[Warning: this article contains video embeds of slow-motion virtual gore set to Tchaikovsky. It also contains spoilers for The Evil Within 1 & 2.]
The Evil Within 2 is a game, one can sense, where an enormous amount of development resource was spent on getting the gory details just right. When hard-bitten protagonist Sebastian Castellanos pulls the trigger, and an enemy skull explodes into fragments, it is satisfying on the basest of levels.
Not a small amount of TEW2’s appeal as a pure video game is the combat system. The weapon sway, recoil and booming SFX make firing any of its weapons feel great. And what the projectiles do to the humanoid enemies has many variants: they collapse, juddering, with a gaping hole to the head; shotgun blasts send them flying in heavy cartwheels; a bullet takes off an arm and they clutch the stump in shock and rage; a leg is sliced off clean, and the body collapses before pulling itself forward, groaning, waiting for what is surely a mercy.
Such gore is part of the game’s wider theme of psychological and body horror. This is a world of grimy hospitals and laboratories, failed experiments and deepest nightmares given physical form. The basic enemy types are recognisable as once-human monsters, but others twist the human body into unnatural new shapes, or add to it, or distort it. A later enemy has three female legs supporting a kind of movie camera body, and something about the way it moves makes me shudder. You are meant to look at these things and, yes, be afraid – but also to wince in empathy.
Sebastian’s perspective on events seems informed by his past career as a police detective. Dead bodies and blood don’t faze him in the same way that they do most other NPCs and, though his terror when faced with the game’s crazier enemies feels real, he never physically collapses under pressure. The mental side is a whole other ballgame, with the STEM ‘living simulation’ setup allowing Tango Gameworks to go to town on fast transitions, sometimes from situations where Sebastian seems doomed.
Sebastian Castellanos is the kind of guy who, if asked to prove that the world is real, would bang a table. The only problem is that this world isn't real.
One of TEW2’s first and most virtuoso of table-flips is to put what we might call body horror in a different spotlight. Stefano Valentini is the main antagonist for the game’s first half and, as his name suggests, is a flamboyant caricature of the self-obsessed artist. Valentini was once a war photographer before being injured in an explosion — in which he also caught a photograph of someone’s final moments. Following this Valentini became artistically obsessed with the moment of death, ultimately murdering others and photographing the results.
Sebastian meets Valentini many times — he’s by far the antagonist with the most screen time, even though long gone before the climax. It becomes clear that Valentini has a history of disturbing images, which we see dotting the walls: a screaming face split across multiple gilded frames; a beheaded body photographed in mid-flight; close-ups of eyes straining wide in terror at the final moment.
Valentini is particularly obsessed with capturing blood spatters. Within STEM he has found a new toy, even better than a camera, a localised time distortion field where he can capture the last few seconds of a person’s life and then leave it replaying in an endless loop.
They are striking sights. The first you see is Baker, the leader of the Mobius team sent in before Sebastian. Baker is bound to a chair and reels back in slow-motion from a close range headshot delivered by Valentini, endlessly arcing back until almost perpendicular – countless spouts of blood and brain fragment splaying out from the wound as he does – then resetting to default, and doing it all over again. It is impossible, the first time you come across this bizarre sight, to look away.
There are more to come. In the rooms where Valentini’s ‘replaying’ deaths are found, you’ll always find an angle that shows the shadowy spread of the particles; more abstract than the overt gore, and almost kaleidoscopically hypnotic.
And each has the same backing track. After all, what would an artistic baddie be without a leitmotif? Masatoshi Yanagi’s score calls Valentini’s theme ‘The Artist’s Domain’ and uses as its core the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C-major, Op. 48. It is notable Yanagi chooses the first movement, as Tchaikovsky himself intended it to be an echo of Mozart: "The first movement is my homage to Mozart. It is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model."
Thus Valentini’s theme, so knowingly named, is an imitation of an imitation. The effect is one of grandeur, the classical atmosphere enveloping Valentini’s work, but beneath the surface an ever-fading echo. This theme repeats over Valentini’s various ‘replay’ artworks, some of which have to be admitted as spectacular in concept: such as the Moebius operative forever suspended in the air next to the balcony he’s been pitched over.
At one stage a puzzle turns Sebastian into a photographer, re-arranging a scene before taking the snap — and emerging from behind the camera to find the surroundings changed. Now a corridor stretches far ahead, fringed on either side with gold framed images, with a large canvas at the end on which is scrawled in blood: Appreciate the Art.
As you soon realise, thanks to a newspaper clipping, the art Valentini’s scrawl refers to is not the paintings but the photograph you’ve just re-created — an imitation of how he killed one of his models. Another fading echo. The element of complicity is creeping in, because Sebastian is not just a threat to Valentini but an audience, the only one he has, as well as a potential subject. Sebastian is also undeniably, albeit with different motivation, a killer.
After a point Sebastian decides the best way to draw Valentini out is to destroy his work, and TEW2’s anything goes structure means you enter the ‘paintings’ to do so. There are two works involved, and each is a miniature horror story where you hear the victim’s final moments as the screen tints blood-red. The way this scene luxuriates over the screams is the distinction between Sebastian and Valentini: the former is afraid, and kills to survive; the latter revels in causing fear, and kills for pleasure.
Valentini’s masterpiece is a theatrical audience surrounding Sebastian, bound and hooded, whose heads explode simultaneously but are ‘caught’ in time a fraction of a second later. The camera pans slowly around him, the footlights reflecting over the surface of loose pink globules as, finally, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade moves onto its triumphant second movement, and beyond imitation. “How will I ever top this,” Valentini wonders aloud, smiling at his own joke.
It is worth pointing out that Valentini’s chosen mode of artistic expression, from the start of the game to this point, is the absolute stock-in-trade of the AAA video game developer: the headshot. There’s also a stabbing, which seems of a piece. I have written many paeans to especially good headshot effects in games going back over decades and, god willing, will manage many more — but the point here is more their ubiquity. A striking, eye-catching headshot effect is something to be professionally admired; but it is never just a single image or moment. Everything happens in a fraction of a second and so, while we may know a game’s headshots feel fantastic, it can be difficult to articulate why. Valentini’s work delivers their slow-motion glory in a vacuum-packed form that invites aesthetic appreciation.
Not that Valentini intuits this level, or threatens to get meta with it: his character is, ultimately, quite limited by his conceptions. This is because Valentini is not an artist, but self-consciously An Artist. He wears a cravat, a tailored purple jacket, and sweeps his floppy fringe across one eye while name-dropping Picasso and Michaelangelo. In a world created by imagination in which he is one of its most powerful players, Valentini’s work appears in conventional (if opulent) museum settings and ultimately a grand theatre. Here’s an artist so consumed by perception that, even when doing the unspeakable, he frames it all within the structures of social acceptance, applause, and artist worship.
You could take Valentini as a send-up of certain figures, and the games industry would not be short on examples. David Cage would get my vote, but he stands for a clutch of individuals whose main arguments for artistic status revolve around Big Emotions, supposed taboos, and appearing in museums. For someone like Cage subject matter is its own meaning, and Quantic Dream persists doggedly down this cul-de-sac. Or as Valentini would put it: he refuses to bow to the philistine critics, those idiots who just don’t get it.
I don’t think Valentini sends up individual creators so much as that adolescent infatuation, still pronounced within games, of seeking cultural approval. It comes out in figures like Cage and others, but they are merely symptoms. I once wrote an article about this, Who Framed Roger Ebert, and it’s amazing such attitudes persist in 2017.
Valentini’s ‘replay’ artworks and his characterisation embody not just this urge, but the more sincere ambitions that also lie beneath. Sebastian finally tempts this aloof figure into confrontation by destroying his creations. For all Valentini’s laissez-faire temporal philosophising in other contexts, he cannot stand to see his own works tarnished. And that seems to me, of all the things about this character, the most human.
It reminded me instantly, in fact, of Sebastian Castellanos, the detective who was so good at his job he didn’t notice what was happening with his family.
In both you can see this thread of not just doing work, but doing great work – as they see it. Whatever we may spend our time doing, who doesn’t want to do that? And when it comes to a medium like video games, where developers are crafting interactive future visions that can sell to millions, which creators don’t have a touch of the obsessive about them?
A game on the scale of TEW2 is the product of hundreds of people working over many years, and obsessing over the details. I’m not really talking about crunch here, but something different and more pervasive across industries – an aspect of work-oriented cultures like Japan and the west, whereby you do it because you care, and believe it’s important. And you really do. It seems uncanny to me that as a character Valentini parodies the aesthetic appreciation of headshots, but as a creation his entire schtick is Tango Gameworks re-framing its expertise.
These 'replay' deaths may be self-consciously ridiculous. To my eyes, they are also a beautiful and original virtual concept – another way of looking at something familiar.
Maybe there’s something subterranean here about how much time we spend working, and obsess about being productive or leaving something behind, in our short, inconsequential and fleshy lives. Who among us has not, sometimes, overvalued their hobby or work over the things that really matter? Valentini lost touch with such questions a long time ago, but that side of his character — the vain pursuit of perfection — remains a dark mirror showing both Sebastian Castellanos and the shadows of developers behind him. Maybe on Nightmare mode, at certain angles, it flashes the player back at themselves.
Valentini’s masterpiece is not his final appearance. Instead the inevitable boss battle soon enough follows. But this imaginary landscape is shattered, separated. Pairs of gallery walls at right angles are scattered across a floor floating in the void, and Valentini’s unimposing frame stalks you under the gaze of a giant eye. The walls apart this all feels weirdly… conventional. Valentini’s disappearing tricks can now be avoided by simply running away, and supplies for Sebastian are found beneath his pictures.
There’s nothing left, no mystery, no illusion: you’ve figured Valentini out, and the shotgun blasts are just a formality. By the time you’ve done enough damage that he enters his final phase and giant tentacles start slamming down – you know the pretence is over. When Valentini dies, he tries to take one last photograph and Sebastian delivers a final cutscene bullet through the lens. Giant tentacles and a 'not dead yet' moment in a survival horror game: how utterly generic. How apposite. Valentini runs out of ideas at the final moment, just as the game runs out of ideas for him.
Naturally, it all comes down to taste. In Valentini’s final scene, the dying artist says Sebastian has made him into a masterpiece. Well, that’s not strictly true. Tango did.