Death by exposure.
The photographic process practically celebrates (and gleefully vilifies) itself within the horror genre. Spooky images on film and video like this and this but probably not this - already once-removed from direct human experience - are somehow creepier in and of themselves because of that very inherent connection to, and disconnection from, what we laughingly call "reality." It's exactly this sort of unease that fueled The Blair Witch Project and a number of rather unpleasant camera-related moments in David Lynch's film Lost Highway, as well as Clive Barker's disturbing short story "Dread."
The minds behind Fatal Frame clearly grasp the disturbing disconnect the camera eye can force us to experience. Japanese games have a well-established history of magnifying that sort of tweaky unease to begin with...and what could be more consummately Japanese than a survival-horror game in which the short-skirted schoolgirl protagonist constantly takes pictures of everything with her little camera? All righty, then.
Fatal Frame looks more or less like your typical cinematic spooky game at first glance. It puts you in the shoes of a young Japanese girl named Miku, searching for your missing brother and trapped in a mansion haunted by way too many restless ghosts. You control Miku (who actually looks Japanese, for a change) from the expected ominous camera angles, and repeatedly go rooting around through inventory and map screens.
Sounds like old-school survival horror stuff, right? Except there's a very definite catch - Miku's 'weaponry' consists of a special camera, through whose use she can exorcise the spirits of the departed. While the player controls Miku through a standard third-person cinematic viewpoint (as in, say, Resident Evil or Silent Hill), the angry dead in Fatal Frame must be confronted in a first-person viewpoint, through the camera lens. It's a small but ingenious caveat that at times almost gives the game the immediacy of a first-person shooter
This effectively results in two major kinds of supernatural combat. There's the kind where some ghastly thing suddenly materializes right behind you in the third-person view (and scares the living @#$%! out of you until you manage to fumble the camera up to your eye and counterattack it). Then there's the kind where you constantly sweep the room in first-person mode, with the camera glued to your paranoid eye at all times, until said Ghastly Thing suddenly materializes right in front of you (and scares the living @#$%! out of you until you manage to F-stop the thing into screaming submission). Either way you choose to play it, Fatal Frame is a very well-produced and creepy game with the most cinematically-grounded mindset I've seen thus far in a video game.
Fatal Frame's introduction, which is playable, also serves as a tutorial. It shows us Miku's missing brother on his own quest to locate a famous author (himself gone AWOL in the sprawling mansion). The entire sequence has the creepy, grainy-film look of a bad memory revisited, complete with a subtle, disturbing filter effect that fools the eyes into looking for things that aren't there. It definitely falls under the heading of a "trick" on the player...but it's a really good trick, and does a lot toward instantly establishing the proper mood.
Once the "real" game starts, Miku is forced to walk through the same initial rooms the (presumably doomed) brother just moved through. It's an old Hollywood suspense-building gambit unofficially called "Don't go in there, we just saw [insert other person's name] eat it in the exact same place!" and it works beautifully. Fatal Frame's overall "camerawork" is superb, calculated for maximum effect. If you take your spooky games at all seriously, you owe it to yourself to play it alone, in the dark, with the sound turned up.
Mechanically, camera-combat is a, ahem, snap. When a ghost appears near Miku, a quick press of the circle button brings up a first-person camera lens viewpoint. The left thumbstick moves the camera around while the right thumbstick allows Miku to move while keeping the target in-frame. The longer the spirit is kept in the photographic kill-zone, the more said spirit is damaged when the shot is finally taken. It's pretty straightforward, but it's creepy, too. Fatal Frame's ghosts make ugly faces and ugly noises, warping into existence right beside you or in front of you and often rematerializing from point to point as you frantically try to keep a first-person bead on them, and all the while they're howling distorted cries like "Let me out!" and "Give back my child!"
I've heard some complaints that the voice work is too repetitive, but it seems like a pretty pointless point to me. If a ghost gets to scream the same line at you more than a few times per encounter, it probably means you're a lousy ghost-buster and you're about to be killed anyway.
If the spirits manage to dodge your attacks and get their ghostly hooks into Miku personally, the video (and even the audio) melts and distorts as they choke the life out of her. It's true that there's only so much one can do on the flat screen, but it's one of the most disturbing effects you'll currently find in PS2 title.
The game's design team has claimed more than once that Fatal Frame conveys better than any other game the presence of supernatural forces in the room, which is true and fair enough. Far be it from a mere critic of the arts to suggest that it also depicts the presence of some fairly serious pharmaceuticals on the design team's nightstand. Hey, whatever gets the job done.
In addition to the purely visual creeps, Fatal Frame conveys Miku's psychic sensitivity by having the controller throb her heartbeat into the player's hands whenever something occultically-noteworthy is nearby. It's almost too much help at times, but it sure piles up the fear-factor.
My favorite Fatal Frame anecdote comes from a buddy we'll call "John." John, a seasoned gamer who'd prefer to come off as rather a hardcase than not, popped Fatal Frame into his PS2 on my recommendation one bright, sunny day at his office around mid-afternoon...and purportedly yelled "Jesus!" and damn-near dropped the controller the first time one of FF's ghosts crossed his path. It made me feel much better about my own first crack at the game which was, of course, in a dark room at around midnight. Now let us never speak of this again.
The mechanics that compose the rest of the game will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played a survival-horror game; at times, a bit too familiar. Film types of various grades for the camera serve as 'ammunition,' with varying grades of performance, and door/mechanism/item-fetch puzzles are the norm. The game's backstory is filled in through the notebook scraps, audio tapes and other physical clues to be found throughout the mansion.
Fatal Frame's problems are minor. The first you'll likely encounter is that the game-save file is so darn big - forget about keeping a Fatal Frame save on the same card as ten other game-saves like you're probably used to. Also, the camera's targeting scheme is adamant about getting foes within the glowing Capture Circle. It does not matter how up-close-and-personal you get with the attacking entities (as evidenced by the 24 photos per game you can save in a dedicated 'album') - you'll occasionally be awarded no points for a frighteningly-close call, even though the developed film clearly shows the otherworldly aggressor filling the frame.
And though it certainly breaks new ground with its emphasis on sheer frights and disturbing imagery, Fatal Frame relies very heavily on ubiquitous survival-horror gameplay elements. Hope you like your silly puzzles.
If you're one of those gamers with a predilection for The Creeps - you know who you are - Fatal Frame is simply a must-see. Easily-freaked and superstitious types may not make it all the way through, as was the case for many a Silent Hill player. No shame in being sensitive. For the full experience, you hard-core types could even play Fatal Frame alone, in the dark, with a high fever and a Ouija board nearby for handy "off-line help." You could...but it doesn't sound like a good idea.