At some point, something happened and I stopped liking roller coasters. This was news to me. I used to love them as a kid. I was the first one running back down and around to the back of the line to ride them again. Now my stomach lurches and my neck feels uncomfortable and I'm breathing through the loops and lunges. Did I get old? What happened?
I feel the same way about horror games now. I love them, but I'm not sure I can handle them anymore.
I love to be scared -- genuinely scared. I like carefully navigating creepy mansions and solving puzzles as quickly as I can before whatever that voice is in the background catches up to me. That's the second half of the roughly hour and a half of what I spent with The Evil Within about two weeks ago.
In a conference room in the lower levels of a hotel in Los Angeles two weeks ago, Bethesda set up rows of PCs for a group of journalists to play two chapters of The Evil Within -- chapters 4 and 8. The lights were off, black curtains were draped around each station, and a fan was blowing right beside where I chose to sit. It was meant to keep temperatures down in a room full of PCs and players, but I was shivering a bit. It'd also rustle my hair every so often, which would get caught on passersby trying to get through behind me -- and if you have long hair, you know how creepy that can feel. Once someone accidentally kicked me under the table. Another time one of the developers tapped me on the shoulder to try to scare me. There was a "panic button" on each demo station's table -- but, really, it was just a light (though I never pressed it). Bethesda certainly set the scene, and my own neuroses didn't help.
Chapter 8 of The Evil Within is centered on one big brain puzzle -- almost literally so. Playing as a detective character named Sebastian, you walk through the doors of a mansion and find two characters that you were once escorting back in chapter 4. They run through a second set of heavy metal doors that lock shut behind them. Sebastian sighs, and I start to search every corner for resources. I'm looking for pistol and shotgun bullets, med kits, equipment that will help me craft arrows for my crossbow, and even the green goo that you use to level Sebastian up (even though that part of the game was turned off for this demo -- I'm a collector, what can I say).
Once I've thoroughly analysed every crevice, I move on to the doors that aren't locked tight. I choose to creep through some, the doors creaking as I slowly open them, camera angle frustratingly obscured by Sebastian's back. Creeping through doors might be more advantageous to not getting noticed, but the anticipation and obfuscation of the room as you're doing so gets to me every time. What am I going to see there? Will whatever is inside see me first? Will I have time to react? Do I have enough bullets? Is my pistol even equipped?? I lean left and right trying to get a better view around Sebastian, even though I know this is useless. Like leaning when playing a racing game -- it does not actually move your car in that direction, just so you know.
So I started busting through doors instead, especially when I can hear that there's something breathing heavily behind it. Eventually I make my way into what looks like a library.
At any point during The Evil Within you know that there's a presence looming. Ruvik is the main villain of The Evil Within, and he's impossible to even damage. The only thing to do is hope your mind doesn't wander into insanity too much while you desperately try to run away from him. Oh, except he can teleport, so sometimes that doesn't even matter. But at any given point in The Evil Within, Ruvik can decide to appear, and so there's a constant fear that one step too far into a hallway or room or out some doors will trigger that event that sets off another confrontation. I'm under constant pressure just waiting for him to show up when I least expect it, heart alternating between soft, consistent thuds and rapid alerts screaming at me that I'm in danger.
Walking into that library, sure enough Ruvik appears. Great. Of course he does.
I was in the middle of trying to sneak around a crazed woman brandishing a knife, but who hadn't seen me yet. Sneaking behind enemies is already a risk, and this one is pacing in circles so I'll have to time this right. But Ruvik throws me completely off course.
His appearance set me running around the library like a madman and in doing so, of course, I catch her attention. By the time my screen settled from the Ruvik encounter and my focus started to come back, all I see is this woman lunging at me, looking like she's just taken a leisurely stroll through the sewer, knife coming at my face. I survive the attack, my reserves of ammunition hurting pretty bad. I may have lay one too many bullets in her.
I see a ladder and walk upstairs to the second level. Like a cat, I think maybe it's safer one flight up where I can observe from a distance. But, no, there's another monster-human here. This time, having just had a little practice and adrenaline still flowing from the Ruvik encounter, I manage to fend him off. While I'm lighting him on fire -- the only way to be sure that these things are dead is to blow their heads off with a shotgun or set them on fire with your (limited) matches -- I notice a few more enemies walk into the library back on the first level.
All of that noise I made must have attracted them. At first I'm nervous. I don't have much of my pistol or shotgun ammunition left, but fortunately these guys haven't quite noticed me yet. Seems that second floor safety thing was a good call after all. So I track a projection of the direction they're walking in and use my crossbow to plant a few traps. They walk over them and explode on the spot. I go back downstairs, feeling pretty good about probably not having to face another encounter for at least a few minutes. As a regular gamer, you learn the ebb and flow of enemy encounters, even if horror games are somewhat less predictable. I sneak around one of the mansion's own traps, complete a quick mini-game while I hack the trap, and gather the bits of metal and whatever else from it that I can later use to craft more of my own traps and arrows.
When I finally make it to the end of this wing of the mansion, I crawl into a room and approach the desk inside it. There's a human brain sitting right on top, poked and prodded by what look like nails. Not trusting the silence, I take a few seconds to move around and make sure I'm not setting off any enemy encounters. I feel like I've got the all-clear, so I take a breath and focus on the brain.
As I examine it, I play a doctor's audio notes. "I need resources, Jimenez," it says. Something about breaking people's minds seems to have granted the doctor access to a different realm, the same creature-filled one Sebastian ended up in. The notes give me a hint as to where to stab with a needle next. I'm not studying the map of the brain too well while listening to these hints because I'm paranoid someone will show up any second now. I must be taking too long, right? There's a timer and Ruvik is probably coming for me. Someone is going to pop up behind me. If I mess up, I'll probably get a spike through my back. Something something something is going to happen. So I stab the brain a few times, futilely, injuring Sebastian in the process. I'm wondering why he'd be connected, physically, to this brain, but I die before I can think about it too much. Because I've stabbed this brain to oblivion way too hastily.
Game loads back up, and I have to do that whole sequence again. I mean that whole sequence. I mean back at the front of the mansion, going through all the doors again, facing all those enemies behind them again, getting back through that library and back into the room with the desk. When I realise that the game checkpoints after you complete the brain puzzle, my stomach drops. "I have to do all that again?" I lamented. I could barely make it through the first time!
But sure enough I make my way back again, at least armed with some previous knowledge of where things are and when encounters with Ruvik happen. I'm back at the brain and a little more calm, a little more ready to be the good gamer and play nice with the tools I've been given. I carefully examine the brain map, and know exactly where to stab with the needle. I was so determined that I almost forgot I was stabbing a brain with a needle. What a thing to be asked to do -- but, desperate times and what not.
When I do, a tube of blood fills up and later, back at the locked door, one of three chambers of blood fill up, too. I have a second brain and a vault with a key code to break through before that door will open. I'm getting antsy and looking around to see only a few journalists are left still playing. "I'm the worst at this," I thought. But I trudge through. I may have a weak stomach, but I'm not a quitter! Plus, as I found out later, not everyone that left early finished the demo like I did. So, take that, or something.
Chapter 8's puzzles and controlled sequences -- like running from an oncoming wave of blood or trying to untangle a wire from your leg before you're crushed to death -- were an entirely different experience from the earlier chapter of the game I played.
Chapter 4 was focused more on combat. There were instances where I was running from the very creepy four-armed Laura -- who appears to be Ruvik's sister -- but combat dominated the tone of chapter 4. Within just a few seconds of starting the demo, I was face-to-face with this doctor gone mad:
I unloaded a few rounds in him, realised he'd barely flinched, and ran upstairs to regroup. I searched a few rooms and scrambled back to the stairs to see if he'd followed me. Nothing. Where'd he go? Did the game hiccup? So I shrugged and went back outside to wander around a shed. Finding no way to enter the locked shed I turned around, intent on exploring the other huts and houses around the rainy map. Just as I turned around, thinking I'm safe, the good doctor is two inches from my face and about to dice my head off before I instinctively pushed him off and shot him a few more times until he died. One too many slugs in him, too.
Fast forward beyond a few trippy scenes of running aimlessly after encountering Ruvik for the first time -- the corridor changing scenes and directions as I ran -- and I'm somehow teleported, diving into a pool of thick blood. I saw the areas where the blood clumped up and I could practically smell it. As I made my way around the body dumps, I climbed out of the pool of blood and reorganized my thoughts. My stomach was churning. I assessed the area, noted where there are traps, disassembled them, noted the cans of propane strewn about. "I guess I'm about to be in a big fight," my gamer-trained brain chimed in.
Soon enough I was trying to get through the door at the other end of this morgue/sewer-looking area when Ruvik surprised me. When he's gone I saw that the bodies floating around in the blood pool had been reanimated and were now hightailing it over to me.
None of these undead things are too fast, but my brain tricked me into a panic anyway and I wasted bullets and traps and freaked out way too much.
So, I died.
And then I tried again, this time setting up traps in advance and kicking the propane tanks to appropriate doorways. I practiced swapping between weapons in my weapon wheel -- because accessing it doesn't freeze time, it just slows it down. I approached the door again to set Ruvik off, completely nervous but prepared.
I didn't die this time.
When I was younger I used to pride myself on my tough stomach. I'd watch Ichi the Killer all the way through like it was no big deal. But something changed somewhere along the way and I've lost my ability to withstand certain levels of gore and tension. I've lost my stomach for roller coasters, and I really don't know how much more The Evil Within I can play.
I left the demo station and walked through the hotel to the outdoor area where Bethesda was hosting journalists for some idle chatting and drinks. It took me a few minutes to navigate my way there, but I was still shaking ever so slightly the entire time.
The Evil Within releases on October 21 of this year for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. It was originally slated for late August.