Often times there is one important question that one asks when they boot up a new survival horror game. It’s a simple question, and one that can make or break an entire game. Is it scary?
That one question is the exact point of this little essay, to question the validity of scary games, and in particular, one scary game. The Evil Within is perhaps the first survival horror game to come out in the past few years that seems to adhere to the old rules of survival horror, and that’s in part because the director of the game is sort of the father of the genre.
But is The Evil Within even scary?
I think that hinges upon the idea of what someone finds scary, and sure, that’s about as tactful as, “it is in the eye of the beholder.” Of course, what some find scary isn’t going to be what others find scary, and so the necessity of survival horror is balanced upon the fulcrum that there is something terrifying for everyone, whether it is subject matter, types of scares, or tension. While the storyline is nonsensical at times (READ: all the time), the game still manages to use multiple styles of horror to create tense atmospheric levels with engaging battles.
Perhaps one of the most terrifying things about the game is the difficulty. It’s been a long time since I played a game where I enjoyed just how hard it was to make it from level to level. Sure, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls likes to punish you for making mistakes, but those games often feel as though you are put at a huge disadvantage due to level or equipment (that is part of the challenge, but it’s not quite scary or tense, it’s more about timing and grinding). At no point does the Evil Within necessarily withhold information to ensure your survival, nor does it keep important weapons and items from you for very long. Instead it demands that you perfect your aim and its systems to ensure your survival. Part of the scare is in the fact that resource management is an evil (pun intended) that must be reckoned with, constantly. Often times I was left without ammo for essential weapons, and other times I found a section so difficult that I had to use precious ammo just to get through it even when I knew I could make it through without it. One well-placed shot could save you a handful of bullets, which can save your life a checkpoint away. Truly, at no point did I ever feel slighted by the game. I saw where I died, and I had to deal with that lose because I didn’t do the right thing in the right moment. Rarely was it a timing issue, more a, “did I really just do that?” moment.
On top of resource management as a source of tension, the game also spaces checkpoints few and far between in chapters, and often times, a booby trap might end up taking you all the way back to the start of a checkpoint after the most difficult section has been resolved. While frustration tends to mount, the beauty of the game’s checkpoint system often shows that you are capable of getting through a section, and that your environment really can provide great cover, or be your biggest enemy. There is nothing more satisfying then leading an enemy through a trap and killing them, or being given that quick moment to set them ablaze and safe a few rounds for the Chainsaw man coming after you. No matter how many times I died, I never wanted to put the controller down to stop myself from playing.
Why is this important? Because good horror gives you moments of relief so that it can rip it away from you again. As you clutch the serenity of hearing Clair de Lune by Debussy, knowing that a save room is right around the corner, when you enter it, there is a detail that is slightly off, you know because you’ve seen the room a hundred times. It is in this that The Evil Within truly shines, with moments where there are just a few details that are off, where even in a safe place, you don’t feel safe anymore. Sometimes it is the color of a room you have already entered, or it might be seeing a monster you know you already killed appearing somewhere that it shouldn’t be. The agony of the words, “but I killed you already,” slipping from your lips as the monster shrieks at you.
Let’s be honest, there are times when the game is loud and raucous, and often times, these scenes do a great job of robbing us of our senses as we have to shoot at small objects to stop spinning blades of death, or hot irons crush us against a wall, and they allow the moments of quiet horror to be all the more profound. Firefights and gore are unsettling, but they aren’t exactly scary. Falling into giant vats of blood and limbs is only as scary as the question of who chopped up all these bodies in the first place? While the boss fights can sometimes leave something to be desired, watching one of the bosses rip its own head off just so that it can resurrect itself right behind you proves that you aren’t safe from the fears the game concocts for you.
The images that are often forced upon Sebastian as the player progresses is also a source of horror, with some of the most terrifying moments of the game coming from the most beautiful sections. A stand out moment is when the player is transported to a field of sunflowers with little conception of what they are doing there or what the scene is really supposed to represent. This disassociation is part of the fun of the game as these scenes of non-sequiturs constantly keeps the player on their toes, but sure, it can become a little too jumbled to become anything more disturbing than what it is that presents itself upfront.
Constantly being stalked by a hooded figure is scary, but without much understanding of what or who Ruvik is does make him a little less of a threat and more of a source of contention. We know we should avoid him, but we don’t quite know why, and a little more context earlier on could have made him a far more stand out villain, however, when he teleports behind you, it’s still pretty scary.
Overall, there isn’t much question to whether or not the Evil Within is scary. It has its moments, like many things, and the horror comes in exactly the way that it should, from surviving one battle to the next. With low ammo drops, difficult enemies to put down, and memorable bosses, the Evil Within is exciting and stressful.
The horror of the game comes from reproductions of horror though. It’s nonsensical story ends up being a great problem in an otherwise solid game, as there isn’t anything lasting about the experience other than the stress (which is part of its charm).
What do I mean by reproductions of horror? I mean to say that often what we see on the screen feels like something that has been done before, like the chainsaw man, or having bugs crawl out from holes in the wall, and rather simple jump scares. They add to the scary moments, but the doll head maze towards the middle of the game provides an actual scare. In fact, most of the 9th and 10th chapters of the game are really where most of the original horror seeps. There aren’t as many fights, and instead, we simply focus on tight spaces and visceral horror as gates fall from the ceiling and we are transported to worlds that provide no context, only seemingly existing in the mind.
Ultimately, stress is confused for horror. Many comment on how the games is like a less revolutionary version of Resident Evil 4. It’s exciting and well made, and it is terrifying due to the stress the game often produces. Often I clench my controller not out of fear, but out of the hope that I score a critical hit as that would make my life so much easier.
Perhaps if the game focused just a little more on the storyline, and a little more on stringing together some of its beautifully designed set pieces (the hallways filled with invisible monsters that knock over random stuff comes to mind), the game would have actually been a terrifying experience as opposed to a game filled with thrilling moments and little suspense.
The Evil Within is more a game about horror as opposed to a horrific experience.
And that’s where I question horror in video games now. As games get more stylish and vibrant, could it be that survival horror can’t quite survive the need to top itself? Games can no longer be patient, and that might be one of the biggest problems with the Evil Within. Within the first chapter, I saw so much blood that the next time I saw a vat filled with body parts, it didn’t even seem scary, it just seemed like something I got used to.
The tension of the game was never really there in scripted scenes, often times where I would have wanted more tension and fear. I was often more scared by skulking about behind the bushes and hoping that an enemy didn’t see me.
Has patience been lost in video games? Could the desire for spectacle actually be killing horror in general? Often the best horror films are ones where there is a creeping sense of dread. Horror games walk a thin line where a player must be engaged enough to keep playing, but constantly assaulting a player with more and more grotesque imagery saturates, which might have been exactly one of the problems that the Evil Within had. Sometimes I ‘could not’ while other times I just got sort of bored. It’s like when Beatrix Kiddo plucks the eye out of Elle Driver’s socket in Kill Bill. The scene loses some of its power since we saw Beatrix do the same thing in the previous film. Trying to outdo itself is perhaps an undoing of the Evil Within, of horror itself.
Does the ‘Save the World’ narrative even fit within horror? Games have been trying a lot to increase the size and scope of devastation when it comes to horror (see Dead Space 2 and 3 and Resident Evil 5 and 6). Maybe it’s time to take a step back. Let’s not worry about a guy finally taking over the world with his new super powers, but more relish in the personal hell of our own fears.
Fear isn’t always patience, but maybe a little more patience could go a long way in a genre that is starting to slip through its own fingers. When I have to say, “Oh great, another giant foundry filled with the mutilated corpses of a thousand bodies,” perhaps we’ve gone too far?