The Evil Within Interview: Resident Evil, Next-Gen & Mikami
We chat to Pete Hines and The Evil Within's producer Jason Bergman about reinventing the survival horror genre.
Published on May 28, 2013
The Evil Within has a lot of promise, and if you're at all interested in survival horror - or even classic Resident Evil games - then you'll want to pay attention to Bethesda's survival horror game.
Eager to find out more about The Evil Within, we sat down with Pete Hines and Jason Bergman to chat about the game, about Shinji Mikami - creator of Resident Evil and visionary behind The Evil Within - and how survival horror can fit on next-gen consoles.
From Bethesda's point of view, why did you want to get into the Shinji Mikami business?
Pete Hines: In general we are always looking to work with people whose work we respect and whose creativity we respect, who we share common ideals with from a game development standpoint, doing stuff that's new, different or pushing the boundaries, being willing to take chances and folk who are very passionate about what they do.
We knew Shinji and his work, and the idea of him creating a pure survival horror game and doing something that was very immersive and involved player choice, taking the genre back to its roots – that was the stuff that we at Bethesda identify with.
You're collecting a lot of prolific game designers under that banner: Machinegames, ex of Starbreeze, Harvey Smith and so on.. So working with people you creatively respect, that's the goal for you?
Hines: I think that's probably a good sign. To go back to your first question, in some respects it's not entirely about the game they want to make – when you talk about folks like Harvey and Shinji, Todd Howard, all of these guys, even though they work in different genres, you can kind of see a common thread between them in the kind of games you're trying to make, the kind of things that are important to them, that they're trying to bring out in a game like Dishonored, The Evil Within, Skyrim.
And I think there's a reason we gravitate towards those types of developers, those kind of creators, because they do have some common ideals that we think are crucial to making real games.
What kind of state do you think survival horror is in 2013, coming into it?
Hines: Well, I think the fact that we're saying 'we're taking the genre back to pure survival horror' probably speaks a good bit in terms...I guess we wouldn't be taking it there if we didn't think it wasn't there right now.
I think we recognise Shinji's goal in terms of the kind of experience he wants to create and how it cuts in different directions than in other survival horror games in terms of going a bit more action. Lots of guns, lots of ammo, lots of enemies to mow down.
That's not where Shinji got his start – I certainly think it's fair to call him the father of survival horror. If you look at some of his best-known work like Resident Evil 1, Resident Evil 4, what he and his team did with those games has a lot more in common with The Evil Within than some of the other stuff does.
That's not to say those games are good, bad or indifferent, it's just a fact that they don't focus as much on finding a balance between action and everything else you're doing: surviving, running away from stuff, solving puzzles, all of those different elements, and the weight that they hold within the game is not on the same level, I think that's fair to say.
Do you think action was an attempt to make those games more commercially viable, and is it possible to still sell a horror game in 2013/2014?
Hines: We had this conversation with a lot of folks last year under different circumstances, which was 'why are you doing new IP when nobody else is doing new IP, and doing this retro steampunk thief-y game when everyone else is doing sequels and shooters, and it's all about the multiplayer?'
Yeah, we still think people want to play that stuff. And we still are into what pure survival horror represents, and that's what this game is about.
How inspired was the poster by Cabin In The Woods' poster?
Bergman: See, everybody points that out, I didn't even notice it!
Hines: I've never even seen it! No, this was just sort of...
Bergman: When you play the game, you'll understand.
I was quite struck by the artistic direction in The Evil Within, this sort of grim realism and washed-out filters – what are your influences in that regard?
Bergman: Well it's meant to look like a horror movie, obviously. There's a film grain effect to it, but you'll notice the darks are very dark, very solid shadows, the art direction at Tango is fantastic.
The lighting, in particular – they're very, very precise about where lights are placed and where shadows are cast. Next-gen allows us to do things that are really cool -
Hines: The aspect ratio.
Bergman: Yeah, [it] prevents you from seeing the floor. Any time you take something away from the player they're very used to, it makes them uncomfortable and so, bringing in the camera just that little bit...I don't know if you noticed, but when you open doors, he opens them really slowly.
So Sebastian sees in what's on the other side of the door before you do. And so the player's like, 'open the fucking door already!' And Sebastian's doing it really slowly, and there could be something on the other side of the door.
By the way, it's worth mentioning, there's an alternate way to open doors – you can kick doors open, but enemies will hear that and spring out of shadows at you.
Hines: You don't have to creep or walk everywhere, there are just dire implications to not doing that. The Evil Within is not an easy game, it is not a game that is being set out to be incredibly difficult, but it is a game where the difficulty is part and parcel with the experience.
It can't feel casual and easy to get through because it tends to underplay the horror aspect of it. You can run down the hallway, but it'll set something off and you'll die badly.
You do that enough times where you realise, 'this game is just punishing me for trying to blow through it'. And again, it's back to that pacing thing of setting pacing that is a little slower and makes you more conscious that you scoot to the edge of your seat, because you're building tension as you're going through, as opposed to blitzing through and shooting stuff in the head.
Bergman: It says something that when I demo this game, I genuinely get scared. I came close to dying in that demo.
See, I couldn't tell if that was orchestrated or not...
Hines: The guys coming through that window – it's different every time. It was like, which ones are gonna come through in which order.
Bergman: I was that close to dying.
Hines: Who comes through and how many get hit by the mines is different every time you play the game. When things don't happen as you expect every time, that just adds another level of drama. If every time you shot a guy in the head they died from a headshot, that's too predictable. So when you shoot a guy in the head and you miss and he keeps coming...
Bergman: Some you'll shoot in the head and they'll shake it off and keep coming at you. It's like, 'fuck, now what am I going to do?'
Hines: So all of a sudden that [thought] of, 'two enemies, two bullets – oh, I'll just shoot them in the head'. Well, you can, but is that going to work and give you the result you want, or is this the time the guy shakes that off and you have no bullets? What the hell are you going to do now?
So there are some encounters where you just have to run because you've got no choice?
Bergman: Oh, you're going to have to run. Hiding in the locker like I did, I don't know if you noticed but a little stealth icon appears. You can hide under beds and partitions, there are lots of places to hide and you will hide a lot.
So there's a real emphasis on player choice in how you handle these situations?
Hines: Oh yeah. The encounter Jason has with the chainsaw guy – there's a couple of different ways you can get through that encounter, it's really just down to you figuring out the way you want to solve this scenario.
Something I really liked about the demo – and I'm not sure how finished your HUD is – the health bar being as long as it is. Because you have the aspect ratio written into the DNA of the game design, it creates quite a unique sense of tension watching it sink as much as it does...
Bergman: It goes down fast!
Hines: It's still early on, that's very much in progress...
Bergman: It's been around for a while, so maybe. Everything could still change.
What were the motivations for making this cross-gen?
Hines: You know, we have a basic philosophy at Bethesda, which is we make games for people who like to play games, and we would like for as many people as possible to play the games as we have imagined them.
If it means making a lot of sacrifices or cutting to features to make it run on this, that or the other, well then we just won't do it, because that's not the game we're making – we're making this one.
In the case of this, new consoles coming out, there's going to be a lot of people playing on a lot of different platforms, no reason to not have it work on those.
There are some things that, where applicable, that we can add on next-gen hardware to enhance it even further. But only where they add to the experience as intended, and aren't just features for features' sake.
Jason referenced before that things like shadows look the way they do intentionally, that there are other options, more detailed versions of things we could be doing, but Mikami-san has a very specific vision for how he wants the game to look and so they're not going to do this, and they're not going to do that, so...
Bergman: It's also worth mentioning we're using id Tech 5, and the engine scales exceptionally well as I'm sure you've seen on various PCs. The engine just runs really well – we could keep throwing stuff at it and it would run.
Hines: As we've seen several years ago, id Tech 5, when Carmack designed it, was meant for where consoles are going next, and so it does nicely align with the hardware that's been revealed and the kinds of things that those platforms are looking for in an engine.
How close to next-gen was the demo you showed us yesterday, then?
Bergman: That was more than current gen, not quite next gen. That was running on a decent PC. Like, current plus.
Does making it cross-gen hold you back at all in terms of design? Do you have to account for the PS3 and 360's capabilities at all?
Hines: Yeah – I guess it would be silly to say no. At the same time, I think it all fits within...it's more about Shinji. Everything in this game goes through one filter, which is Shinji. Literally.
He is the one who says, 'I know what I want this game to be, I know exactly what it looks like and I know exactly how it plays.' And everything that gets added to the game goes through that filter, and that filter is more important than the PS3 filter or the 360 filter, the PC filter or the next-gen console filter.
I think given what we already have and where we are in development, those things are not restrictions for us from a development standpoint.
Again, we're working with a finished engine that's already shipped on that console, and to Jason's point, it's very scaleable and adaptable, especially with all the work Tango's done – that should not go unmentioned, they've done a lot of work to add stuff to the engine, to make it play even nicer in third-person, dynamic lighting and all those things.
In terms of Bethesda's relationship with Tango, how much of a collaboration is it between the two parties, or is Tango very much left to its own devices?
Hines: Well collaboration is a weird word, because it gives the sense that he's sitting down and we're deciding together what it is. I would say that in a lot of respects, we're a good sounding board for him to bounce his ideas of.
And not necessarily just ideas – although there is a lot of that – or stories, characters, creatures or whatever, but it's more just, let's get it in the game and see how it plays in the game. Shinji and Tango have the ability to send over a build – not just for Jason and me to play, but guys from Machinegames to play, guys from Bethesda to play, guys from id, from Arkane, get a chance to play his stuff and send their notes on it.
“I didn't understand this” or “I really loved this”, that sort of thing. That’s not exclusive just to Tango, that’s how we work as a publisher.
When we hit certain points along development, whether it be Dishonored or whatever, folks from the other studios get the chance to playtest it and provide some feedback – I loved this, I didn’t understand this, what are you going for here; I think that’s a very healthy part of the process.
We recognise it adds value – and again, it’s a sounding board, it’s not a list of, ‘okay, these are the top five things you have to change about your game’. Here’s the feedback, here’s what everyone is saying. We collect it all into a digestible pile and they’re able to take a look at it and prioritise.
So you get a little bit of all of your studios across all of your games?
Bergman: Mikami knows what he’s doing, and that’s an important thing. We’re not here to tell Mikami how to make a game, or how to make a survival horror game – I don’t think there’s anyone more qualified in the world than Mikami.
Hines: To have all those studios work independently of each other would be criminally stupid – we do formal meetings where we get different studios together at our offices, we have producer-level meetings or art-level meetings or whatever. Particularly on id tech, where you’ve got MachineGames or Tango working on it, there’s a collaboration and back and forth there.
It’s interesting, because I’ve only ever heard of that happening at Sony before – but I guess it makes so much sense with your range of developers. Do you envision The Evil Within as a franchise?
Hines: Absolutely. We tend not to focus on anything where we go, ‘let’s make one of those and never do it again’. We go into anything thinking, ‘we’re going to do this well and do this right’, and if it’s really successful and people are clamouring for it. I can’t imagine a scenario where we just do one survival horror thing and never doing it again.
Bergman: That said, Mikami is very keen on creating a satisfying, self-enclosed gaming experience. You’re not going to have a cliffhanger ending. It’s not going to be a trilogy that takes ten years to tell.
Hines: In the same way with Dishonored. We didn’t set out to do that once and just leave it – it’s a self-contained thing. Every Elder Scrolls game is self-contained. You don’t know anything about it, you can come in on the third one, fourth one or fifth one, and you get it start to finish. It’s a self-contained thing. This is in the same vein. It’s all about this one.
I got a real sense of mythology at the demo, too – that there’s a real backstory that can support a franchise. I’ll be honest – I had no idea what was going on.
Hines: Which is good, because you’re not supposed to! There’s supposed to be at least five different moments in that demo where you’re like, ‘what the hell is going on?’
That’s part of the game. You’re supposed to be playing through this thing as Sebastian and both of you are supposed to be going, what the hell has happened to me, what is going on? How did I get here? All of that is part and parcel of keeping you a little bit off-balance and playing that survival horror [aspect].
And that was the prologue – what’s going to happen in chapter five?
Bergman: Oh, wait until you see chapter five!
Going back to next-gen a little bit, what are your general impressions of Xbox One and PS4 reveals so far?
Bergman: The hardware’s awesome.
Hines: I think we would just speak to the hardware side – they’re great consoles to develop for. We are thrilled how much more closely aligned they are in terms of what they’re trying to do, the jump from one to another, and how they’re doing things is a lot closer than they have been in previous generations. They’ve been great to work with and develop for. As for the rest of it? We make games. And so, we’re focused on our thing.
You mentioned the game is structured around a divide between exploration and scripted horror sequences – how does it play out in any given chapter?
Bergman: It all depends on the specific level. It’s divided into chapters, and each chapter is organised in such a way that everything has to make you scared. It’s not going to be all exploration, it’s not going to be all horror – they’re called Mikami zones, the horror zones – everything is paced very deliberately. When it comes to designing a chapter, Mikami sits down and he plots it all out, that’s how it’s done.
How deliberate are the Mikami touches in the game? The sound of chainsaws, the way doors open slowly…
Bergman: It’s all very crafted. There are all kinds of little touches in the game that you probably didn’t notice. the door slowly opening, how Sebastian can see inside before you can. There are lots of touches like that.
I snuck by, picked up the key and walked upstairs – if you look down to the work area where the chainsaw guy was chopping up the body before; he’s gone when you look down there. Suddenly he’s not there. You trip the alarm, and he’s right behind you. It’s all very crafted.
Every aspect of this game has, in the schedule, Mikami Time, where Mikami goes in and tweaks things to make it even scarier. It’s been remarkable to see the changes he makes at the end of every week to ratchet up the scary.
How do you think this compares to Resident Evil, stylistically and gameplay-wise?
Bergman: I think it calls back to the first Resident Evil. 4 was the transition away from pure survival horror, as Mikami thinks of it. It was half and half. There was a lot of action and there was a lot of exploration and resource management, and there were a lot of QTEs.
And he tried it, he did it, and he’s done with that – and now he wants to take it back to the roots of the genre. Which isn’t to say Resident Evil 4 isn’t a brilliant game, because it is. But he felt like that was a transition away from what he really wanted.