How The Evil Within 2 tries to be an open world b-movie

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Let me qualify that title statement, for fear it merely conjures images of a game in which you’re supposed to be endlessly surprised to find more zombies lurking behind the next hedgerow. A good (or, indeed, bad) b-movie is not someone sprinting aimlessly around and being constantly jumped by monsters, but rather it’s scene-by-scene situational. What fresh horror awaits in the basement, what tricksy traps and obstacles must be overcome to make it out this house alive, and oh no what just happened to that helpful man in the sensible pullover?

In an hour spent playing Bethesda’s upcoming survival horror sequel The Evil Within 2 [official site], I found a game that was striving to be a cat’s cradle of micro b-movies, spun across a freely-explorable, monster-blighted town. I also found a game that was trying so hard to be scary that my only true fear is that it isn’t scary at all.

Let’s tackle that last point first; get the gripes out the way before moving onto hopefulness. In a lot of ways, The Evil Within 2 (at least what I played of it, all of which you can watch for yourself in this commentary-free footage of my preview session) was exactly what I expected it to be, which is a third-person horror game very much made for the age of grown adults mock-screaming for coins on Twitch streams. Surprise A HORRIBLE THING and now surprise ANOTHER HORRIBLE THING, and so forth.

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I skipped over the first Evil Within despite generally being partial to games about conserving ammo and creeping fearfully around each new corner, partly because SO MANY GAMES but mostly because everything I saw of it suggested a game throwing every horror trope at the wall at high velocity and hoping something stuck, or at least slithered down to the floor with suitably blood-curdling menace. I know that computer game graphics can effectively show us anything in extreme detail now – that’s not enough for me anymore, particularly in terms of a horror game. A grotesque distortion of a human body is not a pleasant sight, sure, but without some kind of context – who this is, what do they mean to you, why did the evil Photoshop man do that to poor Lara Croft’s neck – it can wind up not meaning much more than a big pile of hitpoints.

Which is exactly what happened at multiple junctures during my time with EW2 – a wearying barrage of Things To Be Frightened Of and little done to make the situation mean anything more than ‘don’t let your character get killed.’ Contrast this with the recent Resident Evil 7 (the latest instalment of a series created by original Evil Within lead Shinji Mikami), which worked hard to give its major enemies definable personalities, motivations beyond slaughtering you and, ultimately, tragic backstories.

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Clearly, it’s only fair to give EW2 a chance to put weight behind its monsters, and not judge this side of it on the opening hour alone. But there’s a big difference between feeling very clearly that I was in a place with actual but corrupted human beings behaving in appropriately unpredictable ways, as I did in RE7, and feeling that I was in a scripted playground full of pop-up things that go bump in the night, as was my initial response to EW2’s assorted nasties. Sacks of hitpoints or pillars of graphics I just had to run from until I passed a certain scripted threshold: a fear more of having to repeat myself if I failed than of their grotesquery.

Even an Evil Within 2 sequence that made Adam deeply uncomfortable, in which a monsterised woman force-feeds sickening viscera to a helpless captive, came across to me like more desperate capering for attention. It’s icky alright, but what does it matter? Who were these people? What were they to me? Well, one of them has to be shot three times and then it’s on to the next house, and the next monster.

Maybe more thoughtful writing and especially acting could have put more meat on those bones – that this has thus far been Generic Videogame Man offering endless gruff, one-note variations on “what the hell was that?” and “where is my daughter?” certainly didn’t help. It’s pretty clear, despite only passing familiarity with EW1’s tale, that All Is Not What It Seems in terms of what the player-character perceives as reality, but he doesn’t sell it. I did not care about the raspy-voiced man or his missing daughter, whose only personality appeared to be Missing Daughter. Of course, one doesn’t exactly look to b-movies for nuance either, but equally I wouldn’t sit through a 12 hour (n.b. I’m guessing entirely at EW2’s length here) b-movie for precisely that reason.

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Then I stumbled off the beaten track, and found what could be, if handled with consistent verve, EW2’s redemptive masterstroke. If I’m reading it right from that hour, it’s not one 12 hour b-movie, but rather a confetti-scattering of capsule b-movies, to be discovered and experienced in an order of your choosing. I.e. “Today I’m going to go over there into that part of town or that house or that sinister basement hatch and have a mini, semi-self-contained Resident Evily experience for 45 minutes.” That I am absolutely down for.

For context: I played EW2 at an event attended by around a dozen other assorted media, and, once we’d all emerged from the opening monster-monster-monster sections, whenever I glanced over to someone else’s monitor, they were doing something very different to me, in a very different place to me. They wandered in different directions and explored different houses: as simple as that, and yet an oddly rare proposition in the survival horror pantheon, which tends to push one in specific directions.

Specific directions are available if one wants to stick close to the EW2 core plot, but as well as missing out on its clutch of side missions and hidden dungeons, you’ll miss out on a whole bunch of weaponry and other upgrades. In that, it’s a bit like a Far Cry – combing the environment for goodies before you tool up and tackle the big bads. I didn’t get the sense that EW2’s town was as large as a Far Cry, but a) I could be wrong and b) I’m not sure it needs to be, as each location is, hopefully, a little timesink of its own.

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This is a game about poking your nose into the next house you stumble past and finding out what’s in there. Of course, usually it’s a few monsters – most of which are zombies by any other name – and a few boxes of ammo or skill upgrade thingers to find, but even then there is the satisfaction of clearing out/surviving a house, a sense of completionism that finishing a level and sitting through the next cutscene can’t provide.

Sometimes though, as it was for me, a house is not just a house – it’s effectively a portal to another world. I used a PC in one and found myself transported to The Armoury, a clearly faraway (or really real?) place of some military function, a maze of oppressive corridors and industrial doors with weird waveform-hacking security and, yes, not-zombies lurching at me from darkened corners.

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On its own, not necessarily novel, but again there was that sense of diving off somewhere I hadn’t expected to find, tussling with the evils within it and then leaving it with a sense of completion. I survived The Armoury! I could have run right on past that house to the next and I’d never have seen it, never have known what The Armoury was. The demo ended a little later with – what else? – a giant pop-up monster accosting me unexpectedly as I crept through the streets, and I was left frustrated.

Not from any urge to know how Gruff McGruff-Face survived that encounter, if he ever found Missing Daughter again or if this was all a twisted fantasy of some kind, but simply because I wanted to know what I’d find in the next house if I sprinted off to the East or West or North or South. Because I wanted to play through another little b-movie of my own.

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I will accept the game as whole’s apparent absence of wit and over-reliance on Oh No Yet Another Horrible Thing if it really is the case that I can burn through my own private hell for kicks over a lunchtime. I’m not interested in repeatedly screaming at things made of bones and sundered flesh and teeth and spikes all put together in the wrong order, but I am interested in trotting off to a random compass point and surviving whatever horrors lurk behind the next door I choose to open.

The Evil Within 2 is due for release on Friday, October 13.

11 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    I remember a year or so ago i was starting to look for a new job in the games industry and i was seeing what was out there.

    One high profile job i was qualified for was on the design team of a horror game. I thought about it and thought how depressing it would be to be stuck with these types of images for 8 hours every day trying to work out if this scene is gory enough, or if there is enough blood or if that scream was blood curdling enough. And then having to playtest it, over and over again for months on end.

    At least if you just buy the game, you only have to face 15 hours or so.

    I wonder if they have a good psychiatric department.

    • Ghostwise says:

      Actually, most of the not-zombies you see in horror video games are former developers of horror video games. They mostly use these for motion capture stuff, like shambling and the like.

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    • Talsted says:

      I have a friend who works in movie special effects, and for him it’s the exact opposite. When you’re making the imagery, it’s not scary or disturbing at all. There’s absolutely no sense of “gore” when you’re literally mixing the goop to create fake viscera. It’s one thing to know a horror experience is fake (I mean, we all KNOW it’s fake, the whole point is that a well-crafted experience lets us play with suspension of disbelief), but when you’re elbows-deep in the guts (sorry) of the process, you don’t even get that make-believe tingle.

      • hungrycookpot says:

        I can totally see that. There’s nothing that makes a monster as un-scary as seeing it floating in a well lit, blank backgrounded 3D modeling space. It’s really the context that makes them scary.

  2. hostilecrab says:

    I’ve never really understood this idea that ‘the game never explored why Protagonist Man cares about his missing/dead/estranged/conjoined loved one, so I don’t care about them or their relationship at all’. Does a story really need to dedicate an hour or more to showing what a relationship is like for the player to develop a sense of what it might mean? Similarly the idea that a character’s suffering is meaningless unless they have a specific connection to the player character.

    It’s not specific to this article or even the horror genre itself. There just always seems to be this sense like the only way you could possibly be expected to understand that this man loves his daughter or his spouse or his brother is if you’re made to somehow participate in the relationship. I’ll admit that doing so gives the whole thing far more impact, but there’s something to be said for basic empathy.

    • maninahat says:

      It’s less about understanding than it is about having an actual rapport with the characters in the situation. In the movie Jaws, Police Chief Brody also cares about his kids and doesn’t want The Very Bad Thing killing them. But the movie went to the trouble of establishing a cute family bond between him and his kids, and it informs us of his background, his fears, his reasons for living where he does etc. By the time The Very Bad Thing comes along to threaten his kids, we already know quite a lot about Brody, and we’ve seen enough of his humanity that we can relate to him and share his anxieties. Also, though he has similarities to other fictional characters, there is enough about him to make him a unique and fleshed out person. That way, when Bad Thing does happen, it gets a much more stronger reaction from us: link to youtube.com (also the clip shows you a little thing about tension, which is a thing non-existent from what I saw of that game).

      Meanwhile, gruff mcstubble man in the above game could be trying to rescue his daughter, or the president, or the football, or anything else for all I care, and it makes no jot of difference to me. Oh he’s lost his kid? I don’t even know what his fictional videogame kid even looks like, let alone feel any emotional connection to him and his situation. The daughter just exists to excuse for why he is doing what he is doing, it doesn’t help us relate or care.

  3. Unsheep says:

    With your reasoning, Layers of Fear, Resident Evil 7 and Outlast would also be classified as ‘wannabe B-movies’. They too are filled to the brim with B-movie clichés.

    What you are describing about the game sounds exactly like a classic Resident Evil or Silent Hill game, and indeed most horror games from that era.

    The worst this game, and its predecessor, can be accused of is being too similar to these older horror games.

    • maninahat says:

      Yes, the worst that can be said is that it is cliched and hackneyed. Isn’t that a valid criticism anymore?

  4. jwrath says:

    Everything you say in this review is 100% true. When i played the first game through i couldn’t help thinking – i don’t really care about this guy with the obligatory gravelly voice, these monsters are all derivative. They are well done, nicely grotesque, but not particularly scary. There are jump scares that are fairly well done, and the twisted world that obviously isn’t what it seems because of the frequent allusions to mental hospitals, psychosis, the abrupt changes of scenery with no transition that all seem very hallucinatory.

    I’ve heard from a few other people that they had a similar experience – it was a fun if not somewhat mediocre game. Combat is good, not great. Controls on pc are a bit clunky, sometimes the aiming is awkward, and you have to use the goddamn console to make it full screen.

    The game clicked for me the second play through (over 2 years after my first). I heard that the second game was coming out, so about a month ago i had some free time figured i’d give it a quick run through to see if it was as “pretty good, but forgettable” as i remembered.

    What i understood the second time through is that its almost supposed to be a parody, or homage to older resident evil/silent hill type survival horror games, back when we weren’t so jaded and that person suddenly becoming a violently twisted mutilated shambling monster still could elicit real fear. It is self consciously over the top ridiculous full of every single B horror movie experience, Huge guys in aprons with chainsaws chopping up corpses for no discernable reason besides the fun of it, hordes of zombielike shamblers who swarm you, zombies with knives, zombies with dynamite, zombies with guns. The safehead monster was clearly a tribute to pyramid head, and even gets his own backstory in one of the DLC – which thanks to a steam glitch i somehow had in my library for free despite never buying a season pass or any dlc (thanks steam?). There are literal pools of blood (ew, even if he survives all the horror nonsense theres no way Sebastian doesn’t have hepatitis after the 4th level)

    Resident evil 7 comparisons kind of aren’t fair. RE 7 was more of a revitalization of the ART of the survival horror. It is genuinely terrifying. There were several times playing RE7 in the wee hours of the morning that i had to stop playing, not because i was tired or had something else to do but because the molded jump scares and the creepy as hell family were just too disconcerting for the mental state i was in. Evil within was a lot more like the texas chainsaw massacre while resident evil was like Alien, one is genuinely terrifying extremely well crafted suspensful horror the other is a sloppy bloody gorefest full of viscera and flying limbs and horror cliches. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I do think it has enough actual scary moments and sloppy over the top gore fest and it is genuinely disorienting at points with the whole induced psychosis am i crazy? The answer is obviously yes. Healthy minds don’t magically get sucked into mirrors or let creepy soulless asylum nurses talk them into letting a machine that looks like an electric chair inject strange green goop into their brains after scraping it from rotting corpses. Like yes, obviously you’re crazy but it doesn’t matter because it really isn’t going for subtlety.

    TL;DR i enjoyed evil within much more the second time through when i wasn’t expecting it to genuinely scare me in a visceral way but rather just played through a joyful messy gory blood and severed limb filled B movie gorefest. I understand where the article is coming from, if you’re expecting well crafted suspense and genuine terror this isn’t the game its too self consciously over the top goofy for that, although it does have some scary moments. Is it perfect? hell no. But its still fun and im looking forward to the next one, especially with the more open environment.