Interview: Shinji Mikami and John Johanas on The Evil Within, jump scares, and VR

We first saw The Evil Within franchise back in 2014, and the debut of the new horror IP from Shinji Mikami, one of the men behind Resident Evil, was full of gory horror and tense combat. That original game wasn't without its flaws, but it was popular enough to earn a sequel, which is coming out in just a few weeks. I had a chance to go hands-on with The Evil Within 2 for an hour at a recent press event, and was left with my heart pounding and my head full of questions after two challenging boss battles. 

Immediately after my hands-on demo I spoke with The Evil Within 2 director John Johanas and excutive producer Shinji Mikami (director on the first game, but taking more of a supervisory role on this sequel), and asked the two questions about the structure of the new game, the kinds of themes and scares we can expect, and what interest the team might have in making a virtual reality horror title. Mikami answered questions through a translator.

GameCrate: In the portion of The Evil Within 2 that I just played, what stood out to me is that there was a boss fight, then a lot of creepy stuff, then another boss fight, with no regular enemies in between. Is that going to be typical of the pace of the game? 

John Johanas: It's the pace of that particular section. There are a lot of different sections of the game. Before that section you experience the more open levels that we've created, in which you can spend a lot of time exploring and moving at your own pace. I think what you played this time was one of the more crafted experiences, something more similar to the play style of the first game. 

GC: There was a lot of camera imagery in the portion I played. Can you talk a bit about what role that plays in the game? Is that something that goes throughout the game, or is it in just this section? 

JJ: You probably saw as you played through, there's an antagonist in the game, Stefano. The areas that you played are his realm, in a sense. He's an artist, and he has a camera himself, so he focuses on that. So what you experience is those worlds that those antagonists create. And that specific area that was in the demo was one of those locales. So for his area, that "art" sense, it may not all be cameras, but that presence is felt. There are also other sections which have their own different feel and theme to them. 

GC: Is The Evil Within 2 a stealth game, or is it an action game? What is the focus of how you play? 

JJ: Hopefully it's the type of game that you want it to be. Those elements are present in it. We designed it in the hope that if you want to play stealthy, you can play stealthy, if you want it to be more action focused, if you want to go guns blazing, you can play it guns blazing. And then there are parts where you are going to have to fight, and there are parts where maybe you can't fight back. But for the most part we tried to design it so that it's playable in a wide variety of ways.

GC: What is it that makes The Evil Within series distinct and different from other horror franchises? 

Shinji Mikami: Well first of all, the setting and world view of horror is different from others. So getting into somebody's mind or brain, and trying to survive in there and escape from there. 

GC: This demo was a tense experience. Is that your goal? Do you feel good if people are stressed, if people are unsettled? What are you trying to make people feel with these games? 

SM: Well just like with the first one, our aim is to make the player have a faster heartbeat, to get excited and so forth. In the first one, of course, it was a straight road ahead. There was not so much freedom for players. With this one we've set out a wider stage, and you could sort of slow down a little and enjoy and play. But also you can increase the speed and get more excited. So you can basically play at your own pace in a way in this second one. 

GC: They gave us the choice of difficulty settings when we played the demo, Casual, Survival, or Nightmare. Other than damage dealt and that sort of thing, are there any big differences between the difficulty settings? And do you consider any one of them the "right" way to play the game? 

JJ: We designed the difficulty levels less around "hey, it's this difficulty," and more around the style of play that you want. That's why we wrote these kind of long descriptions that you didn't see in this demo, since you already started with the difficulty there. So Casual is intended for people who want to enjoy the atmosphere and story of the game, and not really get bogged down by the difficulty that people assume is in the game, not that it's super easy, but they don't have to worry about that aspect. Survival is sort of a balance between the two, and Nightmare is sort of geared towards people who enjoyed the difficulty of the first game, which we even as developers agree was probably much too difficult for normal people to enjoy. 

We want people to have their own experience with it. With the higher difficulties the item arrangement is different, the enemy placement is slightly different. Even still, once you beat the game we have an additional difficulty unlocked which is sort of a throwback to the old modes where there's limited saves, no checkpoints, and no levelling up at all. So a little extreme mode for people who like that as well.  

The goal is that people aren't turned off by the difficulty of the game and that they want to experience the world that's in there. But there is no difficulty that we think is the "correct" one, I think it's more about play style. I know some people just like the story this time, and they actually prefer playing on Casual. Some people like the challenge of these games and they prefer playing on Nightmare. I'm personally a Nightmare type of person, I like that tension that I get from playing a game like that. But we have people on our staff who enjoy playing it on Casual and Survival as well. 

GC: We got to see a bit of the upgrade system in the demo, upgrading weapons and Sebastian himself. So how does that all work? 

JJ: It's kind of an extension of the stuff that's in the first game. In the first game there was really just parameter upgrades, and we thought, how can we make that a little more interesting to do? The original game just focused on attack power, and offensive things. Since we wanted to make different things more viable, we thought about how we can increase your ability to sneak, if people want to play that way. And then divide it between pickups that improve Sebastian himself, and you'll get weapon parts that improve the weapons. 

In the original game everything was tied into one, and so you really had to sacrifice one for the other. And while that was a strategic element to upgrading, it was a little bit of a burden for some people who didn't know what to do, or which direction to go. So changing it was more focused on how can people just pick and choose how they want to play and then work in that direction. 

GC: Another thing I noticed in the part of the game I played is that it was unsettling, but there weren't any jump scares. Was that a conscious decision? How do you feel about the role of jump scares and startling people in a horror game? 

SM: We didn't include too much of the jump scare element in this one. We don't intend to give players jump scares, but sometimes they themselves get jump scared, depending on the scene. 

JJ: We spent a lot of time thinking of how we can make the atmosphere itself enough, and fill in the blanks in that space. Jump scares, not to say that they are completely absent from the game, but for some people they work and for some people they feel cheap. But when they work, those people like them. So that element is there for those people as well. 

SM: In the beginning part there are some jump scare-ish moments. Maybe that's all. 

JJ: Is this demo I don't think there were any. 

GC: My last question: We're here with Bethesda, and they're doing a lot of focus on virtual reality. I've tried a lot of VR horror experiences, and I'm interested to get your perspective on virtual reality and horror, if you'd be interested in working in that field, and how you've felt about what VR horror you may have experienced or seen. 

SM: I believe VR and horror and very compatible elements that go well together, so I am extremely interested in it. 

GC: So should we expect The Evil Within VR or would it be something new? 

SM: Well we just finished this project, so we will maybe start thinking about it. 

The Evil Within 2 releases on Friday the 13th of October this year. For more, read our full hands-on impressions of the game