They’re all laughing at me, but I’m standing in the corner. I can’t, it’s a hallway. Flies shouldn’t be able to laugh, but they’re showing their yellow teeth and breathing, exasperated at human filth. I’m human. Am I? Can I? The laughter stops and fire lights my eyes like dynamite candles, and I can see a giant mirror. It makes the cow pat closer than it appears. The cow is happy like bulls on parade and the flies conspire to build an arena for me, with the mirror as its door. I can smell the pat, or is that me? Make friends with the rats, they’re natural enemies of the state, and the state flies in yellow dust trails but don’t breathe. Ever. You’ll wake up if you do, and outside of here, it’s a nightmare. Stay within. It’s safer here
Context is a funny thing sometimes, because without it there’s no foundation for understanding, or grounds for recourse. How do you react to what you don’t understand? Is it a threat? Is fight or flight your only option? Why is anything?
Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within is an absolute mindfuck, in the most sincere and loving way that term can be taken. It’s a bending and twisting posterchild for anxiety. It forces your insides to curl up and clinch in terror, even when nothing is around. And it achieves this because it tells you sweet FA about why, or what, anything is.
At this point then, it’s familiarity that helps you get through the motions. We’ve been here before, after all. Well, maybe not here
, but similar places with similar tasks -- survive, thrive, breathe. But not since Eternal Darkness’ Insanity System
has a game been so completely capable of destroying your confidence; breaking down your basic understandings of the rules of engagement and call to action; on gamification of survival. The Evil Within, without a doubt, is the perfect horror game, ergo, a perfect horror experience, if such a thing exists.
It has action, don’t get me wrong. And it plays by the rules, giving you more power and the tools to choose what that power is, but it’s largely built on falsehoods -- a progression red herring, if you will, because this game’s director made those rules, and in The Evil Within he loves breaking them. Even your safe-house -- your micro-management station -- is an open metaphor for intangibles, for cathartic reflection on a nowhere plane. You don’t look well, Sebastian, you should take better care of yourself.
What belies progression is that nothing is what it seems, and if it seems, it will soon unseam
. The whole game is riddles wrapped in crimson, jiggly flesh ripe for pink misty explosion. In the first 10-minutes of Mikami’s magnum opus Detective Sebastian Castellanos will find himself as a hunk of meat waiting to be cleaved. He’ll slide into a vat of thick, coagulated blood soup with bobbing chunks of flesh. The walls will bleed and things that should be dead, aren’t. Booby-traps lace your escape routes and you’ll slip and slide on the rotting corpses of those who came before. Light only quickens your heart but fire, fire is your friend. Burn away the enemy; burn away the memories.
That recourse I mentioned before, it’s tied heavily to the action and stealth system, which is perhaps The Evil Within’s standout conflict proponent over other, lesser entries in this space. Want a crossbow, here you go. We’ll call it Agony, because fuck you. But while we’re at it, here are some sweet bolts for it, because this is a game. It’s a game about survival. Only it’s not, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner this thing can get off the ground. This is a torture simulator and we’re not telling you why, because fuck you. But while we’re at it, make yourself stronger with this green stuff. Green means go, but it also means gross so deal with it. Don’t inject it though, we want you to voluntarily sit in that chair, strap yourself in and prepare for shock treatment. There, isn’t that better?
This maze you’ve been dropped in, it’s a one-way street. Push forward or die. But dying is also good, at least when the screen is red and the terror has won, your heart can stop beating at its elevated pace, you can breathe a sigh of deathly relief and wrap your head around how best to approach the horror next time. And you will die aplenty here. There are two challenges -- Casual or Survival, but there’s also space for another one because when you beat the game, you really haven’t beaten it, have you? That’s crazy talk, Mikami’s in control here, not you, not Sebastian, not anyone.
Nothing repeats in this new world, either. No two confrontations are ever the same, and environments are either spectacularly designed sandboxes, or claustrophobic corridors and walkways. Enemies are as varied as the devices protruding from their heads and bodies. They don’t die with headshots or shots to the heart, either. There’s no limb-tearing here, you just need to burn baby, burn. It’s the only way to be sure, but while we’re at it, you can only burn them with matches, but matches are in short supply because fuck you. Oh, you found a torch to do it with? Well you can only use it once because… well, you get the drift.
This tone isn’t to be construed as contempt though, I’m a kitten to this monstrously-mutated dog. I’m its fluffy little play thing even though I know its four jaws could snap at me and swallow me whole any moment. And you will face that dog, too. The grunt baddies are just green gel and ammo fodder. They’re stealth targets that can be stabbed in the back of the head as part of some sickly satisfying new survival-horror toolset. No, it’s Mikami’s new creations you need to fear because he’s put them through hell and brought them back, just for you, and while you won’t face them in repeated supply, or even that often, you’ll not forget your encounters with them anytime soon. They’ve been haunting my sleep this past week. Some of them just won’t die.
15 chapters of pure horror bliss is what awaits you here. The story that unfolds isn’t ground-breaking, if I’m being honest, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a minor contextual layer to a visual paradise gone awry. Explaining The Evil Within would be like explaining an actual nightmare, with purpose, or trying to derive meaning behind every facet of a Salvador Dali -- you can’t, and if you tried you’d be missing the point. The game is an experience, not an arc. It evokes myriad emotions no cut-scene ever really could and it breaks all the rules of gameplay -- it takes automation out of the equation, you’re not repeating a series of actions here (only you are), you’re fighting off fear and dread, overcoming an evocative tension barrier created within you because
of the game, the tension isn’t a system. It’s not code. It’s hardwired within the human psyche and it’s in this place the game wins, it’s here that Mikami has mastered something no other designer ever has, because the whole while, you’re still in control. The controller is in your hand and Sebastian is your puppet, only you’re not really in control, because fuck you.
This is the absolute peak of this stuff that we do. It has no bullet-points a marketing team can get high off because it does what it wants, because it’s perhaps what Mikami has always wanted. But if it had come sooner, if he’d been let off his leash before now, it wouldn’t be this. The Evil Within is masterful and gruelling. It’s a drug that has such a hold, I can’t stop. I couldn’t stop, despite the anxiety, despite the heavy feeling in my chest, no matter how sweaty and clammy my hands became. I couldn’t stop. For all his monstrous creations within, for all the messed up torture playgrounds and for all the mindfuckery, I couldn’t stop.
Where BioShock Infinite aggressively tugged on heartstrings, The Evil Within tears them from your chest and crucifies you. It strangles you with your own tendrils and feeds you your own beating heart, mouth locked shut and tied with entrails, forcing you to chew and swallow. But when the last sliver slides down the back of your throat, you’ll look up and smile a sadistic smile before asking “more, please”.
(Please Note: I played the game on Survival difficulty with no Tutorial and removed my weapon reticule for the complete challenge