Between stories you wouldn’t change if you were paid and those that cause hives on sight, there’s…well, 75% of everything you’ve ever watched. You know, the thing that was pretty okay, all around, but might’ve been a lot more interesting if only. Perspective flips, gender changes, genre shifts: let’s tip our hat to the hypotheticals.
Today’s subject is Haunting Ground (titled Demento in Japan and changed for reasons that would involve questioning Capcom’s marketing strategy and are thusly better left unexamined), a 2005 survival horror game by Capcom. Gameplay-wise it’s often taken as a spiritual successor to Clock Tower (more than Clock Tower 3 was, at any rate), giving its protagonist no combat abilities and putting the focus entirely on puzzles and death traps scattered between hiding from recurring stalkers. Except you also get an attack dog, a la the same year’s Rule of Rose, a rather specific subgenre that I frankly kind of miss (and if any of the following sounds interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to track down an old hard copy – the game got a PSN release in Japan, but there’s been no breath of even that in any other country).
The plot, such as a Capcom game can be accused of having one, centers on 18 year old (very pointedly, one feels) Fiona Belli, who wakes up from a traumatic accident that killed her parents to find she’s been put in an (unlocked) cage and is naked except for a sheet. She’s been brought to a mansion that a mysterious voice claims is all hers, but the castle staff seems more bent on dismemberment than servitude. Fiona’s only ally is Hewie, a white German Shepherd she freed from a chain on the grounds. There is a great deal of whispering about Azoth, a mysterious substance Fiona supposedly inherited within her body, but trying to parse the exact details of that Macguffin can bring only madness. You can watch a pretty good Let’s Play here.
But I’m not here to suggest that the plot should’ve made sense. Bad writing is a hallmark of the Capcom line, and embracing that idiocy in good humor is usually the fastest track to happiness. Nope, I put forth a universe in which we have Finn instead of Fiona.
Though let it never be said that this girl and her dog aren’t adorable
Genderbending is a pretty common tool in the postmodern toolbox, albeit one that doesn’t always take very innovative advantage of the potential for all the grey shades of roles, presentation, and so on. What makes it appealing in this case is how much the themes and execution of Haunting Ground center around bodies. Because of the sketchily-defined Azoth in her cells, Fiona is constantly being objectified by her pursuers: childlike Debilitas sees her first as a doll (a companion with no will) and later as a kind of holy mother; Daniella resents her, enraged that Fiona possesses something desirable to men that she herself lacks; Ricardo sees her as a sexual object and tool, and Lorenzo sees an inconveniently habited vessel that he wants for his own uses. The concept of being broken down into parts and systematically dehumanized is put front and center in every danger Fiona faces, and as an added measure the castle is full of traps that emphasize the frailness of her physical form (instant death traps everywhere) and “failed” stone golems (empty vessels) as prior alchemic experiments.
Rarely does YOU CAN’T UNSEE IT feel so appropriate
It’s a shame about that camera then, the thing that makes the game pretty difficult to take seriously as any kind of intentional commentary (beyond, perhaps, that charming old mentality of “the player should feel motivated to save her so they can have sex with her”). While it would fit in with the themes of helplessness and discomfort to shoot certain scenes (close calls with the stalkers in particular) in a threatening, uncomfortable manner, it undermines the effect to feel as though Fiona’s helplessness is being made into something sexy. It’s the difference between, say, a forced perspective shot over the shoulder of a stalker as Fiona hunches ever smaller at the bottom of the frame (thus unifying player and character perspective) and traveling slowly along Fiona’s thighs when she falls over and is trying to back away from something, focusing on the hem of her skirt.
Totally necessary, I swear. Honest
And even that sort of shot could be done in an effectively tense manner if it were set up in contrast to a “normal” view, where the grainier lighting and lurid panning would feel more like a stalker POV than the director’s hand behind an “objective” camera. But it never gets there. There’s too much focus on staring at Fiona’s assets even when she’s not being watched, too much loving animation put into the jiggle physics and, on a tonal level, an absence of feeling triumph/being freed from that sort of gaze when Fiona successfully completes a boss battle (nor does the direction feel especially attuned to these different sorts of objectification its set up – though that could be more in fumbled execution than lack of trying, if we’re being generous).
So that’s our baseline to work from. What’s intriguing about a “Finn Belli” then? Assuming that the introduced elements above were handled with better clarity, quite a bit. Male protagonists are pretty rare in the Helpless Horror subgenre, and the ones that do pop up tend to get at least some form of weapon to pinch hit with. You could fairly argue that Amnesia and its children have more or less answered this call in recent years, but there’s something crucial that feels lost to me in the separation of first and third person POV.
First Person horror games encourage the player to erase the distance between the character and themselves to maximize the experience, generally leaving us with a vaguely sketched out camera to walk around as. Third Person POV puts an emphasis on the protagonist as a character, and that degree of separation will almost universally result in that character less slack for helplessness/reluctance than if the player felt more implicated in surviving themselves (we might call this “the Shinji Ikari Effect”). With Finn we would already have a character who’d be instantly blamed for not being “manly” or fighting back in a way Fiona wouldn’t be, even if they came from the same upbringing and circumstances. Fighting through a third party proxy (Hewie) while trying to solve puzzles and survive would be cowardice rather than survival instinct (though let us be fair: it is often quite frustrating how few contextual objects Fiona can even attempt to use to buy herself a little time). Putting the expectations of a male character in a role designed to display eroticized helplessness calls into question a lot of unquestioned assumptions about what storytellers and consumers expect on a knee-jerk level.
Really though, somebody help this kid
And speaking of that eroticism, that is most certainly Not a Thing (unless we’re talking about very bad BL – and let us agree never to do that). While male characters being pursued with the subtextual threat of sexual assault from men has made rare appearances (hi again, Outlast), the use of a female aggressor would predominantly be played as a “lesser” threat or, at worst, slightly comic in wondering why the man wouldn’t accept the unwanted attention. Alter the whole cast of Haunting Ground, and you have the one male/same gender pursuer as the most purely violent, while a female Ricardo and Lorenzo as conventionally attractive, horrifying threats (the original game might be ridiculously written, but those sequences never stop feeling skin crawling in a pretty effective way) could potentially sell that the horror of such a situation remains equally impactful regardless of the gender of the victim and would-be assailant.
This fantasy game assumes a better writing team than Capcom possesses in order to tactfully pull off the idea, of course. Though I imagine Finn would probably find himself burdened with far fewer unhurried pans and closeups of helpless half-dressed squirming. And probably fewer unlockable fetish costumes. And if he didn’t – on the one hand equal sexualization doesn’t cancel out a problem or address the root causes of it in media, but on the other it would be quite the interesting experiment (I can practically guarantee that those who have grown up desensitized by the constant barrage of the male gaze into thinking something as blatant as this game isn’t especially egregious would catch onto an equal female gaze, in its relative rarity, real quick). And in this magical fantasy land of mine a world where quiet, resilient dog lovers Finn and Fiona could both be viewed on equal terms would be the ultimate win.
But I haven’t really started on my doomsday prepping, so maybe that’s best put off for another day.