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Interview: Project Zero 3: The Tormented

Project Zero 3 director Makoto Shibata talks about the survival horror entry, Take-Two unleashes devilish new screens

There's nothing more frightening than sitting in a darkened room, wind howling outside the window, while some Japanese developer tries to put the willies up you. Case in point: Silent Hill, which was the cause of more damp crotches than something slightly suggestive we can't be bothered thinking up right now.

Of course, where Resident Evil once led, others will follow and the resulting years have seen a veritable cavalcade of terror trickling from our TVs - from the sublime (see the aforementioned Silent Hill) to the ridiculous (hello Obscure!). However, one of the better entries in the genre has been Tecmo's genuinely unsettling Project Zero series.

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In a bloodbath of wannabes, Project Zero managed to distinguish itself from others through its relentlessly unpleasant atmosphere, unusual ritual-based storylines and bizarre camera fighting mechanics. Now, as Project Zero 3: The Tormented gets set to land in Europe on February 24, publisher Take-Two has prepped a virtual undead army of new screenshots, alongside a probing Q&A with game director Makoto Shibata. Read on to find out more from the man who lives off your nightmares...

Could you please introduce yourself and explain in what capacity you worked on Project Zero 3?

Makoto Shibata: My name is Makoto Shibata, the director of the Project Zero series. I directed the entire project, from concept design through to the finished product.

For the uninitiated, can you please explain what the Project Zero series is about? How would you say it differs from other horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, for example?

Makoto Shibata: Both Resident Evil and Silent Hill are horror games. However, their nature is different from our Project Zero series. The Project Zero games are the condensed essence of Japanese horror, and are all based upon Japanese ghost stories. Project Zero 3 (PZ3) takes place in an abandoned manor in Japan, the architecture of which follows a traditional Japanese form. In Japanese horror, fear is not simply generated through surprise; the silence and suspense in-between the action is important too. This silence makes the player's fear build in his or her mind. Japanese horror is always designed this way.

Another difference from other horror games is that your opponents are ghosts. Ghosts have no physical existence, and, as such, you cannot predict where and when they will appear. With PZ3 we create a feeling that somebody is watching you while you are playing the game and build the fear in the player's own imagination. The ghosts themselves used to be human. They had anger, sorrow, obsession, and passion. They have their own reasons for being there and for attacking you. Giving opponents this detailed background is also one of the differences from other horror games.

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One of the big features of the PZ series is that you use a camera to fight the ghosts. This is a magic camera, built to seal the spirit of ghosts within it. The damage the player can deal and whether they can capture the ghost is dependent upon how close the player is to it. In other words, the player has to be face to face with the ghost to fight it effectively. The camera can also show visions of the past, and the player uses the camera to uncover the truth about what's happened in the manor and to solve its mystery.

This mystery and the background of the heroine are intertwined by fate, and the player will eventually learn the secret of this relationship. I think that this style is unique to the PZ series. I believe that true horror becomes a very personal issue, and is something understood differently by each person experiencing it. Project Zero is the crystallization of my horror philosophy.

What are the major influences the team has drawn on for this game and throughout the series?

Makoto Shibata: A major influence was the horror movie Ring. The last scene, in which Sadako (the ghost who comes out of the TV) attacks, provided the inspiration for the battle system using the camera. I was shocked by the brilliant way the film created this nightmarish vision of an up-close ghostly experience.

Also, the Manga Yokai (Monster) Hunter series, by Daijiro Moroboshi, inspired me a lot. This Manga deals with themes of Japanese folklore. In this, the hero begins to see another world (the world after death) by accident while he is investigating Japanese folklore. The Manga perfectly re-created typical Japanese images of this netherworld.

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What can you tell us about the plot this time - is it as disturbing as the tale of twins Mio and Mayu from Project Zero 2?

Makoto Shibata: The previous Project Zero had a little fantasy flavour, but we feature a more indigenous Japanese theme of horror in PZ 3. The story partly takes place in present day and features horror that happens in the heroine's ordinary life. The heroine is a freelance photographer named Rei, who lost her fiancée Yuu in a car accident while she was at the wheel. A while after the accident, she sees a vision of her fiancé at an abandoned house she visits on an assignment, and she follows him.

Suddenly, she is standing in a snowy courtyard and a mysterious woman with tattoos covering her body attacks her. When this woman touches her, Rei has a vision of an ancient religious ceremony. A woman is laid down in the centre of a room. This woman is Rei herself, and standing around her are young, robed girls with stakes in their hands. They drive them into Rei's hands and feet and as they do this, a tattoo appears and begins to spread all over Rei's body. When it reaches her eyes, she wakes up from the daydream.

From this point onwards, she visits the manor in her dreams every time she sleeps. In the manor the tattooed woman walks around, and Rei can hear a strange lullaby. It's now up to our heroine to solve the mystery of the manor and get rid of the tattoo curse that is now upon her. Some of the pictures she takes in the nightmare cross over into her real life when she wakes up. As the player, you investigate the manor based upon these pictures and through this, you solve the mystery.

The re-appearance of Miku from the first Project Zero draws the stories of the games together - how does her life intertwine with that of new heroine Rei?

Makoto Shibata: Miku takes the role of Rei's assistant photographer. She supports Rei and investigates various things on her behalf. Miku has suffered a psychological trauma, caused during the course of events in the original Project Zero, which also brings her to the Manor of Sleep. Rei does not know about Miku's trauma, but she becomes Miku in her nightmare, and thus comes to learn about Miku's past. They live in the same house, have close relationship and are each facing their own traumas deep inside themselves. The Manor of Sleep calls to people like them who have survived a tragedy.

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What part does journalist Kei Amakura play in proceedings?

Makoto Shibata: Kei is freelance writer, who investigated the Manor of Sleep before Rei. As a result, he has a great deal of knowledge. He helps Rei by imparting this knowledge to her together with encouragement. He is the first male main character in Project Zero. He has no spiritual power, but tries to face his fate with courage.

How does the introduction of these multiple playable characters and their unique abilities affect gameplay?

Makoto Shibata: Rei is the heroine and has both speed and power, making her a well-balanced playable character. She can use 'photoflash', which makes ghosts hesitate in their attacks, thus giving you an advantage in battle. Players get to play as Miku and Kei in Rei's dream. Rei takes on the role of a priestess who feels the suffering of others. In the end though, she will face up to her own suffering.

Miku has strong spiritual power. She can use the camera well, and is able to charge it with the highest spirit power of all the characters. Thus, she can deal out the biggest damage. She also has an item which is able to slow time. On the other hand, her physical power is weak, and the capture circle of her camera is small. She is the character who is the most difficult to master for the player.

Kei has little spiritual power and he can charge the camera only once. However, his camera has a rapid-fire function. Also, he has ability to hide from ghosts. He is the type of character who does not fight a lot, but prefers a stealthy approach.

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Each of the three characters has different features - not just in battle, but also in the way they explore. Miku is small and can crawl into tight spaces - even under the floor. Also, some particular spirits will cooperate with her. Kei, in contrast, is physically powerful and can move heavy stuff. He has a lot of knowledge and can read ancient documents. So you see, they each have different roles although they explore the same environments on the map.

What exactly is the 'Manor Of Sleep' and how does it tie in with the mysterious tattoo on Rei's body?

(Spoiler alert! This answer explains some of the game story. If you do not want to know the story before playing, you should not read this.)

Makoto Shibata: In ancient Japan, people believed that dreams had special meanings. There was a custom concerning a character called the Dream Buyer, who was said to buy and sell good dreams. There was also an imaginary creature called Baku, and people believed that Baku ate nightmares. Baku is enshrined in some temples in Japan.

In the context of PZ3, the Manor of Sleep used to be a shrine that people used in ceremonies relating to a particular nightmare. This nightmare had a specific form. People who had lost someone close to them were beckoned by the departed through their dreams. If they followed the deceased, they would not wake up anymore.

To combat the nightmare, it received a 'dedication' at the shrine. In other words, people dedicated the pain that they felt at the loss of their loved one to the shrine. However, the way they ritualised this nightmare was very special. They mixed the blood of surviving people and their dead relatives, and they put a tattoo on a Priestess's skin using the blood as paint.

I won't go into too much detail, but there was an accident in the shrine. The people extended the Manor with a complicated structure to hide the accident. One day, all the people living in the region of the shrine did not wake up from their sleep. And the shrine was abandoned.

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In the present day, Rei visits the shrine in her job and from this moment on, she is called to the Manor in her dreams. The Manor is ruled by a priestess who is tattooed all over her body. People who are touched by her will wake up to find a tattoo on their body that expands every time they wake up. Suffering causes the tattoo to expand on the skin. This is the curse, and once the tattoo covers their eyes, they don't come back. At the same time, the tattoo is also a message. The 'victim' receives a vision when the tattoo reaches their eyes. Ironically, the vision is the key to solve the curse, but it's a revelation that arrives far too late.

The ability to upgrade the Camera Obscura as the game progressed added an interesting dimension of customisation to the previous games. What have you done to expand on this for Project Zero 3?

Makoto Shibata: The camera is shared by three playable characters and the player should upgrade the device in a strategic way. For example, it might be advisable to power up Kei and Rei at first, since Kei is weak and Rei is the character you mainly use.

After completing the game, you can buy upgraded lenses with the points you have earned. You can also buy costumes and setting information. In the previous games, you had to complete a particular mini game in order to get items. This time, you can buy according to the points you earned. You can earn a lot of points by completing the difficult missions in the game's Mission Mode.

The series stakes a serious claim to the title of 'scariest games ever made.' How do you go about ensuring that you keep the shocks coming, even for fans that have played through the previous titles?

Makoto Shibata: We have polished both the story line and game play in order to maximize the experience. In the story line, the player gets fragmentary information which allows them to fill in the gaps within the background of the story. We designed this intentionally so the player would be drawn into the Project Zero world, and would thus imagine various horrid fantasies.

This design and approach is different from the previous games in the series. However, I believe that the design fits into the game concept of, "invoke the fear in the player's own imagination". I personally believe that even the greatest computer graphics cannot create greater fear than that which is created by the player's mind. This is an idea we maximized in PZ 3.

In terms of gameplay, the battle system has been refined. In the first Project Zero, ghosts made evasion moves, whereas in PZ2, the ghosts edged toward the player, which made for a scarier experience. In PZ3, we've mixed everything up. So for example, if the player meets a ghost they have previously fought, it might move much quicker for this second encounter. This feature makes the battles much more exciting.

In overview, with this title we have managed to create the deepest theme of the entire Project Zero series. We researched a lot about ancient Japanese culture and referred to a lot of literature with key words such as, tattoo, sleep, dream, suffer, lullaby, sacrifice, doll, and snow. The more we researched, the more we became scared and attracted (and dazzled) by these subjects. We also researched the meanings of the keywords from a folklore point of view, and all the interesting ideas we unearthed were inserted into the game.

I believe that the game gives players a real image of life and death in Japanese culture. I hope, as director of the game, that the players complete it and touch upon the deep themes I worked into PZ3. The overall impression might be a very personal one of mine, but I believe it contains something universal.

What makes this the scariest Project Zero game so far?

Makoto Shibata: I believe that our method to invoke the fear in the player's own imagination maximizes the recipient's fear. We do not simply show scary things, but provide fragmental information and create a situation that forces the player to imagine these horrors. This is scarier. I personally call it, 'Subtracting horror.'

I'm assuming that other horror game creators base their games on films or novels. However, in my case, I created the audio and the visuals based on my personal ghost experience and nightmares. I try to recreate this fear when people play my games. I think that this fact makes Project Zero 3 the scariest game.

What's next for the series?

Makoto Shibata: I cannot answer this now. I think that the current Project Zero style has reached a certain level. If I create a horror game again, it will be on a next generation console. As a result, I would be able to include certain features and ideas that I gave up for PZ3 due to the current console performance. The game design would be different anyway.

Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, what would your advice be to anyone who encounters one?

Makoto Shibata: Yes, of course I have. However, I can give no advice. I myself am really scared every time I see one, and you cannot predict when you will have an encounter. I once saw a ghost who had a damaged face and I couldn't figure out if it was a he or a she. I was kind of panicked and pretended that I was dead.

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