Survival Horror On The Rise? – Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within
I’ve actually managed to do another post within a timely manner! – Yay me!
Is anyone else really excited for the list of survival horror games that’s soon to come?
With the likes of Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within and Capcom’s two additions of Resident Evil Revelations 2 and the Resident Evil Remake HD remaster and finally; Guillermo Del Toro and Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills project it seems like Survival-horror fans are really in for a treat!
So I’ve been following all the above listed games for some time now but wanted to focus particularly on Mikami’s The Evil Within for this post.
Mikami’s Formula, Years later but still Intact:
I absolutely love how Mikami’s made The Evil Within very reminiscent to his Resident Evil 4 masterpiece. I always get excited watching the latest footage for this game, but… for reasons you may not think… I should mention, I’m not at all a fan of gore-horror. Personally, I feel that just throwing blood everywhere and strewing bits of body parts and stuff like that around the levels is effective at unsettling the player, but doesn’t really add much to the fear. I also feel it’s a little overdone in a lot of media; even outside of video games, Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films being great examples of this.
My personal preference is for Paranormal (Surprise, surprise right??) and psychological fear, where the player is left with the unexplained and the unknown for what is happening around them. The class example for this type of horror game is of course the world-renowned Silent Hill series. However, pulling back to my main point, Mikami hasn’t only relied on blood and gore to inject fear into his game, but as expected; he populates the game’s world with master-crafted enemies.
As Mikami realizes himself: “Moments of extreme gore are a crucial part of this game, but you can’t push it too far.”
Master-class Enemy Archetypes:
Take this guy for example. Seemingly acting like the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, this enemy seems hell-bent on pursuing ol’ Sebastian through the halls of Beacon Mental Hospital. Like the Pyramid Head, the character possesses an overly-large metallic object in place of his head, in this case; an antique iron safe. It was interesting to learn and find out that this wasn’t done to simply copy the Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, nor was it done for pure horrific intent, but there is an actual reason behind the safe. The safe keeps the memories of a certain doctor and when opened, large demonic tentacles attempt to swallow the player; a very metaphorical and relatively deep reasoning behind such a strange character design choice.
This generates great mystery and intrigue around the character and I feel that at least personally, I’d like to find out more about him. It grips me in the form of a simple intrigue to just find out what’s actually in that safe, or maybe what happens when the monster dies? Does the safe burst open and kill Sebastian? Does he ever even really die?
If we think back to Silent Hill 2, the Pyramid Head enemies in the game killed themselves after they had seen their task through. The act baffled all who witnessed the strange scene with the simple question of: “Why did the most dangerous enemy in the game just kill himself?” The answer was left open to the player’s own judgment. It’s a strange thought to comprehend, but the quirks and strangeness of survival-horror enemies like these often lead to great fondness from the players, purely through the element of intrigue about the character, and the simple want to find out more.
It’s what makes characters like the Pyramid Head from Silent Hill, the Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 and even Chris Walker from Outlast so memorable.
The Balance of Combat VS Survival-Horror:
Anyone who’s played a survival-horror game before would know that the more combat you have present in the video game, the more action-like it becomes. Action is pushed so much in some survival-horror scenarios, it birthed a new genre of horror called: Action-Horror. Typical examples of this would be the Dead Space franchise; in particular the third installment. However, for Dead Space, each time; a conscious effort is made to maintain the tense, survival-esque portions of the game, governing the pace of the experience.
“The biggest challenge was balancing how much player control we give to the players and still maintaining the tension the game needs as a Survival Horror game. For the amount of control we give to the player if we made it really old-school, we knew it wouldn’t work in today’s trends. But if we give too much control then there’s the risk the player would become too strong against his enemies and thus compromising the scary factor. It was achieving the right balance I struggled the most with this game.”
Mikami himself struggled with the level of combat to include in The Evil Within. I must admit, it’s a problem I myself; am currently faced with developing my own game. You may ask why is combat present in so many horror games if it takes away the survival aspect of the experience? Well, simply because you, as the player, need something to do and interact with. You can’t just simply be left to watch dramatic cutscenes, walk from point A to B, point your flashlight at things, solve puzzles and just waltz around levels.
Now hold the phone!
Some of you are already aiming your pistols at me saying: “What about Amnesia?? What about Anna? And all those other games which don’t even have a combat system?” Here’s the thing. I’m unsure how Mikami himself feels about the following statement but I feel that personally, combat has a place in survival horror. Whilst there are great examples of experiences that boycott the mechanic altogether, cast your mind back to the late 90s to titles such as the original Resident Evil and intitial installments of Silent Hill. Both these franchises consistently implemented combat sections within the game and are still today; renowned for the level of horror they both instill in players. They take their place as kings of the survival-horror titles right next to the likes of the non-combat titles like Amnesia.
So… what did I just say there?? – basically, there’s arguments for both, and that both non-combat and combat-featuring horror games have a place. In the case of Mikami however, you must bear in mind he is reaching out to a much wider audience than the folks at Frictional Games would have ever anticipated releasing to. Although Amnesia was a huge success, I doubt anyone at Frictional was anticipating such a large, positive reception. The aspect of non-combat in horror games was at the time; experimental, and considered too risky to attempt at AAA level as usually: “With horror, if you repeat the same scary tricks people get too used to it. So to satisfy customers as you create more and more sequels, we put in more action to try and satisfy a greater number of people.” Also bear in mind that Mikami’s formula always included combat. He has yet to make a horror experience that omits combat altogether, it’s his master formula he’s using for The Evil Within, and we’ve seen it work superbly before:
“The important thing in survival horror is providing players the right amount of stress, but also providing a sense of achievement, which is found by defeating creatures and overcoming stress and fear. So getting it all to have the right balance – there is no formula for that, I just have to feel it.”
So where does this leave me? In short, I totally agree with Mikami. I think; 8/10 players want more interaction than just walking the character around the level, solving puzzles and interacting with the environment without the threat of an enemy. Trust me, for my personal project, this alone; would be enough for me to deem my project a success, I would totally be happy with this outcome for myself on a personal level. However, I am indeed sharing this experience with the world and I know that the majority appreciate well thought-out combat systems. They engage the player immediately, offer physical fun and expels their tension almost instantly. So after simply asking myself, would implementing a combat system detract from the core theme, motifs, storyline and ambiance of the project? The answer was a simple no, in fact; the project naturally asks for one when considering all the details from afar.
In essence, knowing what the core themes of the game are, Mikami puts it quite nicely in his definition of Survival-Horror games:
“To me it’s about not just running away from scary things but being able to destroy them and having that tremendous rush from overcoming them.”
One of the key themes of my personal game project is the idea of overcoming your greatest difficulties. Namely fear and guilt. Even on a very small level, overcoming the enemies and dealing with the Doppelganger character present in the game are all metaphorically supportive of this idea. I feel the beauty lies in the subtleties of the narrative, when you realize all the links and chains join together, piece the last part of the jigsaw to the canvas, it’s when you get that Aha! moment and then realize that the game’s lifeblood is much larger than it appeared to be.
A Once-through Masterpiece:
Another crucial element that survival-horror games constantly struggle against, is the re-playability factor. Whilst many games have tried to earnestly boost and add to the replay value of their horror games: new costumes, new modes, enemies, weapons and even side-stories. Horror games are only really good once. Well, at least scripted horror games are… In a game like Resident Evil, many if not all events in the game are totally scripted. Chris will encounter the zombie dog in Hall A, after precisely 4 steps into the hallway etc. On your second playthrough, the exact same experience will occur again, and again until you stop replaying the scene. Some games have tried to become more sandbox-like, leaving an element of surprise for each playthrough as scripted events are not actually scripted, but are instead; governed by certain met variables and criteria, usually involving enemy AI. A great example of this is Kojima and Del Toro’s P.T. demo. It’s so sand-box that players are unclear what to do, forums and FAQs on the internet struggle to determine just what exactly happens when, where and why.
This might sound appealing to most of you out there. However, as many have found, it’s very easy to break the enemy AI in P.T, there are actions the player can do that inherently sever the AI’s navigational pathing, prevent or dismiss key interactions with the entity or even just downright avoid the criteria to trigger events.
So what’s the way around this? – That’s a fabulous question!
– Answer: there isn’t any.
It would seem that as the game becomes more progressively scripted, it becomes harder or much tougher to avoid triggers, to break AI algorithms and to skip horror events. The cost is however, removing control from the players. If you’re confused by how this works picture the following: If you’re playing as Sebastian in The Evil Within, you enter a room but as you open the door, the controls are taken away from you and a mini-cutscene plays out where he goes through it and walks an extra 5-6 steps to where he is grabbed by an enemy; a typical jump scare. Scripted events make these unavoidable as you simply have 0 control over the player character, so unless you’re looking at the floor, you’re gonna see it!! Whilst an effective method, it also harms replayability, as mentioned previously, this event will continue to play out again and again each time you go through the specific segment of the game, it’ll be no different and no surprise, you know what’s coming. Effectively making the game a great, superb experience, but good for only one playthrough. Mikami admitted to himself that although the experience will only be good for a once-through, he promises that as “Everyone’s been missing good, old, classic survival horror and wanting to play it again. You’ll feel it’s definitely back with this game and I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it, I promise.”
And with that ladies and gents, I shall leave this incredibly long blog post. After following the man’s work for a very long time, it would be a lie to say that a lot of my influences for my game doesn’t come from Mikami. The statements, difficulties and sacrifices he struggles to design in The Evil Within are all shared with myself. The man is known as the Father of Survival Horror, and there’s a damn good reason for this bestowal!