Taking Pictures of Ghosts is Great
I am not a photographer. Never claimed to be. I’m actually a writer. I still appreciate taking pictures though. In the hierarchy of side missions to do in video games, taking pictures is second only to fishing. God, I love fishing in video games. We can talk about that later. While photography is generally used as a side activity, when implemented as the focus of a game, it really shines. Today I want to talk about games where you take pictures of ghosts. Everyone reading this just immediately thought of Fatal Frame. While I will touch on those, I want to give some credit to the lesser known spooky picture sims.
In 2001, Fatal Frame was unleashed on Japan. Coming to America about a year later. We…honestly didn’t seem to get it. It didn’t sell great in Japan, actually being the lowest selling in the series (4 mainline titles strong at this point). In America, it sold half of what it did in Japan. The world wasn’t ready to take pictures of ghosts. It was 2002. We were all focused on listening to The Eminem Show and watching Clone High. Had we taken the time to play it (for the 12,000 people who bought Fatal Frame at launch, you don’t have to read this) you would find a competent and downright spooky ghost game. At the time, the standard was guns. If there was a monster, you shot it. The biggest thing in horror was Resident Evil 0, and no one was playing that because it was Gamecube exclusive.
Fatal Frame stood out because in place of a gun, you were given an absolutely ancient camera to fight ghosts. You don’t play as a grizzled spec-ops soldier. You’re a Japanese teen in the 80’s. You’ll use what the game calls the Camera Obscura to capture photos of wandering spirits, and fight the ones who are more attack-y than wander-y. Fatal Frame is a slow paced, atmospheric experience. You can kind of jog around, but you won’t be sprinting anywhere. Special attention was paid to the enemy ghosts, with creepy designs sending a rightful shiver up the spine. Outside of battling ghosts, there were slews of hidden ghosts to snap pics of. By doing this you could add to the worlds scariest photo album.
Let’s pull things a little past 2002 and talk about more recent scary excursions. In 2014 DreadOut was released. An almost spiritual successor to Fatal Frame, it focused on new technology. Gone was the need for a crusty old Camera Obscura. This is the 21st century! In DreadOut you use what everyone uses for a camera these days; their phone. The cool thing about DreadOut is it takes place in Indonesia. With this setting the player is introduced to spirits from Indonesian folklore that they never would have known of otherwise. Playing as a teen girl with spiritual powers, you’ll mosey through the unlit halls of high schools, mountain retreats, and other places. You’ll use your spiritual power transferred to the your phone’s camera to banish ghosts. It’s a bit janky, but that’s part of the charm. As you take pictures of ghosts, they’ll be added to the awesomely named “Ghostpedia” for your later perusal. A sequel came out in 2020. DreadOut 2 is a great continuation of the series, and everyone should check it out.
In 2015, a little-known game showed up in the “ghost photos” sub-genre. Shutter was released to absolutely no fanfare. In it, you play as a drone. Not even one of the flying ones. You’re a small, land-based drone. Rolling around on your tiny wheels. Of course, the actual player character is the drone operator. You’re investigating a house. You’ll use the drone and surveillance cameras scattered about. You’d think that playing as a drone, any sense of fear would be gone. Shutter doesn’t care. The fear comes from what’s happening to your unfortunate drone operator. You will see ghosts, and you will see them often. They can knock out your drone’s power and send you screaming back to a charger port. Your superiors on this mission keep referring to the ghost photos you take as simple camera glitches. As the photos and the ghosts become more menacing, and the story of what happened in the house becomes more revealed, your superiors insistence that nothing is going on becomes more and more suspect. A sequel was released in 2020 that I haven’t played yet, but definitely plan to.
I liked all of these games. I liked hunting and cataloguing ghosts. It’s kind of like fishing in a way. You spend the time to get something, and then you take a picture, and you can add it your book. Seeing all the different ghosts and finding out how they died was an excellent part of all the games I’ve talked about. It sounds a bit macabre, but I really enjoyed it. To understand the paranormal on simple terms, like through photographs, gives the characters and the players closure. It’s easy to chew through hordes of monsters without thinking. Lots of games do it, and it’s fine. There is just an appeal to knowing about the person before they were a monster. I’m a fan of exposition. Sue me. If we seek to understand where our ghosts came from, it gives us a better chance to grasp what they gave up in becoming a video game enemy. This all sounds dumb as hell, but think about it. Well-written enemies make for a better game. I’m not saying Nintendo should put out an encyclopedia of Koopa backstories. I just like my enemies to have motivations beyond, “get stomped on by Mario”.
So where do we go from here? Fatal Frame established camera-based horror. DreadOut refined it, and Shutter took a more slow and thoughtful approach while changing up the concept. Where next? Well we could look to games like Penko Park, a spooky cute Pokemon Snap-alike that has you touring an abandoned nature park. You’ll take adorable photos while uncovering the story of why the park was abandoned. Nothing is outright horrifying, and you’re not explicitly taking pictures of ghosts. Moving forward, I think we’d all do well to hope for, or even develop new horror photography games. We just need more of them. While we’re at it, let’s get some fishing horror going too.