By the mid-2000s, Capcom was rightly considered a formidable creator of horror games thanks to venerable series like Dead Rising, Dino Crisis, Devil May Cry, and Resident Evil. But one of its best horror games never spawned a series and wasn’t a critical or commercial megahit. The 2005 PlayStation 2 game Haunting Ground is a transgressive cult classic that serves up one of gaming’s greatest, most chilling villains.
The Scares That Scared Me
Each month, Kotaku’s horror games reporter looks back on the moments in gaming history that frightened her almost to death (but not quite) (yet).
In Haunting Ground, players control Fiona Belli, a college student who awakens in an unlocked cage in a castle dungeon after a car accident. As she searches for a way out of the sprawling gothic estate, she befriends a white German Shepherd named Hewie who serves as her companion throughout the game. As Fiona’s relationship with Hewie evolves, so too does Hewie’s ability to aid the player in various ways.
Haunting Ground is roughly divided into quarters, and in each Fiona faces a singular adversary who, for one reason or another, doesn’t want her to leave the castle grounds. In gameplay reminiscent of the Clock Tower series, players wield no weapons. Instead, they must run and hide from pursuers until a final set piece occurs, during which the environment can be used to vanquish the pursuer for good. There are a few items that, when thrown, can buy Fiona a few seconds to aid her escape. Likewise, if the player’s relationship with Hewie is good enough, he can attack an enemy while Fiona runs away.
The first enemy players face is the hulking man-child Debilitas, a loud, lumbering oaf who thunders through hallways as he chases Fiona. She reminds him of his precious “dollies,” and so he wants to add her to his collection. He is fairly easy to outwit—squatting behind a door is generally enough to cause him to lose track of you—and the boss battle to get rid of him for good is relatively stress-free.
And then there’s Daniella.
Fiona encounters Daniella, the maid of Belli Castle, soon after emerging from the dungeon in the game’s opening moments. While she gives Fiona some clothes and calls her a “guest,” it’s obvious right away that something is not right with Daniella. She is quiet and her movements are deliberate. She seems lethargic, but there’s an underlying air of hostility. She speaks in a low monotone. If all of that wasn’t disconcerting enough, she holds a one-sided conversation with a painting, obeying some sort of silent command to keep Fiona in the castle “for a while.” Daniella makes no threats against Fiona—rather, she seems oddly intrigued by her guest—but players will immediately sense that she’s very bad news in a place chock full of bad news.
One of the game’s most disturbing scenes occurs during the first section, when Debilitas is the pursuer. Fiona comes across a locked door and takes a peep through the keyhole, only to see someone violently slapping Daniella while asking “Where is the old man?” The maid simply sits there, bloody and battered, passively taking hit after hit until finally...she turns towards the keyhole and smiles. She knows Fiona’s there, watching.
This immediately sends Fiona into a panic, a state where the player loses control of the character for a few moments. Fiona stumbles around and then collapses into a heap until her stress levels fall. I get it completely; Daniella really stresses me out, too.
After defeating Debilitas, Fiona continues her search for a way out of the castle. While we’re exploring, Daniella silently appears behind Fiona to tell her that dinner is served. We can’t help but notice that all of Daniella’s fingertips are bloody, which speaks at the very least to said dinner being prepared in less than sanitary conditions. Still, it’s been hours since her last meal, so Fiona heads to the dining room and eats some questionable-looking soup. Daniella stands beside her the entire time, bloody hands politely folded, and finally sheds some light on her own uncanny nature. “My creator said he made me the perfect woman,” she says. “But I cannot taste or experience pleasure. Or feel pain.”
Fiona wisely chooses this moment to split, thanking Daniella for what was surely a foul-tasting meal. Once she’s gone, Daniella licks a spoonful of the soup and quietly intones “I am not complete.”
Whether she was purposefully drugged or not, Fiona feels sick from the meal and has a lie down on her bed. Daniella enters, hovers her cut-up, bloody hand over Fiona’s prone body, and finally presses on the young woman’s womb. When Fiona wakes, Daniella slowly walks to a mirror and once again says “I am not complete.” Discordant music begins to play and Daniella repeatedly smashes her head against the mirror until the glass shatters. She breaks off a giant shard, slowly turns… and now she’s after Fiona.
Daniella’s transformation into a true villain is all the more horrifying thanks to the long, slow build in getting there. We’ve known since our first interaction with her that there was something off about the maid, and now that worry pays off: yup, she’s completely unhinged and she wants to kill you. Right now.
In contrast to the heavy, loping Debilitas, she walks with a stiff, upright posture, fast and purposeful in her pursuit of Fiona. That music—more like noise, really—continues to play, adding to the sense of urgency. It feels like Daniella is always right behind you, dragging her giant glass shard. Like all of the best slasher movie villains, she is relentless, a terrifying, unstoppable force. She is full of quiet menace and profoundly unsettling in ways unparalleled in horror games.
Haunting Ground also brilliantly toys with player expectations during the Daniella segment of the game. Occasionally, after having given the maid the slip, Fiona will come across her as she goes about her housekeeping duties. Daniella is once again the picture of robotic servitude, seemingly giving no notice of the player even if she was chasing you just moments before. Traversing a room where Daniella is, say, scrubbing a floor like everything is normal (or what passes for normal in Belli Castle, anyway), knowing she could spring up at any moment, is incredibly tense. Adding to the suspense during the game, she can also appear when you least expect it. You might open an innocuous door to find her standing there, waiting for you, ready to pounce.
She is disconcerting and creepy even in her final moments, when she is impaled on a giant glass shard that falls when a ceiling dome shatters during her boss battle. Daniella dies with a smile on her face—perhaps she felt something at last in her final moments. Or perhaps she simply welcomed the release from her hellish existence.
Daniella’s origins are rooted in mystery. Is she actually an artificial creation? If so, this means that her sadistic creator, Lorenzo Belli, deems the “perfect woman” to be one who is forever in servitude, one with no autonomy whatsoever. She will look perfect, take up little space, and remain virtually silent at all times. Her desires and physical pleasures are of no importance–in fact, her complete lack of feeling means she can endure endless abuse with no consequence.
When she finally meets another woman, Daniella immediately focuses on what makes Fiona different from herself. If Daniella is perfect, why are the men in Belli Castle obsessed with keeping Fiona? What makes her “not complete”? In her limited knowledge, she assumes it is her infertility and lack of sexual desirability: “Blood. Flesh Woman. You vile creature,” she says to Fiona. “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.”
In truth, neither a woman’s worth nor her “womanhood” is dependent on having children. But Daniella, in her limited knowledge, does not understand this. While Debilitas was a simpleton who was unaware of his own strength and didn’t mean to harm Fiona, Daniella very much wants to hurt her due to envy. Fiona is what Daniella can never be, a woman who can feel pleasure, experience pain, and give birth.
There is a lot to unpack in this, in Daniella’s views of herself, in her very existence and what it means to be a “real woman,” and in the sexual politics at play… and boy oh boy, is Haunting Ground full of sexual politics.
It would be easy to dismiss the game as “problematic” thanks to Fiona’s tight, revealing attire and oversized breasts (complete with video game jiggle physics), as she is sexualized almost to the point of caricature. But to dismiss the game because of Fiona’s portrayal is to miss the symbolic point of her objectification. Fiona’s look is provocative and virginal all at once, supplementing the sense of vulnerability players feel due to the weaponless, hide-and-seek gameplay.
Additionally, Fiona is objectified in one manner or another by every character in the game. Debilitas views her as a literal doll and wants to add her to his collection. Daniella—who essentially is a living doll, good enough for her male “master” and “creator” but lacking a true life of her own—covets Fiona’s “womanhood.” At times she wants to destroy her guest for her ability to seduce and be seduced out of envy and hatred. At other times, the decidedly lesbian overtones of some cutscenes present the possibility that Daniella is attempting something like seduction herself.
Meanwhile, Riccardo and Lorenzo, the other villains in Haunting Ground, want Fiona’s “Azoth,” an alchemical element she inherited from her father that allows one to become immortal. They both want to be reborn through Fiona thanks to her Azoth, and the spectre of sexual assault and threat of violation weigh heavily on the game’s final acts.
Everyone wants a piece of Haunting Ground’s heroine, oftentimes literally. Fiona is held against her will, caressed, manhandled, and chased through a cavernous castle that bears her family’s name. She is seen as nothing but a sex object, a motif that is reflected throughout the game from the lecherous gazes of the estate’s villainous inhabitants to the castle itself, with its rooms filled with dolls, golems, statues, and marionettes. All of this gives Haunting Ground a sleazy vibe that ramps up the terror to uncomfortable, wonderful levels and sets it apart from not only its mid-2000s contemporaries, but other horror games in general.