Fobia Rewritten

Let’s rewrite Fobia to focus on the things it does well and cut the things it does poorly. I’m using time traveling witch rules here, so I want to keep the plot at about the same level of resource-intensiveness but I am going to assume that it costs me nothing to tear out a finished piece of the game and replace it with another piece of approximately equal spectacle and complexity.

The goal here is to focus the plot on the well-designed hotel and the two iconic monsters: Gasmask Girl and the game’s boogeyman, which according to achievements is probably supposed to be called the Red Light (he has a reddish-orange lantern he carries around). Gasmask Girl haunts the protagonist throughout the hotel but turns out to be friendly. The Red Light periodically pursues the protagonist through the hotel and is plainly unfriendly, not only kill-on-sight hostile like the other monsters but much more willing to pursue the protagonist for long distances. At the same time, he’s very easy to fool by taking circuitous routes, so let’s not talk up his intelligence too much.

We also need some reason why the hotel is full of puzzle locks, and “a cult built the place” is a tried and true means of accomplishing that. The cult doesn’t necessarily need to still be active, though. They never appear as enemies, and may appear as a voice on the phone, but don’t have to. The cult doesn’t need to be relevant to the plot because it doesn’t have any compelling characters, just a well-established motivation for building a hotel full of puzzle locks. Likewise, we need a bunch of zombies and mutant bugs to prop up the combat end of level design, but we don’t need the reason for their creation to be at all central to the plot. It should be a result of the same forces driving Gasmask Girl and the Red Light rather than being totally unrelated, but it doesn’t need to be a major focus. Much like “cults build puzzle locks, it’s just how you be a cult,” it’s fine if the monsters are explained by “the supernatural shit concerning Gasmask Girl and the Red Light also caused a bunch of monsters to show up, these things happen sometimes.” Puzzles and monsters are an important part of the hotel’s level design, so we need an explanation for them, but we can rely on tropes to carry us over the bumps in those explanations as long as we don’t spend much time on them.

Finally, we need to explain the camera. The camera is very important to early gameplay, giving the player a means of interacting with the environment without having anything to fight. This contributes significantly to the game’s slow build, where you begin with a ghost train where you’re haunted by Gasmask Girl and you end by using chemical weapons to weaken Red Light until he can be killed with two shotgun blasts to the face.

Side note: There’s an argument to be made that starting with an homage to Silent Hill and ending with an homage to Resident Evil is a bad idea, but Resident Evil 4 had that basic arc (although its early bits are less informed by Silent Hill, they still have a much more horror-focused tone compared to the second half of the game) and while a lot of people hated the tone shift, other people loved it. For this rewrite I’m going to assume that the escalation from Silent Hill straight horror to Resident Evil action horror is a worthwhile artistic goal, since it takes the player on an arc from being helpless before the monsters to strong enough to confront the most deadly of them all, and even does so in a way that relies more on the player learning about the Red Light rather than simply getting bigger guns. You do learn about the Red Light by reading someone else’s notes rather than with any kind of experimentation, but that still carries the theme of brewing up a bespoke weapon to defeat him, not just using a rocket launcher.

So that’s four objectives a rewrite needs to hit:

-Why did the cult build this hotel?
-Who is Gasmask Girl?
-Who/what is the Red Light?
-Where did the camera come from?

Why did the cult build this hotel? We can keep the explanation from the original game largely unchanged: Christopher discovered a technomagic super-sphere in a mine, killed a bunch of workers to cover it up to keep its powers for himself, then feigned a mining accident and that the mine would be closed and a hotel built atop it out of remorse for what had happened to his workers. He then used the hotel as a front for a cult studying the powers of the sphere, which will be the source of all the supernatural wackiness in the rest of the lore.

The techno super-sphere from 1920 is not something we need to retain. So far as explanations of supernatural horrors go it’s actually pretty mediocre and if I were being paid for this I would feel obligated to come up with an entirely different supernatural power source to build the cult around. I’m not being paid, though, so I’m going to go with the lazy route and retain the techno super-sphere, because the cult needs to be drawing their power from studying something and this explanation has the convenience of already existing in the game which saves me work.

Christopher is still alive because one of his earlier discoveries was a way to harness the techno-sphere’s energy field to halt aging. He has to stay in the hotel within range of the sphere, though, and also the sphere has to be hooked up to a bunch of cumbersome infrastructure. This means Christopher can’t move around much. He doesn’t immediately die if he leaves the sphere’s radius, but he does begin aging again, so while he can pop out for an Italian vacation if he wants, every day he spends out of the hotel is a day of regular aging that he can’t undo. This particularly represents a problem for explaining away his immortality – he can fake his own death, but then he has to spend several years in hiding in the secret parts of the hotel, speaking only with his own cultists, until he can show up again with a new identity without arousing suspicion. And even then, the new identity can’t be so important that people notice that the hotel has had eight different owners and/or prominent, long-stay guests and all of them look exactly the same. If only he could find a way to remain immortal outside the sphere’s field, he could set up a new identity once every two or three decades in some totally new location.

Who is Gasmask Girl? Gasmask Girl is a psychic woman raised by the cult in order to channel the powers of the techno super-sphere. The goal with Gasmask Girl, real name Emily, is that the cult would be able to control her and use her powers of extrasensory perception for spying and blackmail to further increase their power. Not to say the cult was particularly focused on spying and blackmail, they’re ultimately just trying to figure out how they can use the techno super-sphere for personal gain, and during their studies they discovered that someone properly conditioned from conception for psychic channeling made for a really effective spy, so they tried to figure out how they could use that power to their benefit from there.

Emily also has super lightning powers, but the rate of fire is really unimpressive and while the bolts are much deadlier than the average bullet, they’re also regular electricity so it’s not super hard to build fortifications that can redirect it just like a lightning bolt. This means that in military terms Emily has a slow-firing anti-personnel weapon that is, for all its spectacle, pretty strictly inferior to a submachine gun, which the cult already has (the player can pick one up during the game). The bolts are more deadly than an SMG, but an SMG’s fatality rate is already high enough that bumping it further up really isn’t worth any other tradeoff, certainly not a rate of fire that’s an order of magnitude slower.

And when Emily’s psychic powers were awakened by the sphere, it shorted the sphere out completely. Even a decade later, the cult boffins have no idea how to get it working again. The power of the sphere seems to have moved entirely into Emily, who now produces the same energy fields the sphere used to, so the cult can continue their experiments as long as Emily is physically in the same place they used to keep the sphere for those experiments.

Emily’s lightning powers and having absorbed the sphere’s energy field combine to give the cult a problem: Although Emily is not a particularly overwhelming military threat, she is impossible to disarm. If she feels sufficiently threatened, she can blow someone’s head off with the power of her mind. They can’t kill her and start over because they don’t have the sphere anymore, and they have no idea whether the energy field in her body will persist if she dies. So they can’t kill her for fear of losing everything, and they can’t meaningfully coerce her because nothing short of killing her can remove her ability to kill anyone who stays in her line of sight for at least three seconds.

The cult’s solution is Gas 320, which inhibits the powers of the sphere enough to keep Emily in a state of suspended animation in a giant glass science tube. From there, they can continue to use her energy field for experiments just like the sphere, but she’s unconscious and can’t blast anyone with lightning powers. She is, however, still capable of psychically projecting an avatar from her dreaming subconscious. This is the Gasmask Girl. Doylistically, we want to keep the Gasmask Girl because she looks cool, Watonsially, it’s because she’s being pumped full of knock-out gas perpetually so she manifests with a gas mask because she wishes she had one. Gasmask Girl can walk around the cult lab and the hotel built on top of it pretty freely, and since she’s a psychic manifestation, she can also basically teleport. Since she’s a manifestation of pure techno-sphere energy, Gasmask Girl is inherently harmful to anyone who gets too close, so she tends to keep her distance. Emily needs her Gasmask Girl avatar to actually be present in order to see things, hence the rumors of Gasmask Girl haunting the hotel – Emily has her avatar keep an eye on things a lot but tries not to get too close for fear of hurting people.

This raises the question of why she doesn’t use the Gasmask Girl avatar to murk the cultists, and while partly the answer is because that still wouldn’t allow her to open up her tube and escape (she can interact with regular electronics in the hotel, but the cult boffins have proofed their lab equipment against her interference), mostly it’s that she’s tried to intimidate the cultists with her avatar before and it just leads to the cult upping the dosage of Gas 320 until she falls asleep completely. This also prevents her from emitting the energy field they need to continue their experiments, so there’s a stalemate: The cult has found a way to stop her from attacking them, but cannot maintain it because that removes the source of their power. This is also why Gasmask Girl sightings are sporadic, since the cult keeps her dosed up to the point of dreamless sleep whenever they don’t need her energy field for an experiment.

I mentioned Emily can interact with electronics. She’s also in her early twenties at this point. The Gasmask Girl avatar still looks like how she remembers herself looking in the mirror ten years ago plus a gasmask, because she feels like she deserves to have those ten lost years back, but whatever she feels like, she is in fact a full grown adult and when she possesses a phone to have conversations with the protagonist, she sounds like one. She introduces herself as Stephanie, a name made up off the top of her head so that she won’t be immediately fingered by the cult as responsible for the calls even if the protagonist ends up spilling the beans to them.

Side note: I realize this is the kind of thing that might potentially draw in a super creepy audience, and I’m partly ignoring that because this is a thought experiment that has no chance of drawing that audience even if an actual game with this lore would have some chance of that, but also because I think the chance is fairly low considering Emily’s position in the lore: Her Gasmask Girl avatar is (despite appearances from a distance) made of lightning and auto-murders anyone who gets close enough to touch her, and her body in the tube and her voice on the phone both sound like the twenty-two year old woman she actually is.

Emily will use the “Stephanie” identity to try and direct the protagonist to defeating the cult and releasing her from their secret lair, but she’s deceptive about it. The cult controls the local police and government, and the national government doesn’t have a ton of interest in tearing up this tourist town to try and root out a cult conspiracy based on a ghost story and wild-eyed tales of secret bioweapon labs and psychic manifestations. She needs the protagonist not to leave the hotel and publish the story on his blog, but to personally infiltrate or storm the cult’s hidden lab, coerce one of the boffins into giving up the password, and releasing Emily so she can use her powers to escape. That’s a big ask and she guesses (probably correctly) that the protagonist will not be willing to do this, so she resorts to manipulation.

Who/what is the Red Light? We’d also need an explanation of what the other monsters are, except that this explanation covers that as well. The Red Light is another cult experiment, this one attempting to create a procedure using the sphere energy that mutates someone to be healthier, and especially to be immune to aging, even when outside the sphere’s influence. While the age-halting field requires the sphere’s continuous operation to maintain, other monsters or artifacts created using the sphere’s energy field persist outside of it, so the cult has been searching for a way to permanently mutate someone in such a way that they stop aging for a while. This didn’t work on the Aquiles, who became the Red Light, he ages normally when outside the sphere’s field (which is where he’s spent most of his life – initially because he lived outside the hotel and out of the field’s radius, and later because the sphere was broken and Emily was only being half-woken to replace it sporadically).

Aquiles was an early prototype that was supposed to increase health in general, an experiment started before the sphere was broken and Christopher was in a big rush to figure out immortality specifically. It worked – Aquiles’ skin is bullet-resistant and nearly bullet-proof and he is monstrously strong. As a cult enforcer, he’s nearly perfect. There are some psychological side effects, but Christopher considered the research promising. Unfortunately, Aquiles and Emily were about the same age, that is to say, the experiments were still in their pretty early stages when the experiment with Emily zapped the sphere into uselessness. Whereas before Christopher was confronted with an inconvenience (stay near the hotel and its infrastructure to halt his aging or leave its influence and begin aging normally again), now it’s escalated to a real dilemma: Keep Emily awake to halt his aging and give her time to figure out an escape plan with her Gasmask Girl avatar, or keep her asleep and turn off the age-halting effects. Christopher’s search for an immortality mutation independent of the sphere’s energy field became desperate.

For starters, he began juicing up Aquiles with way more science juice to see if there was a level of durability past which aging stopped happening. It didn’t work, but Aquiles did end up with one of his arms turning into a weird mutant claw thing and had to be moved into the cult lab permanently to cover it up. Christopher abandoned that line of experimentation, not yet desperate enough to be willing to turn into some kind of hideous monster-man to halt aging (he was still only in his 50s physically, so he had a good 20-30 years to figure out something permanent before he was at risk of health collapse). He directed the cult to start kidnapping hotel guests and experimenting upon them, resulting in the claw mutants. His scientists protested this was a dead end and they needed from-conception experiments to make progress, like Emily and Aquiles, but Christopher insisted they continue experiments on adult abductees alongside the long-term experiments, as waiting another ten years for every failure is now chewing up a huge chunk of his remaining time. They did continue pursuing the long term experiments, which resulted in the game’s other boss monsters: The spider monster and the pianist.

The rate at which Christopher was demanding new experiments was also training the cult’s ability to keep them all contained. Patient cells became stuffed with mutant monsters, and the cult didn’t have a whole lot of personnel in the lab to manage them. Paying off local police to look the other way over the odd kidnapping was one thing, but bringing in loosely-affiliated muscle to the secret mad science lab was obviously not going to work out long term.

As it turns out, keeping a skeleton crew in the lab while keeping like fifty different claw mutants in the cells under active experimentation was also not going to work out long term. Normally the cult had enough eyes on important things that anytime Emily was half-awake, they could notice and report if Gasmask Girl was doing something nefarious (which she frequently attempted) and knock her out again before she could get anything catastrophic going. With personnel stretched so thin across so many monsters, though, Gasmask Girl was able to unleash half the lab population before anyone noticed. They gassed her up again on the way out, but without anyone to maintain the systems, things have started falling apart and the gas levels in Emily’s science tube are getting erratic. She now fades in and out of dreamlessness, which is why Gasmask Girl is an inconstant presence (so she can’t babysit you through the whole hotel using her lightning powers to blow up any monster short of the Red Light).

The cult made up a story about a deadly mold found in the hotel and barricaded the place in, claiming the guests had all left town while in fact trapping them inside to die so that none of them would escape with stories of mutant bugs or zombies. It’s a pretty desperate plan – the hotel guests’ loved ones and work associates are going to notice they never came home from the mysterious mold infection, and that will be suspicious enough for the national government to check out what’s going on, and then the jig is up.

The cult is only planning one step ahead right now, though. As the game begins, it’s just a few weeks after the mold outbreak. The story is beginning to fray. The cult has been able to delay suspicions by claiming that they relocated the hotel guests to another town, and that there were some problems with the relocation due to the hurried nature of things after the deadly mold was discovered but they promise proper compensation for all the hassle once everything is sorted out, and it’s becoming clear to the public that in fact these people are missing. The cult is dissolving, members fleeing the town as they feel the heat rising or in some cases committing suicide. Gasmask Girl has been wandering around freely for weeks for the first time since Emily was put under ten years ago. Aquiles, left behind in the hotel because his mutations make him a walking security breach in the village, is himself wandering freely, killing hotel guests and monsters alike basically just for lack of anything better to do and because no one can stop him. His whole Red Light get up is partly because he needs to be able to see where he’s going and the hotel only has power when Emily decides to use her psychic powers to turn a specific device on for her own purposes, but mostly because he’s a twenty-two year old young man with an atrophied conscience who wants to look scary (especially since his giant claw tendrils are pushing his appearance in that direction no matter what he does).

Where did the camera come from? The camera is another cult experiment with the techno super-sphere. It has the power to look into alternate timelines. It has to be attuned to a specific alternate timeline using tehcno super-science, which Emily’s powers allow her to do intuitively. Gasmask Girl took the camera, left behind by the cult during their evacuation, and attuned it to a few specific timelines to see what was happening there. The timelines can’t see in the future, but they can give her information on alternate presents if people had done different things. Not only that, Emily can use the camera to communicate with an alternate Emily by holding it up, deciding to either hold still or take a step forward and turn around, and then attune the camera to the timeline where she took the other path, so now she’s looking at the other Emily’s Gasmask Girl. By writing messages on the walls, they could communicate with each other.

One of the other Emilys called her Roberto Luis-Lopez (the protagonist’s name, used so rarely I had to look it up to make this bit clear) on the phone with the Stephanie identity immediately after the monster outbreak. Our Emily put our Roberto into psychic stasis during the hotel outbreak, to keep an ace up her sleeve while events unfolded. While originally the plan was to pull Roberto out within 24 hours, keeping him on hand as reinforcements she can deploy against the cult to help the hotel survivors, Emily ends up gassed by the cult and she can’t pull him out of stasis until the gas systems start failing much later. She uses the lightning fingertips of her Gasmask Girl avatar to burn messages into the walls, leaving handprints scorched into wood and wallpaper and even concrete to signal a point where the slight differences in hotel damage caused by Roberto being active during the outbreak are useful and the camera can be used to exploit them.

Usually, the differences between the two timelines are down to things like exactly what piece of debris fell where and the exact placement of different holes in the floor and barricades in the hall and so forth. In the basement biolabs, however, there’s a bunch of bonus corpses strewn about in the alternate reality version, paramilitary officers and the like who show signs of having been killed by the Red Light. With Roberto’s help, the hotel guests escaped and he broke the story, who sent in paramilitaries to secure the building. Aquiles is just about bulletproof, though, and was able to fend them off. He’s got no longterm plan but also nowhere else to go, so he’s holding the hotel against the government for as long as he can.

When our Roberto reaches the control room for the science tube Emily is being kept in, monitoring instruments indicate that her nutrient feed needs to be topped off or she’s going to dehydrate/starve within a few days, and the camera shows the same state of things for the other timeline. The other Roberto has already escaped, never found out about Gas 320, and never found out that Emily is still trapped inside. Nobody in the other timeline has any reason to believe that there’s a pressing need to secure the labs immediately nor any method of doing so without an unacceptably high bodycount.

Gasmask Girl appears to write a message, for the first time doing so right in front of Roberto, and signing it with the handprint indicating camera use. The message is something like “free us both,” and after she finishes writing it, Gasmask Girl stands to the right side of it. When Roberto uses the camera (as the handprint indicates), the message is something different (something like “don’t leave me behind,” maybe) and Gasmask Girl is standing on the left side of it. If, following the prompt, Roberto uses the camera to release the other Emily, she wriggles helplessly on the ground for a while before she manages enough motor control to start dragging herself towards a tunnel that collapsed in Roberto’s fight with Aquiles (something that, of course, never happened in the alternate timeline). The other Emily’s fate is uncertain, but with her most direct route to safety leading through a giant impassable pile of rubble, Roberto can’t do much except release the Emily in his own timeline and help her back to safety.

I don’t like all the extra complications introduced by the camera’s backstory, it introduces a lot of complexity in an otherwise fairly straightforward story of a dreaming psychic using her powers to guide a plucky reporter to free her from a dying cult and its last, monstrous enforcer. It might be better to just leave the camera totally unexplained – the techno-sphere does weird shit to cameras and nobody knows exactly how it works or where those handprints come from. That kind of handwave can be more damaging to a story than a some convoluted lore, though, and I think the somewhat convoluted nature of the camera’s abilities is softened a bit by having the handprints indicating its usage come from Gasmask Girl, one of our major characters, rather than be totally inexplicable, and also because the trans-temporal rescue at the end is (assuming good execution) emotionally satisfying. I think that would be enough to rescue the concept, but I’d really have to see a finished result to know for sure.

An alternative would be to redesign how the camera works entirely, so that it can interact with ghosts or psychic phenomena in some way or something like that. That’s beyond the scope of this post but potentially a better idea – the camera’s inclusion is partly to give the player a game mechanic to interact with before they’ve got a gun and partly (I suspect) to pay homage to Fatal Frame, and you don’t need to be using it to pass through barriers via an alternate version of the hotel to accomplish that, so you could figure out a completely different mechanic for it instead.

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