The Evil Within 2's Real Horror Lurks Beneath the Surface

By Rich Stanton on at

[Warning: this article contains spoilers for The Evil Within 1 & 2.]

One of life’s difficult realisations is that you can’t do everything. You’ll miss opportunities, fail to notice others, and sometimes act in ways which, years later, come back to hit you with the force of a train. But enough about me. The Evil Within 2 is developed by Tango Gameworks, directed by John Johanas, and produced by Shinji Mikami. It’s ostensibly a horror-slash-action title, but under the skin there’s something much more interesting going on.

The core conceit of both Evil Within games is the STEM system, a combination of high technology and bathtubs which melds human consciousnesses together — with a ‘core’ individual imagining that world into being. In the original game the player character, detective Sebastian Castellanos, enters a STEM simulation realised by a character called Ruvik, who is certainly a nasty piece of work. But he’s also a gifted child, traumatised by loss, who designed STEM for personal ends – before being unceremoniously murdered by his financial backer, the corporation Mobius. Ruvik had made the machine specifically for himself, however, and so his consciousness somehow persisted within it.

The main manifestation of this in game terms is that it allows TEW to make frequent changes of scene and environment — everything’s imagined, though who’s imagining it is always an open question. The ‘worlds’ we are playing through as Sebastian are explicitly mental creations, frequently shift gears, and often fall apart. The first game’s ornery beauty was in its unevenness, with smooth-as-silk AAA gunplay and audiovisual design just about keeping things together while the scenarios chopped and changed and eventually collapsed in on themselves.

The Evil Within 2 doesn’t have quite the same approach, though it does use the STEM conceit to great effect. The game’s opening twist is that Mobius found a way to run a STEM system without Ruvik, and at its core is Sebastian’s believed-to-be-dead daughter Lily. Things have gone so wrong that Sebastian, found in an alcoholic stupor years after the events of the original game, is offered a chance to go in and find her.

Lily’s influence over Union has wavered and its inhabitants — real people, kidnapped, memory-wiped and forcibly inserted into the STEM system by Mobius — have begun remembering who they are. This being a horror game, their subsequent mental collapse is accompanied by a physical transformation, and these are the game’s enemies.

The sequel doesn’t feel like the original game in many respects, but the most notable is world continuity. The once-idyllic Union setting is used for two large and open environments, containing multiple objectives and hidden surprises, while certain chapters shift back into the linear style — often to deliver standalone ‘horror’ moments or intense fights. As a structure this is ingenious, because it suggests we’re in a STEM system that — albeit collapsing — is much more stable than Ruvik’s original ever was. It also gives the main locations a feeling of solidity (even as their surroundings crack and float away into the void) but allows Tango to whip the player out at any point and into a new setting. The game does this without obvious loading screens, using stark transitions in unexpected places to tremendous effect.

For most video game storylines, the literal interpretation works. An interesting comparison to The Evil Within 2 is The Last of Us, which is not only an obvious source of inspiration mechanically but happens to have similar-ish themes. Joel and Sebastian are both traumatised fathers, both fight their way through dystopian nightmares, and both seek some sort of personal redemption.

The Last of Us, while in many respects a fantastic game, for me doesn’t go much deeper than this surface. The story has several emotional gut punches, but I didn’t find it resonating over the days and weeks afterwards. I think that’s because what Joel goes through with the loss of his daughter, and the same applies to Sebastian in the original TEW, is on an emotional level unimaginable without having lived that experience.

The core emotion at the heart of TEW2 is not the death of a child. Tango Gameworks is happy enough to reverse fate in the sequel’s opening scene and, OK, that’s one hell of a plot contrivance. But what matters is that the theme shifts gears and TEW2 becomes about the absence of a child, or missing out on time with them, and by the end widens out into our family and social relationships.

Sebastian’s guilt in TEW2 now comes from the fact that his daughter has been alive for years without his realising. Relevant backstory: before all of this, Sebastian was a great and decorated detective, someone who excelled at his job to the point of obsession. Lily’s ‘death’ sends him into a downward spiral of alcoholism, which ruins his career, before Myra’s belief that Lily is still alive drives a wedge between the parents, and Myra leaves.

Sebastian lost everything and, even knowing that Lily is alive, the search for his daughter is a search for the impossible. She was five when she ‘died’, and now she’s ten. He may be able to ultimately ‘save’ Lily but he can’t turn back time; she lives, but the years lost are incalculable. What tears Sebastian apart is realising all of this far too late.

I’m not saying that anyone with a kid directly relates to this scenario. But there are aspects of it much closer to to the mundane everyday than the original game’s exceptional trauma. When you have kids and a family you have to juggle everything around them. I spend as much time as possible with my own, but even so there are times when work has to be done, or I’m away for a few days. And I’m lucky: plenty of people have huge commutes, or have to work away a lot more.

At the core of Union’s terrors is Sebastian’s horror at the realisation of the years missed with his child, and failing his wife. And this sense of time lost, of getting things wrong, seems an acute angle on someone as obsessed with career and work as Sebastian was. I’m going to stretch and point out the parallels with that of a ‘successful’ game developer in this industry, certainly one that works at the level of products like this. You don’t reach the top without putting the hours in.

TEW2’s second half doesn’t have an antagonist with the flamboyance of Valentini, the self-conscious artiste whose grisly executions are his masterworks. Instead we get a weirdly half-formed preacher character, who seems to be there mainly so that there’s someone definitely bad for us to focus on. The ultimate ‘opponent’ for Sebastian is Myra, his ex-wife, whom he never believed when it mattered. She told him what was really going on with Lily, years ago, and he called her crazy.

Myra is visualised in a transformed state, ‘flickering’ between herself and a more sinister form. She and Sebastian have a platitude-filled exchange near the game’s close, in their old home. It’s a discussion with overtones of time lost and familial failure, before Myra leaves, there’s a knock at the door, and he snaps awake.

TEW2’s climax begins with a colour-drained wasteland, at the centre of which is the same Castellanos family home. The game also began here, replaying Sebastian’s feverish everyday nightmare of failing to save his daughter. He approaches the quiet house, and we see Lily’s firstperson perspective from her upstairs bedroom – this article’s opening image – before Myra emerges and tells him to back off, saying only she can protect their daughter. They argue before Myra tries to stab Sebastian and he responds with a shot to the face, after which Myra’s visage cracks and she transforms into a gigantic, rage-filled humanoid form. If only Jung was a game critic.

This opposition is on one level nakedly objectionable: Sebastian displacing his guilt onto Myra, who thought she could protect Lily better than he could, and beating her down. As Myra survives the fight this interpretation only goes so far but it’s there. From Sebastian’s point of view, Myra is… well, his ex-wife but also now a house-sized monster that embodies his guilt and her anger.

Time to get the shotgun, right? One of TEW2’s problems is that the only interactive language it really has is combat: any kind of climactic scene between Sebastian and Myra has to involve a fight. It helps that the universe is a fragmented reflection of various psyches, but the last boss being a monstrous form of Sebastian’s ex-wife has blunt implications, to put it mildly.

I say blunt rather than crass because, as with most things in Sebastian’s life and mind, Myra isn’t so much a rounded character as a symbol of his past failures. Not just his failure to believe Myra in the real world, but his inability to help in here when he realises what is happening, the inevitability of their slide towards confrontation, and the definitive break-up of the ending — where Myra keeps STEM stable to allow Sebastian and Lily to escape. What precipitates everything in this final scene is Sebastian’s plea that they can be a family again. Myra’s rejection means Sebastian saves his daughter from STEM but, in the process of doing so, the family is shattered anew.

For its conclusion TEW2 moves into Hollywood mode, switching between Sebastian and Lily trying to escape and STEM agent Kidman, who’s trying to get them out. It’s a pulse-pounding way to end and, after some breathless transitions, all three escape. The rich thematic buildup isn’t explored in the short closing sequences, which show STEM shutting down before a post-credits coda with Sebastian and Lily driving off into a sunny future — in the final shot, of course, an abandoned terminal at the STEM facility trembles to life.

Well, it had to have some kind of ending. The game’s charge has already gone off: the things that hurt Sebastian most are not monsters. They’re the actions he’s already taken, the unforeseen consequences which have to be lived with, and trying to make those mistakes good — alongside the constant mental re-enactment of the same.

The genius of the Evil Within, and this wonderful sequel, is in consigning the genre expectations of “body horror” to the museum. Then its jagged, juxtaposed scenarios move onto a more internalised vision of what exactly body horror — an empathetic flinch at the agony of human form — can be. For most people living in developed societies, horror in the form of physical trauma doesn’t bear much relation to everyday life. But no-one else knows about the little battles raging constantly in each person’s mind.

The Evil Within is explicit about this world’s fiction — both games take place in other people’s heads, with Sebastian’s own consciousness somehow melded in there. The original felt surreal but personal, and I once thought it was almost a personal journey for its director that involved laying old ghosts to rest. Years ago I met Shinji Mikami and asked him about Resident Evil 4, as I imagine most people do, and he said it was at some level about fear of crowds. I found it a striking thing to say and for the next few days, whenever I pushed through Tokyo’s packed streets, I idly wondered about what would happen if they all turned on me.

The Evil Within 2’s slicker presentation and aptitude for hiding surprises means you can play this as a straight-up horror adventure, and it hits all the right notes. Valentini is a great villain; Sykes is a perfect buddy character; the combat’s superb, and some of the set-pieces will turn you white. Then right at the middle of all this great action is a traumatised man and the family he’s failed.

I couldn’t help wondering about these themes of lost time, broken families, and regret without wondering why they were here at all. Then the context hit me. STEM is one of those skewed sci-fi reflections of contemporary phenomena; it takes the name from the oft-heard acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the four areas of expertise regarded as critical for our times. It is no contradiction to note that, in terms of technological progress and economic potential, STEM is clearly critical — but at the same time, as an educational principle, is so blinkered about human life. We may soon live in a world where everyone can program, but what kind of place will that be, if this army of programmers knows nothing about art, empathy or our many human languages?

The Evil Within’s STEM machine is a biological and mental social network – it literally connects people. This STEM is a warped representation of something like Facebook, an imaginary space of connection and collaboration where — whatever the intentions — we don’t really understand the destination or how it may affect us now and in the future. Maybe you can imagine a world where something like STEM will be common in old folks’ homes, serving the lonely an illusion of comfort and warmth and engagement while, in the real world, the bedpans overflow. It is surely worth pondering, in an age where social relationships are a virtual commodity, what a personal connection really is.

The company behind STEM, Mobius, manifests our distrust of corporations. The paranoia about their activities, the men in suits, the people who exert control over aspects of our lives, and can’t be stopped. Do you think Mobius pays its taxes? Sebastian ultimately displaces his own failings here (“it’s them”) and maybe he’s right. We look at their concept for Union and, even if it were perfect, what do we see? The kind of picket-fence Americana with a Church and a Diner and an Auto Shop that only a bromide would imagine as heaven. It’s the most boring idea of paradise possible.

Here’s the killer detail – each time STEM has created a simulation, it’s failed. It suggests STEM has a fundamental problem, something that can’t be fixed with a different ‘core’ personality. Maybe it’s that the human mind recoils against homogeneity of thought, and being told how to behave and feel (the whole idea of STEM is that if the core is feeling happy, everyone does). The residents, after all, are turning because they remember themselves. Maybe it’s that the real world will eventually break through all technological fantasies. Or maybe it’s that when you get absorbed by these technologies the real world recedes — and you only notice the personal cost when it’s too late.

For Sebastian Castellanos, the relationships he values are ruined irrevocably by STEM; even when he does what he can, the damage remains. TEW2’s first half puts itself in the dock: the glorification of violence through video games and other media, which so many right-on thinkers tut about, is taken to Daily Mail-baiting aesthetic extremes. But in the second half the brocade is gone, and you realise that this quaint conception of horror belongs in a museum next to something like STEM.

For Valentini, STEM was a cultural tool. For Mobius and the preacher it is a means of obtaining power, of controlling others. For Mobius’s operatives, it’s a job. For Sykes, it is something to escape. For Sebastian Castellanos and his family, it ruins everything.

Ruvik, STEM’s creator and not a nice man by any means, made this machine to try and commune with his dead sister, the only person he’d ever cared about. In the original game Ruvik is central, and the horrific human costs of STEM are more explicit.

In TEW2 Ruvik is gone but STEM remains, in a notably less messy iteration. This simulation doesn’t have the first game’s rough edges and the detritus of failed experiments. The town of Union is designed by Mobius rather than imagined by Ruvik and, in theory, is regulated by an exemplary ‘core’ human. STEM 2.0 is a more refined piece of technology, further abstracted from what it’s actually doing.

Resident Evil is about a house filled with monsters. Straight-up fear of death, of harm, even at one remove. The Evil Within 2 has this surface level but keeps telling other stories, unearthing or implying deeper levels of mental trauma. It showcases several minds tormenting themselves – and details how past mistakes, in the end, keep tearing them apart.

There are a very few points throughout TEW2 where Ruvik’s face flickers on-screen for a brief second, but he’s not ‘in’ the game. Maybe some trace of him persists in STEM. Maybe it’s lodged somewhere in Sebastian’s mind. Maybe it’s that characteristic of technologies like STEM – they always leave a residue.