Over the past few years, a growing concern has developed over the seemingly forced inclusion of action-focused gameplay in franchises that were based in the “horror” genre. The two most recent Resident Evil and Dead Space titles have received a bulk of the criticism from the gaming public due to what has been perceived as a significant shift from frights to firearms and spooks to ‘splosions. However, there is one gaming franchise that has unabashedly mixed the shooter and horror genres with exceptional results. Across three major releases, F.E.A.R. has not only provided waves of bullets, explosions, and even mechanized death-machines, but also offered up genuine scares courtesy of one little red-dressed girl named Alma Wade. Dammit, why are pale-faced, stringy-haired dead girls so terrifying?
The series takes its name from the F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) team, a secret government force that was formed specifically to handle paranormal entities. In this case, they are sent on a mission in which they encounter Alma Wade, a little girl who has been the victim of a series of atrocious crimes and is out for revenge. The narrative of the series is based on the Japanese horror theme “onryō”, or “vengeful ghost”. Though the framework of the games may be derived from a clichéd film trope, the actual storyline of the franchise is rather complex and stunningly disturbing.
We’ll take a look at the development of this narrative over the course of the series and identify why a fourth major entry into the franchise is one of our most wanted titles for the upcoming next-generation of consoles. Keep in mind that spoilers will abound in the remainder of this article, so if you haven’t played through the first three F.E.A.R. games, proceed at your own risk. You don’t want to piss off Alma. She’ll set you on fire – with her mind. She can do that, you know.
The foundation of any good videogame narrative is a cast of dynamic characters. In the first F.E.A.R. game, we were introduced to what would turn out to be a persistent and alarmingly interconnected trio of characters. The first was Point Man, the F.E.A.R. team operative whose extraordinary combat reflexes made him not only a valuable member of the squad, but also the subject of government interests. He and his team were tasked with hunting down the second major character in the series, Paxton Fettel. Aside from being a cannibalistic serial killer, Fettel also possessed acute psychic abilities that he employed for a variety of gruesome purposes. Over the course of the game, the sinister details of a government-funded experiment were revealed, along with the identity of the primary test subject and series antagonist: Alma Wade.
The specifics of Alma’s history were genuinely unnerving. Psychic experimentation began at the age of three. She was recruited into Project Origin and placed into a medically induced coma at the age of eight. Then she was impregnated with her own DNA with resulting births at 15 and 16. After Project Origin was abandoned, her life support was removed and her physical body died six days later, at the age of 26. However, medical personnel noted that her psychic energy lingered long after she passed. Believed to be dead, her body was sealed in the Vault, a secure chamber deep within the confines of the secret Origin Facility in which she had been imprisoned for over 20 years.
While Alma’s backstory was impressively fleshed-out, however disturbing, the real substance of the F.E.A.R. narrative laid in the relationship between the aforementioned three characters. It was a shocking revelation when players first discovered that Point Man and Paxton Fettel are both Alma’s offspring from the Project Origin experiments. This discovery forced the player to reassess the motivations of the protagonist as the game proceeded. Rather than merely hunting down a man-eating serial killer, Point Man was suddenly faced with the job of killing his brother and eliminating the ghost of his dead mother. That’s quite the conundrum.
Trying to wrap your mind around this odd family reunion was troublesome enough, but doing so in the midst of endless gunfire and explosions was nearly impossible. Regardless, that’s exactly what F.E.A.R. forced you to do as you were trapped in the crossfire of an intense battle. On one side, clone supersoldiers were being telepathically controlled by Fettel as he attempted to locate his – and your – mother. On the other side, mercenaries hired by Armacham Technology Corporation, the company behind Alma’s experimentation, were attempting to cover up the whole fiasco by killing everyone involved.
Combat in F.E.A.R. was extremely intense as it usually involved numerous enemies in confined interior spaces. These cramped quarters become disorienting deathtraps as bullets created clouds of dust and debris as they impacted walls and floors. This became even more problematic as the enemy AI was surprisingly reactive to specific situations. They would readily flank your position, scramble away from nearby grenades, and even flip over tables to create cover. Toss in the occasional mech sporting an arsenal of chain guns and missiles and you know you’ve got a hell of a fight on your hands. As if that level of opposition wasn’t enough to keep you busy, in the latter stages of the game, Alma would summon Nightmares – ghoulish apparitions that attacked the player upon her command.
The first F.E.A.R. game was lauded for its deep story and unique blend of gameplay elements. Not only was the combat found to be as intuitive as any big-budget first-person shooter at the time, but the game was genuinely scary and loaded with disturbing imagery. Balancing those two seemingly contrasting elements was what allowed F.E.A.R. to garner the critical success that it did. Fortunately for us, it only laid the foundation for a narrative that would continue to even darker corners of the human psyche, all the while growing more and more tangled.
What made F.E.A.R. such an exceptional franchise was the commitment to the narrative beyond the first game. The second installment, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, not only expanded upon the storyline from the first game, but also introduced a new protagonist. Players took on the role of Michael Beckett, a Delta Force operative, shortly before the events that concluded the previous game. Beckett and his team were sent on a mission to kill Alma, who, despite the massive explosion at the end of F.E.A.R., was still on her vengeance-fueled rampage. Though the plot may seem simple enough, the manner in which the events of F.E.A.R. 2 played out mirrored the multifaceted nature of the series narrative up to that point.
As if Alma wasn’t already a complex enough character, she took on multiple forms over the course of F.E.A.R. 2. At times she appeared as the red-dressed young girl from the first game. At other times, she manifested herself as an emaciated, skeletal adult or a beautiful young woman. These transformations actually displayed an impressive relevance to the plot of the game. The classic version of Alma – the eight-year old girl in the red dress – was the last memory she had of herself before the Project Origin experiments began. The ghoulish, zombie-like adult figure was actually how she appeared after being released from the Vault near the end of the first game. As for the form of a beautiful young woman that she took on, it was fueled by far more devious motivations…
Alma showed an odd interest in Michael Beckett throughout F.E.A.R. 2, actually saving his life on several occasions. This seemed a bit out of place, given that her usual modus operandi involved immolating or eviscerating anyone in the general vicinity. However, her true motives came to light at the end of the game when, in order to impregnate herself, she rapes Beckett. Spectral rape? Pregnant ghost? The narrative may have been macabre or disturbing, but it was always dynamic and forced the player to actually think about the events that were occurring. If nothing else, no one could ever accuse the F.E.A.R. franchise of taking the “safe” route with its storytelling.
F.E.A.R. 3 not only continued the building narrative from the first two games, but also the theme of unexpected twists and turns in the plot. The uneasy alliance between Point Man and a reanimated Paxton Fettel spoke to the desperate nature of their search for their now pregnant mother. Being able to play each mission as either of the brothers added an interesting change of perspective to the events of the game. It also provided two different endings depending on who the player controlled during the final moments of the game.
In the “good” ending, Point Man killed Fettel (again) and Alma mysteriously disappeared after giving birth to her child. Afterwards, Point Man was shown leaving with the baby cradled in his arms. The “evil” ending showed Fettel possess Point Man and extract the child from Alma, promising to raise it himself. He then proceeded to eat her – yes, his mother – in order to absorb her powers. So, with these as the final two scenes of the F.E.A.R. narrative thus far, where would the next entry into the franchise begin?
Regardless of which ending winds up being accepted as official F.E.A.R. canon, there are a couple of consistencies between the two that can help us to discern a starting-point for a possible fourth game. The most obvious and undeniable fact is that a new character, Alma’s child, has been introduced to the already muddled family equation. The real question at hand is whether or not the fact that the child was spawned from Alma after her psychic resurrection will have any bearing. Will it somehow be significantly different in some way than its brothers, who were born while Alma was still physically alive? Or perhaps the most weighty factor will be found in who raises the child, Point Man or Fettel. Either way, it’s safe to assume that the child will possess some of the psychic abilities that seem to run so strong in the family’s bloodline.
In addition, we can assume that Point Man is still alive, though perhaps possessed by his brother. Honestly, we cannot completely disregard the possibility that Fettel could continue to be a factor in the narrative progression following either ending. Being shot by Point Man at the end of the first game didn’t offer any real closure on that matter, so his existence is still up in the air. Though he did possess Point Man in one of the potential endings of F.E.A.R. 3, there’s always the possibility that he could depart his host, leaving his brother to raise the child. Based on past event, Fettel doesn’t seem to be cut out to be a father, so that course of events may be in everyone’s best interest.
And what of Alma? In the “good” ending of F.E.A.R. 3, she vanished after her child was born, making a return completely plausible. Since she was consumed by Fettel in the “evil” ending, it seems unlikely that she would reappear, though her psychic abilities make feasible options out of even the most impossible of feats. Alma is undeniably the face of the franchise and, while it is hard to imagine a F.E.A.R. game without her, it may be time to finally let her rest in peace.
It’s hard to discern exactly what F.E.A.R. 4 would look like as an extension of the already established narrative. My personal leanings are towards a sort of new trilogy for the franchise. The ending(s) of F.E.A.R. 3 provided satisfactory closure for Alma and her story. It would be interesting to see her child hold a more morally-acceptable position than that of Alma, as it would display a stark contrast in the roles of children between the first three games and the fourth. For the child to have any hope of playing that part, it would have to be raised by Point Man, rather than Fettel. Everyone’s favorite cannibal could take on the role of the primary antagonist. After consuming Alma to absorb her powers, it is logical, though somewhat unthinkable, that he may look to further increase his psychic abilities by feasting on his sister. The fact that the thought of such a thing might make you a bit squeamish is a good indicator that it fits the overall theme of the franchise.
The persistent feud amongst the members of this psychic family and the powers that Fettel absorbed from Alma would most assuredly provide a catalyst for more fiendish ghouls and demonic creatures to appear. However, no F.E.A.R. game would be complete without squads of soldiers trying to blow you away as well. It’s possible that remnants of the Armacham Technology Corporation could return in search of Alma’s offspring. Since Project Origin was funded by the government, it’s conceivable that military personnel or hired mercenaries could be a factor. Either way, F.E.A.R. 4 must maintain that delicate balance between the horror and shooter element, being careful not to let one overshadow the other. As aforementioned, that balance is what made F.E.A.R. a favorite franchise for many gamers.
While the combination of hellish creatures and waves of bullets would help F.E.A.R. 4 to fall in-line with the basic elements of the series, there is a real opportunity to set it apart from the games that came before. If Point Man does turn out to be the brother that raises Alma’s child, the writers have to focus on the relationship between the two of them. By fast-forwarding several years, it would be very interesting to see how their family bond has developed. There is a real chance to humanize the characters and place a strong focus on the relationship between a child and an older, father-like figure, much like Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead. Also, it plays into the persistent focus on family ties that has existed throughout the series.
Few franchises have been as committed to a single narrative arc playing out over the span of several games as the F.E.A.R. series. While the last game did provide a bit of closure, there are still many questions left unanswered and too many issues left unexplored. The folks at Warner Brothers still owns the rights to the F.E.A.R. name, so we’re hoping that they are cooking something up in preparation for the next generation of consoles. Monolith Productions, the developers behind the first two F.E.A.R. games, are still in Warner Brother’s stable, so all the pieces are in place to make F.E.A.R. 4 a reality. The popular belief is that Microsoft and Sony will be making their next-gen announcements soon and I can’t think of a better way to kick off a new set of consoles than by getting the crap scared out of me all over again.
F.E.A.R. 4. Make it happen or i’ll set you on fire – with my mind.