The cell phone in my hand blares a ringtone that sounds like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and the cheerfulness of its synthetic piano tones blazes in the darkness before I push the answer button and hold the phone up to my ear. There is a crackle of static and then a voice rasps through the tiny speaker, drawing out its words like a child with a sore throat. “That’s my phone,” it says. “I’m at the exit… I’m coming to get it back…”
There’s a pause, and then the voice spits out the final word with a sneer. “OK?” The connection goes dead and I’m left holding an angry ghost’s cell phone in the dark hallway of an empty high school.
In Calling, cell phones are doorways between worlds. Ghosts can call on them, and humans can be lured through them into the ghosts’ world. The phones that I find scattered throughout the game eventually transport me out of the school and send me into other equally creepy and mundane areas — a seedy Internet café, a ramshackle cottage — all filled with ghosts and cell phones. In the guise of several different (living) characters, I must wander through these haunted locales wielding my Wii Remote like a flashlight, smearing its bleary circle of light along walls and doorways, trying to pierce the murk that fills the rooms like dirty water. When my cell phone rings, I lift the Wii remote up to my ear and listen to the tiny speaker whisper messages from the dead.
Calling is a product of Japan, where they seem to have an unlimited appetite for vengeful child-ghosts with dark stringy hair and a habit of appearing behind unsuspecting mortals. While this sort of thing has become a cliché in horror movies, it’s still uncommon in videogames. Survival horror games usually create tension by attacking the player with armies of zombies — which really aren’t any different from armies of gangsters, aliens or soldiers — making the games nothing more than horror-themed shooters. Calling attempts to evoke an immersive, unsettling mood by using the Wii Remote as a virtual cell phone while keeping the in-game action confined to dark, atmospheric environments with only occasional, half-hearted “attacks” from ghosts.
Unfortunately, this restrained approach to horror suffers from a lack of interactive pacing. Without something to flee, much of my playing time was spent wandering the game’s environments, seeking out clues that were often just phone numbers scribbled somewhere. The specters that would occasionally flash across the screen stopped being scary and started to seem like vivid breaks from the monotony. As the pace slackened, I grew frustrated with the Remote’s imprecise motion-sensitivity. Before long, I wasn’t wandering in the darkness — I was sitting at home, waving a videogame controller at my TV while the sun blazed outside. I was no longer connected — I had hung up.
THE GOOD: The moody atmosphere draws me in while the ingenious use of the Wii Remote lets the game reach out.
THE BAD: If the dead want to do some real haunting, they’ll need to be a little livelier.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Slow, arbitrary gameplay cuts off the otherwise immersive and atmospheric Calling.