The Evil Within 2 reads like a horror adaptation of The Matrix. That’s not hyperbole. Your character (Sebastian Castellanos) gets jacked-into a networked subreality called STEM. It may have a different name, but the same Matrix rules apply: you go through a loading area to prep for the main (virtual) world, it feels real to everybody living there. And if you die there, you die here. There’s even Agent Smith-like goons who run things. However, it diverges from Matrix references the moment you’re attacked by a monster made of human limbs and saw blades that sounds like a maniacally laughing teenage girl.
I started noticing glowing objects all over the ground: a bottle for tossing and distracting here. A pile of weapon parts there. An herb for crafting restorative items. It all feels familiar to those of us who grew up on Resident Evil. Then the game alerts me that I can sneak up on a zombie (“the Lost”), and go for a stealth-kill. Having not played the first Evil Within, this feels refreshingly novel. I remove the Lost blocking my path, scoop up the green gel it drops (used for upgrades) and walk away feeling kinda badass. Of course, that feeling goes away when I accidentally wake-up a Lost I thought was already dead, and misfire three shots in the scramble and end up dead.
Fortunately the game’s autosaves are generous.
The game subtly trains me to keep an eye out for any helpful items, keep my distance (unless sure of a clear shot), and to live comfortably with the likelihood that I’m going to die at any moment.
In an abandoned home, I found a hatch to a basement that led to a computer. This computer took me to “the marrow:” an area that connects all the rest of STEM (like a virtual subway system). There, I found a powered-up Lost member who was croaking and generally making awful sounds. As before, I went for a stealth-kill… which resulted in only making her angrier, and slashing in my direction. The first three times, she killed me. This initiated something within me: a willingness to learn from my mistakes, grow from it, and make sure it didn’t happen again. It happened again. I finally overcame this “Hysteric” and worked my way towards the tool the game was gating behind learning this valuable life lesson: a shotgun.
What it lacks in originality, The Evil Within 2 made up for by kicking in the hyper-focus that comes from survival instinct. The fight-or-flight mechanism that reminds me that I want to overcome what is right in front of me, and gives me the brainpower to see a way around the difficult problem.
Daphne Bavelier’s famous Ted Talk on videogames frames things under the basic simple neuroscientific fact: action gamers have heightened brain activity. Giving somebody control in a deadly situation creates the opposite effect of fear: emboldened courage. This is why survival horror games like The Evil Within 2 are so exceptional: they defy the limitations of the passive medium that inspires their visuals—Horror movies—and creates a “can win” subconscious definition of the scenario. Thus when you play a well-designed survival horror game, the theme becomes overcoming horror. Not celebrating despair.
This applies directly to The Evil Within 2 when I’m suddenly introduced to a multi-headed human centipede in the game’s fourth chapter: suddenly I can focus with clarity. I shoot the monstrosity dead, heal up from my lacerations, and keep moving forward.
I’m not going to suggest that life would always be better if we lived in survival mentality, because we all know that the soul needs rest. But despite The Evil Within 2’s seeming desire to scare me: I am delighted to think healthily about what is in front of me in my life that’s immediately important. That is, a little consideration of mortality makes me think more clearly.