How Fatal Frame’s Creator Scares Players And His Real Life Ghost Stories

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Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water takes players to Mt. Hikami where you’ll guide three characters who are investigating the truth behind a haunted forest. Siliconera had a chance to speak with Makoto Shibata director of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water at Koei Tecmo Games and Toru Osawa, Co-Producer of the Wii U horror game at Nintendo. We talked about why water is scary, haunted locales in Japan, and how Ayane got into the game.


Between Spirit Camera, Mask of the Lunar Vale, and now Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water it seems like you like experimenting with new hardware. Turning the Wii U GamePad into the Camera Obscura was a neat way to use the controller. How did you come up with this idea and how else did you experiment using the gamepad?


Toru Osawa, Co-Producer at Nintendo: I think a lot of people’s first impression of the Wii U GamePad was that it was camera-like, both in function and in shape. It was obvious to us that something like Fatal Frame, where you’re using the Camera Obscura as your weapon, was the most suitable kind of game for this, so the project proposal proceeded along pretty early.


However, we went through a pretty long trial-and-error period while devising the GamePad’s camera-like interface, trying to figure out what we should show on the GamePad. We also worked with Koei Tecmo Games to have more camera-like functionality, such as focusing, framing, and zooming, in the game system.


This eventually settled into a system where you can tilt the GamePad to “frame” your shot and get as many ghosts onscreen as possible.


Makoto Shibata, Director at Koei Tecmo Games: I think that Nintendo’s games are kind of like evolved forms of electronic toys, ones where the gameplay is integrated within the hardware’s unique features. As a result, I think we need to consider gameplay that’s a good match for the hardware’s features and provide that to players, so I work with Nintendo each time to think about new features to put in each game.


The Wii U hardware was just too perfect a match for this game, so we had multiple discussions with Nintendo on what other unique features we might be able to put in. Most of them were oriented around the camera, but another thing that came up in our discussions was using the two sticks and tilting to allow for pinpoint controls, adding to the horror. This was centered around basic moves like opening doors and lifting up cloth, but there were also gameplay elements like moving items around just a little to adjust their position or pouring out water. We gave up on it at a certain point, however, because implementing this element across the whole game would fray our nerves after a while.


We also thought about the idea of blowing on things, extinguishing fires or clearing away dust. You could also blow on your companions to make them ticklish; other smaller reactions like that. The proposition here was how we can use this new hardware to let you interact with the game world, so I thought it’d be pretty neat, but it didn’t come to pass in the end.



Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is much more action packed than other Fatal Frame games. It’s almost as faced paced as a third person shooter with a score attack mode. Why did you shift he gameplay to be more action oriented and what effect did this have when you were creating levels designed to scare players?


MS: This game’s focus is on ease of control and fun battles. These are things that Nintendo was very fastidious about. Our concept here was to treat it like fast-forwarding a DVD, letting players skip through scenes as they like and play more leisurely through the parts that strike their interest.


As a result, we didn’t make this game using purely the “rules” of horror games like we did up to the last title. It’s closer to regular action-adventures or third-person shooting games, with the controls a little more subdued. There are horror elements, of course, but a lot of these elements take more of an active approach, so the creeping sense or horror, or those moments when you spot some subtle change in the background, are more dependent on player control. For example, this game features shades you can see, the past shadows of missing people. If you chase after these shades, you’ll never get lost. It you take your time instead, though, exploring your surroundings as you follow the shade’s trail, you’ll find more items and scary elements waiting for you.


I was worried that reducing the type of horror pacing you see in games like this would diminish the fear factor, but the results of our test-play sessions actually weren’t bad at all. Some of the feedback we received said that with the increased movement speed and action elements, it was just the right level of horror, enough to make you want to keep playing. With previous games, I’d receive feedback that the scariness made people stop playing midway, and I went with this approach because I want them to play through to the end.


Why was water picked as a theme? What makes water scary and how did you use this in the game?


TO: In the early stages, we had discussions with Koei Tecmo Games about what Wii U-style visuals should look like. We groped around for things we couldn’t depict in previous games in the series, but could now with the Wii U. The conclusion we came to was “water”.


From ghosts appearing out of rippling water to the feel of droplets running down your body, water’s played an important element in all kinds of horror scenes, but it’s always been difficult to depict in video-game graphics. During our experimentation this time, we saw some pretty good prospects for making this happen, so we agreed to give it a shot and got to work with Koei Tecmo Games.


MS: A lot of it was because the Wii U made it technically feasible.


The reason we went with water this time, though, comes down to my personal experiences. I think it was around 2008, but I was in Los Angeles in the summer, and the experience made me really feel like “I doubt I’d run into any ghosts around here”. Then, when I went back to Japan and immersed myself in the kind of summer humidity you only see in Japan, it made me realize once again how much of a necessary element it was. I think there needs to be a level of moisture in the air in order for ghosts to appear. If the humidity’s high, it feels like you’re surrounded by something larger than yourself; the boundaries between you and the rest of the world grow ambiguous, and I realized that the water becomes an intermediary that connects you with the unseen.


I wanted to make this game the culmination of the whole series, so I went with water for the theme. For this game, we made sure there was always water onscreen, from the menus onward. We also put in rain, lakes, rivers, fog, and every other kind of element. When your characters get wet, the clothing sticks to their bodies, which we also put in to help bring that feeling of moisture across.


You also have to enter a bath at one point. Water and enclosed boxes are two themes in this game, so we couldn’t have gone without that.



Let’s talk about the art of a horror game, scaring players. Some games use jump scares other games are atmospheric. How do you like to scare players? What are some of your favorite techniques that you used in Maiden of the Black Water?


MS: The most important thing across the entire series is that atmosphere where it’s like something’s watching you and something might come out at any time. I think that having this area that makes you feel like something used to be here, and having you wander through it, is one of the best situations for a spiritually-oriented horror game.


Unlike other media like films and novels, players control characters in video games, allowing us to depict a spatial setting for them. In these games, I try my best to recreate the atmosphere of the spaces I was in just before seeing ghosts as much as possible. I want to have players use their imagination in these spaces, letting it fill them with fear as they explore.


The differences you notice when revisiting the same place are also important in psychological horror. For example, there are different sequences when you enter the doll-lined temple in this game between the first time and the second time. I like adding these slight differences in sound and objects to stimulate players’ imaginations.


The story takes place in a fictional mountain known for suicides, in Japan there is a rather infamous place, Aokigahara, known for suicides. Was Hikami Mountain inspired by this? What other elements inspired the game’s story?


TO: I think it was Nintendo that proposed the idea of using real occult spots in Japan as motifs for this game. It was based on the idea that a lot of players wanted to experience places like that in a game world, places where anyone would think “They sound neat, but I wouldn’t want to go near them in real life”. I think that adds more reality to the design, too, using real-life places as motifs.


MS: The idea of using the occult spots across Japan as motifs definitely came from Nintendo. When they started by suggesting we use a famous suicide spot as a setting, I thought that was some material I just had to try working with, even if it’d make the story a lot heavier.


There are assorted other occult spots that saw use as motifs, too. The ghost experience I had when I visited Mount Osore in Aomori, a place in Japan with a frightening reputation, occupies a lot of weight in my mind. There, I heard a group of children’s voices, continually playing in the forest. A woman walking the same path was crying and sobbing, as if possessed by something, and I fell to the ground, unable to move. That voice was something I should never have heard. It was the kind of voice trying to invite you to the other side.


I also went once to Tojinbo, which is a series of oceanside cliffs. Someone had chiseled graffiti into the rocks that read “Life is nothing but sadness, pain, and hatred”. The moment I read it, I felt the sensation of someone lifting me up from behind. I must have had no business reading that inscription, either.


In both of those cases, resonating with someone’s emotions led me to receive an invitation to death. I made use of those experiences here, too. In this game, you have the ability to touch ghosts in order to see their cause of death and their secrets. The more you learn, the more you’re invited toward them; the story is set up to bring you close to death like that.



How did Ayane come into the Fatal Frame universe? Her gameplay is quite different since she doesn’t have a Camera Obscura and needs to sneak past ghosts. Why did the team pick Ayane out of all of Tecmo’s characters and how was designing her levels different from other stages?

TO: We wanted to emphasize the collaboration aspect more between us and Koei Tecmo Games, so Nintendo suggested having a DOA character make a guest appearance. Most characters in DOA are highly seasoned fighters, but having that strength be rendered meaningless by these otherworldly ghosts is something that I think will seem pretty fresh to DOA fans.


MS: Nintendo was the one who suggested having Ayane as a guest character. I think the intention here, as discussed earlier, was to create a stronger action-oriented impression.


Ayane’s a character with a lot of fans in the world of Fatal Frame, albeit one parallel to the main game, so we needed a story setting and gameplay that was a fit for her. You’ll see Ayane scared and pained in this mode, which I think will show a more vulnerable side to her.



Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is being offered in an interesting way in the West. Players can try the first two chapters for free and upgrade to the full game. How did this idea come about and did the success of Dead or Alive 5: Core Fighters influence this?


TO: A lot of it, of course, comes down to Koei Tecmo Games’ previous achievements with DOA5, launching a free-to-start game. But we also received advice from our overseas staff that this method would be effective in getting a lot of Western game fans unaware of the Fatal Frame series to learn about what makes it fun, so that’s what we went with.


MS: This was a suggestion from Nintendo. I think you see a lot of games these days where you watch a movie and practically feel like you played it afterwards, but if you actually play it, you realize how different that is from simply watching. I’m hoping that letting gamers easily play the opening scenes will help them try out the game’s unique atmosphere and the immersion the GamePad offers.


The Fatal Frame series has grown into a multimedia franchise with a feature film in Japan, a manga, and a Hollywood movie in the works. What do you want to do next for the game series? Are there any themes you want to explore, characters you want to bring back or entries in the series you want to remake?


MS: Having a multimedia franchise is an effective way to expand this world, and I think it’s a blessing. It’d really make me happy if I can get new ideas about horror and gameplay during my interactions with the staff planning out the Hollywood film right now.


I know that movies and games offer different atmospheres and different ways of scaring you, but if I can start talking with people based on the ideas I receive from the movie, I think that’ll help me create new ways to scare people that take advantage of new game hardware.

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