- CLOCK TOWER (1995)
Publisher: Human Entertainment
Genre: Survival Horror
No. of Players: 1Survival Horror games are an interesting bunch… it’s pretty fascinating to see that one can immerse the player in by creating tension and fear through the same methods that Horror films use to draw in viewers. Of course, on top of the general cinematic tricks that get deployed in so many games (obscure camera angles and eye-straining darkness have been generously scattered through third-person Survival Horror games since the first Alone in the Dark, after all…) there is the very delicate extra nuance of determining what is to be given to the player to actually get through the game with.
Generally, some sort of desperation is imposed on the player, such as a lack of ammunition, being severely outclassed by whatever is trying to kill you, being constantly hunted or just plain getting rushed by a flash mob of zombies every time you open a new door. Whatever the method is, the idea is to make the player feel helpless, hunted, a victim who is constantly under threat.
Now, Clock Tower, specifically, makes the player a young girl, mostly defenseless, whose only real solution to the game’s many dangers is to run and hide.
Aaah… Clock Tower. I’ve had something of an obsession with this game for most of my life, ever since I saw the box art in an Incredible connection at the age of five. It showed a dark figure menacing the viewer with a pair of twisted, bloody garden shears, and while only mildly unsettling today, it sure as hell terrified me when I was a little one. That box cover happened to be for the second game in the Clock Tower series, awkwardly named Clock Tower just as the first one originally had been (later renamed as Clock Tower: The First Fear).
The premise is fairly simple; you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted by Mary Barrows, the lady of the chillingly expansive Barrows estate. You and her three orphanage friends, who have also just been adopted, are driven to the estate and shown inside. Once Mary leaves you all alone in the entrance hall and some time passes, your friends oil the gears of the great Plot Machine by telling you to go and look for her. Naturally, all hell breaks loose the moment you turn your back on them, and they’re nowhere to be found. The next time you see any of them will be one of their deaths, as an introduction for the main antagonist and threat to you in the game; a little boy called Bobby, with a hideously deformed face and a very large pair of shears. All he seems to want to do is methodically hunt down and kill all of the newly adopted girls.
The game is split into two forms of play; an exploration mode and a pursuit mode. The exploration section plays mostly like a point-and-click adventure game, having a fairly standard inventory and cursor interface driven somewhat awkwardly by the SNES controller’s D-pad. A nice touch is that the cursor actually changes shape as it locks onto an interactive object, although when trying to use inventory items, the item’s thumbnail replaces the changing cursor and it becomes an incredibly fiddly affair to try and find where you’re meant to be pointing your cursor. The pursuit section is triggered whenever Bobby ambushes you and tries to kill you, and only ends once you have evaded him successfully. Bobby will chase you relentlessly and… rather impossibly, seeing as you can run away from him down a corridor and find him waiting for you on the other side. Bobby seems to exist in some kind of non-Euclidean space parallel to the Barrows Estate, and can really appear anywhere. Absurd as it is, it does well to make Bobby a fairly terrifying pursuer.
It’s worth mentioning again the idea that Jennifer is almost entirely defenseless. No weapons are available, no killing anything (just… getting killed), no nothing… Jennifer is just a young girl whose only hope is to run and hide. Anytime that Bobby catches up to you, a Panic Mode will be engaged and you will struggle with him as you hammer one button on the controller manically. If you fail, he stabs you to death. If you succeed, you push him over and can try to escape again. Jennifer will also engage in Panic Mode when her life is otherwise threatened; note that this as well as running, the main form of movement during the pursuit sections, will gradually tire Jen out and weaken her. So, no, you can’t just keep smacking Bobby to the ground just for laughs. Believe me, I’ve tried.
The game nicely balances its two main sections of play, punctuating the quiet and thoughtful adventure-gameish parts with intense bursts of pursuit or horrific scenes. The strength of these two modes being interleaved as they are, is that the edge never really gets taken off the pursuit scenes while the exploration scenes never drag on too badly (although if you have Jennifer walk everywhere instead of run, prepare to sit tight for a while). For a 16-bit game, Human managed to nail the visuals pretty well by giving a dark, aged look to everything. On that note, the sound is also quite masterfully done given the limitations of the system… many shocking and sudden (but somehow not corny) sound effects are used to build tension and horror, and the sparse music is always quiet and ominous. Everything comes together to give a feeling of very subtle, yet very potent surreal horror.
Another point about the game it that it is surprisingly replayable, being known for having nine different endings (named Ending A through H and a special Ending S). Depending on the path one takes through the game, different events occur, the character deaths change and the final ending can vary quite significantly. Not all of these endings are good ones… one or two of them are almost punishment for playing poorly.
Overall, Clock Tower is a remarkable and rather different early title in the Survival Horror genre, polished and genuinely scary at times. It is definitely not everyone’s game, as the lack of combat will definitely place it outside some peoples’ expectation of what ‘Survival Horror’ means. Aside from a few clunky bits here and there, and some terminally long transit times from one side of the Barrows estate to the other, this game is a very fine example of unconventional Survival Horror, and truly a game that can evoke a deep sense of unsettlement and eeriness for the player.