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Haunting Ground - Stalker analysis

10/6/12 6:00pm
tl;dr

Some of the content in this blog post will contain plot spoilers, and the explored game in question is a somewhat violent survival horror title. You have been warned.

Editor's Note: When Ferret said this game was disturbing, he wasn't kidding!

Around half a decade ago, Capcom released a game called Haunting Ground in what was probably a side project to explore certain horror ideas. The game went fairly unnoticed by most gamers, and the lack of advertising didn't really help due to only slightly above mixed reactions the survival horror title received. Despite this, the actual product had some very unique ideas regarding both its gameplay and atmospheric presentation. While Haunting Ground took some partial inspiration from the Clock Tower games, the actual execution of this particular title had much more interesting and developed gameplay mechanics than its spiritual predecessors.

The primary plot to Haunting Ground begins with a young adult named Fiona waking up in a grandiose castle with little to no knowledge of how she arrived there; she remembers being involved in a car crash with her parents, but apart from that she's scared and understandably confused. Throughout the survival horror adventure, Fiona tries to desperately to work her way around the cryptic physical dangers of the castle grounds in order to find some sort of an escape from her now living nightmare. But as the player finds out very early into this endeavor, it's not that simple, and there are several types of people that have other plans...

Oh hey there buddy! Just searching through the library room... please don't kill me?

The main method of fear in Haunting Ground comes from a central stalker mechanic, something similar to the Nemesis concept in Resident Evil 3 but now with larger amounts of focus and less scripted appearances. Rather than have a horde of enemies such as zombies, there is usually only a single villain at a time that targets the main character, or should I say hunts down the main character. The stalker antagonists, of which there is only one active hunter at a time story-wise, search around the map area where the player explores around to find Fiona and kill her. Most of the time, these appearances aren't scripted; they could literally be anywhere. Excessive sound hints enemies to your presence, an unexpected loss of music implies a near encounter, and hiding spots which work initially later become less helpful as your enemies learn about your escape patterns.

Fiona can fight back against the stalker characters, but her odds of surviving on her own without running away are very low. Fortunately she comes across a trained canine named Hewie early into the game, a young German Shepard who assists her in exploration and situations of self-defense. If you want to read more about the relationship these two characters share, you can check out another blog post I wrote about the subject. But for this particular blog post, I wanted to carefully explore each of the villain characters which Fiona comes across.

Debilitas - Physical monster with the mind of a child

Debilitas is the first stalker that Fiona encounters, and he's also the only one that doesn't specifically want to harm her; however that is ultimately a disturbing side effect of what happens to the heroine should she be injured enough by what he perceives as doll-like playing. He's presented to us as a mentally unstable creature with a surprisingly and extremely strong physique. The character has the mind of a young child but the aggression of a mature serial killer; it's this really strong juxtaposition of the outside versus the inside which makes him a disturbing antagonist.

Fiona first encounters Debilitas before she meets her future canine companion Hewie. The disproportionate creature is playing with a doll of his, and when he encounters Fiona, he makes a positive association of the woman as a child-like play object. In actuality, it's later revealed that his obsessive interest in Fiona is partly due to her high amount of Azoth, a strong alchemist material of life which creatures like him called homunculi are attracted to and greatly benefit from. Debilitas is presented during repeated scene encounters of the first act as being mentally immature, and he seems to be unaware of his experimentally brutal strength which he possesses. The game over screen should Fiona happen to be too injured by what he perceives as a fun game of chase is presented entirely through sound: Sounds of tearing and ripping occur, a disturbing chain of sounds which to Debilitas may appear as a re-construction of a broken doll figure.

Debilitas is also the only villain character in the game to have little to no actual dialogue. Much of his rare outbursts include moans or yelling, whether it be a response of him being frustrated with not finding the current location of his new playmate, or him being physically stunned during a particular evasion point. At a few points in the game, he'll cheerfully call Fiona's name out loud, a disturbing moment considering he's never even conversed with the female character. This implies that he must have communicated in same with Riccardo (the castle owner who will be explored later) beforehand, as he seems to share a servant to master relationship with the owner. The relationship is confirmed in a scene where Riccardo has to intervene at one point in order to keep Fiona safe while she's mentally vulnerable due to rapid memories of her accident suddenly resurfacing.

Debilitas is named after a Latin word meaning weakness and illness, a term which accurately represents his inability to understand the real results of his actions. He's not an enemy in the game forever.

Eventually, Debilitas corners Fiona and Hewie to a church setting after the two successfully find a key to their next path destination. This triggers a boss fight which to the player can have two dramatically separate outcomes. The first strategy is to continuously attack him with the dog; this eventually kills him due to blood loss, and he suddenly collapses onto the ground in front of Fiona. Another strategy involves strategically dropping a chandelier onto the fellow; this severely injures him but doesn't result in his death. Debilitas then looks upward toward Fiona afterwards, and in a symbolic visual scene involving a heavy amount of light, he begins to see her as a god and no longer attacks her for the remainder of the game. The player can optionally then head to his shack afterwards; Debilitas will beg Fiona for forgiveness and then hand over a rare key which in later playthroughs actually lets the player escape the castle early into the game with a different ending.

Daniella - Bipolar maid obsessed with sensual completion

"My creator said he made me the perfect woman... But I cannot taste or experience pleasure. Or feel pain."

"I am not complete."

"Blood... Flesh... Woman... You vile creature. You lure the man into your filthy body again and again... And you are allowed to do that because you are a precious, precious little princess. Precious... precious little princess."

Daniella is the second antagonist that Fiona eventually faces in Haunting Ground, and in my opinion she is very easily the most interesting and complex of the four stalkers. Fiona initially meets Daniella early into the game while she's still exploring her castle backgrounds, although Daniella doesn't actually become hostile until shortly after Debilitas' defeat. The woman, who is presented to us as a cleaning maid serving for Riccardo, has an unsettling presence during the first act of the game; she gathers clothes for Fiona, nonchalantly does chores around the mansion, and eventually sneaks up on Fiona out of nowhere to offer her a cooked dinner. All of these scenes have an unsettling feeling to them; she's not necessarily an enemy at this point but her presence is emotionally uncomfortable. The dinner scene in particular is extremely awkward; she offers Fiona a bowl of soup while watching her and apathetically talking about how she physically lacks the ability to feel pleasure or any sort of physical pain. An additional scene that can be missed by the player shows Daniella being punished by Riccardo; she's repeatedly smacked across the face despite giving no reaction to the offense, a scene which creepily concludes with Daniella staring and smiling at the door Fiona's looking through.

This continuing relationship of uncertainty reaches its climax after the dinner scene where it's revealed to the player that Fiona was poisoned by the maid's cooking. Fiona heads up to her bedroom to recover, and then in one of the most sexually disturbing scenes in the game, we see Daniella obsessively examining Fiona's body before suddenly waking her up. As Fiona tries to regain control of the situation, Daniella reiterates her imperfection and then shatters a window with her skull in order to grasp a large shard of glass. The scene illustrates her inability to feel pain; Daniella is seen having cut wounds across her hands, and she admires the weapon's beauty before eventually shifting her focus towards Fiona.

Her stalking mechanics in terms of gameplay have some dramatic differences than any of the other antagonists in the game. Daniella's movement is emotionless and yet simultaneously creepy: She often speedily walks towards Fiona, and a few of her more critical attacks involve her forcibly grabbing Fiona and eventually impaling her with sharp glass. A later optional scene has her acquire a fire poker which she carefully smelted for torturous purposes. Daniella can be temporarily downed, but until she physically collapses, she almost never actually runs away from battle. Taking enough damage or being attacked while in panic mode results in a game over with an extremely disturbing sound track devoid of visuals: Daniella is heard excitedly laughing while tearing out Fiona's sexual organs in an attempt to make herself be physically complete.

Daniella is a rather sympathetic character who's obsessively disgusted by her own appearance, a surprising personality behavior to have considering how physically beautiful she actually looks in the game.

Daniella is also rather smart as a stalker character, and she gets into the mind of the player at times in order to ambush Fiona. The maid is the only stalker in the game who will actually hide in some of the hiding spots which Fiona is encouraged to use in desperate situations, moments which can be avoided by carefully listening to Hewie's bark warnings. She also closes doors behind her to try to limit Fiona's movement, deceives the player by double checking certain rooms where Fiona may be hiding, and she adjusts her chasing speed depending on her level of frustration. Daniella also seems to have a good deal of knowledge on the mansion setting, and she uses this to her advantage on occasion: There's an extremely disturbing death scene where if Fiona tries to hide in an iron maiden and Daniella spots her, then she'll chain up the door and then pull the mechanism lever.

Apart from her stalking behavior traits, she also has an unusual gameplay trait in the form of a split personality. This bipolar condition serves gameplay wise to balance the amount of times that Daniella chases the protagonist, but it also illustrates a disturbing state of mind for the maid. At times, Daniella will randomly become friendly and revert to a servant-like behavior of cleaning the castle, even at one point giving a vital scent item to Fiona needed to progress further into the mansion. When the player pulls the curtain off of mirror objects, Daniella will look towards the mirror and then scream in despair at her own appearance, illustrating her intense disturbance with her internal flaws; they remind her that she's a flawed creation, something which is painfully unacceptable to her. These particular moments are somewhat ironic in that her actual character model is quite gorgeous in terms of physical appearance, yet she's sickened toward her incomplete existence.

It's eventually revealed that Daniella is after Fiona for her overabundance of Azoth, an element which was previously described as being a very strong force of life energy. Her desire is to be made whole with Fiona's internals, hoping desperately and rather sadistically that her severe act of cruelty will help her become truly complete. Daniella's demise is ultimately met in a boss fight near the roof of the mansion; she eventually screams so loud that the ceiling shatters resulting in a large shard of glass ironically impaling her. During this death scene, we don't know if Daniella feels much physical pain, but looking at her face, she seem to express happiness. This is later noted by Fiona after further examination, suggesting that Daniella was relieved to have finally met an end to her existence. Looking back on it, it's actually quite tragic really.

Riccardo - Hostile psychopath seeking immortality

"Beautiful, isn't it? That, my dear, is what you will become in the future. Go ahead, you may touch it. You will be mine Fiona!"

"Fiona, we are... or rather, I am... knowledge. I hold invaluable information from the dawn of time. I am a great alchemist. I will not die. I am Aureolus Belli and I... Look at me, Fiona. Look!"

"You are mine. I own you. You are mine. I own you."

"I shall be born again... But this time, with your Azoth..."

Riccardo is the third stalker that Fiona has to evade from, although he actually appears several times throughout the game before Daniella's tragic defeat. He's the leader of the castle whose exact motives are initially unclear. Fiona learns from him that her parents were both killed in a car accident shortly before her kidnapping; he scares her with sculptural images symbolizing pregnancy, and warns her that she belongs to him. In the first half of the game, the player can come across some scattered notes and a hidden cutscene which reveals that he later starts searching to find her before Lorenzo does, a mysterious figure that gradually provides hints to Fiona throughout the game on how to best proceed. It seems that he entrusts Daniella to keep watch over her until a later time, but it can be assumed that he didn't expect her sudden intents to murder.

Eventually, Riccardo confronts Fiona in the alchemist workshops of the connected mansion to the castle. Riccardo requests Fiona to follow him to unknown territory, but when Fiona begs to be left alone, he pulls out a gun with intent to scare her into submission. There's a hunter-like character to him as well; he hesitates in outright killing her at first but rather seems to enjoy the new game of hunter versus the hunted. His gameplay sections are by far the most physically intense, and some of his chasing strategies are outright cruel. Although Riccardo doesn't actually try to kill Fiona, he frequently fires warning shots in an attempt to send her into a panic, although if Fiona stands too close to him, he'll get carried away and instantly down her. Riccardo's aggression gets the best of him as well: If Fiona is hiding but Hewie's out in the open, then Riccardo will sometimes run after the dog and repeatedly shoot him until he either collapses or Fiona comes out of hiding. The game implies through a later journal entry that Hewie lived in the castle for a long while before Fiona showed up; it's also implied that Riccardo previously abused him such as tying the poor creature to a tree early on in the game with tight wires. These actions make him an extremely unsympathetic character, which is actually effective since it helps paint him as a more villainous and psychopathic monster.

The name Riccardo correlates with powerful leader, something which Riccardo greatly desires to become.

Riccardo eventually corners Fiona in the middle of a large forest; an optional cutscene shows Fiona distracting him away from Hewie after treating his leg from a gunshot wound. A desperate Fiona pleads for an explanation of why she's being pursued, and Riccardo reveals some disturbing truths: He's an alchemist who along with Fiona's now deceased father were cloned brothers created in an attempt to cultivate Azoth. Riccardo spent most of life obsessing over the concepts of immortality and power, and he's the one who is revealed to have murdered both of Fiona's parents shortly before the game. He does this as an act of revenge against his brother for leaving the castle grounds to start a new life, and also because Fiona has the inherited Azoth from her (now deceased) father Ugo. His ultimate plan is to be reborn through Fiona's womb, a thankfully avoided action (unless you get the worst ending in the game) which will recreate him in a near immortal state.

What makes Riccardo such a disturbing villain is just how far he's willing to go to achieve his selfish and sadistic goals. Scattered journal entries and lab observations imply that he may have been staying alive for numerous amounts of decades; his lab experiments seem to harvest creatures of their life energy according to certain theories. The results of this process have a physical toll on Riccardo as well; this can be seen with the sheer number of scars that he has on his face. Riccardo wastes huge amounts of his life searching for a permanent counter to life's limitations, and this isolating obsession eventually seems to drive him to psychopathic insanity.

Riccardo is eventually defeated at an isolated water tower in the middle of nowhere. Fiona escapes her prison with the help of Hewie, and the two are able to knock Riccardo off the top of the tower in what is literally and symbolically a fall from power. With a breath of relief, the two believe Riccardo to be dead and are able to make their way to a supposedly safe lair across the lake. A second playthrough cutscene actually reveals that Riccardo still has a small amount of life energy inside him despite the fall, only it's absorbed by Lorenzo shortly before Fiona's fourth and final stalker encounter of the game.

Lorenzo - Deceptive alchemist recovering lost life

"Come to me Fiona..."

"The most valuable thing in this world is the Great Truth. Human beings... human life... they are not capable of grasping this truth. We cannot merely sit idle and wait for the future."

"Your effort is for naught. How long do you plan to keep this up?"

Lorenzo actually intervenes during several moments throughout the first three stalker sections of the game, although whether or not the player actually finds out about these incidents depends on how carefully they explore certain areas to find optional cutscenes. Based on his rare appearances in the story, it actually seems like he initially wants to help Fiona escape from her surroundings, although his true intentions are unknown until much later on. He tries to warn Fiona about Riccardo through the phone, provides her with written instructions on how to find a different way out of the castle grounds through the mansion, and he leaves her a map to the water tower along with another message after Fiona is eventually captured by Riccardo.

It's eventually revealed that he cannot be trusted, has a disturbing agenda for his own selfish goods, and in the end section of the game serves as an additional danger to Fiona. The heroine meets Lorenzo in person after escaping from the water tower where Riccardo had previously imprisoned her, initially appearing to have some trust in the elderly man based on past acts of assistance. Unfortunately, he then reveals his villainous intents which quickly prove Fiona's sense of trust to be unrewarding. Fiona's reaction during this conversation is well presented: Fiona learns that the only character besides Hewie that had been helping her throughout the game is now yet another enemy; these kinds of scenes in the game do a good choice at illustrating her desperation.

Lorenzo is revealed to have been the creator of Riccardo and Ugo, and he was assisting Fiona in order to lead her to his mansion. It's also implied that he was the creator of Daniella. The elderly man spent perhaps centuries obsessing over the themes of life and alchemy, and his twisted fascination in the subject led him to commit various experiments and eventually grow a desire to harvest Fiona's Azoth. Getting killed by any of Lorenzo's three forms provides some extremely unpleasant sounds that sound like some sort of consumption.

The alchemist has three main forms in his section of the game. At first, he starts out as an elderly man who rapidly crawls around the mansion in order to grab Fiona and stab her. Intentionally designed this way or not, it's extremely easy to down him in this form which may help illustrate the serious physical side effects of his prolonged insanity; his persistence is also shown in how endlessly he rises back up after being downed. Once Fiona apparently murders him, Lorenzo uses the Azoth he acquired from Riccardo in order to shift into a younger version of himself. This is when he becomes more aggressive, sophisticated, and eloquent in appearance; almost the polar opposite with that of his earlier presentation. He can wield magic, strategically warps around the surreal dungeon in order to ambush the player, and is very persistent despite his now more calm and formal presentation. Even after he's knocked into a pit of fire, he still struggles to move his now enflamed body after Fiona before finally collapsing to the ground. With Lorenzo's demise, Fiona and Hewie are finally able to leave their nightmare behind for good.

A worded summary of characters

As you can probably tell from my attempt to provide exploration, I feel that Lorenzo is a somewhat weak character outside of the gradual build up to his stalker section which is rather unfortunate. However, the first three stalkers are definitely much more interesting in my opinion and more than make up for it. Their characterization has a lot of variety; each stalker has their personality presented through both their verbal dialogue and physical actions. The stalking mechanic of the game also makes them something to fear, especially as the player starts to realize the disturbing demises planned for her by their mentally insane hunter enemies.

//i.imgur.com/RSFSf.png

Fiona, Hewie, and Debilitas also make cameo appearances in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. Hooray for cameos!

Debilitas is a physical monster on the outside with a disturbingly carefree child mentality on the inside. His subconscious interest in the Fiona's Azoth combined with his inability to understand the effects of his actions on the world around him provide an interesting juxtaposition that makes him at first disturbing but eventually somewhat sympathetic. He's the only stalker character who doesn't actively try to murder the protagonist but is ultimately capable of doing so rather easily. The player also has the ability to spare him life at one point, providing the player with a moral decision that has some consequences; sparing him leads him to beg for forgiveness from Fiona, now instead seeing her as a god.

Daniella is easily the most interesting stalker character in the game, and this is largely due to how seriously complex her personality and characterization truly are. She appears frequently throughout the first act of the game, sharing a socially awkward and uneasy relationship with Fiona while still not being an enemy character. Once she does become a villain antagonist, her goals are sadistic, disturbing, and relentless. But she's simultaneously sympathetic due to her inability to feel like a complete human begin, a trait of which on top of other things leads her to despise her own appearance. On top of that, Daneilla studies the behavior traits of the player carefully, has a bipolar disorder which changes whether she tolerates or persecutes Fiona, and her personality at times combines hysterical insanity with envious hatred.

Riccardo starts out as a mysterious character with unknown motives but is gradually revealed to have orchestrated the events bringing Fiona to the castle in the first place. His sadistic actions (which involve graphically killing her parents in a car crash, placing her at the receiving end of a dangerous hunting game, and revealing eventual plans to impregnate her) help to paint him as a cruel and disturbing antagonist. Riccardo is difficult to sympathize with, and that's entirely the point. He's a character obsessed with learning the mysteries of life and seeks longer amounts of time to make up for the sheer amount of time he wasted following his obsession. Riccardo's hunter-like combat behavior also helps add to this characterization.

Thank you for reading through my blog post exploring the stalker characters in Haunting Ground. While not being my favorite survival horror game of all time, Haunting Ground certainly makes its way onto my personal top five list of video games due to a combination of its creative and intense gameplay, clever puzzle usage, engaging and disturbing atmosphere, and its effective perspective storytelling that I believe consists of some truly memorable characters. Are there any characters on the list above that you recognize, or by any chance do you have fond memories of playing this survival horror title? Leave your comments below and thanks again!

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