Trent Haaga is one of the freshest voices in modern horror. His career began with Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV (2000) – a flick that was batshit crazy even by the extremely high bar of crazy batshittery set by Troma Entertainment.
Deadgirl (2008) was Haaga’s next cult hit, a savage and controversial allegory about the evil men do when they think can get away with it. An uncomfortable watch, for sure, but one that continues to resonate today. It was Cheap Thrills (2013), however, that truly cemented Haaga’s status as a bonafide horror legend. This tale of fiscal desperation, and the lengths to which people will go to escape it, managed to skillfully coast the line of social commentary, black comedy and horror.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Haaga has two major projects this year. First there’s the current film festival darling, 68 Kill (which he also directed) and the hugely anticipated survival horror video game sequel, The Evil Within 2.
So how on earth did you happen to end up writing The Evil Within 2?
It’s a little-known fact that I did a bit of work on the first Evil Within game and its subsequent DLCs – you have to get to the end credits scroll to see my ‘additional writing’ credit on the first one, but it’s there. I guess they were happy enough with my work on the first game that they brought me in for the second one. This time around I was much more involved – I actually lived in Tokyo for about 5 months to work on it.
At what stage of production did you get onboard?
The game’s overall design and story were already developed by the time I came in, but every single word that you see, hear, or read in the game was written by me. So, I can’t take any real claim for things like creature design or environment building, but I wrote all of the dialogue, created some characters from scratch, and basically wrote all of the files and diaries and computer entries and other things that fill in backstory and help make sense of the world and characters/motivations, etc.
You’ve written a bunch of wonderful screenplays – including Deadgirl, Cheap Thrills and 68 Kill – what’s different about writing for a video game?
About 200 pages! A screenplay is a compact 90-odd pages. A script for a video game – particularly one with a bit more of an open world like this one – can run almost 300 pages. After all, a movie can be watched in an hour and a half and this game will take probably 15-20 hours to complete.
Also, in the film world (well, in my experience, anyway), you write a script alone in a dark room and then you take some notes and do more writing alone. Eventually, when you’re done, they take the script, pat you on the back, and say, “Thanks, we’ve got it from here. You can leave now. See you at the premiere … maybe.” With this game, I was like a member of the crew, writing along as things were built or changed. It was a very edifying experience. What I’d imagine it would be like on a larger movie where they invite the screenwriter to the set (which isn’t what my normal experience has been on indie films).
What did you like about the original The Evil Within game?
I suppose I just liked the milieu of the whole thing – being trapped in a nightmare world where you never know what’s going to happen next because the rules are liquid inside STEM. One minute you could be in an old European village-looking place and then the next minute you’re in a modern-looking medical facility. The overall concept was interesting to me. Also, just the interactivity of a game is an interesting place to work in after doing so many films.
What about the original did you want to improve on?
Character and world building. Further establishing the “rules” of the world. My main job was to try and bring a more cinematic flair to the characters by giving them voices, heartbeats, personal peccadillos – trying to make them more three-dimensional. Sebastian, the main character, doesn’t say much in the first game. He doesn’t have a very distinct voice, so it was important that we gave him a more defined personality and give him some goals and dreams and hopes and desires and drive this time around. The same goes for all of the other characters – and there are a lot more of them in the sequel.
How much creative control did you have; were there very specific boundaries you had to observe or was it looser than that?
A lot of times I was given pretty loose frameworks – they would have a map and a place that the player meets another character and they would know, for instance, that they wanted a small side mission where the player would get some sort of reward for completing, but the details – the how, when, and why – were still in the air. Sometimes they would know that a cut scene would be in a place, but none of it was done. Sometimes there was a cut scene that had already been shot but it needed all new dialogue. Every situation was a bit different and I tackled as much or as little as was needed.
Is it freeing having a story set in messed up cyberspace? Like, are you able to truly unleash your inner demons free from the constraint of conventional logic?
It’s both freeing and constraining. There were always discussions like, “Yeah, but if this isn’t real, then why is he scared?” or “I understand that this is what’s happening in STEM right now, but what’s the real-world repercussion of that?”
Nightmare logic still requires logic and when you’re dealing with a “real world” and a “nightmare world” at the same time, it can be tricky. But as I said, it’s also liberating in that anything can happen … But you’ve got to make sure it makes sense and can be rectified. There are story rules and they have to be figured out and stay consistent.
Is there a moment – or a character, or sequence – that makes you bubble over with pride? Something that’s all yours?
Giving voice to a main character – Sebastian – who was really sort of a cypher in the first game – was a lot of fun. But I’d have to say that writing one of the main bad guys, an insane and brilliant artist named Stefano, was one of the most enjoyable parts of it. Overall, the experience of living in Tokyo and working on such a big and beloved game franchise with a team of game developers was an experience that I’ll never forget. I’d love to do it again someday.
Finally, how would you pitch this game to potential players who are on the fence?
It’s like playing a horror movie. A really big and immersive horror movie with all of the scares and psychological horror and interesting characters that you’d expect in a horror movie. It’s as if Freddy Krueger invented The Matrix and you’re inside of it. It’s got action, horror, suspense, and (if I did my job right) a bit of heart and soul. I hope that people enjoy the experience of playing it as much as I enjoyed the experience of working on it.
The Evil Within 2 is available on Friday, October 13, 2017