Monday, October 27, 2014

Surviving The Evil Within, Chapter 1: Rebirth or plain old neo survival horror?

at 6:00 PM
Look at me, playing a current events game. Aren't I proud. With nearly (exactly) six games knocked off my queue in the past month, I had the "allowance" to grab Shinji Mikami's latest just in time for the pumpkining season. Mikami is perhaps the single most relentlessly visionary and effective director in the past 200 years, so I'm always excited to put in one of his games and see what it has to say. The Evil Within was much hyped in regards to a return to survival horror, but where exactly will it fit in the survhor portmandu?

Survival horror has traditionally been a merging point between adventure and action, where key goals are built around exploration and puzzles but accomplishing those goals requires the utilization of limited means to overcome active opposition. The player is driven not by their need to kill enemies, but by their need to open doors, thus they must press on regardless of their ability to fight. Preparation is meant to trump technical skill.
They say street ball leads to street violence
In the most iconic games, namely the Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill series, that concept manifests as mazes with ammo limits. There are always going to be zombies between you and that hexagonal key, and every bullet spent is one less available for the rest of the game. Exploration and survival feed into each other: evading enemies and taking shortcuts means ammo saved, finding stashes means greater reserves, and better weapons make for high risk/reward. You can choose your fights, but the imprecise action means that you can rarely rely on technical skill to get you out alive - supplies are a necessary fallback, and supplies can only be replenished through further exploration.

In the last decade or so, the progeny of Resident Evil 4 ran with that model until demanding action standards successfully honed out all the adventure/action exploration/combat interplay that defined 'survival'. Tighter controls, mandatory combat, performance-regulated ammo, and structural linearity dragged mainline horror into the greater action portmandu, largely in the name of "improving" visceral feedback and pacing. While fans of the classics might blame the low-brow demands of the conquering casual gamer, it could also be said that this was simply the natural progression of the style - by the fourth (really the eleventh) Resident Evil game, should it be any surprise that the architecture needed a blast of minty freshness? Whomever you want to blame, Resident Evil 5/6, the Dead Space games, and The Last of Us have more in common with straight-up shooters like Lost Planet and Gears of War than with their own origins.

But there was always a second kind of survival game aside the classic scrimp-and-shoots. Going back to Clock Tower (and before) are combatless games wherein the player must rely solely upon running and hiding to survive. Longevity in games like Fatal Frame falls more to knowing the environment than managing supplies; the style trades player-driven variety for elegant simplicity, creating a more "on rails" - but also more spontaneous - experience. While Resident Evil is all growing dread at increasingly dire circumstances, Clock Tower is a histrionic up-and-down roller coaster. Though sometimes described as "adventure horror", these games generally do rely on action techniques like reflexes and stealth, so ultimately they meet the action/adventure quota that defines a survival challenge. It's just a different approach where preparation comes down to knowing escape routes rather than wagering on excursions.

"Riding scissors" is actually the Japanese equivalent of "riding shotgun", thus imbuing this scene from Clock Tower with a humorous pun-infused tone
While the Resident Evil approach has been blending into action games at large, simultaneously there's been a serious reemergence of the run-and-hide haunted house. Just recently we were graced with the AAA release of Alien: Isolation and shortly before that came the acclaimed Outlast. Thanks to indie hits like Radiohead's Amnesiac and The Slendering, type 2 horror is probably at a peak in popularity, bigger and more accessible now than it's ever been. If anything, the on-rails style has taken over and formed a basis for neo-survival horror, while it's the ammo management games that have lost their significance and assimilated.

So that makes it a bit interesting when The Evil Within entrenches itself in hype about a revival of survival horror. Mikami's been totally off the horror wagon for years, his post-Resident Evil resume being more a who's who of deep technical action, from P.N. 03 to God Hand to Vanquish. And of course the game that spearheaded the trajectory into pure action was his own Resident Evil 4. Even his last horror game, the Suda 51 co-created shoot-em-up Shadows of the Damned, seemed to confirm that the father of survival horror had acknowledged its dissolution. But survival gameplay has survived - thanks to those Clock Tower-type games like Alien: Isolation - so one could take the hype to mean Shinji and co. had something else in mind. Most likely that extinct breed of ammo maze games that was absorbed by third-person shooters.

That makes it all the weirder that The Evil Within starts with a stealth/evasion sequence that could've come straight out of Amnesia or Metal Gear Solid. The player is being stalked by a chainsaw guy through a mental hospital and has to sneak around behind boxes and in lockers to get through the stage unharmed. It feels downright conservative in its reliance on principles that are all very popular right now. Hopefully this is just a starting point for more evolved gameplay, but over the first hour Evil Within feels kinda like an acknowledgement that Clock Tower was right and Resident Evil was wrong. I just got a gun in chapter 2, so fingers crossed that things open up and some classically resonant (or original) gameplay emerges.

Also, it probably isn't coming through, but the actual reason I care is nothing to do with the hype and everything to do with the fact that I don't particularly like the run-and-hide type of game. It is boring and lacks tension. It is a lot less scary to replay a segment for the sixth time because I keep getting caught than it is to waste all my ammo on a mistake and have to go into the unknown with only 3 bullets. As illustrated by my session last night in which I died like 10 times trying to get past that guy and tension turned into tedium. 

While I'm at it, a chainsaw guy in a mental hospital? Come on. I know everything under the sun has been done, but that is as cliche as cliche gets and is really hard to get excited about. RE4 was a horror pastiche and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: They Took My Baby Away from Me reference fit in both the context and the gameplay, not to mention it was fairly original for its time in gamedom. Seeing it in Evil Within just makes me think Mikami is out of ideas, especially when the death animations are nearly identical to those in RE4. That saw revving sound used to be genuinely scary. Today I respond to it the same way as the sound of some asshole's loud car exhaust. Again, hopefully this is just setup stuff and the content will get more interesting as the game moves on.

Also, moving further along the tangent of things that have nothing to do with anything, why isn't there acceleration on the aiming controls??? Who does that? It feels extremely awkward after having played any video game ever made.

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