It’s a group Waifu Wednesday this week, because the things I’m going to mention apply to the assembled ensemble cast of all the Project Zero games… well, those that I’ve played so far, anyway!
At the time of writing this, I’m closing in on the end of the Japan-only (and fan-translated) fourth game for Wii, but in the meantime be sure to catch up on my explorations of the first, second and third installments.
Or stick around and we can talk about horror game protagonists for a bit!
The first Project Zero came out at a time when the concept of “the everyman protagonist” had become pretty well-established thanks to titles such as Konami’s successful Silent Hill series and the less commercially successful cult favourites in Human Entertainment’s Clock Tower series.
The idea of an “everyman” protagonist has a number of different purposes in gaming. For one, it’s intended to allow the player to better insert themselves into the role of the protagonist by providing them with a rather ordinary, pedestrian set of basic abilities that are, regardless, somehow sufficient to see them through a dangerous situation. The theory is that by the protagonist being a “normal” person, the player can better empathise with them and perhaps contemplate how they, as a real person, would fare in a similar situation.
Everyman protagonists are particularly popular in survival horror games because their inherent “normality” helps to add to the sense of vulnerability and fragility that is so key to the genre — at least in its early incarnations. They generally have nothing in the way of particularly special abilities by themselves and are reliant on the things they can scavenge to survive — or perhaps the equipment they had the foresight to bring with them.
In the Project Zero series, the characters are never quite “normal” in the conventional sense, but the things that are extraordinary about them tend to make them more vulnerable rather than more powerful. The “sixth sense” that makes a frequent appearance in the series, for example, could be seen as more of a curse than a blessing in many situations — though, of course, when combined with the recurring presence of the Camera Obscura, it proves to be a key part of the protagonists being able to survive the situations in which they find themselves.
Aside from the things that set them slightly apart from “normal” people, however, the various protagonists throughout the series are eminently relatable and understandable — in some cases, arguably more so in the present day than back when the games were originally release. The third game in particular shows both Rei and Miku exhibiting clear signs of depression and anxiety, which are concepts that we’re all a bit more familiar with and open to talking about in 2018 than we were earlier in the new millenium.
Characterisation in the Project Zero series is typically rather understated, with a fair amount being left up to the imagination. This is doubtless part of director Makoto Shibata’s desire to allow people to interpret the games’ stories for themselves, but it also adds somewhat to the “realism” of the characters. Regular people tend not to spout their life story the moment you meet them, after all; even close friends don’t know everything about one another. Indeed, looking specifically again at Project Zero 3, although Rei has taken over guardianship of Miku since the events of the first game, she doesn’t know all the circumstances of what transpired in Himuro Mansion.
A key part of the design of Project Zero’s protagonists — the female ones, anyway — is beauty. All of the female characters are very attractive without having exaggerated physical characteristics; in other words, they’re appealing to look at while still maintaining a sense of convincing, believable realism about them. In some respects, the quasi-perfection of their beauty brings to mind the recurring “doll” motif that is used throughout the series; however, the delicate nature of that beauty adds further to the sense of vulnerability that is central to the games’ respective atmospheres.
This beauty is further emphasised by the costume design of the characters. Throughout the series as a whole, the characters’ default costumes are presented as acknowledging and clearly presenting their femininity and emphasising their fragility while remaining true to the “everyman” concept; Project Zero characters dress like “normal” people.
There is one particularly noteworthy aspect of the costume design worth highlighting, however, and that’s the fact that there tends to be particular attention paid to the back of the various outfits. This is most noticeable from the fourth game onwards (including the Wii remake of Project Zero 2), which introduced a third-person over-the-shoulder camera rather than the fixed camera angles of the first three games — and consequently had you staring at the character’s back for much of the game — but it can also be seen in the intricate, corset-like lacing on the back of Rei’s outfit in Project Zero 3, and the lacy design of Mio and Mayu’s costumes in Project Zero 2.
Besides the obvious reasons for this aspect of the costume design in the third-person over-the-shoulder games, paying particular attention to the back of the character is yet another means of emphasising their vulnerability. Mio’s default outfit leaves her upper back completely exposed in Project Zero 2, for example, while the delicate designs seen on many other characters’ costumes — be it Rei’s aforementioned lacing or the detailed embroidery on Madoka’s blouse in the fourth game — highlight the fact that, in any dangerous situation, your back is going to be the part of you that is most vulnerable to unexpected attack.
Interestingly, being a series of survival horror games about ghosts, the dangerous situations in which the protagonists tend to find themselves tend not to have a tangible, noticeable physical impact on them (or their clothing), so although the risk you’re putting them at throughout the games makes you feel as if there’s a possibility of “defiling” their beauty through injury, it’s rare we actually see a visible, physical effect. Exceptions to this include the “rope curse” in the first Project Zero game, which reveals itself as rope burn marks on Miku’s limbs at the conclusion of a chapter as she gets closer to the truth, and the symbolic tattoo of Project Zero 3 flaring up whenever Rei or Miku take damage.
Would the Project Zero games still be as good if the majority of its playable characters were burly men rather than beautiful young women? From a gameplay perspective, sure… but at this point it’s hard to imagine it having quite the same impact and atmosphere without its distinctive, memorable character and costume design.
More about the Project Zero series
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