion after the ritual failed; the spirits who are nothing more than floating heads are victims of the family master and ritual leader, who went mad after the ritual failed.
The original intention for Project Zero was for the ghosts to be undefeatable and simply repelled by light from Miku’s torch, but after some heated discussion between Shibata and producer Keisuke Kikuchi, the team decided to implement some form of actual “combat” into the game. Obviously conventional combat wouldn’t make a lot of sense, since, as tradition has it, ghosts aren’t generally all that bothered by conventional human weapons. Moreover, protagonist Miku was always designed to be just a normal teenage girl rather than a highly trained combat specialist; her highly vulnerable nature was always part of the game’s core design, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to be toting around a variety of heavy weapons Resident Evil-style.
The Camera Obscura was born, and with it some of Project Zero’s most interesting core mechanics.
The camera has two main uses: uncovering hidden things, and engaging in combat with ghosts. The former is relatively simple: if, while wandering around, you hear a weird noise and see the “filament” in the corner of the screen start to glow blue, there’s something nearby that you can take a photograph of. Sometimes these photos provide hints for where to find the objects you need to solve puzzles; at others they simply show non-hostile spirits that remain trapped in the mansion; and in a few specific cases throughout the game, photographing a particular spirit breaks a “seal” on a door, allowing you to pass through.
Combat, meanwhile, is where Project Zero is at its most “survival horror” — and its most “gamey”. When the filament glows red, there’s a ghost on the move somewhere nearby, and more often than not that means said ghost is going to try and kill you. In order to seal it, you need to photograph it using the camera in order to deplete its spiritual energy.
This isn’t a simple matter of point and shoot in most cases. You have limited film, for starters, so it’s in your interests to try and seal your spectral foes in as few shots as possible. You can do this by allowing the camera to charge up Mystical Power by training your sights on your target — but of course, your foe isn’t going to just sit still and say “cheese” for you. Each type of ghost has its own unique movement pattern, with some simply flitting around relatively predictably, while others have the ability to teleport into awkward positions when you least expect them to. Most of them also phase in and out of visibility somewhat, too, so it’s important to time your shots carefully.
You have a few ways in which you can improve your effectiveness, known as “Shutterbug Moments”. Scoring a “Core Shot” by overlapping the camera’s crosshair on the ghost’s target marker does additional damage. Hitting a ghost when your targeting reticle turns orange knocks them back and interrupts the attack they’re in the process of performing — but, of course, mistiming this means you’re going to get hit. And interrupting an attack when you’ve managed to charge up your Mystical Power fully results in a devastating “Zero Shot” for significant damage and a big boost to your score.
Each successful shot you take (and ghost you defeat) adds to your score, and these points can then be used to power up the camera in various ways. You can increase the size of the targeting reticle to make it easier to aim (and, on the later nights, more easily hit multiple ghosts at once), you can increase the charge speed of Mystical Power and you can increase the maximum possible Mystical Power, increasing your overall damage potential. There are also four different types of film, with each one effectively “pre-charging” part of your Mystical Power meter and making it more easy to deal heavy damage.
The camera sequences might initially seem clunky and cumbersome, but this is entirely deliberate; part of the definition of the survival horror genre is the way that direct conflict is designed to induce a sense of panic in the player. You can move around slowly from the first-person perspective while using the camera, but you can’t dodge an incoming attack; you’ll need to either interrupt it with a well-timed shot (preferably a Zero Shot!) or put the camera down and move to another position in the room if you think your ghostly opponent is getting a bit too close. The “rhythm” at which you’ll have to do this varies with each type of ghost, so coming to understand each of their attack and movement patterns is extremely important to success in Project Zero, particularly as Miku can only take a few hits before dying.
The Shutterbug Moments system adds some depth and interest to the combat, and indeed once you’ve beaten the main story of the game, a Battle Mode opens up, challenging you to defeat a series of specific encounters as quickly as possible — and with the highest score possible for one of the shots you take. Attaining the elusive “S” rank for these missions generally requires that you combine a Zero Shot with one or more other types of Shutterbug Moment such as a Core Shot. It’s difficult but not impossible to pull off — and getting the hang of this (not to mention the various ghosts’ attack patterns) gets you suitably prepared for the story mode’s Nightmare difficulty that unlocks when you clear all the missions.
While Project Zero was designed from the outset to be simple to play and emotionally engaging, it never forgets that it is a game rather than just a narrative experience where you walk from one cutscene trigger to the next. It’s challenging and demands skill — and it rewards continued engagement after you see the credits roll for the first time, which will probably take you about eight hours or so, if you were curious.
The Battle Mode is a fun way to test your mastery of the game’s core combat mechanics, the Nightmare mode offers a new ending if you clear it, you can unlock new costumes for Miku to wear and there are various delightfully game-breaking mechanics you can unlock by meeting various (difficult!) conditions over the course of your subsequent playthroughs.
In short, it’s a game that has clearly had a lot of love and thought poured into it — and it still looks, sounds and plays delightfully today. If you’ve grown tired of the gorier side of survival horror, turn out the lights, slap in a new reel of film and get ready to get snap-happy with some ghosts. Project Zero deserves — nay, demands — the attention of anyone who takes their horror seriously.
More about the Project Zero series
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