I’m currently playing through The Evil Within (2014) in anticipation of tomorrow’s sequel release. The game is fascinating, and remains immanently playable despite clunky controls, frequent FPS drops and an overly gloomy aesthetic. It’s enjoyable, however there is a niggling feeling that I’m having with the environments in the game. There seems to be a real lack of tension within these environments, and below I look to examine why that may be.
SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE EVIL WITHIN (2014)
The Evil Within has often been described as a throwback to the horror games of the mid-00’s and 90’s, but alongside this the game tries something new. Games like its spiritual predecessor, Resident Evil 4, have relied on a creepy, atmospheric location to act as a backdrop for the horror experience. The Evil Within however attempts to destabilise these backdrops, with the game taking place in the collective imagination of those attached to STEM, as opposed to a place physically defined by the fictional world the games takes place in.
This enables the game to constantly play around with how the player character views and moves through it. Unfortunately, it also means that the levels in the game often seem to be lifeless and disposable; justified by the narrative, but ineffective in forming any seminality in it’s location.
As I was initially playing through the earlier levels in the game, I was struck as to how derivative many of the locations feel. The aesthetic in The Evil Within is overly kitsch and this works as the game can be described as a kitchen-sink-style horror game. Everything that has ever once been considered creepy in a videogame is probably in The Evil Within. However ,I’ve not felt any connection to, or atmosphere from, any of the locations within the game. None of the locations feel like places.
This makes sense thematically. The Evil Within’s distorted fantasy realm is designed to represent the main antagonist’s darkest thoughts. But it also has the effect that the locations seem mostly throwaway, imitative of iconic horror games we use as a reference. This isn’t a horror game, but an imagination of what someone thinks a horror game might be like. It’s a postmodern simulacrum of a horror game. Whilst this narrative turn is fascinating, it’s not without its advantages and disadvantages.
THE SETTING WITHIN
In many iconic horror games, the location becomes as important as character as many of the enemies themselves. Resident Evil has the Spencer Mansion and Raccoon City, Outlast has the Mount Massive Asylum, Alien Isolation the Sevastopol, Silent Hill has… well, you get my drift. These are iconic locations that provoke a sense of mystery and fear through name alone. The Evil Within however doesn’t set aside any significant time to making any of its own locations feel significant, and as such the player will struggle to find their ‘place’.
This is demonstrated by the lack of ceremony that each playing space is given in the game. Many of the locations are thrown in to be a surprise, with no establishing shot, or indication of where the next chapter will lead. It’s also evident in the distinct narrative choice within the game,which foregrounds the experience of the antagonist as opposed to the protagonist. You are just a character making their way through someone else’s messed up mind.
The trope is fascinating, but I can’t help but feel it would be more effective in a genre that doesn’t rely as heavily on immersion as horror games do. Despite The Evil Within’s ambition in showing the player that the true horror is in our twisted imaginations, it does also mean that the game lacks any kind of atmosphere.
THE EXAMPLES WITHIN
Let me give you an example of how The Evil Within plays around with its places.
At the opening of the game, the protagonists are led to a psychiatric hospital which has been the scene of a horrendous crime. The place is ominously foreboding, and as such I was incredibly interested to see what would be inside the building. Unfortunately, once inside a cutscene plays and the player is immediately teleported to a gory basement from which to escape from. This is scary, but it drains the creepiness that was being built up in the earlier section. It goes from 0-100 so fast that I didn’t feel that there was any real build of unease.
Furthermore, 10 minutes after waking up in this basement, you’re out again, ‘escaping’ from the hospital in an Ambulance as the entire city around you crumbles and becomes destroyed. This makes sense in the story, however works to (literally) destroy any sense of place that the game may have started to build. This throws the traditional horror story set-up on its head, and twists it completely. It could be argued that, from now on the game is not going to let you know what is going to be round the next corner. There are a few nice Inception-like twists because of this, however it does seem underutilised throughout much of the first half of the game.
THE INTERACTION WITHIN
The environmental storytelling in The Evil Within is maximalist by design and lacks the character that a simpler aesthetic may have been able to pull off. A room in any given abandoned house will have chairs tipped over, broken boxes in the corner, candles on the tables and bottles of wine strewn around. The frequency of these items means that none of it eve becomes a focal point, or does anything to really grab the players attention. It’s all clutter. As such, you often move through these rooms quickly to the next, in search of something to smash open, or ammo packs to pick up.
And you do that a lot. The game necessitates exploration, with some heavy restrictions on ammo and supply pickups. Although this does help to nail home the survival aspect of the game, it can often feel like busywork. Many times I have had to make sure I looked in every nook and cranny before triggering the next story beat, for the shiny flicker of some Shotgun ammo.
But again this has an effect on how I notice the spaces around me within the game. None of these side rooms really hold any fear of danger within them. Instead, they are just bland spaces full of breakable boxes. None of these spaces feel lived in. Perhaps an intentional hint towards the imaginary immateriality of the room.
THE BEST WITHIN
The most substantial recurring location within the game is the Police Station that serves as the upgrade hub and save point station. At certain points in the game, this location begins to warp and play with your expectations. One particular section, where the level becomes pitch black apart from your lantern, as objects begin to menacingly move around the rooms, was by far the most legitimately terrifying moment that I’ve played thus far. It was The Evil Within at its best. Offering you a safety blanket, and then subsequently ripping it out from under your feet. Going back to the main sections of the game after this just felt as though it lacked that uneasy distinction between safe and unsafe.
And it’s because of these these moments that I will keep playing The Evil Within. The game might be a throwback to horror games of the mid-00’s, however the way it challenges the locations in those games is fascinating. I’m still unsure whether I like it or not, but it’s compelling enough. And with the sequel releasing tomorrow, I’m looking forward to seeing how the game can build upon its predecessor with it’s supposed open-world style.