In recent years, I've come to appreciate the scary video game, which provides an immersive style of storytelling that's hard to experience anywhere else.
Well-designed horror games put you right behind the eyes of the protagonist, with spooky and lethal dilemmas all around. That flitting shadow in the corner of the room? You can turn, and look, and investigate. That ominous creaking up the stairs? You can check that out, too. Should you grab that kitchen knife? (Yes. Always grab that kitchen knife.)
The Evil Within 2, released just in time for Halloween, is a good example of how the video game format can deliver a horror story experience unmatched in other media. Sequel to the critically acclaimed 2014 original, the game doesn't just tell a scary story; it puts you right in the middle of it.
Players assume the role of former police detective Sebastian Castellanos, whose traumatic experiences in the first game have driven him to slow suicide, death-by-alcohol style. Knowledge of the previous game isn't required, but it helps explain why Castellanos agrees to plug his brain into an experimental machine that generates parallel nightmare realities. (Watch a trailer for the game here, complete with an unexpected, ultra-creepy rendition of an old Duran Duran song. Note that the trailer includes a content warning.)
The premise of The Evil Within is familiar — virtual worlds come cheap in the digital age — and the tough-guy dialogue is standard-issue B-movie nonsense. But that's all easily forgiven once you experience the twisted imagination of series creator Shinji Mikami, author of the venerable Resident Evil games that arguably established the entire genre of survival horror.
The game's virtual world represents a kind of collective unconscious that puts poor detective Castellanos into the perpetually colliding nightmares of several people and entities, including a serial killer with an old-school photography fetish. Director Mikami has created an ultimate playground for himself and his team of designers, a world where physics are optional and reality itself is subject to interpretation.
The game's main story mode provides about 15 to 20 hours of sustained fright as Mikami's team empties its digital sketchbooks into the story's twisted virtual world. Creature design is outstanding – The Evil Within series has the best monsters this side of a Guillermo del Toro movie. The game also provides a series of deeply unnerving environments that you're free to explore on your own. The new open-world areas are a departure from the first game's more linear storytelling.
Open, wander, peer
As a storytelling medium, books and films are usually better than video games when it comes to subtle themes and deep characterization. (Case in point, this year's best horror movie, Get Out, blends horror with piercing social satire.) But video games do excel at visual and environmental design. With The Evil Within 2, the game makers and art designers conjure unique variations on those archetypal images and scenarios that tend to frighten us as a species. Blood. Darkness. Creepy little dolls.
That's where the technology comes in handy. Thanks to powerful 3-D image processing systems, today's top-shelf console and PC games generate extremely realistic objects and environments. Those rapidly accelerating technical specs deliver what amounts to an expanded cinematic experience, where the "screen" is all around you at all times. If you choose to, you can open that door, or wander down that alley, or peer into that mirror.
Some details on the new game for veteran or returning players. The survival horror elements remain – limited resources, puzzle solving – but the game adds some RPG (role-playing game) aspects including skill progression and expanded crafting options. The combat system is adequate and most encounters provide options for stealthy solutions rather than frontal assault. Note: You can always run away. In fact, you should usually run away.
For fans of the horror genre who have never dabbled in games. The Evil Within 2 is a nice entry-point option (and by nice I mean utterly terrifying). It's not the best horror story ever told via video game, but it's state-of-the-art for the genre and features some concepts and images you've likely never seen before.
And don't worry about gamer proficiency. Adjustable difficulty levels basically let you turn the game into an interactive storytelling experience. Choose carefully, and you'll find that The Evil Within 2 achieves the ultimate goal of any horror story: scaring the bejeezus out of you.
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