How The Evil Within and horror games manipulate their players.
Few relationships depend more on trust than the one you have with your computer. Without faith in the indifference of its automation, how could you share as much with it as you do? Video games are built around the fragility of this trust: they let us play with the horror in our dependence, experiencing the computer as a hostile entity within the safe, fictive frame of competition. To entertain us, games must defy our expectations. But their surprises can’t lapse into incoherence—if they do, our trust is violated, our fun spoiled.
Shinji Mikami’s games have tested the limits of that trust. He didn’t invent the horror video game, but in his twenty-plus-year career, he’s done more to popularize it than any other designer. His career began in the early nineties with a string of convivial family-oriented games, but it wasn’t until 1996’s Resident Evil that he made a name for himself. Combining graphic bodily horror and cryptographic claustrophobia—and set in a rotting mansion, no less—Resident Evil became a standard-setting high point. Playing the game felt like wearing a straitjacket, and this was part of the horror: its movement system was halting and cumbersome, and it used an incoherent array of fixed camera views, ensuring that even the basic rules for moving your character changed every few seconds, even during crises. The frustration informed the fear.
Nearly a decade later, in 2005’s Resident Evil 4, Mikami abused player trust by making the game’s fundamental action—shooting—unnervingly realistic. The animations of bodies taking bullets were lifelike to the point of inducing vertigo. Most games depend on some form of violent conflict, even if it’s only colored bits of candy exploding when they’re properly aligned, but we expect the games to have moral alibis for the violence they ask of us. But in Resident Evil 4, you played the role of an alien invading an innocent foreign culture—and watched, say, a farmer stumble after being hit in the knee, then slowly rise again, pressing past the normal human threshold of pain. The game forced its players to violate moral and cultural taboos, while craftily reinforcing the adrenal joy that came with those sins. It unmasked the cruelty of play.
Now, another decade later, Mikami has returned to horror with The Evil Within, which combines those earlier templates with a kind of graphic violence and semiotic incoherence reminiscent of pink cinema, a rich, revolting tradition of Japanese filmmaking that dates to the early sixties. Though the term is often used to describe Japanese erotica, pink cinema’s aesthetic is broader, with no real equivalent in the West. The scholar David Desser has described it as a brand of Japanese modernism—“achronological, arbitrarily episodic, acausal, dialectical, anti-mythic and anti-psychological, and metahistorical”—that aims to cast off the “bourgeois individualism” of American storytelling.
Mikami’s work is close to half a century removed from those cultural and aesthetic shifts, but The Evil Within is a digital fandango of every quality Desser ascribes to pink cinema. It’s also a fair representation of the qualities Americans tend to fixate on in Japanese narratives: something freed from the triumphalist (or occasionally tragic) progress narratives much of American fiction builds on. The Evil Within is set in a dark, generically criminal place called Krimson City; it opens on a group of detectives called to investigate an outbreak of violence at a mental hospital. The lobby is filled with slumping corpses and smears of blood. The lone survivor is a panicked doctor hiding in a side office, warning of some cryptic evil. When your character, a drunken divorcé named Sebastian Castellanos, checks the security-camera monitors, you see a pale and scared figure teleport his way down a hallway, killing each police officer without touching him. Then he’s in the room with you, and a moment later he’s whisked away into some basement, hung upside down on a meat hook, watching a fat man with a sack over his head carve up a corpse with a chain saw while Bach’s Air on the G String plays.
If this sounds like an incomprehensible lurch, it is. Every shift in the game is accompanied by some new mechanical wrinkle that subverts the learning arc. In the American conception, video games are progressive narratives, filled with teachable moments that build on what’s come before until you reach the end, in which every weapon, special ability, and tactic is woven together in a demonstration of system mastery. Gamers have grown accustomed to entering a space with a headful of information about guns, ammo, and trap defusing—they know how to read environments for hiding spots.
In The Evil Within, that kind of knowledge often is a hindrance, creating a fog of unworkable solutions that prevent you from seeing the answer. It’s a game of undoing mechanics more than building on them. In place of horrific allegory or gathering tension, the game produces anxiety by reminding you again and again that you’re helpless. The skills you’ve accrued begin to seem unusable. It’s the equivalent of sitting through three hours of history lectures before being given a geometry test.
The game’s gratuitous use of body horror—from its gore-laden opening to its absurdly graphic conclusion, set in a hallucinatory space that merges brain tissue and intestinal coils—also inverts expectations. Usually, gore depends on withholding the graphic image for as long as possible, prolonging the moment before the skin is shown breaking, the limb bending backward, the innards oozing outward. It exploits our imaginations by forcing us to guess how the body will come undone before it happens. But gore tends to be the weakest part of any horror experience: to show too much, for too long, is to make the audience too aware of the artifice, the corn syrup for blood, the rubber for skin, the forced perspective on the camera angle.
The rule holds for video games, whose uncanny geometry and fragile textures only seem real in passing, while you’re sprinting through the forest or surrounded by a swarm of zombies with barbed wire and shattered glass stuck into their bodies. But The Evil Within is soaked in gore and blood from the start, an inversion of the traditional structure, in which horror is withheld until the last possible moment. This produces a different kind of distress: you begin to feel as if there might be some ever more horrific physical violation yet to come—something worse than evisceration, puncture wounds, or being burned alive—though you’re left to wonder what that could be.
Similarly, in the game’s equivalent of a safe space—a wing of a mental hospital occupied by a lone nurse, reached by staring into any cracked glass surface throughout the game—there’s a massive wall hanging, purportedly a map of Krimson City. The map is dark at the start. You’ll find small squares to fill it in throughout the game, hoping to discover connections between all the hallucinatory jumps—hoping, in other words, for continuity. But the map pieces are deviously hidden, and its unlikely most players will ever complete it. Even if you do, the prize is a perfect anticlimax: the completed map of Krimson City looks simply like a giant brain.
All this helplessness, all this straining against the unknown, amounts to a violation of trust. As the game’s narrative questions build up—Is Castellano really the killer? Is he trapped inside someone else’s hallucination? Is Krimson City a real place?—you receive only nonanswers, fragments of plausibility amid a storm of impossible nonsense. Even as the game reaches the height of its absurdity, a bizarre optimism persists, as if somehow all this could still be explained.
Our bewilderment, Mikami’s game suggests, is the inroad to our most corruptible places. We want to be taught by something that cannot really speak or even think. We put our faith in it, though it’s given us no reason to. It’s not unlike the stubborn hope that transfixes us to our computers, trusting them in spite of their inability to reciprocate, enduring the cryptic error codes and spinning pinwheels that obscure the way forward.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating and Other Issues for Men. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bookforum, The New Inquiry, and Guernica.