Gothic Games Part 2 – Clock Tower

Posted by Danny Cummins on February 01, 2012 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

My aim with this series is to draw attention to some of the best examples of ‘gothic gaming’ produced over the years. Whilst video games have become a universally recognised academic field, there is still a considerable gap between their current circulation and the cultural space held by other forms of media such as books and films. With Clive Barker’s Undying (Dreamworks Interactive, 2001), we got an insight into the world of period gothic and the kind of unique player experience that could be created with the first-person perspective. With part two of the series I intend to look at a very different yet no less gothic gaming experience; the slow burning, two-dimensional paranoia of Clock Tower (Human Entertainment, 1995).

A Bare Bones Review

Publisher: Human Entertainment, Developer: Human Entertainment, Released: 1995, 1997, 1999 Platforms: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Playstation, WonderSwan, PC

Clock Tower is a story of orphans, isolation, sordid family secrets and sprawling Norwegian castles, as such, all the critical elements for a piece of classic gothic story-telling. The game introduces Jennifer, one of the orphans hailing from the quaint Granite Orphanage in Romsdalen, Norway. She, along with her other friends, is taken to the equally charming Barrows Mansion, also known by the eponymous title of ‘Clock Tower’ for its crowning architectural feature. With nerves already fraying in the secluded mansion and the obscure circumstances surrounding Jennifer and co’s adoption by the mysterious Ms. Mary Barrows, the game’s darkly brooding plot is kicked off in earnest as the lights go out and Jennifer is left alone to search for her friends and Ms. Mary in the sprawling manor house.

In many respects this introductory moment in Clock Tower is perhaps one of the best in horror gaming, in terms of how it generates a distinct and specific atmosphere of gothic foreboding in the player. Unlike many preceding (and for that matter subsequent) horror games, what Clock Tower achieves so well is a denial of knowledge and in so doing a proliferation of threat. Even when control of Jennifer is passed from the introductory cut-scenes to the player, nothing drastic has happened out of the ordinary and thus the onus is very much on us, the player, to seek out the horror which we are so subtly told by the build-up, must await us within the walls.

Luckily Jennifer will occasional step in to limit the player’s attempted interactions.

The horror in question takes the form of a murderous young school boy by the name of Bobby, though affectionately termed ‘Scissorman’ by the fans and in subsequent titles in the series. Bobby earns his ominous moniker from the huge pair of scissor-like shears which he carries around wherever he may tread; which is practically anywhere he chooses. Bobby can appear at random through any door in the game, although in testament to Human Entertainment’s skill at fashioning horror, he can also emerge from parts of a room seemingly mundane such as cupboards and curtains. Compounding further the sense of helplessness the player experiences controlling Jennifer, Bobby cannot be fought and defeated and instead must be evaded and ultimately hidden from in order for Jennifer to survive. Whenever Bobby is nearby, Jennifer’s ‘panic meter’ will begin to change from a calm blue to an urgent red. Should Bobby close the distance he will struggle with Jennifer and should her meter be in the red when this happens then Bobby will promptly dispatch her with his (almost) comically over-sized scissors.

In 2008 plans were finally drawn up to turn the Clock Tower franchise into a film, said plans having been in development hell since the game was first made. Rumour has it that the film is tentatively slated for a 2012 release. Interestingly, the game’s own story is loosely adapted from the 1985 Dario Argento film Phenomena.

Wherein Lies the Gothic?

No two rooms in Barrows Mansion are alike, thus the potential for exploration is never exhausted.

Where the first-person perspective is famous amongst video games for its ability to create a unique and personal kind of dread, the vulnerability and threat of Clock Tower is achieved in a different yet no less effective manner. Crucially, Clock Tower is a 2D game, with the halls and rooms of Barrows Mansion viewed through a cutaway of the wall; giving the impression of looking into a gothic dollhouse. This panoramic view of each room the player chooses to enter combines with the fact that the heroine, Jennifer, is a character in this room rather than a mere projection of the player’s viewpoint through the first-person perspective. As the player we are responsible for putting the eminently vulnerable young Jennifer in harm’s way, rather than ourselves and since this ‘harm’ can burst out of the woodwork (literally) at nearly any moment, we never have a chance to let our guard down. Thus Clock Tower manipulates viewpoint in much the same way as the narrative voice of a gothic novel may, in order to achieve its gothic perspective.

When Human Entertainment folded in 1999, the franchise was bought and continued by Capcom, noted developers of fellow survival-horror series the Resident Evil games.

Moments to Remember

What is apparent about Clock Tower and perhaps the element which shines out most, in terms of immersion, is the detail. Every room in the game is not merely a potential arena for Bobby to grace with his presence, but also replete with items and bric-a-brac most of which responds to player interaction. For instance, in most rooms there is a light switch that can be turned on and off, televisions, telephones and desks with drawers to be searched. Even though turning a room from pitch black and silent to brightly lit with TV static blaring, has no discernable effect on Jennifer’s survivability, this only serves to feed the cold, unfeeling atmosphere of the game. Yet occasional hints at a lurking evil still prevail; did we really see the image of a twisted face flash on the television for a split second? By the time we’ve looked it will already have gone, but not without doing exactly what it was intended to; tightening the screws of our paranoia that little bit further.

In one notable instance, the silence of the cavernous mansion is broken by the distant ringing of a telephone. In another setting this would be about as mundane as could be imagined, but in the deserted halls of Barrows Mansion, the sound takes on a horribly uncanny edge; that most of the game’s ambient noise consists of Jennifer’s footsteps only further underlines the frightening intrusion of any other sound. Yet the insidiousness of this simple noise has only begun to show itself. After the initial fright wears off, we as the player begin to ask questions without even realising it. It is the middle of the night and the house is empty, who

Unlike most children, Bobby is more than willing to share his toys.

could possibly be calling and for whom? Such is the pre-occupation with this sound that we eventually go looking for its source. In a cruel twist of design however, Human Entertainment ensures that whilst the sound can be heard very early on in the game, it cannot be physically reached until much later. As it happens this may be just enough time for us as the player to create a highly paranoid yet no less real complex about what is happening. Already convinced that this call must be for us, given that there is no one else, suddenly we notice that the caller has not stopped phoning for the last hour in which we’ve been trying to find the phone. Who are they? Why are they trying to reach us and why have they not stopped calling? How do they even know we are here and if they know what is their intention in calling at all? Thus what starts as little more than an innocuous background noise gives birth to a raging paranoia and a flood of unanswerable questions; the denial of knowledge at its finest.

Confusingly, Clock Tower was released on the Sony Playstation after its own sequel was released on the same console. This strange situation came about due to the fact that Clock Tower was in fact never released outside of Japan when it first appeared on the SNES in 1995 and thus when the second game – a direct sequel – was made and released in the US and Europe for the Playstation in 1996, this became Clock Tower, with the 1995 game being re-named The First Fear and gaining something of prequel status.

Best Left Buried

Clock Tower is a video game extremely successful at executing its own particular brand of horror, in this instance, the paranoia and implicit threat of the ‘stalker-simulation’. Yet in so doing and as so often happens with games where one element alone eclipses all the others, different areas of the player experience suffer as a result.

As previously discussed, often the only sound the player hears in-game is Jennifer’s echoing footsteps; which whilst greatly underscoring the perceived threat of any other sound also serves to underline the fact that wherever the player may choose to send her, Jennifer will move there no faster than a leisurely stroll. Although the player can hold down a button to instil Jennifer with a sense of urgency and make her run to the selected location, this mechanic is designed mainly as an emergency strategy to escape the unwanted attention of Bobby and as such will result in destroying Jennifer’s morale, thus as good as ending the game should she run into him.

Ultimately this means that whilst Clock Tower is masterful at building suspense and slow-burning horror, sadly it does this at the expense of pacing and ergonomics. Once the initial horror atmosphere wears off which, admittedly never really occurs, the player is left trying to figure out where to go in order to advance the story which, should they unknowingly backtrack, will be a very long process indeed. Overall though this does little to discourage us, as the paradox of horror so masterfully harnessed by Human Entertainment, simply compels us to continue stalking through Barrows Mansion and risk all that lies therein.

Tiny URL for this post: