Frightening Chaos – The Terrifying Unpredictability of Clock Tower
Mandatory Fear looks back at the vital entries in horror gaming, exploring what made them effective at scaring us and their importance to the history of the genre.
When you know a horror game too well, it kills fear and tension. Not that these games can’t still get the drop on you here and there, but when you know what’s coming, it’s hard to get immersed in the atmosphere. It’s difficult to get carried away by your fear of the unknown when you know the killer is just around the corner.
Horror point & click adventure Clock Tower took steps to deal with this all the way back on the Super Famicom. As you’d guide our poor, pokey heroine Jennifer through the halls, trying to escape a scissors-wielding killer, you’d find things would change with each new attempt. An event may or may not trigger. Rooms would shuffle about. You’d get attacked where you hadn’t before. Things always seemed to be in flux throughout the game, making it unpredictable and frightening every single time.
Jennifer has had a rough go of things. She’s an orphan who gets adopted by a wealthy recluse. He even adopted a bunch of her friends. They’ve been in the guy’s mansion for maybe ten minutes when they get dragged off, leaving Jennifer to find them. And fend for herself, as there’s a killer running around with huge scissors. This is the gross, weird-looking killer is Scissorman, and he’ll be showing up a lot as you explore the mansion.
The thing is, he’ll be showing up in different places for a variety of reasons. For starters, Clock Tower offers many different routes through its plot. There’s nine endings (most of which end badly for you). To get to many of these, you have to avoid certain sequences or take very specific actions. That means you can easily trigger a whole new ending completely by accident. The story can end abruptly, violently, and permanently if you mess up. You might not even know you’ve made such a lethal mistake until it’s far too late, too.
Small, seemingly-insignificant actions can lead to your death. You’d need to play the game through many times to even know what you did wrong or how to fix it. It means that things feel random and chaotic, whole new routes appearing based on the direction you walked or an item you interacted with. These give players new things to fear each time. Plus, they create an uneasiness in you as you try to figure out what things are triggering your endings. What little thing will bring about your gruesome end?
Well, why don’t I just avoid the rooms with bad sequences and items in them? Well, the game shuffles events around if you change what route you take through the mansion. If you avoid one area so that you don’t witness a grisly death, you might find our nemesis killing someone else in another room. The game takes note of the path you take as you explore, starting up new story events or showing you different facets of the story. A simple change in direction can alter the story cues (and bloody deaths) you witness, adding new frights to stumble across.
Clock Tower further complicates this by changing the layout of the mansion on each run. It’s not a dramatic change as it only moves a few rooms, but many of them are vital to finishing the game or contain run-ins with its villain. So, even if you know what you’re doing, you might accidentally go to the wrong room and cause yourself some extra trouble. Until you know the game completely, you’ll also likely have to explore all of the rooms to find where you want to go. This makes it far more likely you’ll trigger bad events that lead to a deadly ending.
With these details, exploration stays scary. In most horror games, when I know where to go to get all the necessary items or trigger the right plot sequences, my fear dies down. I am simply going through the motions to get to the right point in the game. Clock Tower messes with that by shuffling locations and making certain plot points lead to disaster. So, you’re always tense as you explore because you can’t reliably go to the right place, and you might accidentally end up in a bad situation. You can know the right rooms to go to – your knowledge of that is still helpful – but what disasters will you find on the way to that room?
Scissorman is a big one. He can appear for a handful of different reasons, either randomly or in scripted points. You’ll likely get to know the scripted moments well (but like I said, maybe you can AVOID the rooms he shows up in), but the random ones are pure chaos. I’ve played multiple runs of the game and had him show up all over the place. I’ve died to him, and upon reloading had him not appear for a long time on my next attempt. He’s very hard to predict, and you can go long periods without seeing him at all, or have him seem like he’s all over you.
This randomness makes for a crushing tension as you explore Clock Tower. It feels like he can show up literally at any time. Even if you just had a fight with him, he might not show up there next time. Then, you find him hiding someplace new. He’s always ready to surprise you, so you never feel like you have a good idea on when he’ll appear. You’re just always tense and ready as you wait to hear the sound of those scraping scissors.
When he shows up, he’s pretty hard to get away from. Jennifer can’t fight back against him, so you’ll have to hide or find something to get rid of him. There are a few locations you can use to stay out of sight, but these are often unreliable. You can usually use a hiding spot once or twice before he figures you out and catches you anyway, but sometimes the same spot works multiple times. Sometimes the spot doesn’t work at all.
This means you’re always unsure if you’ll avoid death in your hiding spot. You’re never sure if you’ll survive your encounter, or if this is the one time your hiding spot will fail. Even though you’re doing everything right, mechanics-wise, to escape, Scissorman might still kill you randomly. Clock Tower refuses to ever let you feel sure of yourself.
You can also make life worse just running to your hiding spot. Your health and stamina are connected in this game. So, if you do too much running around, you’ll leave Jennifer in a bad state when an enemy shows up. You want to have some energy left to fight off Scissorman and other foes, so you can’t always be running. You need to be crafty and precise, but the other randomized elements make it hard. Do you go to a close hiding spot to save energy, even if you used it before? Should you try to find a new spot and risk tiring yourself out?
Clock Tower rarely lets its players feel safe. Its random elements keep them from knowing their way around the mansion. You always wonder if your hiding spot is going to be safe this time. Will Scissorman show up when I go down this next hall? Will changing my route take me to a permanent death and bad ending? Even when you’ve played the game many times, these chaotic, random elements ensure that you’re always a little nervous as you explore these gloomy, bloody halls.