Shinji Mikami is a name many horror game fans associate with quality. Consistently credited as the creator of the Survival Horror genre, Mikami is seen by many as an untouchable developer that can do no wrong. Those people are not wrong since he helped introduce many of the rules and tropes to which most horror games to this day abide by: ammo preservation and inventory management, nigh unstoppable enemies, limited opportunities to save progress, etc. in the very first Resident Evil game back in 1996.
But in 2014, Shinji Mikami made a bold proclamation with The Evil Within. Marketed as the return of “The Master of Survival Horror” it was seen as an absolute godsend for a genre that was absolutely starving for something original. And at the time it was received reasonably well by critics and sold well enough to warrant a sequel coming out this month.
Yet, after going back to this game I can’t help but find the whole thing to be an absolutely derivative hodgepodge that fumbles what little good ideas it has. Did something happen during production? Did the industry climate change or was it simply a game that came out at the right time with the best of intentions but limited success?
The first thing to understand is that Shinji Mikami wasn’t a horror purist with just Resident Evil to his name. He became synonymous with the series to be sure, serving as producer on the sequels to Resident Evil and even returned as the director for 2005’s Resident Evil 4, the installment that became a full action-horror camp classic. But eventually he did leave Capcom and wound up directing more action-focused affairs like the high-octane sci-fi shooter Vanquish and the cult brawler God Hand. He was even credited as gameplay director behind auteur Suda51’s Action-Horror-Comedy Shooter Shadows of the Damned released in 2011.
As for the rest of the industry during the late 2000s/early 2010s, the horror genre as major crowd pleaser was seen by many major companies as a dying breed. Without Mikami behind the wheel, publisher Capcom continued to push Resident Evil into a more pulp-action direction, leading to the incomprehensible mess that was Resident Evil 6. The beloved Silent Hill series had finally choked its last by publisher Konami utterly botching an HD Collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3 and the critical indifference of its last major stab at reviving the psychological supernatural series with Silent Hill: Downpour in 2012.
Even the most successful new major horror IP at the time, Dead Space, was distancing itself from its horror roots by chasing popular trends. The third and final installment in 2013 went from being a claustrophobic sci-fi horror game about a sole engineer being terrorized by aliens on a space station to an action-heavy co-op experience with automatic weapons, plentiful ammo, and scenery chewing supervillains.
It got to the point where the creative head of the modern day Bro Shooter, Cliff Blezinski, wrote on his blog that it was ludicrous to charge a full sixty-dollars for a pure horror game and actually sympathized with Visceral Games on compromising the series’ tone and focus to ensure they’d make their budget back.
Here enters the grand thematic twist in this history lesson. In 2012, Shinji Mikami revealed that he was done working on over-the-top action games about mech suits and punching people and wanted to return to Survival Horror with a brand new IP. Speaking to Famitsu in a 2012 interview, Mikami revealed his new experience Psycho Break (later changed to The Evil Within in the west). He then continued on that it would be a murder mystery tale about a detective that gets in way over his head chasing a serial killer, focusing more on slow meticulous puzzle solving and trap disarming than mindless gunplay. He indirectly referenced this attitude as a reaction to the state of the genre at the time:
“The gameplay you see in the survival-horror genre has changed with the times, and I think right now it leads more towards action than it did before. So we’re trying to avoid that. To be honest, it’s hard to make survival horror work as a game. Should you emphasize the entertainment aspect and focus on the fun of killing enemies? Or should you try to aim for more of a creeping sort of terror? It’s hard to strike a balance, but with this game, we’re trying to place our weight primarily on the horror aspects.”
Yes, the guy who defined Survival Horror for an entire console generation comes back almost twenty years later and decides to show the entire industry how it is done. You could not package hype of that magnitude. Something the following trailers tried to package by showing real people freaked out by how scary the game was and keeping details as locked down as possible.
Launch and Reception
So after the industry said that big-budget horror experiences were not viable, we have our returning horror game veteran returning with his brand new experience out to prove everyone wrong. A horror underdog story with some knock-out talent behind the wheel.
And when The Evil Within did release in October of 2014 it performed…adequately. It sold about 1.3 copies worldwide by the end of that fiscal year and sits at a respectable 75 percent aggregate on Metacritic. For a new horror game backed by a major publisher that is warmer reception than most, but not exactly the groundbreaking game changer it was hyped as.
So what exactly happened to all of that promise? Well, a combination of things changed in a way Mikami couldn’t have predicted, but Mikami’s entire design philosophy can also be blamed.
As mentioned before, The Evil Within starts off reasonable. You play as detective Sebastian Castellanos investigating the site of a mass murder inside a hospital. While investigating, Sebastian and his partners are separated and dragged into a nightmarish world of horrific imagery and inhuman abominations. And from there the entire game is a prolonged continuation of horrible monster encounters and set pieces tenuously held together by the idea that during their time in the hospital, Sebastian and his friends became transported into a demented mindscape ruled by the psyche of a mad man.
That’s the first major problem; I was only able to piece together that summary of the game’s entire plot after getting to the end of the entire experience. A horror game usually focuses on a straightforward theme or a grounded threat, juxtaposing the familiar with the alien. In the original Resident Evil, it was discovering the origin of a zombie outbreak in a mansion for example. But The Evil Within jumps almost immediately into horrific phantasmagoria and off-kilter vignettes, jumping from haunted forests with possessed people to medieval castles to elaborate slaughter houses to deranged mansions to everything in between.
In theory, this picturesque fever dream approach to level design and story structure could work, but there is some pretty inept storytelling on display. Sebastian is after a serial killer, but the transition to the mindscape, referred to by the game as STEM, happens so abruptly and so early on it raises multiple questions and plotholes. In fact, it isn’t even revealed that the entire game is happening inside of STEM until near the end of the game’s ten hour run time. Why does the aforementioned mad scientist just use his control over the world around him to just kill the protagonists? Why is Sebastian even chasing after the mad scientist to begin with? This and many other subplots and ideas are picked up and discarded so quickly that it is headache inducing and half of the reasons why The Evil Within seems to be a mystery story that barely holds together.
But Mikami himself has gone on record to say that story should not get in the way of gameplay, and it is here that The Evil Within becomes a bit more stable. While the connecting tissue pushing the player from level to level is thin to non-existent, there was some very competent thought and effort put into making Castellanos a capable protagonist. In many ways, the gameplay reads like a modern survival-horror experience on paper. You have firearms, but your aim is unreliable and ammo is scarce. There is a stealth system where you can sneak past your enemies. Sprinting can only happen in small bursts. And most of the levels are full of dangerous traps and ambushes that facilitate a slow, deliberate pace, which helps build an oppressive atmosphere.
But The Evil Within doesn’t do well with tonal transitions. One level may be nothing but a stealth section where being spotted means instant death, another section can have the lay out of a stealth section but you can just kill your stalker with some hot lead. There are even Hollywood chase sequences where Sebastian randomly has infinite stamina. The immediate gameplay says one thing while the levels and larger moments try to say something else.
But what particularly makes the game feel forgettable despite it having a very loose and open license to do whatever it wants is how derivative it felt. In addition to lifting ideas and gameplay concepts from Silent Hill and Clocktower, The Evil Within can feel like a lesser version of sequences from Resident Evil. A game can get by on atmosphere and presentation alone, even if the storytelling doesn’t make complete sense, but a game without a real sense of identity won’t stick in the mind of a fanbase.
Cliffy B’s comment about sixty dollar horror games rang true. A horror game revolution of sorts did come to pass, but it didn’t come from The Evil Within’s heavily marketed neck of the woods. Franchises like Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s series and the prevalent rise of the streaming community lead to smaller, more focused experiences finding their audiences. The continued acceptance of digital distribution by the new console generation lead to a renaissance of sorts for a genre long believed dead by major publishers.
However, it can be argued that if it wasn’t for The Evil Within showing up with something to say in October of 2014, the public would have only equated the entire survival horror genre to the first few Resident Evil games, which wouldn’t return to their diseased roots until this year with great aplomb.
There is a community that has embraced Mikami’s creatively uneven project, which has gone on to show how malleable and broad the genre has become. While some have criticized the game’s inept storytelling and how it is awkwardly bolted on to a collection of interesting gameplay ideas and scenarios with limited follow-through, a minority of players has embraced the mess as something more than the sum of its parts. Holding the game up as an accomplishment of a horror game mostly getting by on tone and mood more than character drama and immediate visceral fright. Using the familiar mechanics and recycled encounters as a surreal form of deja vu where the details aren’t exactly right, the interactive equivalent of being in a vivid nightmare you barely remember afterwards.
As it sits now, The Evil Within stands as a horror curiosity to me that shares a lot in common with Stephen King’s IT. Both try to do a lot, bet a lot on mood, have some great moments and big ideas rattling inside, and go on long enough to become exhausting.
What This Means Going Forward
This year’s E3 presentation from Bethesda was pretty tame all told, but one of its surprising reveals was a trailer and launch date for The Evil Within 2. And almost immediately there’s a tangible sense of cohesion and proper identity this time around.
As the extended trailer presentation shows, we are returning to the world of STEM with Sebastian Castellanos, but this time it’s on a personal journey to save his daughter who is somehow trapped in the other world. All of which is being overseen by two new antagonists, a serial killer with a thing for photographs and a tyrannical religious figure.
But while the trailer itself is well scored and plays out like a Nine Inch Nails music video, the first thing I noticed was a lot of the artificial obfuscation about what was really going on was totally removed. Sebastian is a man on a mission, and he is utterly outgunned While his motivation is cliché, it is more immediate and sympathetic. The sequel seems to lean in on STEM being a fantasy world for the deranged with more creative and demented ideas.
Some gameplay footage was also shown as part of the marketing, and it seems to err more on the side of action, but cranks up the suspense and intensity with ever changing worlds and alien logic. There’s a boss fight against a sentient camera monster that literally freezes in time whatever it photographs, for example.
If anything, The Evil Within shows what can happen when even the most accomplished creative mind gets too enamored with his own work. While the sequel does show promise with a more streamlined and transparent presentation, we’ll have to wait until October 13 to see if the master of horror remembered the fundamentals.