-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

In honor of Halloween (though, by the time this column runs that holiday will likely have passed), Aberrant Gamer will this week revisit another horror title, after the fashion of our previous examinations of Silent Hill 2 and 4. An earlier also dealt specifically with the role of little girl-children in the genre. As with the others, this column contains spoilers of an older title.

Horror as we know it in the West is often married to a few common conventions that have existed since before the dawn of the gaming era. The classic black-and-white horror clip often depicts a young lady screaming a shrill soprano just outside the reach of monstrous clawed fingers, highlighting the archetypal vulnerability of the female. In recent years, we’ve seen some survival horror titles that wedge their way into a crevice of a man’s psychological armor, making him the vulnerable one; Silent Hill and Siren have been praised in particular for their generally more believable male protagonists, anti-Supermen with common flaws and foibles. Similarly, some of the Resident Evil titles, the third installment of Silent Hill and some others have empowered the female, casting her as a competent, plausible combatant instead of a vulnerable feed sack for zombies. These games have been reflective of a general trend in broader media that has begun to view women neither as defenseless victims nor as sex objects.

Haunting Ground is not one such game.

Easily one of the most aberrant titles in video game survival horror (heroine Fiona made our Top 5 extra costumes list with her porn-star-cowgirl look), Capcom's Haunting Ground places a freshly-orphaned little blonde on her own against impending evil in a gruesome castle estate. She’s at the mercy of a man with her father’s face who wants to impregnate her for some alchemical resurrection, along with his mutilation-fixated, sexually frustrated inhuman maid and an ancient alchemist who wants Fiona all to himself. Her only ally is a trainable white German shepherd, a partnership that has produced no small measure of the sort of fan art you could easily guess at.

Being Watched

The tone of the game is set early on in the expository cutscenes, before play even begins. After a mysterious car crash that killed both of her parents, little Fiona wakes up in a cage in what looks like an ill-kept meat locker. This scenario – the woman in grim bondage, captive and victim at once – is familiar, but with such brutal overtones it’s more reminiscent of nascent horror properties, like the so-called “torture porn” films of recent years. Upon freeing herself and exploring the strange grounds of the dark castle in which she finds herself, a maid, Daniella, awaits Fiona in a warmly-lit little room prepared for her (again with the maid fetish. This is the third week in a row!). In a shamelessly exploitive sequence, the hollow-eyed, toneless and pale maid provides Fiona with a new dress, as one would with a doll – her demeanor excessively scrutinizing, with an undertone of hostility, clear envy, and a disconcertingly intent fascination.

The dress is rather too short on Fiona – gratuitous flashing is a horror tradition, but the teeny ensemble is not remotely in the realm of plausibility. Moreover, she comments it’s “too tight around the chest.” We’re still in early cutscenes and she’s already talking about her breasts, which are rather sizeable considering her young age.

As she changes clothes, Fiona’s being watched by someone through the eyes of a painting. Then, she leaves the room to stumble right into the arms of a monstrous mental defective keen on playing with her as if she were a ragdoll.

Beauty And The Beast

-Is all of this tasteless? It certainly nudges the boundary, but in actuality it does far more to set the tone of a rather dark story with less overt themes alongside the literal. We know now that Fiona is a prisoner by design and not accident; that this is a kidnapping and not a case of wrong-place-wrong-time. But the subtle facts – caged like meat, then dressed like a doll – tell far more about Fiona’s as-yet-unseen aggressors. That they’ve snatched her and prized her, not as a dear child nor something they wish to destroy, but specifically as an object of desire. The grim overtones, however, preclude this being a simple case of sexual lust – the complexity of the gothic surroundings, the ritualistic servitude of the odd maid Daniella, suggest a larger plan at work here, and that Fiona is both a sex object and a victim – and this becomes clearer as the larger plot threads begin to surface. In particular, the overtly uncomfortable glimpses we see of her young flesh, and the queasy feeling we get when we see her through the eyes of her ominous voyeur, are distinctly invasive – far from being typical survival-horror window-dressing, these elements are actually portentious of the game’s larger story, which sees Fiona running nearly the entire time from otherworldly creeps who want to use her.

This is brought into sharp contrast with the girl’s fragility – rarely in the game can she directly confront her predators, though she later receives the odd alchemical item or background object she can throw or push. The game’s mechanic revolves primarily around running and hiding, though the dog, if well-trained, can be instructed to attack Fiona's pursuers. If Fiona comes into close proximity to something that frightens her, be it one of the castle’s inhabitants or something off-putting in her environment, she panics – the game’s visuals distort, become fuzzy, the flat thud of the girl’s irregular heartbeat picks up the pace steadily and her movements become jerky, nonsensical, hard to control. “Help,” she shrieks feebly, calling for her dog as the player attempts to master Fiona’s nerves. When her panic reaches a crescendo, Fiona will raise that ultimate of chestnuts, the classic horror girl’s scream.

A Function of Fear

Because of elements like these, it’s quite easy to attack Haunting Ground as distasteful fanservice for lusty-eyed young males; poor Fiona also makes an easy target for video game feminists, for whom even the razor-sharp and indefatigable competence of Lara Croft is not a satisfactory model, simply because the gal likes to wear a crop top and shorts. But Haunting Ground’s peripheral elements are the real star of the game. Fiona may not be a particularly powerful or capable young lady, but she’s effective as an ordinary one, from the cutscene camera’s appreciation of her healthy shape to the sharp sense of her figurative and literal penetrability in the eyes of her pursuers, owing to her somewhat fragile constitution and general powerlessness in the game.

Gore, blood and filth are common horror conventions, as they evince distaste, disgust and fear. The potential of sexuality as a component of fear is often dismissed, though, and branded with the label of cheap softcore, visual stimulation to break up the gruesome. Haunting Ground, however, is a perfect illustration of how sexuality can be used to great effect. Fiona may be a fragile little woman, but both male and female players can distinctly feel the threat to her person, the disconcerting wickedness of her enemies, thanks to her overt sexualization throughout the game. One gets a crawling, uncomfortable feeling at the sight of her aggressors’ eyes, grasping fingers, that might have been hollow or two-dimensional if the girl had been less exposed, more capable of self-defense. The more spare, tasteful use of blood and grime is used here to enhance that sense of constantly impending violation, and less as a pivotal element of the game’s fear factor. And should Fiona be caught by the reproductive-minded Riccardo, the blood-painted Game Over screen is accompanied by some gruesome squelching, the sounds of Fiona's death -- and the man's explicitly ambiguous pleasure sounds.

Dinner Is Served, Miss
-Conversely, sexuality is also used to endow one of the game’s villains with more than a touch of extra monstrosity. The maid Daniella is possibly one of the most interesting monsters in survival horror -- come to find out the pale mannequin of a woman is not human at all, rather an imitation of one created by the castle’s dark alchemist. She’s prone at times to having poor control of her body, and the occasional stilted movements of her arms and legs, the doll-on-the-fritz spasms of her neck are deliciously creepy, just as much so as the purposeful way with which she strides, robotic, after Fiona, always with an eager and servile smile on her unwholesomely pretty face. Thoroughly scary.

However, Daniella’s hostile pursuit of Fiona is more complex than simple mannequins-are-freaky (another topic we touched on last week). Though early in the game she is subservient to Fiona, dressing her and feeding her a rather revolting, dubiously gory soup, her menace is distinct beneath the surface. She, too, presses uncomfortably into Fiona’s personal space, as if seeking a kiss – the way she strokes the girl when she sleeps is in particular suggests strong lesbian overtones, almost nauseating in its predatory sexual aggression, her eerie staring eyes close to Fiona’s flawless, vulnerable skin. It becomes clear that the inhuman Daniella is jealous of Fiona’s living flesh – in particular, her ability to “experience pleasure,” and the low and rutting voice in which the maid speaks, the glazed look in her eye, makes her seem constantly in heat, desperate for the physical resolution of lust she can’t achieve. When Daniella chases Fiona, intent on eviscerating her with a large shard of glass, she can be temporarily halted by leading her past a mirror – in front of which she screams and wails, tormented by the sight of her own lifeless face and unnaturally perfect body, and she will remain there, self-flagellating, until the mirror finally cracks from the banging of her head against it.

Disparaging Haunting Ground for its copious objectification of women is a facile task, and so is discrediting its storytelling for the gratuitous exposure. Easy, easy, to fetishize a horny maid, a half-naked young blonde in dire straits and at the mercy of grasping, perverted men. But it’s precisely that off-putting sexuality that makes Daniela terrifying, that makes Fiona’s circumstances so explicitly repugnant, that sharpens Haunting Ground’s fear factor to a knife in the gut. Toward the end of the game, Fiona is forced to flee her final aggressor after being imprisoned again, wearing nothing but a bloodstained slip, her bare feet softly patting the cobbles of the evil castle as she runs, at the height of her exposure and vulnerability. And when she panics, the player can feel it, too, just as they can feel the cold chill of encroaching violation on her disconcertingly exposed legs.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]