Don’t Look Behind You

Nostalgia never hurt anyone, says the writer and designer of Gone Home. But Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within prove that video game creators can’t revisit the past and expect it to be the same place.

By Steve Gaynor
Illustrations by Victor Kerlow

IN REVIEW:
The Evil Within
(Tango Gameworks)
Alien: Isolation
(Creative Assembly)

Entertainment is novelty. Our lives are full of the mundane and the familiar: dinner, work, email. A piece of entertainment is designed to bring us to places we’ve never visited before, to see things that surprise and enthrall us.

But entertainment can also be about comfort, the warmth of predictability. Genre structures are built upon this foundation: the predictable rhythm of the whodunit or the romance novel, of the superhero blockbuster and the pop song.

Some entertainment, though, is about a more specific familiarity — with the entertainment that preceded it. Sequels, yes, but also the reboot, the reimagining, the “spiritual successor,” or simply the work of a single creator over time. Wes Anderson’s or Martin Scorsese’s movies are in dialogue with all of their prior movies.

And so two recent survival horror video games, Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within, carry the weight of their histories. In both cases we see how the opposing weights of nostalgia and novelty make for a difficult balance.

Each game fits into the broad genre of survival horror, which contains everything from Resident Evil to Silent Hill 2 to Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Survival horror games are about tension and management, about avoiding threats until you’re forced into confrontation — about, generally, being on the low end of the food chain, filled with the desperation and panic needed to stay alive and even triumph. Survival horror games exist along a gamut that runs from the player being literally powerless, their only defenses to run and hide, to the lumbering enemies’ numbers being so overwhelming that even an attaché case full of shotgun shells and hand grenades is barely sufficient to hold them off.

The genre owes much to the Alien films, the first of which inspired the “hide from an unkillable terror” end of the survival horror scale, while the second brought us the opposite: “barely survive overwhelming odds,” as well as, not coincidentally, adding automatic rifle fire and massive explosions.

Shinji Mikami’s career began with 1996’s Resident Evil, which cemented the genre and pointed toward a Night of the Living Dead experience, focused on unseen creeping horrors and clumsy, desperate attempts to fend off single, shambling attackers. He did not direct another game in the series for almost 10 years. When he did return it was with 2005’s Resident Evil 4, a game that was a revelation mechanically, inspiring essentially every third-person shooter title that’s come out in the decade since its release.

But Resident Evil 4 was also a revelation for survival horror, using the very series that birthed the genre to evolve it into something more kinetic and action-oriented. The horror came not from the slow, creeping dread of earlier Resident Evil games, but from masses of villagers stalking your every move; from the panicked mental math of comparing the number of bullets in your stock against the head count of the horde staring you down; from the single, deranged psychopath bursting from their ranks and rushing you full speed. And unlike previous Resident Evils — which were in part defined by the torturously unresponsive tank-style movement controls and fixed camera angles that hid enemies directly in front of your character’s face — Resident Evil 4 was the epitome of sharp, rigorously tuned camera and movement controls, an eccentric but utterly precise clockwork of inputs for moving, looking, aiming, and firing that always communicated to the player the exact state of the game and their place in it.

And so, nearly another 10 years on, we arrive at The Evil Within, Mikami’s latest. It is heavily indebted to the Resident Evil series, as the title implies. The game feels, in fact, like a retrospective, a nostalgic walk down memory lane.

On its surface, The Evil Within shares much in common with its spiritual predecessor. Its third-person camera follows a rather dapper man at a few arms’ length (though The Evil Within’s craggy-faced Sebastian Castellanos is no match for Resident Evil 4’s Leon Kennedy in boyish suaveness). In both games the player is faced down by shambling “corrupted” civilians who wield axes, knives, and crossbows, punctuated occasionally by a chainsaw-wielding nightmare or a huge, mutated monster. And in both games the player nurtures a small armory to its full destructive potential via a robust upgrade system.

But so much of what differs between the two games is feel. Resident Evil 4 was an absolutely flawless machine, its mechanics tuned to inhuman perfection. The game’s reaction to every player input was clear and immediate; the player’s movements snapped, intent expressed instantly.

The Evil Within, conversely, is practically defined by a looseness, a sloppiness of feel. The camera hovers further from the avatar, generally, but more crucially the camera can orbit fully around him. In Resident Evil 4, the camera was hard-bound behind the avatar, attached as on the end of a broomstick jutting behind their shoulder, only moving away from this spot for canned animations and story cutscenes. The ability to move the camera 360 degrees in The Evil Within gives a fuller sense of situational awareness, allowing the player to peer around corners and over ledges more freely, but it also detaches the player from a reliable viewpoint. It loosens the constraints of level design by increasing the angles from which the player might view any given space. It means that even if the player is facing away from the enemy, the camera might be facing toward it.

Aiming in The Evil Within uses a reticule instead of Resident Evil 4’s laser sight, removing another important physical connection between the player’s avatar and the environment. The laser sight provided precise information about exactly where you were aiming, how far the target was from your avatar, if anything blocked the shot, and so on. It reinforced the immediacy of feedback in Resident Evil 4’s design.

And in The Evil Within, the player can actively switch weapons in-world instead of only from the inventory screen, which is more “realistic,” but it also means there’s a soft lag between the decision to switch weapons and the weapons actually switching while an animation plays. It’s another way that the design of The Evil Within is less immediate and precise than the functionally instantaneous input and response of Resident Evil 4’s inventory screen. Enemies’ animations in reaction to taking damage or being killed are also difficult to read. Did I kill that enemy, or just knock him down? Is he still stunned for a melee kill, or has he already recovered? Do I need to waste another bullet on this guy, or am I safe?

All of this dissociation, delay, and uncertainty distances the player from the avatar, between the expression of intent and results, and between the player’s observation of a scene and the parsing of its meaning in order to react effectively.

All of these tendencies reduce the player’s engagement with the role they inhabit, and reduce their trust in the game’s designers. In Resident Evil 4, if I died, it was my fault — my lack of attention, my failure to manage my resources, my imprecision with the game’s controls. In The Evil Within, there are moments when it’s unclear exactly what I could have done better, what cue I missed, which direction I should have been looking in, whose fault it was, mine or the designer’s. Those are the moments that push a player further and further from a game. And The Evil Within is full of them.

Despite the gulf in design philosophy, The Evil Within harbors an obsession with Mikami’s previous games in its fiction and visual aesthetics that implies an intent for a dialogue. Early on, the player encounters a man kneeling over a corpse, tearing away at it. In a cutscene, the camera dollies in to a closeup as the figure turns his head, peering back over his shoulder in a direct quotation of a moment from the original Resident Evil (so recognizable that Capcom later used it as the cover art for the director’s cut). A later level takes place in a very direct recreation of Resident Evil’s iconic mansion, to the point that The Evil Within’s protagonist comments that he’s “never been here before… but…” And the repeated encounters with a masked maniac recall one of Resident Evil 4’s most memorable denizens.

Despite the invocation of these symbols, the narrative philosophy of The Evil Within is far removed from the immediacy of the Resident Evil series. Mikami has historically seemed uninterested in story except when it served to motivate the player toward the next goal, or occasionally as a joke. His Resident Evil games weren’t concerned with backstory or lore; narrative elements served only to give the player a reason to keep playing. (Find the president’s daughter! Remove the parasites from your bodies! Escape the island once and for all!)

Yet The Evil Within spends most of its narrative capital on the story surrounding the play, not on material that speaks directly to the game at hand. We hear the backstory of the protagonist, the asylum setting, the game’s villain, of how and why the player is literally inhabiting the mind of a madman. But very infrequently does the story concern itself much with what the player is doing or why, leaving it at a disconnect from the player’s interactive experience. It fits the modern mold of a “deeper” video game fiction, told more cinematically through voice acting by well-known Hollywood actors. But despite feeling more polished and “complete” than the stories in Mikami’s previous games, the narrative of The Evil Within also does less to serve the game that hosts it.

I can conjecture as to the reasons for these changes of focus in game design and story delivery. Is it a question of environment? Mikami, until now, has always worked within a larger organization: for decades within the corporate structure of the Japanese publisher Capcom, and then in the more independent but still multi-team Platinum Games. The Evil Within is the first game developed at his own studio, Tango Gameworks. But Tango is no independent production; it is owned by Zenimax Media, the Western game development and publishing conglomerate that owns Bethesda Game Studios, the creator of The Elder Scrolls series and the developer of Fallout 3; Arkane, the developer of Dishonored; and id Software, the creator of Doom, Quake, and most recently Rage.

The Evil Within, in fact, uses the idTech engine, a suite of development software created by id and wholly owned and licensed by Zenimax Media. At Capcom and Platinum, Mikami’s games were developed using custom engines tailored to fit the productions’ specifications. Did the design and feel of The Evil Within bend to fit the technical constraints of the engine provided by Tango’s parent company? Is its focus on character, backstory, and plot a concession to Western market-testing demands that successful games must feature a “cinematic” narrative? As the credits rolled, I noted that a fair number of the design staff have distinctly non-Japanese names. Did this collision of Eastern and Western design priorities lead to a game that is, at its core, deeply divided against itself?

Whatever the reasons, the player experiences The Evil Within as a conversation with the revered series that preceded it. Mikami’s newest game asks us to consider how and in what ways it differs from and conforms to what came before. The Evil Within seems to want it both ways: to benefit from the goodwill earned by its predecessors, while in practice contradicting much of what made their designs classics of the genre. While the winks and nods produce some grins for those familiar with Resident Evil, they also serve to muddle just what the meaning of the overall experience is supposed to be. The Evil Within doesn’t try to stand completely on its own, but it commits neither to championing nor to subverting the foundation on which it’s built. Despite extracting some pleasure from a backward glance, at its core, The Evil Within doesn’t know precisely what it’s trying to say.

Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation knows exactly what it intends to do with its source material: recreate it, and faithfully. Alien: Isolation is a love letter, a reverent gaze fixed upon 1979’s Alien, rightly enshrined as a classic of genre filmmaking. In its goal of recreating the atmosphere of Alien, the game is incredibly successful. The lights glare off of synthetic materials just so; you can feel the cathode rays as green-on-black digital interfaces flash perfectly to life. You feel present in the space — weighty footfalls, hands reaching out to grasp and pull creaking levers, gasping breath, sweating and panting as you run.

And all in the service of the genre’s namesake: survival. Alien: Isolation aims to put the player in the shoes of Ellen Ripley (even as the player is, in this adaptation, her daughter, Amanda), stranded on a decaying space hulk and stalked by an unkillable xenomorph, with only her wits and engineering skills to survive.

Well, and some guns, and bombs. And not just stalked by one xenomorph, but eventually many. And by malfunctioning helper androids. And even armed, desperate fellow spacegoers who won’t hesitate to open fire as soon as they spot you.

Which is to say, when Alien: Isolation is doing what it sets out to do, it does it quite well. When you’re creeping through an abandoned transit station, hearing the xenomorph clunking through the air ducts overhead, and then you hear it drop down, somewhere, to the left it sounded like, so you pull out the motion scanner, it’s beeping, faster now, and slip under that desk and oh the door opens and past your view stalk slowly, menacingly, the creature’s clawed feet, it pauses, it waits — did it see you? Is this… no, it hears something, runs off, and you exhale, you’re safe again, for now. Those moments are powerful.

It’s just, well, there are lots of other moments.

I played Alien: Isolation in the weeks following a serious traffic accident. While my wife and I recuperated at home, her parents stayed with us, helped us with things, made dinners that we all ate together. One evening at the dinner table my father-in-law mentioned that he’d looked in on me while I was playing the game. It looked incredible, he said, just like the movie. “But, why were you killing people?” he asked.

And I had to think about it for a minute. Why was I killing people? Before dinner I’d just gotten to an area with a survivor stronghold in it, but a small one, an outpost really. There was a raised platform with a ladder leading up to it, and a stairway wrapping along the side to climb and approach the platform from behind. I knew there were at least one or two hostile survivors on the platform; I heard them talking about defending their stuff. I knew that climbing the ladder was a death sentence, because survivors like these were armed, so I began creeping up the stairs around the side — and as I got about halfway up, one of them must have heard something and gotten suspicious, or simply been on patrol, because I turned a corner and there, bang, practically ran head-on into a short-haired Asian woman coming down the stairs. My revolver was already equipped; in one quick motion I raised the gun and shot this woman in her forehead; she dropped to the floor with a yelp and was dead. I held on for a moment, expecting more survivors to come running, but none did. Was she alone? I sneaked through the door and onto the platform. And there was the other survivor, the man who’d been talking earlier. Through some quirk, he hadn’t heard the gunshot or hadn’t been alerted by it. So, considering I had something like 29 revolver bullets in reserve, I crept up behind him, stood, and shot him through the back of the skull. No more threats. I swept the area for supplies and moved on.

It must have been this moment that my father-in-law was watching, unknown to me, over my shoulder. And within the game, my actions were justified. As I struggled to explain at dinner, Sevastopol Station had been abandoned by its parent company, and the desperate survivors that had been stranded there had split into camps, practically going feral as they struggled for medicine, food, and other limited supplies. Add the haywire androids and this murderous alien that’s killed anyone who’s gotten a good look at it, and these people are in a kill-or-be-killed mentality, which means the player has to be as well. You do what it takes to survive.

But, why? Why was I killing people, in a game based on Alien? All of the above statements may be true within the fiction and design of the game. But in what world does Ellen Ripley creep up behind another human, coldly raise a revolver to the back of his head, and blow his brains out of his face? This is not modeling any aspect of the film, of being the helpless survivor desperate to simply escape with her life. This is a possibility space much broader and darker than the source material.

In Alien, Ellen Ripley didn’t kill people, and she didn’t die. In Alien: Isolation, Amanda Ripley not only kills, but she also dies, quite frequently. To hostile gunfire, to overzealous androids, occasionally to poison gas or a speeding train, but most often to the xenomorph itself. The player becomes deeply familiar with the animations used to communicate these deaths: the one where the alien catches you from behind and its tail juts out through your guts; the one where it knocks you over and then stalks around and its tiny extra-mouth bites your face; the one where it yanks you into a vent. Over and over again. The cardinal sin that this commits is making the alien itself not an unfathomable terror but an annoyance. The first time the alien catches you it’s a crescendo of heart-racing terror; the fifth time it’s frustrating; by the 20th you’re rolling your eyes and sighing.

The end of a life no longer signifies what it signified in the film: inevitable death, unstoppable nature. Instead it signifies that you have to see the load screen again and, how far back was it that I saved last? The game’s save system harks back, in fact, to the original Resident Evil from 1996. There’s no quicksaving, and autosaves are incredibly rare. Players can save progress only when they reach a save station: You can save when and where the designer says so, and only there and then. If the alien decides to flop out of a vent and terminate your game at the tail end of a 20-minute stretch of gameplay, you’re staring down redoing those 20 minutes of progress just for the privilege of attempting to save your game again.

This design decision, presumably, is meant to build tension and “increase player investment” in Ripley’s survival, by attaching a cost to death. I would suggest that this cost is placed at the wrong point in the transaction to generate the desired result. Attaching a cost — a tedium cost, a time cost, a frustration cost — after death does not make players want to die less. Players already don’t want to die. Players want to win; they want to survive, because that is natural to want. In Resident Evil 4, for instance, the player can die, and might, often. When you do, you’re prompted to “try again” — and then you’re respawned at the beginning of the very encounter in which you died. No delay, no retread, no reversal of progress, just another chance to succeed where you failed. And yet, the last thing one wants to do in Resident Evil 4 is die. It’s not because of the grisly death animations or the threat of punishment for failure. It’s because players want to live.

The frequency and tedium of death do not match the original film, and the experience suffers for it. The game has strayed too far from the experiential core of its source material. So is hewing as closely as possible to the original inspiration the answer?

Alien: Isolation tries this as well, with levels that attempt to provide meticulous fan service by letting players walk in the shoes of characters as they relive scenes from the movie. There’s a protracted flashback sequence in which a second crew of space roughnecks follows the distress signal that originally drew the Nostromo to the wrecked space ship containing alien eggs in the film. The player, as part of this second, unrelated-but-surprisingly-similar crew, literally retraces the steps of the film’s characters, traversing the hostile planet’s surface in an unwieldy spacesuit, discovering the “space jockey” in his crashed craft, dropping down into the ship’s lower hold, and finally witnessing one of the crew getting facehuggered.

In the game, it all happens precisely as it did in the film — the difference being, we’ve already seen it. We know what’s going to happen before it happens (or we assume we do), and then the game follows through on those expectations instead of subverting them. In adhering so closely to the material it adapts, the game allows itself no space to breathe on its own.

The magic of Alien: Isolation lives in between these two extremes, when the player is present and enveloped in the film’s environments so wonderfully conjured into interactive being; when the player feels clever, crafty, elated for narrowly escaping the xenomorph by distracting it with a hacked-together implement and then slipping down a corridor undetected, surviving again, however briefly, by wits and deftness alone. This magic is fleeting, all too rare within an expansive and numbing campaign, but when it strikes, it really is a singular accomplishment.

The point, perhaps, is that no matter your past or your underpinnings as a creator, any work has to stand on its own. To try to rekindle past glories, to revisit beloved pop cultural moments, to re-experience an old memory again, just as good as the first time — it’s folly. No piece of entertainment stands on its own, and attempting to divorce a creation from its precedents is folly as well; building upon that foundation, consciously, knowingly, is what we all do. But trying to dig back in, show us what we’ve already seen, return to where we’ve been — that’s the stuff that holds creation back. Try as we might, we can’t go home again.

Presented by Matter

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