Stuck in the Middle With You: Parasite Eve
I think it's fair to say that the Playstation, in the 5th Generation Console Matchup, was the undisputed conqueror of the marketplace.
In the mid-late 90s, console gaming had resorted to the basest of name-calling: who has the most bits? With the 16-bit era coming to a close, consoles raced to see who would have the best processor, and this became such a major marketing point that it was included in the console names. The Nintendo 64 and the Sega 32X both included their processing speed in their names. Yet despite this, the Playstation, Sony's upstart console, outsold both.
There's a lot of reasons for this. For starters, the third party support for the system was tremendous. Industry heavyweights like Squaresoft, Konami and Capcom recognized the higher production costs of cartridges, as well as the storage capabilities offered by the new Compact Disc format. With well-known franchise hits like Final Fantasy VII, Castlevania's Symphony of the Night (a VASTLY superior game to Castlevania 64), and Dragon Quest VII, brought massive established fanbases with them.
What really gave Playstation its edge over the competition, though, was its flexibility in terms of genre. Oh, to be sure, you could find platformers, RPGs, racing games, shooters, and puzzle games on the N64 and the Sega 32X as well. But you know what was missing? Horror.
Maybe it's a bit of an exaggeration to attribute much of the success of the Playstation to the horror games that were made for it. That said though, the influence and sheer sales statistics of Resident Evil are impossible to ignore. It redefined a genre, and expanded the audience a thousandfold. It was innovative and exciting. It was, if you'll pardon the cliché, a game-changer.
And yet, if I'm being terribly honest, I hate this game. The voice acting is universally recognized as some of the worst in gaming history. The plot is stupid and nonsensical. The inventory management is horrendous. The fixed camera angles are disruptive to the point of controller-hurling frustration. But most damning of all for me...it just isn't scary.
Now, Silent Hill? The other, just-as-famous-if-not-more-famous horror franchise to emerge from the Playstation? SCARY. AS. FUCK.
I mention these two titans of the genre not, as I have so often said in my posts, to appear as a hipster as I turn instead to review a third game. I mention them, and my dislike of Resident Evil, to illustrate a point: different things scare different people. Personally, I think the jump-scares and monster spawns of Resident Evil are merely startling. I contrast them with the true sense of dread that Silent Hill evokes through mood, setting, and atmosphere.
Uncomfortably sandwiched and generally forgotten between these two types of horror and these two franchises, is the game I want to talk about today: Squaresoft's Parasite Eve.
And Now, the Game
When I say that Parasite Eve was "sandwiched" between Silent Hill and Resident Evil, I in no way mean to imply that it was the ONLY other horror franchise on the Playstation. Clock Tower, for example, was continuing on the Playstation after its Super Famicom origins. What I mean is that Parasite Eve has the interesting distinction of being released in 1998, between Resident Evil (1996), and Silent Hill (1999), and can metaphorically be viewed as a neat balance between the two.
The plot to Parasite Eve takes place over a six-day span in New York City, beginning Christmas Eve 1997. You take the role of Aya Brea, an officer in the NYPD with - you guessed it - a mysterious past. Aya begins the game on the worst date of her life with a doofie schmuck who happens to have a rich dad. The schmuck takes her to an opera, where the lead actress launches into an aria that causes most of the audience, cast, and stage crew to burst into flames. And the schmuck never even called her back.
You soon find out that the actress' body has been taken over by a malicious microorganism (or organisms) called Eve, and Eve will be the antagonist for the remainder of the game. I will confess right now that the plot is only marginally better than that of Resident Evil. It still has a lot of brutally stilted dialogue, and some frankly nonsensical pseudoscience BS that even the most fakey episode of Doctor Who would find absurd. Suffice it to say that Aya's shady past naturally leads her to discover a connection between herself and Eve, and it involves mitochondria mutating animals into monsters through rapid evolution. They mention mitochondria a LOT.
Really though, it's no more-or-less silly on paper than Resident Evil's T Virus, but what I enjoy about Parasite Eve is the manner in which the consequences of the virus are portrayed, and the decisions they made in how they were going to be "a horror game."
There's very few attempts to startle or outright scare the player here. Part of this is down to the game's mechanics. Unlike Resident Evil or Silent Hill, Parasite Eve does away with real-time combat, instead using a RPG-like system of player statistics, leveling, and a combat system more similar to that of Grandia II with an active time gauge and limited player maneuvering.
With this type of mechanic, battles are never a surprise, and never scary. The monsters you face are pretty twisted and creepy, but you'll never be going "oh shit!" when you have battle stats, range indicators, and other info bites popping up on screen to remind you that THIS IS A VIDEO GAME in big capital letters. As such, with maybe one or two exceptions, monsters are never thrown at you through windows, or hidden behind doors, etc. They are simply not there one moment, than after a very obvious "battle cue," there the next.
Indeed, many of the environments are brightly lit, and often with a wide, top-down view more reminiscent of Squaresoft's other RPG titles. There's very little for monsters to hide behind when you have a full field of view. Yes, there is one section where you become trapped in a hospital basement with no lights, and this is legitimately terrifying, but the situation is quickly rectified by trusty fuses and a few key cards.
Okay, but is it Scary?
Certainly not in the traditional sense, and this is where I come back to my point about it being sandwiched between Silent Hill and Resident Evil. As I mentioned before, Silent Hill and Resident Evil broadly typify two types of fear: the immediate, andrenaline-filled terror of being startled, and the quieter, dread-filled unease of being in an unfriendly environment. Parasite Eve does neither. It isn't trying to scare you. It is trying to disturb you.
Less Lee Moore talked last week about body horror in her review of Society: "there is no blood in the climactic scenes. It has been replaced with viscous, flesh-colored ooze, which in many ways is more disgusting than blood." Body horror aims to unsettle by corruption. It takes something familiar, pleasurable even (as in our sex lives), and twists it into unrecognizable goo. In Parasite Eve, there's even one scene where an audience is literally transformed into a single, viscous mass. The mass then becomes a recurring foe, all individuality of the people that make up its bulk lost to the will of the whole.
Parasite Eve has several moments, captured in FMV glory, of gut-wrenching, bone-snapping, sinew-twisting transformation. The mitochondria or whatever such nonsense that drive Eve infect the animals of New York City, transforming them into nightmare horrors straight our of The Thing.
I would say this generates tension, but in a way it almost becomes absurd. When you go to the Central Park Zoo, you know damn well there's going to be some goddamn blood monkeys and death parrots. When one of the characters' kids befriends a lovely police dog, you know that it won't belong before the plot goes full Old Yeller meets Videodrome.
But every time it happens, it's no less disgusting, and no less unsettling.
Yet as Less aptly observed in her review of Society, we can't help but find it all disgustingly fascinating. We can't look away. There's something incredibly perverse about body horror's unsettling truth that we find such unnatural modification and transformation fascinating on a subliminal level. It's almost like the old carnival freak shows, long fallen out of fashion for their inhumanity. We would never dare admit there's something captivating about freaks, but the impulse is there.
This may well be why Parasite Eve is the ugly meat in the horror sandwich of the Playstation milieu. It's one thing to be afraid of the dark, or the boogeyman. It's quite another to be entranced with him. Isn't it?