The Evil Within 2 interview: On the difficulty of horror, improvements in the sequel, and more

The game follows the events of the first, with Detective Sebastian Castellanos once again diving into a hellish STEM mindscape.

The Evil Within 2 continues the franchise's traditional blend of action and stealth, giving players even bigger open areas to explore, crammed with horrific nasties, a mystifying story, and grotesque bosses and set pieces. A simple preview of the game literally gave me nightmares, ahead of our 4.5/5 review penned by our own Paul Acevedo.

We recently caught up with The Evil Within 2's game director, John Johanas, to discuss the art of The Evil Within, the difficulties of producing a AAA horror game, and what feedback from the original title Tango Gameworks used to shape the sequel. Warning: There are spoilers for The Evil Within 1 in this interview.

Jez Corden, Windows Central: First of all, thanks for taking our questions on The Evil Within! I was a fan of the original game but found the plot to be a little hard to follow. For those who don't know, could you give us a brief primer on what is going on in The Evil Within's universe? Spoiler Alert.

John Johanas, The Evil Within 2 Game Director: Glad to hear you are a fan! Nice!

Ok, so the universe of the Evil Within can be a little complicated, but at its center is a machine called STEM. This machine is being used by a shadowy organization named Mobius that allows all of those connected to it to share their consciousness in a mental world. The person at the core of the machine has their mind become the basic building block on which the world is created. In the first game, Sebastian was pulled into a version by the killer Ruvik (who also developed the machine) and barely survived.

In The Evil Within 2, STEM is once again being used by Mobius, but this time Sebastian learns that his daughter Lily was selected as the core. However, inside this world, her consciousness has gone missing and the world is collapsing, so Sebastian willingly heads back into this world to try and find her before this world collapses.

Would you say it's necessary to play through the original story before taking on The Evil Within 2?

It's not necessary. There will definitely be nods to the original for those who played it, but even as a direct sequel we feel players can jump into this one and enjoy it!

I played The Evil Within 2 at Gamescom and was extremely impressed. Can you explain why you decided to shift to a more open format for the sequel?

The original game has some open levels as well and as a team we wanted to expand upon that idea. Exploration has always been a big part of what I remember Survival Horror being about and so we wanted to recreate that feeling with some bigger environments and places to explore.

Also, it allows the players to not feel as constrained as the original. Going back and forth between enclosed experiences and wider ones creates an ebb and flow to the gameplay and the tension so things doing get too oppressive.

What are some key takeaways from feedback surrounding the original game that fed into The Evil Within 2?

The biggest ones were story, difficulty and presentation.

As you even mentioned, the plot of the original was a bit hard to follow and Sebastian may not have been the most developed character so we wanted to craft a more compelling story for Sebastian. And even with its complicated setting we wanted to make sure players were able to follow the overall thread of events.

The original was pretty difficult even on the easiest settings, so this time we made sure to have an easier mode for those who want to experience the story as well as having a difficult mode right off the bat.

We also approached difficulty by balancing things out so more people can enjoy the game. The original was pretty difficult even on the easiest settings, so this time we made sure to have an easier mode for those who want to experience the story as well as having a difficult mode right off the bat for those who enjoyed how difficult the original game was.

And as far as presentation goes, even though we were fans of it we knew a lot of players did not enjoy the letterboxing of the original. This time it's off by default but is an unlockable option.*

The Evil Within has some of the most twisted creatures in video game history, what sort of art process or research takes place to come up with their designs? I presume there's nothing like STEM involved...

I'm sure the art team goes into their "zone" to think of what are the most terrifying things they can come up with, but overall we start with some keywords, some rough ideas and then the art tram does their thing. They are amazingly talented in what they do so we get some fantastic ideas from them. I hope nothing like STEM is involved… but I haven't checked!

What exactly is the STEM mindscape? Is it a mass hallucination or some sort of dimension? What happens to people in the physical world when they're in STEM?

What seems to make Survival Horror more appealing is that nice balance between the action and horror.

Within STEM is sort of a shared mindspace, a collective experience that can be altered by those with extreme personalities. However STEM is a machine so in that sense it's rooted in technology. You are right that certain aspects of the world are left up to interpretation and as for specifics, we have some more breadcrumbs for you in this game but some of the deeper mysteries are things we'd like you to try to piece together rather than give you the answers…

Horror fans have had a pretty great year in 2017 with Resident Evil 7 and >Observer_, but it still seems like a bit of a niche genre. When you're building a AAA horror game, how do you navigate creating something truly terrifying for horror fans while also retaining some of that broader appeal? Is that something that affects your development process?

It's pretty difficult, honestly, but it's a challenge we like to take head on. Pure horror games definitely tend to fall into the niche category, but what seems to make Survival Horror more appealing is that nice balance between the action and horror.

How we find that balance is, of course, something you consider when you begin the development process and this time we tried to focus on allowing you to play your own way, so you have that sense of freedom and lack of forced oppressiveness, but also keeping staples such as limited resources. The difficulty modes this time were also one way we try to allow a range of people to enjoy the full game.

Finally, what sorts of games, TV shows, and movies inspire the team as developers on The Evil Within? I noticed a Twin Peaks nod in one of the game's trailers...

We always look back on some of the older Survival Horror games and remember why they used to scare us so much. Some of them are old enough that as a team we grew up playing them!

As far as movies and TV shows, there's been so much from all directions from American classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Japanese horror like the Ring and some more surreal pieces like The Cell. Lots of "The"'s.

Thanks to John Johanas for taking our questions!

The Evil Within 2 is a stunning single player horror game with plenty of satisfying action and stunning art work, filled with horrifying set-pieces that will leave you confounded. There are no loot boxes, no forced multiplayer, just pure old-school survival horror for fans of classics like Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill 2. If you're a fan of survival horror, do not miss out.

The Evil Within 2 is available now for Xbox One, PS4, and PC. It will also feature Xbox One X enhancements.

More: The Evil Within 2 Xbox One Review

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!