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Action games generally operate on the concept of player empowerment, granting the tools to overcome any challenge without a scratch, as long as players have the skill to realize that potential. Meanwhile, horror games operate on the concept of player disempowerment, giving the bare minimum in order to foster a tense atmosphere, so balancing the priorities of each genre seems like mixing oil and water. Resident Evil games are famous for trying to do so, but they usually break into a horror-centric first half and an action-centric back half, without a true blending of the concepts. The Evil Within meanwhile actually managed it, but had to alienate players in some key ways in order to do so. Firstly, the logic behind the story is nearly impossible to follow at first, leaving players unable to find their footing, confused at why the progression is so jumpy and unfocused. Then, the mechanical restrictions feel like they’re equally arbitrary: Sebastian can only initially carry about twelve bullets, and not even a full healthbar’s worth of recovery. He can barely run at all, and in order to alleviate any of this, you may have to bank up green gel over the course of multiple chapters. It can seem like the game is simply trying to make action feel scary by stressing out players with cheap deaths, but once you commit to learning the game, a brilliant method behind the madness reveals itself. While the story is mostly nonsense, the abstract nature of it allows for level design suited to a wide variety of challenges. With new mechanics being introduced at a steady pace, players are constantly kept on the backfoot, and thus disempowered, even as their growing mechanical knowledge empowers them. The shallow capacity for supplies is an obvious form of disempowerment which prompts players to spend resources cleverly, but their abundance between each fight empowers players to use their entire toolkit freely. The upgrade system empowers; the below-par baselines make unupgraded stats more of a problem in the face of scaling challenge. For every give, there’s a take, and thus, a harmony between action and horror is reached. As stated before though, the “take” for that brilliance is a frontloaded sense of disempowerment, with players having to get through most of the game before they’ve experienced enough character growth and skill development to redress the balance. So, I really can’t blame anyone for bouncing off of this game, but I also truly believe that as of today (less than a week away from RE4 remake), it’s the best merging of action and horror in gaming. Resident Evil 4 is pure satisfying action, Dead Space commits to bloody horror, but The Evil Within is purely… both.
It was two hours into the game that I fired my first bullet, directed at the first boss. Considering how most horror leans towards loud action instead of quiet dread, I was initially impressed, but it slowly dawned on me how terrible the implications truly were. The gameplay of survival horror is about managing resources: you weigh the convenience of a neutralized threat against the danger of an empty magazine, and consider alternatives like taking damage to run past, or circumnavigating the threat in other ways. In my entire playthrough, I only killed a single common enemy, as it blocked a narrow hallway with no alternative routes. So, that avenue of decision making, and thusly, gameplay, didn’t exist for me. I could walk into any room, and if enemies were laid out in a troublesome way, I could walk out and back in until they loaded into spots which presented no challenge. It seems like a cheesy strategy, but the game provided a survival-horror framework which is meant to focus on intelligent usage of resources. So, bypassing every room without challenge isn’t a decision that I made to go against the design, it’s the opposite: it’s the default optimal choice within the framework. With no pressure to make new decisions, there was no engagement. Verbalizing that perspective helped explain my boredom with Signalis’ gameplay, but it also explained my complete lack of interest in the presentation. Did they make save points throw up a screaming red screen because it was atmospheric, or because it’s what Silent Hill did? Did they make the soundtrack a cacophonous industrial grind because it fit the setting, or because it’s what Akira Yamaoka did? Was the idea to make bold new decisions, or go with the framework? Genre-defining fundamentals like fixed camera angles are one thing, but title-defining personality is another, and much of what’s meant to make this game unique is taken from genre templates. To be fair, it does have some original ideas and nuances to its presentation, but if the way you find that uniqueness is by locating keys to open doors to find boxes which contain keys to open doors with boxes with keys, it just isn’t worth it. You’re mindlessly stepping through the patterns of a game which defined too much of its personality by following patterns.
A while back, I was invited to visit some friends near our old college. While the chat was nice, I had mostly been looking forward to walking around campus again, seeing what had changed and sort of... exorcising the spirit of it from myself. Those were the worst four years of my life, and I was hoping that by revisiting it after years of cooling off, I could make up with that little chapter in history. Problem was, when I got there, it was just grass and buildings. I didn't get to comfort my younger self as I stressed out, I just saw the Computer Science building. I saw a lawn. It was surreal to watch students walk by as their life-chapter unfolded in a way I was failing to do for myself. I didn't realize I was falling into the same trap here. It originally took me about seven tries to beat this game because I was so scared, and now I feel nothing. I'm the same, but different. The place is the same, but different. I couldn't tell you if it's better or worse, it's just the same. But not the same you might wish it was.