[Warning: discussions and depictions of homophobia and misogynistic violence to follow.]
Earlier this year, I played Bethesda Studios’ 2014 horror-survival game, The Evil Within, and enjoyed myself so much that I pounced on the opportunity to purchase the sequel, The Evil Within 2. The game came out in 2017, so I’m not that late to the party.
The game follows Sebastian Castellanos (the player-controlled character, voiced by Marqus Bobesich) three years after the events of The Evil Within. Unable to cope with the traumatic events at Beacon Mental Hospital and the death of his daughter, Lily, Sebastian has left the police force and descended into alcoholism. His former partner, Juli Kidman (voiced by Meg Saricks), finds him in this state and reveals that not only is Lily still alive but that she was abducted by Mobius, a secret organization that was behind the reality-altering STEM project in the first game (à la the Matrix). Mobius is using Lily as the Core, or power-source, for a new STEM, one that simulates a quaint American town called Union, but her precise location within the simulation has been lost, threatening the stability of the project and making her vulnerable to antagonists who desire her power for themselves.
One such antagonist, Stefano Valentini (voiced by Rafael Goldstein), stands out as an archetype of the queer-coded mad artist. Stefano is a former war photographer who, after capturing an explosion on camera, becomes obsessed with documenting the immediate moment of death. He is pale, slender, clean-shaven, and impeccably dressed in a tailored navy suit, red scarf, burgundy gloves, and polished dress shoes. His asymmetrical haircut covers the right side of his face, hiding (ironically) his damaged right eye.
Stefano caught my attention primarily because he bears some similarity to Sander Cohen (voiced by T. Ryder Smith), an antagonist from 2K Games’ 2007 first-person shooter, BioShock. BioShock is set in 1960, and follows the story of Jack (the player-controlled character, unvoiced) after his plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean, conveniently near the entrance to an underwater city called Rapture. As Jack explores the city, players learn that it was built by businessman Andrew Ryan as an Ayn Randian utopia, but descended into chaos after the introduction of substances (plasmids) that granted residents of Rapture superhuman powers. Cohen, one of the inhabitants of Rapture, is an “artist” who runs Fort Frolic, an area filled with theaters, bars, and shopping malls. Cohen’s flamboyance and artistic sadism (he creates “sculptures” by covering his murdered victims with plaster) is paired with the strong implication that he slept with his male protégés, which the player discovers as they battle each one and listen to various audio diaries. Silas’ audio diary in the Southern Mall says “I used to love you” (which may or may not be romantic) but also refers to Cohen ‘paying his rent.’ When fighting Martin in the Frozen Tunnel, Martin calls Cohen an ‘old grape’ and an audio diary in the same area refers to him as an ‘old fruit’ (a pejorative term for a homosexual). Hector’s audio diary in Eve’s Garden also calls Cohen an “old fruit,” and confronting him will trigger the ambiguous phrase “the things that man had me do…” In order to advance, the player must help Cohen track down and kill three of his protégés taking pictures of their dead bodies to install in an art project before moving to the next area in Rapture (there are four spots, but Cohen kills the first protégé himself when Jack enters Fleet Hall).
Superficially, the two “artists” share a similarity in that they are both considered hacks in their respective worlds, and both are characterized by their desperate need for attention and appreciation. In BioShock, Cohen’s level in Fort Frolic forces Jack to collaborate with him, and after leaving the area, Jack will hear from Andrew Ryan, who says, “[Cohen] rots in that never-land, waiting for someone to come and tell him he’s still got it.” Similarly, Stefano is initially driven to Mobius by the lack of appreciation for his art, frequently labeling his detractors “philistines” and “ignorant masses.” To top it off, both of them operate out of theaters, placing themselves on stages, beneath spotlights, and in other positions which highlight their respective performances.
Despite their murderous intentions, there is a sense of pleasure derived from watching characters like Cohen and Stefano because their villainy disrupts the status quo. Cohen disrupts heteronormativity, but also disrupts the progression from Arcadia to Hephaestus, thus making his level a sort of “stopover” separate from the main plot. As the YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit (run by Mark Brown) highlights, Fort Frolic moreover disrupts typical gameplay by offering antagonists called plastered splicers, which are not available in other areas of Rapture. They are made to resemble Cohen’s “sculptures” and are silent, unlike other splicers that make noise when attacking or talk to themselves, alerting the player to their location. They spawn when the player is not looking at them, moving and freezing in different positions until the player looks back around, and they leap into action when Jack gets close, using jump scares. Lastly, the arrow that typically guides the player through the various maps disappears altogether when the player enters the regions where the protégés are lurking, leaving the player to navigate the area and stumble upon their targets on their own.
Stefano, similarly, disrupts institutional hierarchies by murdering Mobius agents – those who seek to restore STEM to business-as-usual. He prevents Sebastian from uniting with his daughter, thus disrupting the nuclear family. He possesses powers which no other citizen or agent in Union have – he can freeze time and teleport, disrupting the “normal” flow of time as well as how bodies move through space. Though Sebastian never collaborates with Stefano the way that Jack collaborates with Cohen, the plot hinges on Sebastian acting on Stefano’s mandate to “appreciate the art.”
The mandate to “appreciate the art” is built into both video games. Game Maker’s Toolkit points out that Jack survives the level in BioShock by “respecting [Cohen’s] artistic vision” and “see[ing] the world through his eyes.” This is done through the violence in the game – because BioShock is a shooter, the mechanics themselves help build a sympathetic relationship between Jack and Cohen. There is no dialogue, so when Jack kills enemies at Cohen’s behest, Cohen allows Jack to live and rewards him because he is satisfied with their partnership. This sympathetic bond is reinforced by the fact (as Game Maker’s Toolkit also points out) that Cohen doesn’t stand behind protective glass, as other enemies do; instead, his physical vulnerability reflects the degree to which Cohen feels they have “shared the same vision.” Of course, players have the choice whether or not to kill Cohen, though the choice isn’t presented in a straight-forward manner. The screen does not prompt the player to do anything but instead allowing them to decide for themselves how to proceed. Thus, BioShock asks if Cohen deserves to die, especially given that Jack himself has committed horrific violence to make “art.” Regardless of what the player decides to do, completing the Fort Frolic level embeds Jack deeper into the world of Rapture, by acquiring more plasmids (the superhuman abilities discussed earlier), completing problematic errands for antagonists, becoming a pawn of Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine, etc. In other words, the more the player engages with the game, the more Jack is shown to be part of Rapture, both through the plot and through the mechanics.
Likewise, the plot of The Evil Within 2 tries to force Sebastian to “see the world through his eyes” through numerous chapters where Sebastian must navigate spaces filled with Stefano’s horrifying artwork. But unlike BioShock, The Evil Within 2 avoids implicating the player-controlled character in Stefano’s violence – for a time, at least. Sebastian is never asked to collaborate with Stefano the way that Jack collaborates with Cohen. Instead, Sebastian must destroy Stefano’s artwork in order to get closer to the man himself. However, as Rich Stanton points out, Sebastian is an audience for Stefano’s violence, a collaborator in a different sense.
Antonin Artaud, a 20th-century dramatist and theater director, is widely credited with conceptualizing the controversial “Theater of Cruelty” – a form of experimental theater in which the artist assaults the audience’s senses with “verbal incantations, groans and screams, pulsating lighting effects, and oversized stage puppets and props.” The purpose, Artaud argued in his manifesto, was to “transform its audience through primitive and violent expressions of unconscious fears and longings.” Violent imagery is meant to prompt positive social change – for example, staging a play about war and overwhelming the audience with images of violence can prompt anti-war sentiment. However, as Artaud points out, there is the danger of this type of theater taking on sadistic tones, and it can be exploitative, able to be deployed by both activists and fascists alike. Because art and performance can be wielded to suit ideological needs (see, for instance, the discussion about the complicated relationship between aesthetics and politics in YouTuber Natalie Wynn’s video, “The Aesthetic”), coupled with the implication that performance creates a relationship between the audience and the performer, it is easy to see how performance can intentionally breed complicity. Audiences react to performers, and performers react to audiences, feeding off one another to create shared experiences. What happens, then, when players in a horror video game, such as The Evil Within 2, are presented with horrendous imagery?
The Evil Within 2 is not directly inspired by Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, but I do want to explore the ways in which it similarly uses images of violence that literally surround the player in-game, tapping into “unconscious” fears and longings associated with misogyny. Stefano’s sadism is noticeably gendered, and the violence he commits against women is used as shorthand for his psychopathy. The first time the player encounters Stefano in Chapter 2, he has murdered a male victim, but Sebastian is able to explore the area, only to be taken through a series of rooms with some rather disturbing artwork.
His “sculptures” show body parts reassembled into monstrous and grotesque forms, and while some body parts may be male, their presentation is decidedly feminine.
Some of the rationale for these creative decisions can be chalked up to trends in horror storytelling, particularly narratives following serial killers. Carolyn Murnick writes of Western culture’s obsession with the brutalization of women:
When we talk about serial killers, as we have been so frequently lately, we’re really talking about power and gender and fear. We’re talking about revolting, inhuman, outrageous, thunderous violence. We’re talking about the things men can do to women and the way they do them. (Obviously, serial killers also target men, but it seems most of the media attention goes to the ones who kill white women)… When crime shows aren’t eclipsing the stories of female victims, they’re objectifying them. When they’re not staging corny reenactments, they’re dishing out graphic visuals and calling it entertainment. The male killer and his complicated, devious brain is always the focus, at the expense of everyone else. Inside the Mind of a Whatever, To Catch a Blah, Blah — it’s all the same. And we, the viewers, seem to fall for it every time. We’re titillated by gore and extreme violence.
Of course, The Evil Within 2 is a horror game, and Stefano is unambiguously positioned as a serial killer. However, because video games are, by their very nature, immersive in ways that television and movies are not, it’s worth thinking through how surrounding the player with images and sounds of brutalized women creates a troubling relationship between Sebastian and Stefano – one that taps into unconscious attitudes towards women in Western culture more generally.
Dorian Dawes makes an argument about the portrayal of women in the game as a whole, claiming that it largely paints women as victims. Dawes specifically writes of Stefano: While he seems to have no preferred gender when it comes to most of his victims, the way he treats women has a particular sexual bent. Their femininity and sexuality is key to the creation… As details of Stefano’s work come clear, it is learned that these are visions of how Stefano sees women, these are images pulled from his psyche and through STEM are made real.” Importantly, Dawes points out that such treatment of women is not limited to Stefano. All female characters and monsters within the game are built in service to men and male perception. Dawes writes:
The victims-as-monsters trope also sees a subversion within both games given the unique nature of the virtual setting. STEM is not reality, or at least, is only a reflection of reality. Remember, the entire game takes place within a virtual world maintained and created by the subconscious minds inside of it. Laura, the Obscura, and the Guardian are reflections of those victims, and how they are perceived by the men who knew them. The Laura-creature is a perception created by the guilt of her brother, and Obscura and Guardian are the reflection of how Stefano views his victims. The victims themselves are not the monsters to be destroyed, but rather the perceptions of men, some of which who were participants in their victimization.
Ultimately, Dawes lands on the assertion that these monsters represent “our culture’s discomfort and unwillingness to look upon these difficult aspects of our society,” and that we demonize victims because of our unwillingness to engage with these aspects. However, I want to put more pressure on the claim that Stefano’s creations are all about perception, that his creations are reflective of the dehumanizing way he sees women. While it may be argued that The Evil Within 2 participates in the same tropes that Murnick discusses, the game itself makes no secret that it is very aware of feminist criticisms, thus creating a wrinkle in a straightforward “this game is just sexist titillation” approach.
When Sebastian first learns of Stefano, Kidman provides him with a number of documents [ed note: see previous coverage on VoC] about his life prior to Mobius and STEM, one of which is a rather scathing review from a critic about his early work:
Shock. Disgust. Outrage. These are some of the public’s reactions to artist Stefano Valentini’s solo show at the Krimson City Gallery. For this critic, the reactions were just as strong, but for an entirely different reason. While Valentini obviously sees himself as a provocateur, I merely see a mildly talented craftsman who attempts to create controversy with his simplistic vision.
Reducing the female form to an assemblage of sexualized parts may work if it’s done for the right reason – to highlight society’s objectification of women – but Valentini seems content to merely revel in the grotesquery for the sake of titillation…
The clipping is meant to give the player some insight into Stefano’s character, perhaps shifting some blame to this review for some of Stefano’s more sadistic tendencies. But rather than flipping a middle finger to feminist criticism, I think The Evil Within 2 uses Stefano’s misogynistic violence to implicate the player in an aesthetics of violence without drawing them into the same kind of direct complicity as BioShock. The difference seems to be that The Evil Within 2 requires an understanding of the aesthetic vision, not just enacting the steps in the artist’s vision or plan. Throughout the game, the player is shown ways in which Stefano literally breaks down women into individual body parts, and players need to directly interact with the environment of the video game in order to advance the plot. This means there are puzzles that need to be solved, enemies that must be defeated, and arcs that must be followed if the player hopes to get anywhere. Players, in other words, must interact with Stefano’s twisted artistic vision, which carries the risk of a sympathetic bond between the protagonist and antagonist.
For example, Chapter 5 has Sebastian follow Stefano to City Hall, where we learn about Stefano’s (presumably) first victim, an actress named Emily Lewis. Upon entering the inner rooms of City Hall, Sebastian is presented with a puzzle involving a mannequin and several accessories. The goal of this puzzle is to recreate a photo that is hanging on the wall – a photo that we later learn is of Emily.
By recreating the photo, the game draws parallels between the thing-ness of the materials and the thing-ness of Emily’s body. Both are able to be manipulated by male characters: Sebastian places the objects in the room just as Stephano posed Emily’s body, and though Sebastian is working with inanimate materials, Stefano works with human bodies, literally objectifying them by turning them into things devoid of life to be shaped according to his artistic vision. By recreating the photo, Sebastian approximates a shared vision with Stefano, albeit without using an actual body.
Successfully completing this mannequin puzzle will open up a hallway for Sebastian to explore. Within this hallway is a newspaper clipping, which alerts the citizens of Union to a serial killer in their midst (obviously Stefano) by recounting the discovery of Emily Lewis’ headless corpse. As Sebastian walks forward, gruesome pictures tell the story of what Stefano did to Emily.
The message scrawled on the wall at the end of the hallway instructs Sebastian to “appreciate” the art. Rich Stanton writes for Kotaku about the use of gore as art in The Evil Within 2, arguing that body horror in Stefano’s art is, in part, reflective of body horror as “art” in video game development. He writes of this puzzle as emblematic of the themes surrounding Stefano’s representation, and ends with a surprising commentary on Sebastian’s complicity:
In the rooms where Valentini’s ‘replaying’ deaths are found, you’ll always find an angle that shows the shadowy spread of the particles; more abstract than the overt gore, and almost kaleidoscopically hypnotic.
And each has the same backing track. After all, what would an artistic baddie be without a leitmotif? Masatoshi Yanagi’s score calls Valentini’s theme ‘The Artist’s Domain’ and uses as its core the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C-major, Op. 48. It is notable Yanagi chooses the first movement, as Tchaikovsky himself intended it to be an echo of Mozart: ‘The first movement is my homage to Mozart. It is intended to be an imitation of his style, and I should be delighted if I thought I had in any way approached my model.’
Thus Valentini’s theme, so knowingly named, is an imitation of an imitation. The effect is one of grandeur, the classical atmosphere enveloping Valentini’s work, but beneath the surface an ever-fading echo… At one stage a puzzle turns Sebastian into a photographer, re-arranging a scene before taking the snap — and emerging from behind the camera to find the surroundings changed. Now a corridor stretches far ahead, fringed on either side with gold framed images, with a large canvas at the end on which is scrawled in blood: Appreciate the Art.
As you soon realize, thanks to a newspaper clipping, the art Valentini’s scrawl refers to is not the paintings but the photograph you’ve just re-created — an imitation of how he killed one of his models. Another fading echo. The element of complicity is creeping in, because Sebastian is not just a threat to Valentini but an audience, the only one he has, as well as a potential subject. Sebastian is also undeniably, albeit with different motivation, a killer.
Stanton ultimately concludes that Stefano’s hunger for appreciation is a commentary on the culture of over-work and the idolization of individual game creators, but there’s something to be said of Sebastian’s momentary complicity. Stefano primarily kills his male victims using knife wounds and head shots, acts of violence that Stanton points out are used by Sebastian himself against his enemies. This violence is treated as “art” in the video game world more broadly – after all, there’s something satisfying about a beautifully rendered headshot.
Stanton’s analysis allows us to draw direct parallels between BioShock and the Evil Within 2 on the subject of complicity and violence; yet, by focusing almost exclusively on Stefano’s “freeze frame” murders, Stanton doesn’t take into account that such meditations on echoes and complicity exist throughout the game as a whole, and gender acts as one major nexus point where a number of these themes converge. In the mannequin puzzle, for instance, Sebastian recreates Stefano’s art using literal objects rather than female bodies treated as objects, but it creates an uncomfortable moment in which the parallels between Sebastian and Stefano are brought to the forefront. They momentarily share a vision, though rather than helping Stefano, Sebastian must literally fight against this vision through the boss battle with Obscura.
Obscura, Stefano’s pet and magnum opus, is a monstrous creature with (quoting from the wiki) “a female corpse arched backwards on its back [sic] sitting on top of a stitched-together pelvis with three legs, while its head is composed of an old, perhaps overly long, large format camera with a weaponized flash bulb that it can wield against its victims.”
Obscura reads like a direct yet perverse response to the feminist critic earlier in the game. The combination of itemized body parts and sexualization is hard to miss: not only do the stitching and tripod-like legs call attention to how Obscura was literally assembled from an amalgam of body parts, but the creature’s torso is arched so that its breasts are pointed towards the ceiling in a perverse imitation of sexual ecstasy. Obscura also moans when she is near the player, evocative of pleasure more than pain. The Wiki for the game reveals that the reason for this may be to mimic what Stefano himself hears when making his art:
Obscura’s sounds are thus reflections of Stefano’s arousal at the pain and terror of others. She is a “psychosexual creation” (as Dawes calls it) turned against Sebastian in a direct response to Murnick’s accusation that “we’re titillated by gore and extreme violence.” [As a side note, I would like to point out that a grisly scene in Chapter 7 seemingly contradicts this assertion. In the attempt to destroy Stefano’s art, Sebastian walks down a hallway, listening to a woman scream as Stefano shushes her and tells her of his plans to make her into art. The screams are definitely not sexualized, and they seem to bother Stefano rather than excite him. When the woman won’t be silent, he says, exasperated, “I can’t concentrate like this. A sculpture doesn’t need a tongue.” From there, the woman ceases screaming, presumably because Stefano has separated her tongue from the rest of her body.]
Obscura literalizes the feminist criticism lobbed towards Stefano’s early work and towards the horror genre in general. She is literally an assemblage of sexualized female body parts, fashioned to look like an object – a camera – in what Dawes calls a “tribute to [Stefano’s] creepy voyeurism.” It is also fitting that Obscura’s head, which features her name written in Cyrillic, evokes images of perversion. As the Wiki suggests, “Obscura” is a reference to the Latin camera obscura (“dark room”), an enclosed box or room with a lens that projects an inverted image of an object onto a wall or canvas, frequently as a drawing aid. True to her name, Obscura’s body fashioned to look like a camera with a tripod, but the inverted torso and sounds (pain to pleasure, etc.) call attention to the ways in which Stefano’s art – and art more generally – is simultaneously a perversion and reflection of reality. Stefano’s art is exaggerated in its gruesomeness, it’s also accurate in its representation of Western attitudes towards women in horror narratives. And because the game shows it is aware of this criticism, it seems to be positioning players in the position to eliminate such perversion. Stefano is the villain, you see, and his abominations must be destroyed.
This message is underscored in Chapter 7 when Sebastian encounters two paintings barring his entry to the Grand Theater and must destroy Stefano’s art before he can confront the man himself. Upon finding art scattered within Union, Sebastian destroys them by being transported into a pocket dimension, where he is presented with sculptures that bear striking resemblances to the paintings – and the monsters that protect them.
In this pairing, we can see how the sculpture is the reality, but the painting is how Stefano sees it. Though one sculpture is guarded by standard, zombie-like enemies, the other is guarded by Obscura. Both pieces of “art” must be burned to allow passage into Stefano’s stronghold, where players participate in Stefano’s boss battle – one that ironically involves Sebastian avoiding the gaze of Stefano’s giant tentacle eye, before fighting Stefano himself in a gallery, surrounded by pictures of itemized body parts.
Though the player has seen this gallery before, it’s worth noting that the boss fight takes place within this gallery. It reminds the player that they are fighting a villain who literally breaks down his victims into body parts, just as he breaks down facial features by photographing them individually. These photos are drab in coloring by comparison to his other works, and feature expressions that are much more evocative of the emotions connected to horror than, say, his painting of the ballerina. But if the player has been paying attention, they will notice that these pictures have been (presumably) taken with Stefano’s camera, inscribed with the word “Veritas,” Latin for “truth.”
The truth of Stefano’s art, then, is that his vision is horrifying and must be destroyed – whereas someone like Cohen leaves the option much less clear-cut.
So, in this final fight, as well as all the chapters leading up to this point, Sebastian is not only battling Stefano, a psychotic serial killer, but all the things Stefano represents: female victimization, the perception of women as objects, etc. – all things embedded subconsciously in the (presumably) straight male player and horror media at large. The game overwhelms the player with images of misogynistic violence, simultaneously drawing parallels between Sebastian (and quite possibly, the player) and Stefano as it horrifies them so that they will eventually be put in the position to destroy that violence. It’s a nice contrast to the Anima – a female monster representing Sebastian’s guilt-complex elsewhere in the game that cannot be destroyed, only evaded.
Thus, it appears that The Evil Within 2 is very interested in Sebastian’s (and, perhaps, the player’s) attitudes towards and interactions with women. Of course, this does not mean that The Evil Within 2 succeeds in making a “feminist” statement or shields itself from criticism. The game invites players to take pleasure in the design of its monsters, to revel in the thrill of being chased by Obscura. It arguably proves Murnick’s point by including mutilated and damaged female characters in the first place, forcing the player to encounter them in order to advance the plot. It gives female monsters no agency, and most of them act in service to a male character. But whether it succeeds or not, Stefano’s arc makes a fitting precursor to the second half of the game, one which explores Sebastian’s perception of his past trauma, with the goal of washing him clean of guilt and responsibility.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that both BioShock and The Evil Within 2 use the archetype of the mad artist and the mandate to “appreciate the art” when the games themselves demand complicity from the player. Players must comply with a system created by their respective artists (the game developers), following a scripted plot progression, inhabiting a virtual world with prescribed limits, and using mechanics that are all designed by the developers. Players experience the game as the developers intend it, and though some individual level of variance is allowed, it all exists within a “vision” created by the developer. Of course, video game artists are not like Cohen and Stefano (at least, I hope not), but in endorsing such visions, we create a culture around them that influences our attitudes towards media more broadly.