My favorite horror game is Silent Hill 2.
Combining an industrial nightmare aesthetic with the narrative force of a vengeful meat grinder, Silent Hill 2 perfectly meshed together the slow burn of high art and the blood and guts of B-Cinema. It was also clumsy to control, had obtuse puzzles, and the hit-and-miss voice acting was at once perfect for the game, and completely disengaging.
And it’s not just Silent Hill 2. Resident Evil 4 started the horror genre’s path to action and sacrificed terror for adrenaline; Amnesia: The Dark Descent suffers from the exact same problem of messy controls and obfuscating game design; Slender isn’t even a game by most standards. In short, the survival horror genre failed to evolve as gracefully as its best games. We can go back and play the first Resident Evil or Silent Hill because their game design was natural for their era, but unacceptable by today’s standards.
The Evil Within was supposed to be that evolution. We are no longer at a point where we can have classical horror games, so let’s have one that bridges the psychological terror of early horror games with the seamless controls of today’s action games. This isn’t to say make a horror-action game. This means creating a horror game that incorporates the greatest achievements of the modern era: stealth, crafting, freedom of choice; with the staples of the classic horror games, including limited ammo, limited movement, and limited options.
I know it’s contradictory to want freedom of choice and limited options, but if Resident Evil 4 could combine action and terror, then the option to run vs. the necessity to fight shouldn’t be too much of a demand. And if one man could do it, it had to be Shinji Mikami, who promised The Evil Within would be able to as much. And for the most part, The Evil Within succeeded.
The Evil Within leverages a predictable but deliciously camp story (detective with a troubled past and questionable sanity) with the visual confidence of Japanese Horror’s scariest offerings. Bleeding walls, empty hallways with flickering lights, quick cuts to scary images. It’s effective and even praiseworthy for doing so well with old tropes. The combat combines stealth, that feels as if the Hulk were trying to be Solid Snake, and combat that makes you feel powerful if you only had the ammo to unleash it. And my health bar was never full throughout my entire run of the game. It was challenging, engrossing, and even terrifying.
But it was never fun.
Each time the familiar cutscene began and I understood that I was to fight a boss or an enemy horde, I groaned out with frustration. Frustration because I knew I would die immediately. After all, with a quarter health,two bullets, and 10 undead nightmares, an ice cube would have a better chance in hell. Eventually I’d discover a hidden weapons cache, or an environmental aid I could blow up and take a bunch of baddies down in a single blow. After 3 or 4 attempts and 30 minutes looking at The Evil Within‘s awfully long loading screens, I’d work my way to the next chapter. Even now, I don’t know if I was playing the game wrong from the beginning or if the difficulty just mistakenly spiked up every now and then.
The problem with modern horror games is developers believe that the problem with old horror games was that you were too powerful. That’s why they give you breakable weapons, or sometimes no weapons. But then they also must have thought Pyramid Head was a big teddy bear because they also ramp up the strength of your enemies to godlike levels. Many of the dangers The Evil Within presents are one-hit kills that somehow make sense, but also seem completely unfair. Yes, a bomb would blow you up in one go, but when a puzzle that seemingly has no hints to figure it out basically asks, “Press one button to continue, press another to kill you instantly,” you’re kind of between a rock and a dumb place.
What The Evil Within showed, is that we can have fun games or scary games, but never both. All the mechanics that make today’s games fun to play make for great action games, and the elements that make for truly terrifying games never make for fun experiences by their very definition. But it’s 2014 and game’s have changed. Surely we could find the perfect formula, the alchemical reaction to create the truly modern horror game. Bring back the fun Resident Evil 4 seemingly did by accident in 2005. Sadly we found it with The Evil Within and the dream was a lie the whole time.
Yes, in the real world it would only take one hit to kill you. And yes, as a frail human detective with a gun, nightmare creatures might as well be gods from hell. As an officer untrained in stealth, you’re bound to make clumsy attempts at sneaking, and throwing a bottle at anything is almost pointless. This is the truest horror game in all those regards and the result is an uneven mess of a game that’s not fun to play. By giving the players exactly what they would come to expect if they were in the position of the protagonist, The Evil Within made a statement that “yeah, we’d probably die really quickly.”
So what? Amnesia proved that four years ago.