Now in its 14th year, the Fatal Frame series has the honor of being an anachronism. These days, the gurus of ludonarrative consonance insist that the empowerment of video games is incompatible with the helplessness of horror, so survival-horror titles must choose between being action games with Halloween decorations or interactive stories that eschew vulgarities like combat and fun. But Fatal Frame continues to treat the split between shooting and running as a productive tension, with results that are equally exciting and scary. Maiden of Black Water isn’t perfect, but it’s a compelling experience, made all the more precious now that there’s so little like it.
The game begins when a girl disappears on a mountain infamous for teen suicides. But investigators soon discover that these suicides are being caused by the unquiet spirits of girls who were sacrificed by the local priests, buried alive in underwater coffins as offerings to the gods. Like previous titles in the series, the game rejects the conservative horror narrative of a peaceful community corrupted by a malign outsider, portraying tradition and stability as the efflorescence of socially approved murder. In a Japan (and an America) where nationalists demand that no one ever apologize for their country’s past, there’s a powerful resonance to a story of a community doomed by its unacknowledged slaughter, where even the victims are so invested in the ideology of cruelty that they continue it long after death.
In the best ghost-story tradition, the narrative moves backward and forward at once, as the protagonists advance up the mountain by uncovering the dark secrets of the past. Like fairy-tale heroes, they cross thresholds in defiance of every warning, and the genre’s vestigial door-opening and passage-crawling animations here become a powerful symbol of boundaries transgressed.
Those animations are a relic of the days when limited RAM demanded interstitials for loading, and the game has added a new bit of gratuitous slowdown: Any time you pick up an object, you’re treated to a verrrrry slooooow animation of your character reaching out, which is sometimes interrupted by an abrupt ghostly attack. It’s a clever way to use genre conventions as thematic elements, and by emphasizing delay and obstruction, the game creates a pervasive sense of oppression and containment, a powerful correlative for the claustrophobic deaths at the story’s center.
But unlike the hapless avatars of many recent horror games, your heroes can fight back with the series-defining weapon: the Camera Obscura. Whenever a hostile spirit appears, the player lifts the Wii U GamePad like a camera, and tries to get the elusive ghosts in their sights, using the thumbstick for big turns and the gyroscope for small adjustments. It’s a nice way to combine the immersion of motion control with the efficiency of a traditional stick, and like the similar controls of the very different Splatoon, it feels surprisingly natural.
You can either keep your distance while picking away at the ghost’s health, or wait for the spirits to get close so can make a high-damage attack—a nicely unobtrusive way to let the player choose whether they want to play it like a shooter or embrace the scares. Confining the camera’s interface to the GamePad makes combat even more exciting for any spectators, since they aren’t distracted by crosshairs and only see the ghosts getting terrifyingly close as you wait for the perfect shot.
What’s really remarkable is how Maiden of Black Water’s mise-en-scène keeps the uplift of a successful fight from impinging on the sense of terror. Between the lack of victory fanfare—a battle ends when the ghost’s moans fade out to lonely background whispers—and the grim cinematics that show how each ghost met its horrid fate, even a total triumph leaves you feeling shaky and exhausted. It helps that the ghosts are appallingly individuated (hanging victims approach with a swinging pendulum motion, those who died by falling advance with a terrible broken-backed skitter, and so on), so their every appearance carries a jolt of memento mori.
But while the combat is great at delivering both video-game satisfaction and chilling horror, Maiden of Black Water’s obligations to video games become more of a problem when it comes to length. Previous Fatal Frame titles have been expansive, but this one is massive, taking about 20 hours to complete even with no deaths. From a gamer’s perspective, this might seem like more for your money, but there’s a reason why the best works of horror are short stories: Horror requires a certain shiv-in-the-guts compactness, and it dissipates with overexposure. By the fourth time you walk up the same spooky pathway, you might feel less dread and more exasperation.
Even more of a problem is the game’s ogling of its female protagonists. It’s a real immersion-breaker when a pointless bit of sexy costuming (who the hell wears a garter belt for a walk in the woods?) invites identification not with your endangered female hero, but with a pervy game designer ogling his digital dolls. And it’s especially frustrating because it undermines one of the best aspects of the game: how powerfully it evokes girls’ vulnerability in a society eager to suppress and destroy them. Maiden of Black Water’s first level involves a young girl trying to move through a freezing pond, and the chilly water beading on her thin biceps feels terribly physical. So much of the game is powerfully empathetic, building on the everyday fear that comes from living in a body that can be so casually shattered, that these bits of fan service feel like a real betrayal.
But despite such icky visual moments, the writing is remarkably strong. Maiden of Black Water has more major characters than any previous game in the series, and each feels like a unique individual with their own interest in the cursed mountain. Even more compelling is the game’s willingness to set aside narrative momentum and let environmental details take center stage. Early in the game, there’s a moment when the player is prompted to press A to investigate, and it reveals not a clue or a weapon, just a moment when the protagonist watches the light on water and misses her home. How many video game stories—how many stories, period—would pause for that moment? Or use the beauty of a particular sunset as a major plot element?
It’s also remarkably consistent in how it develops its central motifs—girlhood, water, isolation, adolescence, dolls—into a coherent theme, a mourning ritual for all the girls whose lives were frozen in place by violence. Death is everywhere in this story, not just as something gross or scary, but as something terribly sad, a tragic loss of potential which leaves behind something that can only decay, never grow.
It’s no exaggeration to compare Maiden of Black Water to the works of horror heavyweights like Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft for its ability to combine the vulgar thrills of pulp with sophisticated, if grim, themes, though it also shares their regrettable dips into pulp’s less savory elements. At a time when much of the critical community is convinced that video games can only become art by abandoning entertainment, it’s a vital reminder of how much can be achieved by maintaining both fronts.