Fatal Frame is considered by many to be a classic among horror games. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a new entry. The most recent title, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, was released in Japan in late 2014. Other series from the heyday of survival horror have seen similar (or greater) lapses in activity. Siren hasn’t had a new entry since 2008, and even the iconic Silent Hill franchise hasn’t had a new installment of any kind since P.T. in 2014. If not for the perseverance of Resident Evil (which fought through its own decline, rallying with the successful releases of RE7 and the RE2 remake), one would be forgiven for thinking survival horror has all but withered away. However, despite the overall decline of the genre, Fatal Frame has the potential for a powerful resurgence. In order to cover the nature of this potential, we’ll need to discuss the ground covered by the series so far.
A Brief History of Fatal Frame
The first Fatal Frame, known in Japan as Zero and in Europe as Project Zero, was released on the PlayStation 2 in Japan in late 2001, receiving American and European releases the following year. Resident Evil had already released three installments, and the first Silent Hill had hit the shelves just a couple years prior. It was a time many consider the golden age of survival horror.
Fatal Frame saw a fair degree of commercial success upon release, both domestically and internationally. Many consider it charming and reasonably executed, with a competent setting and narrative. There is one specific element, however, that sets it apart from other horror titles: the camera mechanic. The player encounters a variety of ghosts, many of which are hostile. In order to combat these specters, the player must take their photo using the Camera Obscura, a mystical camera that neutralizes spirits by capturing their essence on film.
This mechanic is the foundation upon which the series is built. Horror games tend to be carried by things like narrative, setting, enemy design, and general atmosphere. While these elements aren’t lacking in Fatal Frame, it offers us the rare example of a game that is built around a mechanic, rather than one of these other elements. This is what truly sets Fatal Frame apart.
The second entry, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly was released in 2003, and is considered by many to be the strongest in the series (and by some as one of the greatest survival horror titles of all time). Overall, it refines the strengths of its predecessor while improving on many weaknesses, all while delivering a strong story. It is often compared to Silent Hill 2 as a sequel that truly builds on the shoulders of its forerunner.
Despite warm reviews, Fatal Frame III: The Tormented (2005) didn't experience the same commercial success as its predecessor, causing its sequel to be released only in Japan. Nintendo had at this point purchased shared rights from Koei Tecmo, releasing the fourth entry, Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen (Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse), for the Wii in 2008. It does things a little differently, supplementing the Camera Obscura with a much faster flashlight that stuns hostile spirits. It eventually proved to be a modest commercial and critical success, making it all the more unfortunate that it didn't hit the international market. This was followed up with Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, a spinoff released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2012. It is thought of by many as the weakest in the franchise, with many citing an overall lack of content.
Then came the most recent entry: Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, released for the Wii U in 2014. Surprisingly, Maiden of Black Water received an international release a year after its domestic launch.
It received mixed reviews, with the story’s presentation considered by many to have been underwhelming, but the use of the gamepad is seen as largely a positive experience by many. The Wii U gamepad serves as a direct stand in for the Camera Obscura. As soon as a hostile spirit appears, a user can raise the gamepad into position, activate the camera mode, and move the gamepad around, tilting and rotating in order to land effective shots. While many fans have a generally favorable view of the game, its overall lackluster narrative meant that Maiden of Black Water failed to increase the franchise’s momentum.
This brings us to today. It’s now been more than five years since we’ve seen a new Fatal Frame. While it's unlikely the property has been forsaken entirely, we have yet to hear any concrete information on plans for future entries. That’s a shame, because there are a few reasons why the next Fatal Frame has the potential to reinvigorate the series.
Since 2014, technology in the gaming world has advanced in ways that offer a lot of promise for the franchise. There are two main routes I can see this going. The first of these is virtual reality.
One of the key features of virtual reality is presence. Whenever I think of VR, I go back to the first encounter with an enemy in Resident Evil 7. Fairly frightening, but not all that extreme, as encounters go. But when I replayed it in VR, it felt totally different. The sense of scale, of being in the space, was on another level. I distinctly remember feeling the distance between myself and the threat, and feeling a sense of pressure as that distant slowly closed. This element of presence is the core of the potential VR has for the future of Fatal Frame. It complements the core mechanic that makes Fatal Frame unique—waiting until just the right moment, no matter how close the spirit is, before taking the shot. Unfortunately, if Nintendo retains its rights to the series, VR seems unlikely, but we can always hope.
The other main technological achievement that gives us cause for excitement is the Nintendo Switch. Fatal Frame has already implemented camera controllers with Spirit Camera and Maiden of Black Water. Although the Wii U gamepad feels a bit clunky (and a bit heavy) at times, using it as a camera is surprisingly smooth once you get used to it. One point of contention seems to be motion controls, which some users find satisfying while others find unintuitive. The Switch offers a much lighter apparatus and a better screen, making it easier to handle in general. Moreover, the Joy-Cons have precise enough motion controls that there’s strong potential for some crisp, clean spirit photography. It’s unclear exactly what this might look like, seeing as there would need to be support for both docked and undocked play, but the Switch carries with it the capability to please both those who enjoy motion controls and those who would rather aim via more traditional means.
In an interview with Nintendo Everything last year, series producer Keisuke Kikuchi mentioned his interest in the continuation of Fatal Frame, saying: “Yeah, I do want to make a Fatal Frame on Switch. I think it'd be a ton of fun to play with the console in handheld mode and moving all around.”
Our Digital Ghosts
Throughout its history, Fatal Frame has leaned on Japanese folklore as its primary influence. However, as we find ourselves increasingly immersed in this digital age, there’s potential for the series to expand into new, digital themes. Rather than replacing the current folkloric roots, the addition of digital subjects would bolster them.
Digital topics like surveillance, the spread of information, and our online personas have the potential to synergize well with the concept of restless spirits. Ghosts are often associated with unresolved feelings, dealing naturally with memories left behind. We now leave behind many digital memories, memorials, and artifacts. There are links between our physical and virtual selves. We have online encounters with bodies we will never recognize in person. Fatal Frame deals largely with specters who are unable to (or refuse to) move on, and there’s great potential for it to incorporate these new topics—to deal not just with phantasmal ghosts, but digital ones, as well, the boundary between them ethereal. Bringing in these new themes to complement the traditional themes of the series has the potential to revitalize Fatal Frame’s narrative, bringing the franchise into a new age with vigor.
Whether Fatal Frame 6 ends up being a new entry in the existing storyline or a reboot, the pieces are there for an exciting, reinvigorated experience, both technologically and culturally. There have been some attempts to create spiritual successors (such as Dreadout, which just recently saw the release of a sequel), but none of these have managed to scratch quite the same itch as Fatal Frame. Thankfully, series like Resident Evil show us that it’s possible for a classic horror franchise to return strong. We can only hope that Fatal Frame will get the same chance, and that it will be brave enough in its reemergence to thrive once again.
Are you looking forward to a new Fatal Frame? Share what you'd like to see in the comments below.