Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fear is Fascinating: Clock Tower and the Gnarled Evolution of Survival Horror

A work of horror art most always calls upon a collection of familiar, archetypal anxieties, sculpted into worst-case scenarios with sinister faces. Cabin in the Woods says it best when it labels its retinue of monsters as "remnant of the Old World," all of them nightmare visions continually filtered through the collective conscious. The ingredients remain the same; the alchemy is volatile, subordinate to the aesthetic and cultural trends of the time, the artist's command of his or her subject, and perhaps most critically, the medium in which it is presented. Video games have had an exceptionally difficult time nailing down the formula for a variety of reasons that only seems to multiply as their technology develops.

Horror in gaming is often described as "survival horror" because, well, it falls on You the Player to survive. Easier said than done when the games of this genre deliberately leave you understocked and unprepared for whatever threats are waiting to bury you. Combat and restorative items are either nonexistent or in short supply, an emphasis is placed on spatial awareness and puzzle solving, and danger lurks unrepentant at every turn. These design principles can be found in games as early as the NES's 1989 Sweet Home, a tale of madness and infanticide Nintendo found too gruesome for their delicate American players, and were popularized by Capcom's 1996 Playstation hit Resident Evil. The problem is that the ludic cornerstones of the genre - deprivation, helplessness, resource conservation - run counter to what a vast majority of contemporary gamers now find satisfying in their virtual experience, and as such survival horror has significantly dwindled in popularity. There have been a few attempts to resurrect it, such as breakout hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but recent entries in old-guard franchises Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been met with disdain or disinterest.

One series in particular that exemplifies the struggles of the genre is Human Entertainment's Clock Tower, four titles strong and largely forgotten in the annals of video game history. Clock Tower's genesis was on the Super Nintendo in 1995; it is generally considered the only survival horror game for the platform, and its moderate success in Japan led to three sequels and a slew of ports. (As with Sweet Home, Nintendo of America balked at its violent content and refused to localize it.) Clock Tower concerns recent adoptee Jennifer Simpson, her sinister new home, and the Barrows clan that resides there. When her fellow Granite Orphanage strays go missing, Jennifer takes it upon herself to find her friends and escape the mansion...but an unarmed adolescent girl stands little chance against a scissor-wielding mutant, as she soon comes to learn. Jennifer cannot pick up or use any weapons, and her sole means of self-preservation are to hide or to use a few items scattered throughout her surroundings to temporarily stop Scissorman in his tracks. In keeping with horror's storied "final girl," the point of agency for the audience is physically outclassed by her assailant and must instead rely on her wits and intuition to defeat him. Clock Tower borrows extensively from film; its reference points are numerous and unsubtle, but highly appealing. The most obvious one is Dario Argento's 1985 film Phenomena, from which it lifts the likeness of its main character and a couple of baddies (though the razor-wielding monkey, sadly, is nowhere to be seen). There are nods to other horror works as well, including Deep Red and this wild Suspiria-esque interlude:

Clock Tower is bloodless and not incredibly graphic, but it is quite harrowing for a 1995 SNES title. Carefully animated and featuring remarkable sound design, its suggestive potency is underrepresented by mere GIFs. Part of the game's power comes from the ambiguity of primitive technology; when you consider horror's reliance on the constant sensation of not knowing, the employment of imagination to fill in the gaps, it becomes far more plausible that a sprite-based point-and-click adventure from two decades ago could hold its share of scares. Sadly, the series' move to polygons, Playstation, and the third dimension failed to capture that lightning in a bottle. Clock Tower II, referred to as Clock Tower in America, is a very different beast from its predecessor. Trading in the somber palette of the Barrows mansion for garishly lit spaces and expressive sprites for graceless 3D character models, the game's advance toward "realistic" aesthetics cannot maintain the delicate atmosphere of the original.

No longer able to accommodate the menacing hallucinatory qualities of the original Clock Tower, Clock Tower II takes a different narrative tack, adopting the guise of a broad, somewhat campy slasher. The plot deals with Jennifer's escape from her evil host family and the subsequent media blitz that surrounds both her and Scissorman, sort of a Scream before Scream. Its initial promise dulls as the writers quickly lose focus, eschewing any themes interesting enough to sustain its oddly enormous script and instead shoveling in as many gruesome kills as possible. This approach is enjoyable in its own right, as the game has a few cool set pieces and over a dozen moderately interesting characters, all of them waiting to die in highly entertaining ways. Quite like the miscarriages in the series' transition from 2D to 3D, though, a lot is lost by sticking these characters with poorly-acted dialogue, and way too much of it. The obvious pressure placed on Clock Tower II by technological advancement - be bigger, voice the script, employ polygonal rendering, etc. - ultimately scuttles its worth as a horror object, though it remains an enjoyable and fitfully clever entry in its genre.

Human Entertainment's tentative first step into the third dimension was critically divisive but marginally successful, enough for them to roll the dice again on a spinoff title. Nine months previous, however, Resident Evil had come out and, with its combat system and three-dimensional environments, made adventure games in Clock Tower's image look sort of outmoded. 1998's Clock Tower: Ghost Head, localized as Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within, retains nothing from the first two games in the franchise except for its fundamental point-and-click mechanics, which it then splices with a rudimentary firearms system for deterring your stalkers. Human failed on both counts: Ghost Head is a wretched piece of shit, probably the worst video game I've ever played. I've owned it for a decade and still haven't managed to beat it, let alone unlock its THIRTEEN alternate endings.

There isn't enough room in one blog post alone to address what's wrong with Ghost Head; the game feels like it wasn't even submitted to quality control. There's an admirable return to the dialogue-light approach of the original Clock Tower, but when your game features a schizophrenic heroine, a six-year-old girl with a knife, a possessed statue, zombies, a machete-toting killer in a Hannya mask, and evil armor, players stranded in the narrative deep end will be left wondering why they should care. The game tirelessly throws assailant after assailant in your path, many of which can be temporarily subdued with a pistol - except you can only fire it if you're Bates, gravel-voiced alter of protagonist Alyssa Hale. To enact this transformation, you first have to put Alyssa's protective amulet down in one of several preordained locations, then get attacked by an enemy, take at least one point of panic damage, run away to another room, and orient the painfully awkward crosshair onto the enemy as they approach you. All this instead of, you know, allowing the teenage girl to use the gun. These combat sequences, a horrible attempt to copy Resident Evil's third-person action, contribute nothing to the game except to further muddy its excruciating pace. Environments already unfold haphazardly and without explanation; there are nearly ten doors in the first act of the game that cannot even be examined until you complete such apocryphal objectives as looking at a suit of armor or finding your best friend's leg in a toilet. Throw in all this repetitive, disorienting combat, and the game's exploration turns from a chore to a Sisyphean trial. And for what? A senseless plot? Uglier graphics than Clock Tower II? Some of the worst voice acting of all time? All that said, Ghost Head is actually pretty funny, if you can stand playing the thing. I love the indecipherable-cum-inept opening cinematic, an inadvertent metaphor for the game itself, and Bates' insults are particularly innovative.

Clock Tower: Ghost Head stands as a complete disaster that at least had the spine to try and reconcile its progenitor's unique adventuring mechanics with the demands of a market increasingly fatted by powerful horror heroes. Hell, earlier in the year Resident Evil 2 gave players shotguns and a rocket launcher to play around with, leaving Ghost Head's three weapons looking awfully paltry. Derided by critic and customer alike, Human Entertainment produced a few obscure Japan-only puzzle and wrestling games before folding one year later. In 2002 Capcom, ever the enterprising lot, picked up the Clock Tower license and once again attempted to cross the widening survival horror gap with Clock Tower 3. Their own horror series clearly hitting its stride, Capcom was obviously going to mold this new acquisition into something more commercially viable, but how best to do so while appeasing Clock Tower's cult fanbase? The answer is simple, and strong in concept, but grafted to the plot in embarrassing ways. Clock Tower 3 is broken up into four chapters, each one unified by some nonsense about Alyssa Hamilton, a fourteen-year-old girl who travels through time and space (!) to find her mother and discover the secrets behind her matriarchal destiny as a Rooder (!!). Rooders, if the game is to be believed, spend 95% of each chapter solving murder mysteries and hiding from inhuman serial killers, only to suddenly fulfill their inner potential and transform into Magical Archer Angels.

Repeated four times over, this sequence is always followed by a tedious boss fight where you run to one end of a small battlefield and hope the AI is dumb enough to let you toss off a few fully charged arrows. It looks bad, plays bad, is bad. This is really a shame, because Clock Tower 3 lands the exploration segments more often than not, and I like the idea of a recurrent narrative turnabout where solving each mystery allows Alyssa to defeat her foes once and for all. But why the outlandish, flow-destroying, tonally inappropriate Sailor Moon stuff? It doesn't jell with the game's atmosphere, which occasionally wavers toward a similar goofiness but is effectively grim for the most part. A much more thematically appropriate way to empower the player and still maintain the rush of being pursued would turn each chapter's "sentimental item" (McGuffin) into the final cog of a trap or system designed to fell the assailant once and for all. Lazy bow combat can't be the kind of compromise anyone was looking for.

(Gotta admit though, determining the length of a boss' life bar through the amount of victims they claimed is pretty clever stuff.)

Clock Tower 3 is about as cheesy as you'd expect it to be, but that doesn't discount the game's merits: great voice work, excellent cutscene direction (brought to you by Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku), a mostly smooth transition away from the series' point-and-click roots, and a few truly effective scares early on. Unfortunately, the cumulative disenchantment brought about by its boss fights and plot left the game unpopular in the cold light of day, so Capcom quietly shelved the Clock Tower license, presumably for all time. It is an ignoble end for a franchise once ahead of its time, unable to keep up with the demands of technology and the market. Clock Tower's failure predicted survival horror's universal inability to meet its audience halfway - Resident Evil 6, such a departure from its predecessors that Capcom rebranded it as "dramatic horror," was critically panned and sold short of Capcom's expectations. Silent Hill: Downpour barely moved half a million copies, and Fatal Frame 4 wasn't even released outside of Japan. It would seem that the console market, a ratrace to reach the greatest level of uncanny valley "realism," simply can't support the strict aesthetic demands of horror. Imagination is less and less the province of these hyper-powered machines, hellbent on showing us every shadow, every texture. This, of course, urges the resounding question of gamers brought up by the school of first-person shooter philosophy: if we can see it, why can't we kill it? It is unfortunate that such a school of thought will keep a whole generation of gamers from recognizing this genre's true capacity for fear.

BONUS! Here's some Clock Tower fanart I put on DeviantArt (where else?) when I was 15. Warning: major talent ahead. I didn't draw an elbow for Laura in the first picture because I thought it would be artistic...seriously.

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