Critique: Haunting Ground

Quite a while back, I was turned on to Haunting Ground by Leigh Alexander's writeup of it for her Aberrant Gamer column on GameSetWatch. Her insightful critical read of the title made me want to see it for myself, but the disturbing subject matter she described kept me from diving in for a long time. And now that I've played through it, I've been taking even longer to write up my experience.

It's because Haunting Ground is a tough game to write about. Half of it's brilliant, the other nearly unplayable; it treads patently unpleasant and distressing territory, but features clever, enjoyable design that can be great fun to play. It uses exploitation and objectification to challenge audience identity and gender expectations in ways that only a game could, but feels simultaneously pandering and puerile. It's a great success, and a great failure. It's a weird game.

Haunting Ground is a Capcom survival horror title of 2005, following in the tradition of the Clock Tower series. The player is cast in the role of Fiona Belli, a young woman who wakes up in a strange castle with vague memories of a car wreck floating in her head. Fiona soon befriends a helpful German Shepherd named Hewie, and with his assistance must navigate through a convoluted series of puzzle rooms while evading the depraved denizens of the castle.

The first half of the game is an incredibly well-crafted example of classic survival horror design. The castle itself has a creepy-but-plausible layout which includes bedrooms, sitting rooms, bathrooms, gardens, studies, a kitchen and dining room, along with a number of stranger, more baroque locations such as alchemy labs, a gallery filled with dolls staked to the walls, and a demented merry-go-round. The dense puzzles filling the castle hinge on a distorted abstract logic, and beg the question of just what kind of madman would construct such a lair. The setting layers surreality on top of mundanity with aplomb.

Mechanically, the clues and solutions to the first half of the game's tightly-knotted puzzles are wonderfully decentralized and satisfying to solve. Much like the dreamworld of Silent Hill 2, Haunting Ground's early puzzles operate on an otherworldly but readable ruleset which begs nonlinear thinking from the player.

The gameworld's structure and puzzles encourage the player to constantly make connections between distant points, while providing just enough direction to keep the player from getting completely lost: the clue to any given puzzle always lies in one room, while a pertinent object lies in another, and the place the puzzle must be completed in another still, resulting in puzzle solutions that sketch complex webs across the playable space.

The castle is divided into distinct chunks composed of a dozen or so rooms apiece, each chunk initially blocked off from the other by doors "locked from the other side." As the player enters a new chunk, he builds a mental map of that isolated physical space, then by clearing obstructions unlocks the blocked doors to prior sections, gradually building out the full map of the castle as a whole. From the nonlinear objectives to the physical shape of the gameworld and the player's course of progression through it, the first half of Haunting Ground presents a wonderful mechanical experience centered on completing circuits within a system driven by interconnectivity.

The character dynamics and narrative frame that buoy the gameplay in the first half of Haunting Ground are equally compelling and challenging, in totally different ways. Filling the role of Fiona Belli places the player in limbo between voyeur and subject, exploiter and exploited, violator and violable, and for most players, between masculine and feminine. It's a distinctly tense space to occupy, and can only arise from the play of a video game, as opposed to passively observing other entertainment media.

We first see Fiona in Haunting Ground's attract screen movie, padding down a long, red corridor wrapped in a translucent bedsheet, intercut with footage from a camera that follows a blooddrop trickle down the contour of her nude body:

The symbolism makes itself clear here, and colors the game's ongoing depiction of Fiona, which emphasizes her femininity, vitality and vulnerability. These aspects of the protagonist drive all of the ongoing narrative and secondary character motivation in the first half of Haunting Ground, which finds a pitiable rogue's gallery chasing lustily and relentlessly after Fiona. She is expressly designed as an object of desire.

In an early scene, Fiona trades in her wispy bedsheet for a set of clothes she finds disconcertingly laid out on a bed as if for an expected guest, and which furthermore seem to be tailored just for her. As she dresses, we observe the scene through the eyes of an unseen figure watching from behind a painting hung on the wall; we are momentarily put in the shoes of someone preying on Fiona, while simultaneously charged with keeping her from harm's way. The clothes she's been given are exploitative and degrading: a skirt much too short for decency, a bodice cut too tight for modesty, bringing into question the motives of her gracious host. But meanwhile, the game's developers also intentionally invested in a system for simulating breast-bounce as Fiona moves about the castle. The revealing costume serves a fictional purpose as an outfit orchestrated by Fiona's perverse captors, but the computational power poured into depicting boob jiggle can serve no one but the (predominantly male) developers and players of the video game. The overall effect is to reinforce Fiona's vulnerability as a captive subject within the gameworld, while also indicting the player as a voyeur in league with the story's antagonists.

Fiona is hereafter imperiled by the ongoing threat not just of death, but of vague and looming bodily violation. Her first pursuer is a hulking manchild referred to as "Debilitas," seen in the attract screen movie above. When he initially encounters Fiona, he glances from a filthy ragdoll he's holding, to our protagonist and back, then tosses the doll aside and lurches after his new object of desire. As Fiona progresses from room to room, Debilitas will attempt to chase her down when their paths cross. During the pursuit he'll shout out "Dolly!" giggling and stomping with child-like delight, but also sometimes stop to paw at the crotch of his pants in frustration. The implication is that his adult body and stunted mind may be in conflict: the player gets the feeling that Debilitas wants to rape Fiona when he catches her, without even understanding his own actions. The dissonance between physical and mental intent places the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the threatening-but-blameless Debilitas and the helpless Fiona in an exceedingly uncomfortable frame.

If Debilitas embodies the conflict between male and female, lust and innocence, brawn and intellect, Fiona's second pursuer, Daniella, explores a range of conflict between two female forces: sensation and function, humanity and inhumanity, servitude and dominance.

Daniella is the maid of the castle, and takes over as Fiona's pursuer when Debilitas steps down. She reinforces one of the ongoing themes of the narrative frame, which deals with alchemy and reanimation. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Daniella is an automaton: she has a body and sentience, but no humanity. As she says, she is "not complete," and can't "experience pleasure or taste." Daniella's turning point from observer to pursuer comes when we find her running her hand over Fiona's body as the girl sleeps, her palm coming to rest over the womb. As Fiona awakes, Daniella goes on to study her own reflection in a window, then bash her head against it in disgust until it shatters, from which point forward she mechanically follows Fiona around the castle, wielding a huge shard of glass as a blade.

Unlike Debilitas, Daniella isn't after Fiona due to any physical urge, but out of jealousy, confusion and contempt. Daniella covets everything Fiona represents: her vitality, her fertility, which spring from her femininity and youth. Daniella has no youth because she has no age; she's an empty shell and she knows it: simply being reminded of such by her own reflection drives her over the edge. When her polar opposite arrives in the form of Fiona, she simply can't process the contrast. Daniella is associated with dolls and puppets via mise en scene throughout the castle, and is just that: a body without a soul, a tinman without a heart. She is broken, pitiful, and terrifying.

The most unsettling aspect of Fiona's predicament is the vagueness of the threat that looms over her. If she's caught by Debilitas, what is he capable of? What is Daniella's true nature? And who is the madman orchestrating all the events in this demented castle anyway? Dolls, mannequins, puppets, earthen golems, mummified girls and even partially reanimated corpses occupy room after room; what is the obsession with life from death?

At one point, Fiona's unseen host, a mysterious hooded figure known as "Riccardo," tells Fiona to remove the tarp from a form sitting on a couch in the study. Upon pulling back the sheet, Fiona finds a clay replica of herself in a state of full pregnancy. Just what the hell are these people's intentions? Overtones of Rosemary's Baby intensify. While the player wraps his head around the castle's abstract puzzles and flees from an array of freaks, an abiding, oppressive fear of the unknown always looms large over the proceedings. It's the opposite of the explicit threat of having Leon's head chainsawed off in Resident Evil 4. Does Fiona face a fate worse than death? Not to know is to dread it all the more.

Haunting Ground chooses a female protagonist deliberately, almost perversely. Unlike many games that put an attractive female shell on an otherwise genderless protagonist, Haunting Ground exploits the trope of the woman imperiled in a way only video games can, twisting it to overlap with the player, resulting in a strange duality that requires the player to really delve in and inhabit the role, to identify with the uniquely female aspects of the character and be driven by her fear and vulnerability, as opposed to observing from a detached viewpoint. The player of the game is charged with protecting Fiona, but also with being Fiona, a character who is different from the player in much more psychologically significant ways than your standard video game protagonist. It's a unique experience for a male player, and uncomfortably so, but one worth braving for its truly alien qualities. Both as a set of engaging game mechanics and as a novel and affecting transportive experience, the first half of Haunting Ground is an overwhelming success.

But here's the thing though:

The second half of Haunting Ground takes every aspect that made the first half interesting or enjoyable and turns it absolutely on its head. Once the third of four acts begins, puzzle design devolves almost instantly into a linear set of rote objectives, with no thought or deduction required. The areas thin out and transition from unsettlingly surreal to simply goofy and implausible. While the early acts had me making interesting mental connections and criss-crossing the map to clear obstructions, successive acts had me simply walking from room to room pressing the buttons in the order I was instructed, or worse yet participating in terribly-designed boss fights.

Player feedback, which was a point of emphasis in the first half of the game, takes a nosedive: I banged my head against one bossfight for the longest time because using the "come here" command on Hewie seemed to be resulting in an aggressive attack that I was just mistargeting, while in fact a FAQ revealed that I had to use the "attack" command explicitly to achieve my goal, while nothing in the game even pointed out that I was making a mistake in the first place. I solved another puzzle by sheer coincidence: one progression gate requires you to simply have a candle in your inventory while your pursuer follows you into a room which also contains some dynamite, at which point a cinematic plays, solving the puzzle for you. Thank god I hadn't actually been trying to figure that one out in any kind of intentional fashion. The final sequence in the game is horrifically punishing, obtuse, and just awful: an invincible boss that kills you in one hit chases you through a gauntlet, requiring the player to restart over and over, scouting with death to build enough precognition to perform the routine perfectly, lest the "game over" beast catch up to you for the dozenth time. The abruptness with which the quality of the game design drops off after the second act is striking, and it continues plummeting all the way til the final credits roll.

Furthermore, any subtlety or restraint the game showed regarding its themes is sandblasted away. We go from uncomfortable sidelong allusions to reanimation, fertility, and impregnation, to Riccardo shouting in the player's face, "Your father and I are clones! WE.. ARE.. CLONES!!" and yelling outright, "Fiona! Let me into your womb!" The story, which pointed in an intriguing direction in its early stages, descends into silly nonsense along with the gameplay self-destruction. We see clones floating in green goo tubes, Riccardo makes himself invisible by casting some spell on Fiona's eyeballs, and we meet an ancient alchemist named Lorenzo who falls from his wheelchair and scrambles along comically behind Fiona, flailing his arms in triple-time, practically begging for strains of Yakkety Sax to play in the background. Everything foreboding and unsettling about the game's narrative frame is transformed, alchemically, into its polar opposite: laughable, eye-rolling camp.

Haunting Ground is a game that I can recommend emphatically, up to its halfway point. Buy a used copy of the game for cheap and play up through the end of Daniella's chapter, then turn off the PS2 and don't look back. Despite the second half's implosion on every level, I completed it out of respect to what a great game the first half was, and out of some vain hope that the conclusion would make my devotion worth it. It wasn't worth it though, except to be able to report with confidence that you definitely shouldn't do the same.

Haunting Ground isn't pleasant. It isn't uplifting. Hell, it isn't even noble or progressive, considering its queasily pandering depiction of its protagonist. But its first half is incredibly well-crafted and entrancing while it lasts. At its best, Haunting Ground will take you to an unfamiliar place, ask you to put yourself in a pair of shoes that are particularly difficult to wear, and to experience all that comes along with that challenge. Good luck.


Sparky said...

I think you really hit the nail on the head here. The thing that really got me with the latter sequences was that they weren't without potential; Ricardo and Lorenzo both had obvious pathos that could have been played up. Lorenzo in particular could have been incorporated very differently, but the developers seemed to decide that they couldn't have any opponent who didn't immediately descend into cackling madness.

For me, the key problem was that the game abandoned its internal logic in these parts. One game premise is that this is a real (if weird) place inhabited by people (I cheered a little when I first saw the bathroom), but the late locales are unlivable messes. Another premise is that Lorenzo is a feeble old man who has lost control of his servants, but the game abandons this to turn him into a near-invincible teleporting superman for the final sequences. Those contradictions really nagged at me, and ultimately were even more disruptive to my enjoyment of the game than the awful mechanics of the closing segments. It's a shame that so much great potential dissolved into such a godawful mess.

SVGL said...

Right, though, right?

Sigh, I have to say that starting out with a stunning premise and unraveling after the midpoint is the fate of nearly all survival-horror titles. I wonder why?

Corey Holcomb-Hockin said...

I mostly think of it as a slasher horror movie you can play through. Characters are just psycho oddies, girl is pretty and vapid, and its mostly running. It doesn't stop being about running at any point. I expected Clock Tower and I got it.

Michael Abbott said...

I'm take a stab at Leigh's question. I think it has to do with the lack of a sturdy dramatic structure upon which to hang the narrative and flesh out the characters.

It's as if the whole project was planned around the premise - sort of like the way movies are optioned on a pitch; basically a big idea with a hook. Everybody gets excited about that and lots of ideas bubble up and people run with them. But in the meantime, nobody bothers to actually build a sustainable narrative.

There's a reason we spell it "playwright" instead of "playwrite." A playwright is a builder, not just a writer.

Steve gaynor said...

I think that in the case of Haunting Ground you're mostly right, as far as narrative is concerned anyway. The story was intriguing and troubling in its early stages, when its mysteries were being dangled in front of the player. Then in the second half they 'showed the monster,' and all the tension and intrigue went out of the production. As you said, they had an interesting premise but no way to wrap it up.

Design-wise, I got the impression that a different set of designers worked on the second half than the first. Even if the narrative had gone to hell, the actual gameworld and play could have remained high-quality, but it didn't. The game is loosely split up into what I'd call four "acts," each corresponding to a different antagonist chasing Fiona; in the credits, there are four designers credited. My theory is that each antagonist's section belonged to one designer, and the guys on the second half of the game just didn't hold up their end of the bargain. But really, there could be any number of explanations.

nathan said...

Buy a copy of the game used for cheap is a statement that did not age well lol