Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evil Within Review

The Evil Within is what you call "a flawed gem." Having played through the game on Survivor difficulty and being about to finish a run on Nightmare, I can say with some authority that the game is seriously bogged down in a lot of frustrating stuff. For example, there's a crate you can hide in one of the game's later chapters. On several occasions (but not consistently), I was "seen" by a patrolling zombie through the crate's wall, resulting in an insta-gameover (you can't be spotted in this section). More generally, the stealth in the game is not implemented well, and the same can be said for context sensitive actions, which are often finicky.

But despite these flaws, there are just a number of things that The Evil Within does well or interestingly that make it a compelling game for me. It's very challenging and demands a good deal of effort from the player. At the same time, it's a quirky game with an off-kilter sensibility and rhythm that make it stand out from the herd. These parts come together and create a kind of synergy.

The first thing we can talk about is its story. Its disorienting and fragmentary presentation is unconventional in the world of videogames. I lot of people dislike it for this reason, but I personally find it stimulating and intriguing. Rather than being direct and concrete, the narrative is dreamlike and abstract. Think David Lynch rather than Cormac McCarthy, because enjoying the story requires a certain appreciation for the surrealist tradition and its willingness to defy logical conventions. You'll have to think about the narrative if you want to make connections between events in the game, and some questions have no clear answers, but the invitation to think and speculate is something I find rewarding in and of itself.

For example, I would contend that the stylistic direction of the game is meaningfully connected to the actual narrative. Both (style and story) communicate the idea that identity and consciousness are fragile constructions of the mind that can be broken and refashioned. TEW's central villain, Ruvik, is a scientist interested in just this, i.e., the constructedness of selfhood and how it can be taken apart and made into something else. Narrative and autobiography play a major role in creating our sense of self, and the fact that TEW is willing to play with this by presenting an incomplete portrait of its events fits into this exploration of the artificiality of the self.

Unique game mechanics also serve to elevate TEW. For example, enemies get up a lot after being shot, even though they seem to be dead. To be sure they won't harass you any further, you have to burn them with matches, which are a limited resource. Viewed "realistically" it's a silly contrivance. You even have to upgrade your character so he can carry more than five matches at a time. However, in the heat of battle, it adds layers of depth and strategy to the game that are fairly unique. You can burn nearby enemies by setting a fallen undead on fire. This leads to tense situations where you use yourself as bait to lure monsters to a body, only to set both ablaze with a well-timed strike. It's nonsensical and gamey, but it's also a lot of fun and unlike anything else.

The game's aiming system is another strength I feel that most reviewers have passed over. What's special about it is that aiming your weapon zooms the camera into essentially a first-person perspective. Where most third-person shooters keep the camera just behind and above the avatar's shoulder, in TEW, you zoom right past that position to look through the character's eyes. This really threw me the first time I used a gun, but in time, I came to really appreciate the way it made battle more immersive and heightened in detail, as it is in FPS's.

As a survival horror game, TEW pulls no punches. The scales almost always feel like they are tipped against you and, for the most part, this is intentional. Opponents are usually faster, stronger, and more resilient. Resources are limited, traps are devious, and checkpoints are erratic. Overall, these design decisions serve to enhance the game.

For starters, by putting the player at a distinct disadvantage, the game embraces survival horror in ways that recent games seem afraid to. TEW isn't scary per se, but it keeps ever mindful of your situation and vulnerability, pressing you to look nervously around every corner wondering what's coming next. The relative slowness of your avatar is as essential to this feeling as is your limited ammunition. It has its shortcomings, but I find this version of survival horror more satisfying than those conjured up in Dead Space and The Last of Us. Dead Space indulges power fantasies by putting the player in the position of a powerful cyborg with advanced weaponry, and relies on jump scares and monster closets for its horror, which becomes tedious and predictable fairly early on. The Last of Us relies on visuals and narrative to shock the player rather terrifying gameplay. TEW, by contrast, achieves its horror through its core mechanics.

More significantly, difficulty is how TEW shows its respect for the player as a thinking, curious, problem-solving human being. The game is rough around the edges, but much of that comes from the fact that it isn't holding your hand and telling you what to do. Instead, the game wants the player to figure things out for him or herself. This can and will lead to confusion and frustration, but it is, perhaps unavoidably, a necessary corollary to letting the player discover things in his/her own way. There's a lot of viable paths to tackling a problem in TEW, and most of them require intelligence and foresight. The third chapter of the game, which pits you against a village full of undead and traps, manages this brilliantly. Occasionally, things don't work well, but this is more the exception than the rule and only becomes genuinely bothersome on the highest difficulties.

I think it's this commitment to serious game design that ultimately sold me on TEW. At every moment, from fighting, to resource management, to upgrading my stats between levels, I felt the game effectively communicated that how things went down depended on me and the choices I made. It respected me to think for myself when confronted with a challenge and to deal with the consequences of my actions. It regularly threw new problems my way and rarely played the same trick twice. As a result, each session felt fresh and exciting.

I'm surprised at how much I've enjoyed playing The Evil Within the past four weeks, because it's a game with serious issues. As many critics have pointed out, the controls and mechanics are opaque and sometimes inconsistent, and in many ways it is a throwback to a long-gone era of gaming. And yet, despite these problems, I've played this game more and had more fun with it than its more polished survival horror stablemates such The Last of Us and Dead Space. Sometimes I wonder if I like TEW because its flaws and not in spite of them as they give it a certain charm. But ultimately I think that in today's AAA culture of playing to the lowest common denominator, it's a pleasure to play a game that isn't afraid to treat me as an adult.